Making A Believer: An Interview with Don Argott
Filmmaker Don Argott isn't religious, and he's not ashamed to tell you that, even if he did just make a movie with Dan Reynolds, the frontman of alt-rock band Imagine Dragons and probably one of the more famous Mormons alive today.
Argott and Reynolds came together for the forthcoming documentary, Believer, which follows Reynolds and Tyler Glenn, the former Mormon and openly gay lead singer of Neon Trees, as they decide to create LoveLoud, a music and spoken-word festival designed to spark dialogue between the Church of Latter-Day Saints and members of the LGBTQ community.
SKEW writer Jarell Wilson spoke with Argott about this documentary, which premieres on HBO on June 25.
As someone not involved in the Mormon Church, or any church for that matter, Argott brings a unique and vital perspective to the storytelling, creating a documentary that's equally focused on both the personal story of Reynolds coming to accept LGBTQ people and the larger controversies within the Mormon Church around homosexuality.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Jarell: So you’re not a person who is a member of the LDS faith, but this is a project that you really felt was important. How did approaching this topic as an outsider looking affect the way you viewed your own role and the way you viewed your partner in this work, Dan Reynolds?
Don: I am not a religious person. I am not affiliated with any organized religious institution, but for me as a storyteller, my feelings about people’s faith and people’s practices really don’t matter. My job is to try to help other people tell their stories. This film came about because I met Dan Reynolds in early April of last year, 2017, and he was really interested in making a documentary. He didn’t really know what he wanted to do but he wanted to do something that was kind of outside of his normal sphere. Being a musician, he has music as an outlet and he has that to use as a creative outlet.
As he was explaining his desire to do something in the film documentary space, he started talking about his history as a Mormon and how he struggled with depression and how he was going through a faith crisis at times.
I spent a lot of time with Dan, getting to know his family, getting to know his history, getting him to talk about his childhood. The more we spoke about that, the more he started to recognize that he was keeping a lot of things bottled up. Talking to me, I think, was for the first time very therapeutic. He was able to speak freely about what he had been going through and his faith crisis, his struggles with Mormonism.
The more we spoke, Dan was able to see exactly what his issues were within his Mormon faith. That was obviously the church’s stance on sexuality and having to deal historically with Prop 8.
At that point, when he was able to identify the issue, that’s when he was like, ‘Wow, now I need to do something.’ And when that crystallized, it was off to the races. Him being a performer obviously gives him a platform to be able to do what he does and use his platform to raise awareness. And that’s where the music festival comes into play.
It seems like it wasn’t just a Point A to Point B transaction of "I show up, I tell you what I want, and you the filmmaker make my movie." It seems like you really built a friendship out of this and that it was somewhat of a journey to get to this new project, like birthing a new baby.
Yea, it was very much like that. And I think that’s kind of the power of documentaries. That’s the power of this medium and really what scares a lot of people going into it. A lot of people that make a narrative film, they need a script, and they have to have a schedule, and you go from Point A to Point B to Point C.
I feel if we do our job as storytellers and if the film moves you in any way, whatever that means to you, it could be just as simple as your mind getting changed about something. Wouldn’t that be amazing?
With a documentary, it’s a journey. The best documentaries are the ones that feel like they take you somewhere, that they go somewhere. And that is very much what happened here, because it was about establishing friendship and trust and Dan getting to know me and him feeling that he could confide in me. And then me taking that responsibility very seriously and wanting to help him on this journey. That was probably the most fulfilling experience, getting to know Dan’s family. They’re people that I still care deeply about and stay in touch with and want to do well.
So how is this story different from someone like, say, Macklemore? Why do we need another straight white guy going around the country, or around Utah specifically, telling us that he’s this great ally to the LGBT community?
I’m as pessimistic and cynical as the next guy, so I have the same feelings. You don’t want this white straight savior whether it’s an African American issue or whatever. But I have a lot of gay friends, and somebody who was a part of this project who is gay talked about how important it is for people to stand up for them. Obviously there’s someone like Tyler Glenn, who should have a voice and does have a voice, [but] he is only going to reach people within his circle. He’s preaching to the choir.
More importantly, it’s about showing and telling other people’s stories that straight people wouldn’t know about or care about frankly. It’s about giving a voice to the voiceless. So as much as I can be cynical and have the same thought that you have, sometimes it takes [straight people speaking out for the LGBTQ community]. It takes people, not just like Dan. It takes people from all sides to say, ‘Hey, I didn’t realize there was even an issue here. Now that I know, now that I’m educated, it might change my perception.’
And specifically the art form that you use does that a lot. Music gets credited for being this universal language, but in a lot of ways, documentaries are what go in and expose different cultures. So how do you see what you do as a form of elevating other voices, of “telling the good news,” so to speak?
I don’t care who you are; you watch this film and if you can’t feel for Tyler, if you can’t feel for George and Alyson who lost their son to suicide… if you can’t connect on that level, then you’re never going to be reached, anyway. But to me, that’s the power of storytelling. That’s the power of being able to see into a world that you didn’t know existed: now all of a sudden, that you see it, you can’t unsee it. It might change how you view that person or that group of people. Bigotry and racism and all these things exist because of a lack of exposure most of the time. I grew up in a white suburb of New Jersey. I don’t think there were any black people. I probably didn’t see a black person until I went to New York City when I was 13 years old. Nobody did anything wrong; I just wasn’t exposed to it, so I didn’t know that world existed.
But through the power of films… I grew up in the ‘80s, with films like Beat Street. All those films, you start to see a side of this culture that you just never knew existed. All of a sudden, you’re like, ‘Oh wow, there’s another world out there that I had no idea about.’ That’s just on a superficial level.
On more important things, like bigotry and racism, those are bred when there’s a lack of understanding or a perception that a type of people are a certain way. So if you can show that people aren’t that way or show a side of that person or culture or group of people in juxtaposition to what you’ve always been told or thought about, that can shake things up.
Every time I watch a documentary, I ask myself, what does this documentary prompt me to do? Can you give us a cheat sheet for this one?
You know, I’ve never made a film that had an advocacy angle to it, per se. I think for me, I have a negative reaction when I sit through a film and at the end, the film tells me what to think or what you can do. It almost feels like you’ve sat through some kind of extended commercial for somebody’s organization or point of view. So I have a negative reaction to those kinds of things.
I feel if we do our job as storytellers and if the film moves you in any way, whatever that means to you, it could be just as simple as your mind getting changed about something. Wouldn’t that be amazing? If at the end of the day, you had somebody who’s quasi-bigoted who sat and watched this film and at the end of it didn’t feel bigoted anymore.
I don’t want to tell people that’s what should happen, but…
But if it happens overall… [laughs]
If it happens, for a particular viewer, as a result, that’s a great end result, right?
Yea, I’m with you.
So I think there’s not a one-size-fits-all [answer], like "Hey, after you see this movie, you should get involved in your communities and blah-blah-blah." If it compels you to do that, great. If it just sits in the back of your mind and next time you see a gay person, you feel like, "That person’s really cool, and I might not have thought that before I saw that film"–that is mission accomplished, right? I don’t like [the idea] that there’s one thing you can do to change the world. I think it’s about however it moves you and then whatever you want to do with however you were moved.
I want to know what your perspective is on the Mormon Church's future with regards to the LGBTQ community. You have a very detached view and yet you got to receive a large amount of information about it.
So as a bearer of this story, what do you think the end result will be, based on what you know?
I am by no means an expert in Mormon doctrine or anything like that, but I think, based on the information that I learned by doing this film and understanding a little bit of the Mormon Church... if historical relevance means anything, the church has changed on things.
I think that specifically with the Mormon Church, you have a lot of very old leaders. Invariably, they’re going to die off and the younger leadership is going to come in and outman the old leadership. It really comes down to the people that are coming up: do they have the desire to make this change? Will they be in a better position to do that when they are in power? That’s the real question.
Believer will debut Monday, June 25 on HBO's channel and streaming services. For more information about the film, visit HBO's website.