Silverdocs: A Conversation with Sons of Perdition Filmmakers Jennilyn Merten and Tyler Measom
The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) is one of the largest polygamist sects in the country. In their film Sons of Perdition, Jennilyn Merten and Tyler Measom follow three teenage boys who fled life on the repressive FLDS settlement. After leaving, the boys are viewed as damned by their former neighbors, disowned by their families and forbidden from returning home. Merten and Measom also take us into a community of young runaways who are remarkably resourceful and supportive of each other. Sons of Perdition will be showing at Silverdocs in Silver Spring this Saturday. The screening will be at 9:30 P.M. At AFI Silver Theater 2.
WCP: Tell us a bit about your backgrounds and how you came to make this film.
TM: We both came from a Mormon background and we both left the church. Now mind you, the Mormon church is different from the FLDS church, but it still has a lot of the same tenets. That was kind of why the story resonated with us. I have polygamy in my DNA. My great-great-great grandfather was a polygamist. The story of these kids wasn’t anything secret. It was in the news, but they kind of treated it more as, you know, these kids have nowhere to live and they can’t see their moms and dads, which is, tragic, but we knew that there was something a little deeper. There’s the thinking you’re going to Hell topic. That’s kind of what brought us into the story.
JM: When we started working on the film, I was doing my PHD in American studies at the University of Utah, and was really interested in groups that have gone out into the desert to form alternative societies. And I was doing some commercial work with Tyler. When we heard about the story, we just felt, like Tyler said, that this was our story writ large, and there was this really interesting spiritual journey and an intellectual journey. It was a two-person team. We didn’t have funding. We didn’t necessarily have resources. We just did it.
WCP: Are there a lot of these kids living in Utah?
TM: There are estimates of up to a thousand of them. They mostly were in Saint George, although they were spread all over the place.
JM: There’s an underground railroad, essentially, of kids. They kind of take care of each other. They help each other get construction jobs under the table. They crash with each other in these apartments. It’s a lot of kids just stacked on top of each other. That’s how they survive.
WCP: How does the community at large view the lost boys?
TM: Um, it depends where they’re at, Saint George, for a while when there was kind of an influx of them, the community kind of kicked against it. You know, you have like 800 kids walking around, taking resources and what not. However, at the time, Saint George was the fastest growing city in the nation, so these kids would come out and jump right into jobs because they were building houses and condos and businesses.
WCP: And their labor is probably cheaper, I’d imagine.
JM: Yeah, they’re all working under the table because they don’t have their papers.
TM: But there’s still that mystique and intrigue. They still find them fascinating. Priscilla, who’s in the film, she came to a screening. Someone raised their hand and said ‘do you have any therapy?’ and she goes ‘I went to a few therapists but all of them just wanted to ask me questions.’ She said they wanted her to come back so that she could tell them more things. That’s why these kids hang out with each other. Because nobody understands how they lived or what they dealt with.
WCP: And I guess their general lack of knowledge must be an incredible handicap. The scene where Joe mixes up Bill Clinton with Hitler was shocking.
JM: That was the weirdest moment. I was like, I can’t be quiet here, I’m going to have to say something. But you know, I think a lot of the Saint George Community is split. In some ways they’re sympathetic, but in some ways they’re not. They are Mormon and they have very strict family upbringings, so they’re like, if your kid is screwing up, yeah you punish them. Yeah, you kick them out. The kids drink. They have a lot of trouble with the law. But it’s in the Mormon tradition to take in strays. My family did that. Tyler’s family did that.
JM: We both grew up with the idea that if somebody needs help, you take them in and they live with you.
TM: We had so many people moving through our house all the time.
JM: It’s a Mormon thing.
WCP: How did you approach the boys about doing a film?
TM: It’s not like you could ask around or call them up. We worked with a social worker and the social worker was very hesitant about us doing this. When we were finally introduced to the kids, they required a whole new level of persuasion.
JM: They were a little reluctant. A few of them had been exposed to the media. A couple of them had been on a CNN story. It was their first time being on the news and of course it got edited up really short, and they didn’t get it.
When they finally realized that we are both ex-Mormons and we shared a lot of the same background and hymns and stories, they softened up a little bit.
TM: It was a little tough. Being relatively young and being able to pal around with them really helped. But you know, these kids were taught not to trust anyone outside their own tribe. Warren Jeffs was picked on by the media, so the media was evil. In fact when we approached them, Bruce and Sam said flat out, “fuck you.”
WCP: Did they ever speak about Warren Jeffs?
TM: Yeah, they talk about him quite a bit. Without question, they thought he was a god. Like everyone else did. You know, Sam says, he would have taken a bullet for him. What do they think of him now? They sure do tell a lot of jokes about him.
JM: You know, it’s strange, like when he got arrested, we tried to get their response. They would talk about how life changed under him but they wouldn’t respond to him going to jail. They were just like, ‘you know what, we’re done with him.’
TM: They did talk about him with a certain reverence. They talked about how he would call them in, or times when they talked to him or when they saw him or worked on his house, with still this reverence as if they’d met, you know Willie Mays.
WCP: It was incredible to see how the man’s influence permeated every aspect of their lives.
TM: Every aspect. You know I shouldn’t say it, but I have a certain respect for Warren Jeffs. I think he’s a horrible, awful man. He’s a narcissist, he’s a pedophile, he’s a horrible human being. But yet, he controlled 30,000 people. He knew everything that was going on. He was able to manipulate and control these people. And so maybe respect wasn’t the right word, but he definitely knew what he was doing.
JM: I think the kids realized that he had such a stranglehold over the town and over their families. The men they respected most were asked to leave. Bruce’s dad was asked to leave. They saw that if you did anything wrong at any particular moment, you could just be gone, or you could have your wives and family taken away. I think that they realized that if they were going to have any kind of future, they would have to go. And it’s really the same thing whether you’re asked to leave or they choose to leave. The kids are basically pushed to the brink already by the time they decide to go. You do one little thing wrong and you’re marginalized.
TM: And they have to think, what kind of future will I have here? Will I have a wife? Will I have a family or a job? And Warren for a long time taught that the kids were curses sent to earth to test the parents. It’s a head-trip, so that’s why it’s semi-easy for them to let their kids leave.
JM: Warren also told them that it was going to be a test from Heaven and for the girls to get married at 13 and 14. He said, ‘I’m going to make underage marriages even younger as a test to see if they’re loyal to me.’ So the parents are bound up in the same hopeless situation.
TM: What do you do? Rebel and say ‘I don’t want my son to leave?’ Well then you have to leave, so it turns into let one leave to save the rest.
WCP: I imagine that once you have children and no money or education you have fewer options.
TM: Georgina, Joe’s mother, she’s got 12 kids and she’s struggling now. Seven of her kids lived with her when she left. She has no job skills, very little education, no money. She works a part time job, and she doesn’t get child support. Funny thing is she’s struggling and she has a hard time and, but she’s so happy.
WCP: Just to not be where she was?
JM: Yeah, she wouldn’t give it up for anything.
WCP: Have you spoken to anyone who has regretted their decision to leave?
TM: Absolutely. They all regret their decision to leave at one point or another. How long they dwell on it is another question. We’ve spoken to quite a few who would love to go back. There’s one who is gay who will not tolerate any badmouthing of Warren Jeffs or the church. He’d go back were he straight.
WCP: I also noticed that the boys change their hair all the time and that the girls crop their hair after leaving.
JM: Yeah, it’s like a literal breaking off point because for women, if you cut your hair short, then you can no longer be in the community. They’ll still take you back –
TM: Oh they’ll take you back.
WCP: If you’re a girl?
JM: Yeah, they’ll just keep you away from everybody else until your hair grows out. But the boys, same thing, if they get a tattoo, if they pierce their ears or do anything like that, you know, they’re symbolically done. Sam actually got a tattoo as soon as he got out because he didn’t want to be tempted to go back. So it’s actually a real act of defiance. For the girls too, it’s one thing to leave but to have something physically done to yourself. You’re wearing your choice.
And they’re so excited just to try new things. Think about what we all did as teenagers. I took Hilary to get her ears pierced. Finally at the last minute, she just said I can’t do it and started crying. And she was just so scared that if she got caught and taken back, she’d be in so much trouble. The lady at the salon was just like ‘it’s okay, Honey, it’s not going to hurt.’
TM: The kids were taught that they had to part their hair exactly down the middle. A lot of them would say that they would try to do a part just a little to the left or the right and they’d get caught. So the boys, when they come out, they say to hell with it. We’ll do whatever we want with our hair.
WCP: Do you think that adjusting to normal life is harder on average for the girls that the boys?
TM: I think its harder on the girls. The boys were able to go out into the community. They have job skills. They were able to work. The girls weren’t. I think the girls are a little less educated. And they have more of a fear of the opposite sex. The boys are intrigued but the girls are scared to death. Suzanne thought that if you kiss someone, you get pregnant. And she carried that with her after she left, up until she got married.
JM: They’re more physically vulnerable too, This underground railroad is made up of boys and the boys sometimes don’t really want them because then they’ve got a sister or a cousin or something to watch after. There’s been some bad stuff that happens at parties, and they’re just vulnerable.
WCP: Have you shown the film a lot in Utah, or are you planning to?
TM: We did a small screening in Utah. It was mostly friends, family, cast, crew. People like that. We really didn’t open it up to the public. It had a different meaning, that screening.
JM: We haven’t had our big political debut there, which I think will be an intense experience. It’ll be more controversial. Everybody’s got some sort of background or opinion. And you know, a lot of the kids have been into drugs and alcohol and created problems. There will be people and they’ll say ‘I know somebody who was a lost boy and he was no good, why should we feel sorry for them?’ and others who ask ‘why aren’t we doing more?’ And also, we’ve sort of been warned that once we’re there, the FLDS will be a lot more aware of it, and that could get a little scary.
WCP: Do you think they’d try to prevent showings or are you worried they’d show up to screening?
JM: Maybe. I don’t know. Sam Brown was the private investigator in the film. He just warned us. You know, they’ve sent death threats. We’re not expecting that. I don’t know, I just think there’ll be some strange stuff.
TM: Well, you know the film will definitely cut into their way of life and they don’t want that. We’re already getting a lot from other polygamist groups. The FLDS probably know about it, but they haven’t seen it and they don’t talk about it. The other polygamist groups are more active. They hate it. They haven’t seen it but they hate it because they hate being lumped in with that. Apparently there was a big meeting. It’s called a safety net meeting. They really let in.
JM: They didn’t like the title.
WCP: What was their objection to the title? Isn’t that what the kids who run away are actually called?
JM: Pretty much. They’re like apostates. But these other polygamist groups, they’re like, “well we’re not kicking out our boys. We’re different. Our teenagers aren’t running away.” So the term, sons of perdition, I think they’re worried that it’s like a blanket term for the way that all these other groups are treating their teens.
These other groups have worked really hard to separate themselves from FLDS and to get the government to leave them alone, while the FLDS keeps making all these troubles for them. I mean, John Krakauer estimated that there are probably 100,000 polygamists in the US. There’d lot of variation.
TM: So we’ll see. We’ll see how they take to it and how the Mormon church takes to it. It’s doing very well but it’s still being shown to small groups.
WCP: Have you guys gotten any flack from the mainstream Mormon Church?
TM: No. My mom is so worried, well they’re all worried and tired of being lumped in with polygamists. In my opinion, they started the mess and they get to clean it up, although that’s a whole different story. But they hate being lumped into it in the eyes of the nation. So in a way, a lot of people have said, please, please distinguish us from them. But we don’t really hound on it.
WCP: Because the movie really isn’t about mainstream Mormons.
TM: It’s not at all. At one point we had a much longer cut and it did the history of Joseph Smith, but we took that out.
JM: It will be interesting to see once we do come out in Salt Lake if the LDS church will put out a statement on it or say something about it, or just completely ignore us, which is what they’ve been doing. The issue has just been like, ‘well we have nothing to do with this, so we have nothing to say about it.’ And you find out that churches won’t come out against you. You learned that when the Catholic Church came out against the Scorsese film, The Last Temptation of Christ. When they did that, it was like free press. I hope the church issues a statement saying don’t go see it. That would get people in line.
JM: I don’t think they would say don’t go see it
TM: Well they did that with Krakauer’s book. They pretty much said don’t read it.
WCP: What are the boys doing now?
TM: It changes all the time. We need to add a new ending to the film. Joe is helping his mom. He’s working. He’s actually planning on moving to Telluride. We did the festival there and he just loved that city. He really spends a lot of time helping his mom and his brothers and sisters with that. Bruce is working. He’s living his a family. He’s semi-adopted-ish by a friend – his girlfriend. And Sam is in a bit of a transitory stage. He is no longer living with that couple at the end of the film.
WCP: It was a gay couple?
WCP: Great argument against Prop 8.
I know! When people see that they clap, they think it’s so cute. But he’s no longer living with them, and he’s toying with the idea of moving to Salt Lake. All three of them are not in school, but they want to be. Bruce is going back, he’s just taking the summer off. And Sam wants to, but right now, they’re just kind of living the Rock Star life of going to film festivals and drinking free alcohol at film festivals.
WCP: So the boys are traveling with you?
TM: So far, yeah. They’ve been to like three festivals. This one, Telluride and Tribeca. We take them because the audience, they love them. They just love them.
JM: They’re much more excited to see them than us.
TM: Oh easily. When the filmmakers come out, they clap and they’re like ‘oh that’s nice. You made a nice film.’ And then we’ll say, we have three special guests and it’s like I’m introducing Mel Gibson or Bono, they just love ‘em. They’re actually taking it very well.
JM: It’s stressful for them.
TM: Oh It is but they realize the importance. They realize how important what they’re doing is. And they get a lot of people coming up to them and saying, ‘oh that meant so much to me and you helped me’ so they kind of feel the gravity of what they’re doing.