HBO Documentary Believer Examines The Mormon Church And LGBT Youth

Believer director Don Argott talks working with Imagine Dragons’ Dan Reynolds and the difficulty of challenging church doctrine.

Near the end of the documentary Believer, a collaboration between HBO and Live Nation Productions, a speaker at the inaugural LoveLoud festival cites a terrifying statistic: suicide is the leading cause of death among teenagers in Utah. 

It sounds utterly impossible but it’s true. Though traffic accidents have since narrowly taken the “lead,” at the time of the LoveLoud festival in August of last year, suicide was the leading cause of death for Utah teens. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that suicide among persons 10 to 17 increased an average of 22.8 percent from 2011 to 2015. 

It’s that kind of statistic that led Imagine Dragons frontman Dan Reynolds to create the LoveLoud festival in the first place. Reynolds, a lifelong Mormon and former Brigham Young University student initially set out to produce a documentary about Fremont Street in Las Vegas before conversations with director Don Argott helped him realize that a more personal story would be a better route. 

And for Reynolds nothing was more personal than his upbringing in the Mormon Church, and his displeasure with the church’s support of anti gay marriage California ballot measure Prop 8. The Mormon Church’s antiquated and disaffirming approach to LGBT individuals and their humanity likely contributed to Utah’s extreme youth suicide rate in Reynolds eyes.

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Reynolds worked with fellow musician and Mormon Tyler Glenn to establish the first annual LoveLoud Festival in Orem, Utah just a few blocks away from the local Mormon Church. The goal of the festival was simple: acknowledge and support LGBT youth’s humanity. The end result of Reynolds’ journey, Believer, airs June 25 on HBO. We spoke with director of the project, Don Argott, about the LoveLoud festival, and how for a fleeting moment it really seemed like the church’s mind could be changed. 

Den of Geek: How did you first get involved with this project?

Don Argott: I got a call from our manager that the guy from Imagine Dragons was looking to do a documentary about the characters on Fremont Street in Las Vegas. He was meeting with a number of directors that he hadn’t really clicked with about this concept he had about people living alternative lifestyles and sharing incredible stories. I met Dan in April of last year on Fremont Street. He had just had his twin girls. They were two days out of the hospital. He was run ragged and didn’t have much time. I tried to get to the bottom of why he wanted to do this. I needed to hear from him specifically – why he was the right person to tell other people’s stories. Asking simple probing questions for my own sake to understand a little more of where he was coming from and then he started to talk about growing up Mormon, struggling with depression, his family, his faith. 

I really started to see that there was a lot more to Dan and a lot more to his story. It was an interesting enough angle to explore. On the spot he said, “I want to work with you. You seem like the guy for this.” A week later we were filming. I talked to Dan a lot about his childhood and Mormonism. The more we spoke the more a lot of things were coming unlocked for Dan. He was in a spot where he needed to open up. At that point it was becoming more and more clear that his Mormon upbringing was a big part of Dan’s story. He touched on the Prop 8 stuff and the Mormons stance on homosexuality as something that was really pivotal for him not to stay silent about. We were off to the races once that became the focus. 

It sounds like this all came about very organically. 

Absolutely. That was one of the most rewarding aspects of this project. We set out to do something with this project that Dan had initially then what it became was so much more powerful and personal. We had to be open to it and we had to adapt to a better story. 

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It was a little rocky in the beginning because Live Nation Productions was behind this project and it was sold to them as this idea about Fremont Street. Then all of a sudden it’s about Mormonism, the church’s stance on homosexuality, and youth suicide. We had to basically go and tell people what we were now doing and just hope they were like “Ok, cool.” But there were moments where we were really worried. What if they say no?  Or “this isn’t ok to go down this road. You gotta stick to the original plan.” Luckily that didn’t happen. In the end it all worked out and everyone saw the value in this idea, which was definitely a better idea. When you see Dan’s passion for it, it’s hard to deny that. 

From a practical storytelling and filmmaking perspective, suddenly having a large event for the end of the film must have helped, right?

Absolutely. Life never ends until it really ends (laughs). So you have to find the structure of a journey that we’ve gone on. Having something to work towards, as a kind of third act is great. The nuts and bolts of putting the festival on and all the obstacles along the way, those things are natural storytelling arcs that you can play within. That’s all very helpful to have. Once you latch onto that there are then more scary moments. 

For a while it looked like the festival might have to be put on hold or rescheduled for another year. You were building for that direction and then it becomes scary when it looks like it might not happen. Behind the scenes we were terrified that the festival might not happen. They were too many people who were (maybe rightly so) saying “Dan, take a breath here. This is happening on a very accelerated timeline.” Luckily it did work out. There were definitely moments of “Man, I don’t know.”

At the end of the film, the Mormon Church’s policy on homosexuality hasn’t changed. What kind of challenges does that present when the documentary is trying to engender change and it’s a topic that is unlikely to change in the near-term?

That’s interesting because you can’t really hang your hat on “At the end of the film the Mormon church changed!” You can’t assume that something that monumental is going to happen. I’ll be honest though. When he got that letter from the church with their statement I was like “Holy shit…maybe?” We all got swept up in it. It was a pretty big deal. The Mormon Church clearly didn’t take it lightly. They were smart to basically get behind it because it was a PR disaster if they didn’t. I’m probably the most cynical person in the world and I would have never thought he would have gotten to that point. So there was a moment where I did think we might get an unbelievable ending. 

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Instead they doubled down. It was maybe predictable but the other part of it is that change is going to happen on the individual level. You see those 20,000 people at LoveLoud. They wanted this. They needed this. I think that is the most powerful message. It’s not about the church reversing a policy but right now with what Dan ignited with this movement. There was this feeling of defeatism in a way but having those testimonials from people at LoveLoud shows that there is a change happening. Change is never gonna happen on a macro level. It’s going to be chipping away from the bottom.

What was the filming of this like? What kind of access did you get? It seemed like you were around for everything. 

We started filming in April and we were there pretty intensely for the first month. Then Dan had to go on tour in Europe. We knew we had this limited time so we built that into the original schedule but then when the story changed we knew we couldn’t go on tour in Europe because the budget wouldn’t support that. So once we got the first month and a half of filming done, I would talk and text with Dan all the time. I would ask him to just shoot some stuff on his phone just to get anything on camera. Things were happening so quickly and there were new developments every day once we got into the thick of it all. 

I got a text one night that said Lance’s brother had taken his life and I was like “Jesus Christ, this is insane.” This is all happening so quickly. I told Dan that I know it’s heavy but would you mind just filming yourself talking about it in the moment and he did. It’s obviously not always ideal to have cell phone footage in a film but I think it works here because there is an intimacy and an immediacy about it. It’s the quickest film we’ve ever made. And I think it really captures this moment in time in a kind of beautiful way. I’m proud of it and proud of how quickly it came together.