The television drama Outlaw Prophet: Warren Jeffs, premiered this weekend on Lifetime, and by our account, it wasn’t too bad, as far as Lifetime-produced biopics go. Based on Stephen Singular’s book When Men Become Gods, the movie tells the story of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints leader’s power-grab, criminal activity, and downfall. Jeffs is played by Tony Goldwyn (who is perhaps most well known as playing Fitzgerald Grant III, the President of the United States, in the hit ABC drama Scandal), and the movie covers the period from the late nineties, when Jeffs’ father, Rulon Jeffs, led the FLDS to after Warren Jeffs’ 2007 conviction in Utah. (The film does not cover the 2008 raid on the FLDS’ Yearning for Zion Ranch in Eldorado.) We have both reported on the FLDS in Texas [Editor’s Note: read Katy Vine’s pieces here and here, and some of Sonia Smith’s continued coverage here and here], and we both were curious to know how a movie adaptation would treat the convoluted saga. Below, a few of our thoughts.
Sonia: When Tony Goldwyn reaches for the ringing telephone on his bedside in the middle of the night all I can think is that this is another episode of Scandal (a guilty pleasure of mine), and President Fitz is being informed that someone has stolen the nuclear codes. But, instead, he learns that Utah State Police are about to swoop in and arrest him. So, my mind is having a hard time adjusting to him as Warren Jeffs—he’s just too handsome and charismatic for the role. They have him saying the right things (“keep sweet for the Lord”), but I want his voice to sound more like this. I’m loving Martin Landau as Warren’s father Rulon. His hair is pretty much perfect. It’s just too bad he had to leave so soon.
Katy: I don’t watch Scandal, Sonia, but I do agree that Tony Goldwyn is about a million times hunkier than Warren Jeffs. I’m sure Goldwyn’s agent is thankful for that.
The script is tight so far, which is impressive since the events require a lot of backstory. In the first twenty minutes, the writers have established that Warren has multiple wives, that his first wife sleeps in a different bedroom, that the sect has been raided in the past, that he teaches school and that he seized power when his father, Rulon Jeffs, became ill. There’s a lot to squeeze in in the first 20 minutes.
Sonia: People who’ve read the FLDS books may be seeing a lot of familiar faces depicted: there’s Elissa Wall, who Warren married to a 19-year-old when she was only 14 (she’d later go on to press charges against him), and then there’s Rebecca Musser, one of Rulon’s wives who became a star witness against a bunch of the FLDS men at their trials. What’s your take on how the film is handling their stories?
Katy: The one who struck me right away was Rebecca Musser. The actress Sabina Gadecki has her down: she has a confidence and a calm tone even when a situation escalates. Lawyers will spot witness potential that never dawned on Mr. Jeffs.
A few of the names have been changed, probably in an effort to appease the movie’s legal office. I’m guessing Molly Parker (Jackie Sharp from House of Cards), referred to here as Warren’s first wife, is Annette Jeffs, or some kind of composite character. Also, Rulon Jeffs in this movie names “Noah Fielding,” a name I’ve never heard, as the next prophet. By most accounts, the person Rulon Jeffs named in real life was Winston Blackmore, the man who now leads the FLDS in Canada. Did you Google “Noah Fielding” already? That would be very Sonia.
Sonia: You know me too well. I understand the need take license and compress stories on screen—after all, they only have 90 minutes to pack countless felonies into, so some things have to be tweaked (Elissa Wall and Allen Steed were married while Rulon was still alive, for instance.) And I agree that they’re doing an impressive job of laying out an incredibly convoluted storyline.
So far I’m enjoying how faithful they’re being in their portrayal of some of the FLDS quirks, such as the penchant for using out-of-state motels as venues for their underage marriages and the practice of blotting the faces of the excommunicated out of photos. They’ve certainly done their homework—that first shot of Colorado City with those girls in prairie dresses jumping on trampolines was surely inspired by these photos in the New York Times Magazine.
Katy: About halfway in, we’re introduced to Gary Engels, the local investigator who was key to prosecuting the FLDS for underage marriages. When Rebecca Musser leaves in the middle of the night, she tells Engels she’ll talk. This might not seem significant to newcomers until she reveals that her sister is Elissa Walls, the 14-year-old who has just been married off to a cousin.
We’re starting to see Warren’s control-freak kick into high gear in this segment, banishing TV, magazines, newspapers, sports, toys, dogs, and the color red. I thought Goldwyn, wearing the frame-less rectangular glasses now, did a great job in this sermon—he’s almost got the drone. It’s not quite there, but it’s better. I’m imagining a director requesting, “Give me more boring!”
Folks who’ve kept up with the FLDS over the years might recognize a cameo by Arizona TV newsman Mike Watkiss, who brought attention to the crimes many years before Warren went to prison. Hello, Mike!
We’re about an hour in now, and with increasing references to the younger marriages, I started wondering if they’d have time to squeeze Texas in. And then Goldwyn said, “Greater glory awaits us in a new Zion. It’s time to leave the crick.” So here we go.
Sonia: I can’t wait to get to Texas! But first, some loose ends from the Utah-Arizona border: Another thing I’ve been struck by in this film is how Warren is acting as the one-man enforcer in the crick. Where are all the sheriff’s deputies who run outsiders off the road? Warren seems to take time out to personally menace Engels. And where’s the Willie Jessop character? (Though I think we see a glimpse of him in the burly man in flannel in the kitchen scene where Roy is getting excommunicated.)
My skin is still crawling from that sex scene, where three topless women stare at a mural of what has to be Joseph Smith conferring with Angel Moroni in the woods as Warren, on a bed across the room, has his way with the fourth, repeatedly asking her during the act, “Do you feel the Lord? Do you feel the presence of God in you?” I can’t imagine, Katy, what listening to those audiotapes at Warren Jeff’s trial must have been like. Did everyone in that courtroom need therapy afterwards?
Katy: Like a lot of reporters in the courtroom, I’d heard the rumor about sex recordings, but I’d always hesitated to believe it: It seemed too bizarre, even for Warren. But no.
Starting at the sixty-minute mark, we see Warren buying land in Texas. That’s pretty much all that we see happen down in Eldorado. The story skips his most shocking incidents, such as his quorum of 12- 13- and 14-year-old wives for his “heavenly sessions.” The focus is on the Elissa Wall story, which makes sense since that started the legal process rolling.
Then Warren is on the lam. I wish I could have heard the screenwriters discussing what to include and what to ignore from this period. He and his scribe, Naomi, embarked on “the heavenly gift to ride a motorcycle,” and they took photos of each other looking goofy. They went down Bourbon Street. They watched a bunch of blockbuster flicks like “Troy.” They went to the “suntanning salon.” They went sightseeing in St. Louis (though they must not have had a good time because Warren put a curse on it immediately afterwards). Through it all, he dictated his thoughts and travels to his scribes. This movie is very careful not to distract with the more peculiar moments.
I’m sure you had the same thought I did when he was finally caught in the back seat of the Escalade: Was he really eating a salad?
Sonia: Oh, I definitely was wondering that. And, thanks again to Google, I now know he was! The faithfulness to the little details here wowed me too: there’s the “Mountain Outfitters” shirt he was wearing, the red(!) Cadillac Escalade he was riding in, and the burner telephones. Kudos, Lifetime! Warren Jeffs’ time as a fugitive is also my favorite part of the whole saga, because it really was so zany. The massages! The wigs! The playing tourist at the holy sites of Mormondom! Oh to be a fly on the wall of Nauvoo House during his visit.
We’re now entering into the film’s final stretch, and Warren now has that same shaved haircut he sports in this booking photo, and he’s telling his brother that he was never a true prophet, basically giving this speech. His delivery and cadence has evolved so much from the beginning of the film to mirror Jeffs’ own that sometimes I’m not sure if they’re just playing the recording.
Katy: Ugh—the jailhouse video always gets me. He’s so pathetic, yet his followers refuse to believe that he is anything less than godlike. Interpreting his renunciation as a trial of their faith, they return to him and ask if they passed the test. Their allegiance is heartbreaking. The movie ends on that note, which is an appropriate reminder that his 10,000-some followers obey him to this day as he dictates their lives from a prison cell.