Duck Beach: A Contradiction?

This guest post comes from Stephen Frandsen, who is a co-founder and executive producer of Big Iron Productions. In addition to working on film sets in New York City, he produces photo shots, commercials, documentaries, and the like. While he is currently a “29 Year-Old Single Mormon,” he is engaged to be married this fall.

I saw a headline on Gawker the other day that made me look twice: “Mormons Conquer New York.” I’ve been in New York for six years, and this was maybe the first time I saw Mormons and New York linked together positively in the media. Of course, the headline was referring to yesterday’s news that The Book of Mormon Musical received 14 Tony nominations.

So, as the world gets to know Elders Cunningham and Price, I’m hoping to do a little something to help demystify the modern Mormon experience. While the musical does a great job of bringing the Mormon missionary experience into the mainstream American culture, it is a satirical exercise. And, as with all good satire, it proves its points with caricatures and exaggeration.

Many people I meet in my line of work tell me I’m one of the first Mormons they have met. Now that’s a lot of pressure, as I’m most likely not a good representative of what all Mormons are like. But who is? We live in a complex culture, full of contradictions, differences, and wonderful similarities. We have Harry Reids and Glenn Becks, which is part of what makes us such a beautiful and vibrant people.

As a filmmaker, I’ve always wanted to make a project that will highlight these complexities and contradictions. But, the fiction stories I’ve come up with have seemed contrived, or hard to convey. Wallace Stegner, the so-called Dean of Western Writers, has mused that telling fiction about the Mormons is nearly impossible, because Mormon institutions and Society are so peculiar they call for constant explanation. And I ran into the same problem.

But, then a (not Mormon) filmmaker friend, Hadleigh Arnst, suggested we document the story of Mormon Singles flocking each Memorial Day to an area on the outer banks of North Carolina called Duck Beach. Close to 1,000 Mormon singles makes this annual trip. To tell the story well, we recruited Laura Naylor, who grew up in Mormonism but has now left. Thus, we are embarking on a project with three different and important viewpoints represented: those of a practicing member of the church, a former member, and an outsider to the faith.

To my surprise, when we produced a little fundraising teaser, we encountered a lot of resistance from some in the single Mormon community. While we did get substantial positive feedback from many Mormons, the most vocal feedback we received was negative. It seemed some Mormon singles didn’t want the Duck Beach story told–or at least they wanted something presented that didn’t highlight any of the complexities or problems Mormon singles face.

Duck Beach from Big Iron Productions on Vimeo.

Watch the documentary teaser (donations welcome!), and perhaps this other short video which first sparked our interest in capturing the Single Mormon Story, and tell me what you think. How should the Duck Beach story be told? Should Mormon artists focus on complexity and contradiction? What responsibility or obligation do Mormon artists have to highlight the positives in Mormon culture and behavior?

Comments

  1. “Should Mormon artists focus on complexity and contradiction?” I’ll take the bait. Yes, Mormon artists should focus on complexity and contradiction. I also have the bold opinion that sacrament meeting talks should be thoughtful and inspiring and that sunday school lessons should be engaging (whether musical numbers should be performed well is too much of a hot button issue to address here.)

    I think the doc has potential, but I didn’t much in the teaser that could be considered complexity or contradiction. Is it that people want to date without having sex? I’m not even sure what could be controversial from the trailer. Perhaps Stacey mentioning that 36-year-old virgins “don’t know.”

    So yes, good Mormon art should acknowledge the complexity of the depicted subjects, because good art has an obligation to tell the truth or at least to lie in an interesting way. I’m not sure if this project does either of those things yet, but my interest is peaked enough to follow Duck Beach as it develops.

  2. Regarding the negative feedback: Singleness among Mormons past their twenties is a sore spot, and the prospect of seeing a documentary about it, for those in this situation, is like having someone poke that sore spot for the full two-hour duration of the film. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea to create the film. It just means that it will be painful for many, no matter how insightful or honest or entertaining it is. There are a lot of raw feelings. Those raw feelings will probably provide a lot of opportunities for decent storytelling in the film, but the last thing a lot of older singles want to do is watch their frustration dramatized and analyzed. They already overdo this on their own. Personally, as a single person over 30, I’m sick of hearing and talking about singleness, though I used to do it a lot (apologies to those who had to listen to it!). I’m all talked out on the subject and I no longer have any desire to investigate the topic.

    But there’s nothing wrong with creating the film. So if you think you can make it work, go for it.

  3. I joined the church while I was in college. Prior to my baptism, I had fancied myself a writer, but afterward I was stymied. All of a sudden, I felt this responsibility to “edify” that I had never felt before. It can be paralyzing.

    I once had a chance to take a class led by Kurt Vonnegut, and he told us he always preferred a good “work” story to a sex/relationship story, because he said people were never more asinine than when they were courting. Perhaps if we get enough background on the 4 subjects, with the path that has brought them to Duck Beach at this point in their lives, you can avoid veering into Jersey Shore territory. :)

  4. @Angela

    Then again, I can see the pitch meeting in L.A. when Stephen needs to find a distributor. The whole pitch takes 7 words:

    “It’s Jersey Shore with sex-starved Mormons.”

    If you can’t close that deal, Stephen, you’re hopeless.

  5. Eric Russell says:

    I know people who don’t want to be in it themselves, but are there really many who want don’t want it made? Remember there’s a vocal 5% of members who always oppose everything. These are the folks who got The Last Promise removed from the shelves at Deseret Book. I don’t think it’s anything to be concerned about – unless, of course, the hints of controversy are being exploited for the sake of publicity, then by all means, run with it.

  6. Stephen Frandsen says:

    @Kyle

    Ha!

    @Eric Russell

    I wouldn’t say it’s controversial, and I have no idea of there are a large amount of people who don’t want it made. It just shocked me to get some mean-spirited emails about our choice of music in the teaser, or the idea that we were exploiting the Mormon Single position, or that our motives were negative.

  7. Eric Russell says:

    Welcome to the world of Mormon arts, Stephen.

  8. Excellent subjects. And the music is perfect.

  9. Hmmm, I guess what made me start to mistrust this project was hearing the phrase ‘microcosm of Mormon single life’ multiple times. Duck beach is just not a microcosm of Mormon single life. I can’t see how forcing the ‘Duck Beach’ experience to represent Mormon single life has any chance of addressing the true complexities and contradictions in my life, much less those of all the other individuals who regularly head to OBX that weekend. That phrase in fact makes it hard for me not to presume the project will indulge in generalizations and cliches.

    And most folks I know have a love/hate relationship with Duck Beach anyway. It stands to reason they would extend those feelings to a documentary about the weekend.

  10. Martin Willey says:

    So, as Mormon who married in his thirties, I was kind of intrigued by the post and the concept (I have never heard of Duck Beach). My interest continued up through the Hadleigh portion of the trailer. But when we got into the “single Mormons strutting their stuff,” and Stacey getting the willies over 36 year-old virgin, it started to feel little exploitive. I have no problem with making the movie; I will probably watch it when/if it is released. Not so interested in giving money for it now, though.

  11. I plan to check it out in a bit. My nonmember parents liked the exaggerated greenie in “The Best Two Years.” They asked me if that is what I was like. Seriously, it is hard representing the Church when you are the only member with the exception of my mom’s first cousin in Canada. Also, I feel a responsibility among neighbors. I wish my actions could always match how blessed I have been.

  12. mmiles says:

    Interesting idea. The short film, One Way Ticket, told the story, letting complexity and contradiction shine through on their own (I’ll refrain from saying everything I thought about and felt watching that short). Duck Beach could be just as brilliant.

  13. Interesting film. I suppose I can see that some might be troubled by your music over exterior shots of the temple, but it certainly didn’t bother me.

    I’ve never heard of duck beach and I have over-30 singles in my close family (so perhaps they’ve never heard of it either?). So I wonder if it’s a “microcosm”. In fact, trying to show a microcosm seems to fight against showing the complexity you claim to want to show.

    What you can show is what happens to these four people in that setting, which could be compelling, interesting, touching, moving, funny…. But does it have to be a microcosm of the whole? I think not.

    In fact, the richest stories (fiction or otherwise) to me are those that are more about the individual than the movement. And it seems you have the potential to do that.

  14. I was not going to leave a comment but I cannot TO SAVE MY LIFE find any part in the trailer where anyone mentions a 36 year-old virgin. What am I missing? Since I’m here: I went to Duck Beach years ago, and just the trailer has me cringing (is Courtney for real?). I’ll watch – I just hope the Duck Beach scene can be captured without the standard cliches (that the trailer is full of)… I have zero interest in watching only the Courtney types.

  15. courtney says:

    wow this looks awesome and fascinating. I married young, but I still have a lot of single friends who go to Duck for Memorial weekend, so I’ve always been so intrigued by the whole thing. I think it’s hard as a Mormon artist, because you know there is so much skepticism outside the church– people think we’re weird (because we ARE), so we don’t want to add to that. We want people to think we are normal (so people will be drawn to the church?). But in order to tell a truthful story, you have to show that contradiction and complexity. In fact, it would be greatly disappointing to *not* show it. A delicate balance, to be sure.

  16. Wow! Everybody go watch “One Way Ticket” (the link at the bottom of the original post, with text “this other short video”). Can we have another thread where we talk about that documentary, only for those ok with spoilers?

  17. mmiles says:

    Seriously Cynthia–that is a thread in of itself.

  18. Eric Russell says:

    Lisa, it looks like Stacey’s portion was entirely redone. What you see now is a modified version.

    I’m curious what it is you guys are thinking about One Way Ticket. I actually found it slightly underwhelming. I kept expecting a tragic twist at the end. Maybe we were supposed to expect a twist? Maybe the twist is that there is no twist? I don’t know.

  19. stephen frandsen says:

    @Paul

    Thanks for your comments. Of course, Duck Beach does not represent Mormon single life exactly. For our purposes, it provides a context in which we can experience our character’s journey and understand how Mormonism influences their struggles and triumphs.

  20. Stephen, thanks for your response. I think what you’ve described in #19 is more compelling than your words in the short video (though I recognize the marketing value of what you’ve said in the video, too; you have to sort out how to walk that line).

  21. I have never heard of Duck Beach before. I’m Mormon, 40 and married. Watching the trailer I assume that it is real Mormon single life, but the “contradiction” in this post’s title plus another title including “sex” has me wondering. Is it somewhere a good, faithful, normal Mormon who is looking for marriage doesn’t want to bother going to or would feel uncomfortable going to?

  22. Karen H. says:

    The major constituency for Duck Beach is the single population from Washington DC suburbs. Of course, with that many single mormons in one place, it becomes a draw for other areas as well. I’m sure that people have had sex at Duck beach, just like I’m sure some kids get pregnant at youth conference, but by and large it’s just your average mormon, non-sexually active, singles scene. (And when I say average, I mean to include all of the angst and complexities that go with that situation.)

  23. This sounds interesting. I used to live about an hour or so away from OBX and had never heard of a bunch of LDS singles going to Duck Beach. Do you know how many years the whole Duck Beach thing has been going on?

  24. Stephen Frandsen says:

    @Marie

    I’m not sure how long it’s been going on. We’ve heard creation myths that put it starting in the 80s, 90s, and 2000s. We’d love to get the exact beginning nailed down. So if anyone knows, please contact us.

  25. Karen H. says:

    I went in the early 2000s, and it had been going on for a while before that, so I would look back to at least the 90s.

  26. This would be a tough thing to do. For Mormons, being single is a painful tragedy. But that just isn’t so for non-Mormons, so for them the subject matter borders on comic. Gonna be hard to square that circle.

  27. Julie H. says:

    If I ever leave the church, it won’t be because of doctrinal issues. More likely it will be because I just don’t relate to many other Mormons. As a single Mormon in my thirties, I feel like the people chosen for this movie have nothing to do with me or my life whatsoever. Why are these people given a platform? It’s not doing the normal people in this religion any favors.

    Each and every Mormon could write a book or make a movie about how our lives are such an anomaly among out peers. But why perpetuate this kind of culture that is getting more and more difficult to live with?

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