Molded by his Mormon upbringing, Dan Reynolds, lead singer of the internationally renowned band Imagine Dragons, values the sense of community being part of the church yields, yet he is also a rock star exposed to the hazardous side effects of fame. Such a disconnect between both parts of his identity makes his life appear contradictory.
After Reynolds became aware of the widespread suffering of LGBTQ members of the Mormon Church, he sought a way to use his status as a widely acclaimed, high-visibility Mormon entertainer for their benefit. It became the perfect cause to reconcile his spiritual beliefs with the impact his actions as a public figure can have. Joining forcers with filmmaker Don Argott, the singer-songwriter decided to document the strenuous undertaking of putting together the LOVELOUD Festival in Salt Lake City, Utah—the epicenter of Mormonism.
The resulting feature, Believer, sees Reynolds and a close circle of collaborators going head-on against the religious institution that’s reluctant to acknowledge homosexuality and the greater spectrum of sexual orientations and identities as anything else than sinful. Reynolds is in turn forced to question the Church’s practices through the eyes of those who have struggled with them, like his friend and former Mormon, Tyler Glenn of the band Neon Trees.
In addition to expanding visibility for the LGBTQ community within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the LOVELOUD initiative also donates all proceeds from the festival’s ticket sales to charities that provide services and assistance to LGBTQ individuals. Following the emotional premiere of Believer at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, Reynolds and Argott told MovieMaker about working in tandem on this socially relevant project.
Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): How did you guys come together? Did you want to make a documentary before Don came on board?
Dan Reynolds (DR): I knew I wanted to do something to get it out of my head, just to find new inspiration in life, and I didn’t quite know what that was. It took me to Don, and sitting down and having the conversation that I had not been having, purposely because it had too much emotion in it, to find what route we needed to go down. Once we figured that out, it was off to the races.
MM: Don, did you have any reservations about making a documentary about Mormonism and its relationship to the LGBTQ community?
Don Argott (DA): No, I don’t get bogged down in those types of things. To me, it’s about the story, it’s about the people we’re telling stories about, and for me, I just felt really honored to be able to help Dan’s story, and more than Dan’s story, to shed light on an issue that I think is extremely important. I think both of us are in a similar situation, although we have different backgrounds, but we’re both fathers. I started this film when I was barely a father, and I have a four year old now, but when you hear stories about struggling kids, kids not being accepted, and kids taking their own lives, it’s a wake-up call. It’s something that you take seriously, and I think we’re both extra driven by trying to do something that could potentially save lives.
MM: Dan, was it a strange adventure to walk into the world of documentary for you given the level of access you had to provide Don with?
DR: You know, the good thing is that I just walked into it and never really thought much about it. I feel like that was the stance I had to take, or else it was just too weird for me. The good thing is that Don knows when to be there and to talk with you, and when to be a fly on the wall where you don’t even feel like you’re being filmed. I just went into it trying to just be myself and live life, and go on the journey that I needed to go on.
MM: Did you feel cinema was a good tool for spreading the message at the film’s core?
DR: Yeah of course, I love cinema. I grew up on movies and documentaries. I ingest documentaries with my wife probably more than I do fiction films. I definitely know that it’s a great tool, but it’s not my expertise, it’s his.
MM: When you are working on something as uncertain as a documentary feature, in which you don’t know what exactly is going to be the outcome because it’s happening as you go, are there any precautious or steps you can take to ensure you’ll have a story to tell?
DA: That’s literally the nature of documentaries, especially when you’re telling a story that is happening as you’re filming it, there’s just uncertainty all the time. You have to have the right constitution for that, because otherwise, there’re all these forces around you asking you, “What’s going to happen?” or “When’s it going to be done?” I’m like, “You guys just need to take a step back and let life happen, and we’ll figure it out. That’s why you trusted us to go down this path together.”
But I do think that it’s difficult, because you don’t know what’s going to happen, and certainly a lot of times there’s a lot of outside pressure and forces wanting a certain type of outcome to happen, and that’s the other thing you have no control over. We all want a happy ending. That’s why people love narrative films because, for the most part, big Hollywood movies give you the ending that you want: people get together at the end, or they live to fight another day, or they win.
Documentaries are different, because real life doesn’t happen that way, so you have to be willing to accept that as well, knowing that we could go on this journey together, and it might have a pretty sad or depressing outcome. I don’t think that’s happened with this film, lucky for us, but there’s definitely things that you have to lower your expectations about because you have to be willing, first and foremost, to tell the truth, and that truth might not be the most convenient truth, but it is the truth.
MM: Dan, were you concerned about the uncertainly of what the outcome could be?
DR: I just tried to put it out of my head, but yes, absolutely. I thought, “I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. I’m going on some crazy journey that’s intimidating and really emotional.” It caused a lot of arguments at times with my family, a lot of hard conversations that I didn’t want to have, and a lot of emotions that I had pent up and put aside for a long time. I definitely had uncertainty, “How is this going to end, and is there an end? What does this even mean?” But fortunately, I think that something really powerful came together, and above all, I hope it creates change.
MM: Were you involved in the editing process at all? Were you curious about how it was being assembled?
DR: Certainly, I think there was a right mix, where I wanted to be able to see the process, but also not affect the process. This is the world of Don, and his editor is incredible, and he knew the story that needed to be told. It’s really hard to have perspective when you’re in the story. I don’t have perspective on myself. So as much I could see was cool, but it was probably a lot less than you think.
MM: Do you consider yourself a storyteller in the way you write lyrics?
DR: I think so. I think all artists are storytellers in some way, even if you’re painting a painting, or writing a poem, or singing or making a documentary, whatever art it is that you’re doing, you’re telling a story. Even if you don’t mean to, it is a story of some sort. Even if it doesn’t have a beginning and an end, it’s still a story.
MM: You’ve said before that you don’t have ambitions to be a filmmaker, but your band’s music videos are very visual. Do you have any input when those audiovisual works are created?
DR: Definitely, I have input in how I want them to look visually, but I’m also a strong believer in finding talented people who know what they’re doing, believing in them, trusting them, and letting them do their art. Then, if their art is bad, you don’t work with them again. But as far as any future in creating films, I don’t see anything like that for me. But I do enjoy the process. I did acting when I was young, in high school one act plays, that was fun, but who knows.
MM: Is there any particular video in which you had an idea that made it in?
DR: Quite a few of the videos, I had a small idea and then the directors build them out. “Thunder,” the one that we just did, I was sitting down and I just thought, “This is a song about feeling like an alien. I felt like an alien my whole life. What’s a place that looks very alien? Dubai.” I like weird movies that make you feel uncomfortable. That happens all the time with the music videos. Some ideas are the directors’, some are an idea I had, some are ideas that someone else had.
MM: How did Tyler Glenn, from the band Neon Trees, come on board the project to tell his story as an LGBT former Mormon?
DR: Tyler and I served in the same Mormon mission, so we knew each other through that, and then our bands blew up at the same time. There wasn’t a lot of Mormons in bands that go anywhere, so we knew each other through that. It’s a very small circle. My band opened for his band and my wife’s band. That’s how I met my wife back in Vegas. We’ve been in each other’s lives for a long time, but we didn’t get especially close until this last year.
MM: Don, when you were editing the film, were there certain things that you felt were delicate or sensitive enough that you needed to discuss with Dan? If so, how does this shape the way you construct the final product?
DA: To be honest, the way that I approach being a documentary filmmaker is I try to find that right balance between being collaborative, and also needing to have some autonomy in how I tell the story. Obviously, when someone trusts you with letting you into their home and letting you in with cameras, sensitive things are discussed all the time, and you take that very seriously.
The last thing I would want to do would be to put Dan in an uncomfortable or compromising position based on anything he said, so I probably naturally censored those things. If I don’t feel like it’s serving the story, I’m not going to put something in the film just to put it in because it might be salacious or whatever. Not that there was anything like that in this film.
But I do think that you’re always trying to find that line, because I think more than anything, the success of this film needs everybody to be behind it, so it doesn’t do anybody any good if I was to go away and hold myself up in an editing room, and show Dan a cut of this film that he’s unhappy with, or doesn’t feel is a reflection of his truth. It meant everything that Dan was behind it and believed in it, and that the other people in the film felt similar, because the last thing you want is to have a film out in the world and have everyone walk away from it and say, “I was a part of it, but they didn’t represent me in the way that I wanted.” MM
Believer premiered on HBO June 25, 2018. All images courtesy of HBO.