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Alumni Spotlight

The Leading Man

It’s 9:58 p.m. in a small, dark theater. The audience members, an eclectic mix of fashionistas and film fanatics, sit whispering, their faces washed in the green glow of the theater’s exit signs.

Christian Vuissa

A man, clad in a black suit, enters stage left, drawing silence from the crowd. With his silver beard and a few buttons undone on his white collared shirt, he is the everyman version of George Clooney. 

Leaning into the microphone, Christian Vuissa welcomes the crowd to the 2010 LDS Film Festival’s award ceremony, and the room erupts into applause.

As president of the festival, an event that draws crowds upwards of 7,000 each January, and director of three hit LDS films, Christian Vuissa has a lot on his plate. The 2008 Executive MPA graduate operates the film fest as a nonprofit while simultaneously running his production company, Mirror Films. His mission: to accurately reflect the culture around him and to encourage other filmmakers to do the same. This goal has often placed Vuissa center stage, doing what others never dreamed possible.

Feature Presentation 

Unlike many directors who spend years in Hollywood waiting to get their chance behind the camera, Vuissa launched his career mere months after graduating from BYU with a film degree. He was hired to adapt the book Baptists at Our Barbecue to the big screen.

The film provided Vuissa with the experience he needed to found his own production company in 2003—a step inspired by the work other local filmmakers were churning out. “Because of those early LDS films,” Vuissa says, “a lot more young filmmakers had the guts to just try.” 
Vuissa was one of them. He penned, produced, and directed The Errand of Angels in 2008, a story about a sister missionary in Austria, Vuissa’s homeland.

His most recent offering, One Good Man, opened last fall to praise for its quality photography, editing, and performances—something you don’t often find in low-budget fare. The film tells the story of Aaron Young, an LDS dad who makes good choices—even under difficult circumstances.

Like the fictional Young, Vuissa is a family man, and it’s clear that his wife, Kirsten, and three children always trump work. “I do feel inspired and guided in what I do, but at the same time, the family we are trying to build is really what counts,” Vuissa explains.

Usually his films are a family affair; Vuissa’s wife and children have had cameos in most of his movies. In One Good Man his daughter, Anika, played the role of a sick girl. After filming she asked, “Dad, why is this movie about the bishop? Let’s make it more about the little girl!”

Opening Credits 

A flashback to Vuissa’s childhood opens with a shot of beautiful mountain vistas in western Austria. Born and raised in Bregenz, a picturesque city on the shores of Lake Constance, Vuissa’s early years were steeped in traditional values and Austrian sensibility.

Despite the beauty of his surroundings, Vuissa’s youth was turbulent. His parents’ separation and eventual divorce, coupled with his older brother’s death, took a heavy toll. At age sixteen he dropped out of school and started his own publishing business. Through his late teens Vuissa searched for direction and found it in an unexpected place—his past.

When Vuissa was a small child, two sister missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints knocked on his family’s door. His mother invited them in. She was touched by the message and was baptized, but Vuissa’s father insisted his children remain Catholic. The schism of faith left Vuissa with doubts, and he abandoned religion altogether.

“I stopped going to church when I was fourteen,” Vuissa says. “But my mom kept talking about it, and when I was older I rediscovered my faith.”

That discovery began when Vuissa decided to read and analyze the Bible. The exercise in analysis soon became more though, as the biblical accounts powerfully touched Vuissa’s heart. “It was a call to come back,” he says. 

Vuissa quietly began to change his life. He stopped working on Sundays and began paying tithing. 

Five months—and several missionary discussions—later, Vuissa joined the LDS Church in his home branch. He put his newfound faith to use two years later—accepting a call to the Germany Leipzig Mission. That faith would serve as Vuissa’s guiding force throughout his mission and career.

Emotional Climax 

These days Vuissa doesn’t share his convictions door-to-door or on crowded street corners; he uses movie theaters. Via camera lens, Vuissa reflects the life of Latter-day Saints to a wider audience.

And because film is a medium with high emotional impact, Vuissa believes his films will help others understand church members for decades.

“You emotionally relate to a character from a different culture and have more compassion for that group,” Vuissa explains. “That’s the magic of narrative film.”

In fact, Vuissa still remembers his first experience with an impactful film—Disney’s Bambi. As a five-year-old he was overwhelmed by the forest fire and the death of the fawn’s mother. “I couldn’t stop crying,” he admits.

Luckily for viewers, Vuissa tries to elicit a different emotion with his films: happiness. One of the most powerful examples comes from a home movie he made of his children, Anika and Henry. In the film Anika helps Henry find a lost toy.

“It’s a simple story, but when I showed it to them, Henry became so delighted when he saw himself get the toy back,” Vuissa says. “I’ve never seen a happier expression. Each time he watched it, his face would radiate.”

PreProduction 

Although Vuissa’s veracious passion for film was harnessed at BYU, his teenage rebellion almost held him back from higher education. 

During a tour of the United States after his mission, Vuissa stopped in Provo to inquire at the BYU admissions office. He was told that without a high school diploma he wasn’t eligible, but he could take courses at then-UVSC and transfer.

Vuissa jumped at the opportunity. The day before he left Utah, Vuissa picked up the UVSC application forms and took the English proficiency test, which he barely passed.

Vuissa was admitted and after two semesters transferred to BYU. He earned an academic scholarship and spent late nights polishing his English. His hard work paid off when Vuissa graduated magna cum laude from BYU in 2002.

Christian Vuissa

Production Code 

But film training wasn’t all Vuissa wanted. For years he mulled around the idea of earning an MBA, but his goals shifted when he ran into a former mission companion who had recently graduated from the Marriott School with an MPA. 

“I didn’t even know that existed, but the more information I got, the more interested I became,” Vuissa says.

The program appealed to Vuissa, who had been running the LDS Film Festival since 2001 and dreamed about opening a school for the arts.

In the EMPA program Vuissa felt like a fish out of water. The other students had administrative jobs, working for the LDS Church or various government entities. Vuissa, on the other hand, was wrapping up a production project and drafting the script for The Errand of Angels.

But he made the program work with his interests. His statistics class evaluated how well The Errand of Angels performed in test screenings. And for a group project Vuissa and his teammates analyzed whether film incentives in Utah were economically sound. The projects helped him create his own production model to evaluate risks and plan out his upcoming productions.

A Rough Cut 

Making films using Vuissa’s production model isn’t necessarily easy. According to the Motion Picture Association of America, producing and marketing the average Hollywood film costs $92.6 million. Vuissa does it for just $200,000.

“That has become an art form in itself,” he says. “It’s a challenge to keep the quality up. But regardless of what people say about my films, they usually are impressed with the quality in comparison to the budget.” 

Since the explosion of LDS films in the early 2000s, the funding has “dried up,” Vuissa says. The small market makes it difficult to support several films a year. While other LDS directors gave up, Vuissa searched for a solution. His answer was to plan well and film quickly. He shoots his feature films in fifteen days with a small crew of twelve.

“Even though it’s a lot of work to get all of the footage so quickly, preparation for production already determines 80 percent of the final outcome, because the script, all the actors, locations, and crew are selected by the time production begins,” Vuissa says.

But making those decisions before the cameras roll isn’t as easy as it seems. In One Good Man, for example, its family-centric plot required many actors and the story was stuck in mundane, everyday settings—a completely different scenario than The Errand of Angels, which was filmed on location in Austria.

“I had to pay attention to how I made One Good Man visually compelling,” Vuissa explains. “I had huge concerns about finding the right locations and the right actors.”
While challenges are an everyday part of filmmaking, Vuissa admits, “There is always a solution.”

That’s a Wrap 

For many of Hollywood’s elite, the final snap of the clapper board signals the beginning of a new project. It’s no different for Vuissa, but his future currently holds more than production meetings and movie premieres. 

His family is moving to Dornbirn, Austria, this year. While it is a return to his homeland, the move is about more than just fond memories. He’s already working on several stories to film there, and then there’s that idea for an arts school.

Until then, Vuissa is focusing on finishing his next film, a biography of Joseph Smith, set to be in theaters later this year.

According to Vuissa, all things, including great films, begin with one simple thing—a good idea. But those who have worked with Vuissa know his formula for success includes one more variable—a leading man.

_

Article written by Megan Bingham
Portraits by Jed Wells

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