LOS ANGELES — The Rave 18 theater 10 minutes north of LAX was filled to capacity Friday for the Los Angeles premiere of The Saratov Approach, an independent film based on the true story of two Mormon missionaries kidnapped and held for ransom in Saratov, Russia, in 1998.
The film became the fastest Mormon-themed movie to reach $1 million after opening for four weeks on 20 screens in Mormon-heavy states like Utah, Idaho, and Arizona. This month, it opened in theaters in California, Florida, Texas, Washington, Wyoming, and Alberta, Canada.
"It was a wonderful film," said Larry King, who attended the screening. He later joked, "I'm an agnostic. I'm a Jew. I feel weird here."
But agnostics, Jews, and anyone else outside of the film's natural audience are exactly who the film's creators are hoping to reach as it opens in new markets.
"We didn't make this film to be a niche film," said writer and director Garrett Batty, who has previously worked on other Mormon-themed movies, including 2009's Scout Camp. "This movie clearly appealed to a very select market, but the themes in this film are universal."
The film has received positive reviews from Salt Lake City's newspapers. "Equal parts nerve-jangling thriller and faith-empowering drama, The Saratov Approach is a low-budget movie that builds up its tension in a tightly confined space," wrote The Salt Lake Tribune.
The Saratov Approach tells the story of Travis Tuttle, played by Corbin Allred, and Andrew Propst, played by Maclain Nelson, two missionaries who were serving for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints about 400 miles southeast of Moscow when they vanished in March 1998. They were attacked and held for $300,000 ransom by two Russian men — played by Alex Veadov and Nikita Bogolyubov — and ultimately let go after five days.
"The story had always been interesting to me," Batty said. "What takes place in those five days?"
Batty got the two former missionaries together before he began writing. It was the first time they had seen each other since returning home from their missions, and they were "reluctant" to tell their story at first, he said. "They sat down with me and told me what their experience was. It blew my mind."
The film alternates between scenes of the captive missionaries, their worried families at home, and flashbacks to earlier in their mission. In one of the most heartbreaking moments, a man who had also been kidnapped while serving his mission two decades earlier calls the parents of Tuttle, hoping to give them comfort and tell them what he was thinking when he was kidnapped.
"I want to talk to you about what's going through your son's mind right now," the man tells the kidnapped missionary's parents. "You think about the ones who've taken you and what they've done to you and why, and you begin to worry about what will happen to them ... Then almost against your will, you pray for them."
The Christian belief of loving one's enemies is one of the more difficult teaching to follow, especially if your enemies are holding you for ransom, but it proves key in missionary's struggle to survive.
"The longer those valiant boys spend with their kidnappers, the harder it will be for them to keep them, because light always overcomes darkness," the man tells Tuttle's parents.
Even knowing the missionaries made it out alive — both Propst and Tuttle were in the audience on Friday — doesn't make The Saratov Approach any less gripping. And despite the religious overtones, the film's themes are less uniquely Mormon than they are generally Judeo-Christian.
"This story is a lot bigger than the two people who were involved," Batty said when asked during the Q&A session what he got most out of making the film. "You do your best to lift one another's burdens."