Three Wives, One Husband Interview
Three Wives, One Husband is an enthralling and eye-opening new documentary series, filmed in a polygamous community of Fundamentalist Mormons in the extraordinary setting of Rockland Ranch (“The Rock”) deep in the Utah desert. Here, we speak to Executive Producer Will Anderson and Series Producer Vicky Mitchell to find out more.
Where did the idea for the series come from?
W: It came about because we were having conversations with Channel 4 about where the rig [fixed rig cameras] could go next. Obviously it’s been a very successful tool for lots of programmes that have done very well, but there is a slight acknowledgement that most of the places where a rig could go well in the UK have already been done. So we began to talk about whether there were places where we could put the rig abroad, and we started talking about polygamous Mormons. What you get with fixed rig filming is the ability to be in more than one room at the same time, and when there’s several wives, it felt like it would be quite interesting watching the husband move from one apartment to the next. We thought the rig would pick that up very well. So we went over to America to talk to some polygamous communities, to see whether it was possible. We spent quite a lot of time talking to various communities, which didn’t work out for various reasons. But when we finally found The Rock, it felt like we were in the right place. It’s such a visually dramatic environment, and the people were very warm and welcoming. But getting the access was not straightforward.
V: It was originally conceived as a rig series, but as things developed, and we got to know the community, that changed slightly. There was a rig element to it, but we were so blown away by the environment itself, that it evolved. We realised the rig was only going to do so much. It’s now more a single camera series with a rig element.
How did you approach the residents at Rockland Ranch? Why do you think they wanted to take part?
W: They’d been approached a lot in the past, and they’d always said no. What was quite useful was that they have a council meeting once a month where all the heads of the families meet to discuss the issues of the day. There was an immediate platform where we could go and present our case to them, which we did. They all then spent some time thinking and discussing it among themselves, and then came back the next month to give us their decision. I think the reasons they wanted to do it are many and varied. I think they liked us, and the work that Keo Films and the individuals out there had done. We showed them some of our films and invited them to speak to some of the contributors we’d worked with before. I think they felt that they were in safe hands. Clearly they were also aware that there had been a lot of negative publicity around polygamous communities over there which had been caught up in child abuse scandals and other unsavoury things. I think they are very confident that their community is a good and wholesome place, and they’re slightly fed up by being tarred with the same brush as these horrible stories. I think they felt this was a good chance to potentially redress the balance a bit.
V: I think the other thing was that we approached them differently from the way other production companies had approached them in the past. They’d maybe fired off emails and made phone calls, and maybe made one trip out there. We devoted an enormous amount of time to just being in the community and not rushing them to make a decision. We made a point of going to visit every single family within the community. Even if they had absolutely no intention of being filmed, we thought it was important that everyone felt they had been consulted, and that they knew what our intentions were and what our hopes were for the series. That paid dividends later on, because it meant the whole community was happy for us to be there, and there was goodwill towards the project. I think I made three trips out there before they’d even made a decision, so we spent an enormous amount of time getting to know them and allowing them to get to know us.
How much time did you spend out there filming?
V: It took about a year to film. With the rig filming we did two blocks of four weeks in the middle of it all. But the majority of the series was filmed with traditional, hand-held cameras, and that was filmed over about a year. I did around seven or eight trips over there, and I was there for 3-4 weeks each time.
What kind of relationships did you form with the community?
W: This sort of film-making is all about relationships. You don’t get anywhere unless you have the relationships with the contributors and they like you and trust you. And that’s particularly the case with this, where it’s predominantly about affairs of the heart. The success of the series relies on people being honest and open. I think generally Americans are pretty good at expressing their feelings and talking to camera, in a way that some British people might be more reserved about. So that was probably to our advantage. But certainly everyone who was out there a lot has formed very strong and good relationships with them. And making TV programmes like this is as much about what you do with contributors when you’re not filming. So we spent a lot of time going ten-pin bowling, and going for hikes and hanging out and not filming stuff, because we wanted to and it was fun and we liked them, but also because it allowed us to build a stronger relationship between us and them.
Were there any aspects of life that they asked you not to film?
W: No, they were pretty open, we were really pleased about how open they were.
V: All of the families were actually amazingly candid. The Morrisons in particular. I think it takes a lot of guts to open up the challenges in your personal life to the scrutiny of the outside world. It wasn't always easy for them and it's to their immense credit that they had the courage to do it. In terms of the rig cameras, there were certain parts of the houses that were off limits, like the bedrooms, the bathrooms. So while they were happy to talk about their intimate lives, obviously they wanted that to remain off camera.
W: It was never our intention to rig the bedrooms anyway.
How much of a role does their faith play in their daily life?
W: It felt to me that it’s a set of core principles that they can fall back on at every stage. Those principles I found to be enviable and honourable – they tried to reduce their own ego and be considerate to how other people are feeling, and how their behaviour might affect other people, to an extent that non-religious people and possibly monogamists in general don’t go there. Part of what they’re doing is deliberately taking their ego out of the situation and trying to love everyone around them equally. It is part of their religious beliefs, but it also has a very positive effect on the people they are. They are very warm and generous and open-hearted people as a result of that.
V: I’d agree with that. There’s a slight contradiction – they do live in the middle of nowhere, and they separated themselves so they can live this way of life in peace, but they’re also very worldly, they do engage with the outside world. Lots of them work in town. There are many things about them that are incredibly relatable. They watch TV, we had the same pop culture references as they did.
They even swear! They’re really not that different from us, are they?
V: Exactly. That’s the beauty of it. In spending time there, that constant contradiction between the incredibly familiar and relatable and the completely extraordinary. You’d be hanging out at the Morrisons’ house, having a chat about Ricky Gervais in The Office, and it’d be just like hanging out with your mates here, and then suddenly Abe would kiss Marina and then go over and kiss Beth, and you’d be reminded that actually they have this extraordinary way of organising their lives that is so different to what we’re used to.
W: That’s why we landed on them and immediately liked them – because they are so relatable. It’s also quite an aspirational place to live – it’s a beautiful landscape, the kids are well looked after, they run around and have a lot of freedom, which is maybe something we have lost over here with our helicopter parenting, and the fact that nobody knows their neighbours and everyone’s families are so dispersed across the UK. There, these families are brought up by the community, the kids are climbing trees and hiking up to the top of the rock and building dens and doing all the sort of stuff that we’ve lost. Really, the only big difference between them and us is that they’re married to more than one wife, and they’re on this polygamous path. But my hope is that by the end of it the viewer will come away from this thinking they’re not crazy, it’s just a different lifestyle. It works for them.
Just aesthetically, The Rock is an extraordinary looking place. It’s almost a character in the series, isn’t it?
W: Yeah. Their houses, on the inside, look like they could be anywhere in America, if you ignore the raw, rock ceilings. They all have fridges and TVs and microwaves and the rest of it. We spent quite a lot of time inside their houses, talking about relationships and watching how they work. Our worry was that you might just forget where you were, so we deliberately always step outside and try and remind everyone of The Rock as often as we can. It just becomes very good punctuation. The Rock defines everything about them – you’re right, it’s a character in its own right. And it’s another reason why we realised it was the right place to go.
Did you have philosophical or religious discussions? What did they make of your lives?
W: Yes, we had lots of philosophical and religious discussions with them. I did. I’m interested in all of this stuff anyway. They didn’t try and convert us to Christianity, they’re not evangelising, and they certainly don’t ram it down your throat. They don’t have an organised church, they just have Sunday School in each of their houses, and there’s no designated priest. So there’s lots of scope for them to develop their own theories. It’s apparent they don’t all believe in exactly the same thing. Their beliefs are quite flexible. I found that interesting to talk to them about. And I found a lot of good and wholesomeness in the way that they’re trying to live their lives. I think they’re genuinely good people who are living the best life that they can. Did they think that we were weird? I think they think that it’s odd that we leave it so late to have children.
V: The one thing they are absolutely evangelical about is the joys of having children, and a big family. And something must have rubbed off, because three members of the team have since had babies or become pregnant.
W: Including Vicky and myself. We were sufficiently enamoured of big family life that we have decided to go and procreate. Not with each other, I hasten to add. So yeah, they think we’re missing out, and to be honest, when I was out there I felt like I was missing out too. Missing out on big family life. So I came back and had another one.
Do they genuinely believe that the apocalypse is coming?
V: Yeah. For Mormons generally, that’s a key part of Mormon belief – not just Fundamentalist Mormons. All Mormons believe in the end of days.
W: And it is prophesied in the bible. It’s specific. As one of them says in the series, it’s going to be three-and-a-half years of chaos and no food. And that is partly the reason that they’re living out in the wild, and it’s part of the reason why they’re self-sufficient – they’ve got their own water, they’ve got their own solar power, they’ve got these big food stores. Since we filmed, they’ve built this big greenhouse which is growing masses of stuff. If and when Trump presses the nuclear button, I’m going to try and get myself to The Rock as fast as I can. They will ride it out better than anyone, I think.
V: While they all believe in it, for different families at The Rock it takes on differing significance in their lives. Some of them are thinking about it and prepping for it all the time, whereas for others, it’s something that they’ve grown up with, but does it occupy their thoughts daily/weekly/monthly? Probably not.
So it’s a bit more abstract for them?
W: Well, they’ve deliberately built this community which could survive. The infrastructure is in place. It’s very easy to forget, when you’re there, that you are 40 minutes from the nearest town and 20 minutes off the main road. They really are out in the middle of nowhere. And yet there is a fully functioning farm, there is a lot of machinery, they’ve got power, they’ve got water, everything you need is working. And they’ve done that all themselves, with their own sweat. It’s pretty extraordinary, actually. We take it for granted that there’s a national grid, and piped gas and water and sewage and all the rest of it. They started with nothing, and they’ve put all that stuff in themselves. It is impressive, and it will see them good if and when all the services we take for granted get cut off by a major event.
What kind of relationship do they have with other locals? Are they discriminated against? Do they have friends from outside the community?
V: They have a very good relationship with the local community. The nearest town is a place called Moab, which is a small town with a hippy vibe. It’s a centre for rock climbing and extreme sport, so it’s a kind of liberal, progressive place anyway.
W: And lot of people there also live self-sufficiently. It’s not unusual to do that sort of stuff. There are a lot of people looking for alternative lifestyles. People are pretty chilled out and relaxed, so if there’s a bunch of polygamous Mormons living out at The Rock, they’re curious, but there’s certainly no animosity.
V: And a lot of the people in the community are mail carriers, postmen and postwomen, which means that they do end up getting out into lots of other parts of the community, and having conversations. So they’re well-known and well-liked by most people there. Bob Foster, who founded the community, his philosophy was that they had nothing to hide, so if people were curious and came out to see them, they’d always be welcomed. And his children and the families that live there now have maintained that. They do have a philosophy of welcoming visitors with open arms, and when we were there, people would drive out to have a look, tourists would drop by, and they’re always invited in. Someone will make them a cup of tea and tell them about the history of the community. And quite a lot of the kids go to state school, so they have friends from outside of the community, and they have birthday parties where friends from outside the community come over.
W: And the school bus trundles up at 6:30am to pick the kids up, and buses them an hour away to the nearest school.
V. Having said that, I’m sure all of the families we feature with would say that they have experienced prejudice at one time or another because of the lifestyle they’ve chosen and most have grandparents or parents that went to prison for practising polygamy. The mainstream Mormon Church still excommunicates members who are found to be polygamists and while we were out there filming a new Bill was proposed in the Utah State Senate that would make Polygamy a crime again. We definitely encountered feelings of persecution and injustice.
Do people ever turn their back on Fundamentalist Mormonism and leave the community?
V: Bob Foster had 38 children, and maybe five or six live there. So lots of them go off to lead different lives. Some of them are part of the mainstream Mormon church, some have no faith at all. One of the things the families are at pains to point out is that the children are free to make their own decisions as to whether they choose to follow that way of life or not. So they’ve got brothers and sisters who don’t practise polygamy or aren’t religious in any way. They recognise that these are very personal decisions and challenges, and they have to work for them. Clearly, in the wider Fundamentalist Mormon community there have been people who have run away and who now actively campaign against it, but as far as I know, that hasn’t affected The Rock directly.
V: It’s not like people are ostracised or outcast if they choose not to follow those beliefs. There’s nothing to escape from at The Rock, in a way that there might be at other Fundamentalist communities. They maintain relationships with family members who have chosen a different path.
In practical terms, you spent an enormous amount of time out there. Could you get a drink in Utah?
W: Yeah, there’s a Moab Brewery. It’s not dry. There’s no alcohol at The rock, but that’s fine. We were working here anyway. We stayed in Moab and drove out to The Rock every morning, and drove back in the evenings, so we’d go out for dinner and have a beer as normal.
Have you formed lasting friendships with the guys out at The Rock? Will you stay in touch?
W: Hopefully, yeah, for sure. I was there last week. I hope that when my children are a few years older, I’m going to go back and have a holiday in Moab, and we’ll go and hang out with them for a few days. I definitely feel like we’ve all made connections with them. One of the things they said they enjoyed about the whole film-making process was making a whole load of new friends from another part of the world.
V: I absolutely agree with that. They’ve got plans to hopefully come and visit us over here at some point as well. So yeah, definitely lasting friendships.
W: And we’ve been invited to a wedding .
V: And as we’ve mentioned before, I actually fell pregnant during the filming, and spent much of my pregnancy at The Rock. I was last out there when I was eight months pregnant. So as far as they’re concerned, my son was grown at The Rock, so they want to meet him. Hopefully I’ll go out at some point and they’ll get to meet the little boy that I had
W: But it is traditional that people go to The Rock and get pregnant. It’s part of the mythology of the place. It’s so fertile, it just seems to happen to people.