Prophet's Prey director Amy Berg worries the FLDS leader could trigger something 'horrific'
Warren Jeffs, the once-fugitive, now-imprisoned leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-day Saints, has faded from headlines since he went behind bars. But a new documentary is putting him back in the spotlight.
Prophet's Prey, from Oscar-nominated director Amy Berg, argues Jeffs is more powerful than ever and poses a threat that it would be unwise to ignore.
The documentary debuts onpremium cable channel Showtime tonight, and becomes available on demand this Sunday.
They often threw rocks at us or threw water bottles at us. They were trying to get their point across.
Jon Krakauer, whose 2003 book Under the Banner of Heaven, gave many people their first introduction to the Fundamentalist sect -- which follows the original tenets of Mormonism, including "plural marriage" -- is a major voice in the film. So is Sam Brower, author of the book upon which the film is based.
Nonfictionfilm.com spoke with Berg and Krakauer about the documentary and their concerns about the danger posed by Warren Jeffs.
Nonfictionfilm.com: I understand the project originated with Jon and Sam. When did you become involved, Amy?
Amy Berg: When Jon was talking with Imagine [Entertainment] about making a feature [film version] of Under the Banner of Heaven he wanted to make sure that a documentary was produced on the FLDS and Warren Jeffs. So I was approached by them, and Imagine [Ron Howard and Brian Grazer] are the executive producers of the film. I had read Under the Banner of Heaven. but I didn’t know much about Warren Jeffs or the FLDS so it was all kind of coming fresh.
NFF: There was a lot of media attention when Jeffs was put on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted List. But after he was captured, then tried and eventually convicted in Texas of child sexual assault, the media attention faded. Why is it important that people not forget about him?
Jon Krakauer: In many ways he’s more powerful now than he’s ever been. He’s become a martyr... He uses his imprisonment to say [to his followers], “This is your fault. You have not been righteous enough. You have not been giving me enough of your money. That’s why I’m in prison so you need to be more righteous, more loyal.” He communicates quite easily through his attorneys, through family members who visit him -- even though they’re speaking over phone lines in recorded conversations they have codes they use. I mean this is organized crime. It’s a lot like the Mafia.
Amy: It’s shocking to me that somebody can be sending prophesies from a federal prison and especially somebody with a rap sheet like his.
NFF: What are your concerns about what he might do from behind bars?
Amy: You just worry that he might call for some type of a mass extinction of his followers or some other kind of horrific event.
Jon: You don’t want to cry wolf. I’m really nervous about saying that because people dismiss you. They think you’re exaggerating. But why would Warren not precipitate something like Waco or Jonestown? This is not in his personality to say, “You know what, I’m in prison. Have a good life, you guys. Carry on without me.” He can’t. His brand of extreme narcissism, he doesn’t want anyone to live if he’s not living.
And the most faithful, there’s no doubt that they would die if ordered. Right now apparently he’s calculated that he has more to gain by not sparking, igniting some cataclysmic tragedy. But I question myself a lot about, well, eventually, why wouldn’t he? How to prevent that? The sure way to prevent that is to hope he drops dead, which I do very much. Because that might be the only way to save a lot of lives.
NFF: At one point we see in the film that he essentially confessed he was a fraud.
Amy: He said he was a fraud and then the reaction was so kind of odd. I mean he said he was a fraud and then his brother told him he wasn’t a fraud and nobody believed that he was a fraud so he took it back. You do think that that is his moment of conscience and clarity but that got passed by very quickly.
NFF: In the documentary we see lots of shots you got of these isolated communities along the Utah-Arizona border that are home to the FLDS faithful. What was it like for you to film there?
Amy: It’s like being in a Third World country. The way that the justice system works down there is very different. The police have all been in Warren’s pocket for years and they have this group called the “God Squad” that drives around to intimidate people in these big trucks. They often threw rocks at us or threw water bottles at us. They were trying to get their point across anyway they could.
NFF: Was it upsetting for you?
Amy: I had a big crew and I had Sam Brower who has a lot of familiarity with the way things work down there. It wasn’t too bad. We did what we had to do. We tried to get in and out and not, you know, overstay our welcome.
NFF: Jon, from your perspective, why do you think this film is important coming at this time?
Jon: It’s astonishing that this criminal enterprise -- sexually abusing hundreds if not thousands of children and women, defrauding the government of tens of millions of dollars -- it’s the 21st century in America, why is this happening? The reason it’s happening is law enforcement wasn’t taking it seriously, government officials.
This film is important because Sam Brower and I believe -- when you put stuff in the media and embarrass law enforcement or public officials through their apathy that’s when they act. It’s already clear [the film] will have some effect. That’s why Sam Brower and I wanted this film to happen, was to try to help the plight of all of these victims.
NFF: You published Under the Banner of Heaven in 2003. Why have you chosen to remain engaged with this subject matter?
Jon: In the case of the FLDS some families took real chances to help me, to speak to me. I rescued a young man from the religion who moved to Colorado and he’s still there. I got very close to him. These people are kind of like family now. I don’t really have a choice. It’s just like you don’t walk away. You can’t walk away.
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and Documentary.org.