Finding the ‘lost boys’

Realscreen caught up with directors Tyler Measom and Jennilyn Merten at Silverdocs to talk about their acclaimed film Sons of Perdition and the level of involvement between them and their subjects - teenage boys that had been exiled from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
July 7, 2010

As ex-Mormons themselves, Sons of Perdition directors Tyler Measom and Jennilyn Merten say they felt a sort of kinship with ‘lost boys,’ teenage boys who’d been exiled from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS). But in order to craft a feature doc on the topic, first they had to undergo the difficult task of finding their subjects, Sam, Joe and Bruce, which ultimately led to the directors becoming immersed in their lives.

The Sons of Perdition directors say they wanted to go further than the media reports on the ‘lost boys’ and the polygamist sect, led by Warren Jeffs, who is currently serving a 10 year sentence in the Utah State prison. Thus, the film, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival this past April, illustrates the boys’ attempts to reintegrate into society while also reconciling their feelings towards their faith, the idea of hell and their families left behind.

Measom describes how early on in filming, two social workers were discussing that Joe and Sam were about to be kicked out of where they were staying and would have nowhere to live. ‘I’m shooting this scene thinking, ‘This is great, this is drama; maybe I’ll get [them] sleeping in a box or eating out of dumpsters.’ Then I put the camera down and said, ‘I can take them to Salt Lake and they can stay with me.’ Not only did the film take a turn, but our lives at that point took a turn,’ he says.

At that point, Measom and Merten became considerably immersed in the boys’ lives, lending them cars, paying phone bills and eventually letting the boys stay with them.

‘We went into [the film] a little bit naïve,’ admits Measom. ‘We thought we’d shoot this film for six months. We’d find some kids, tell their story and finish the film and four years later, we’re still ingrained in it. We’re still helping out the boys and other kids and we will be for another year, or more.’

‘It was very natural that Tyler and I would become involved because that’s the way we were brought up and that’s the Mormon tradition,’ says Merten. ‘In terms of the film, we didn’t know it was going to get that crazy.’

At one point, the directors helped a boy’s mother escape from her husband’s house in the middle of the night. The boy preferred that Measom and Merton stop filming. ‘We put down the camera and picked up the boxes to put her stuff in the car,’ says Measom.

‘It was so hard to put the camera down in that moment but we had two minutes to get her out of there before we got spotted,’ remembers Merten, who sees their actions as a form of reciprocity towards the boys for sharing their story.

‘It wasn’t as simple as you going in to capture a story and you’re standing on the sidelines,’ she says. ‘There’s this kind of give and take where if someone’s going to have the courage to share that, you have to give back,’ she says.

As for the film itself, the filmmakers decided that its resolution would occur through the transformations experienced by the boys. ‘We’re not doing a film on kids at a soccer tournament or a spelling bee. There’s no accelerated ending, there’s no climactic third act, which we struggled with,’ says Measom. ‘How do you show the kid no longer believes he’s going to hell? That was a difficult process for us, but you can see in the film the transformation, the guilt of leaving and fear of this tangible hell dissolving from their psyches.’

Sons of Perdition has been accepted to Sheffield Doc/Fest and the American Film Festival in Poland and will be shown on the opening night of the Salt Lake City Film Festival. It ran as Leaving the Cult on BBC Storyville on July 5 and the filmmakers are in negotiations for a U.S. broadcast run.

About The Author
Andrew Tracy joined Realscreen as associate editor in 2021, following 17 years as managing editor of the award-winning international film magazine Cinema Scope. From 2010 to 2020 he also held the position of senior editor at the Toronto International Film Festival, where he oversaw the flagship publication for the organization’s year-round Cinematheque programming and edited its first original monograph in a decade, Steve Gravestock’s A History of Icelandic Film. He was a scriptwriter and consultant on the first season of the Vice TV series The Vice Guide to Film, and his writing and reporting have been featured in such outlets as Cinema Scope, Reverse Shot, Sight & Sound, Cineaste, Film Comment, MUBI Notebook, POV, and Montage.