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'Latter Days' Director Gets Personal

By Mike Szymanski

Tuesday , February 03, 2004

11:02 AM PT

In basic screenwriting classes the instructor often tells students to write what they know. What C. Jay Cox knew was being a closeted Mormon missionary proselytizing in West Hollywood, one of the gayest cities in the world.

His big screenplay, however, is "Sweet Home Alabama," a romance starring Reese Witherspoon as a fashion designer torn between a successful New York businessman and the Southern husband she left behind. That earned $35 million when it opened in 2002 and became the highest grossing first weekend for any romantic comedy ever.

That "Sweet" success, has allowed Cox to come back to his more personal story, with all of its own humor, angst and romance. He's written and directed "Latter Days," which has earned high praise in festivals around the country, and created a stir recently during the Sundance Film Festival when the major theater chain in Utah banned it from being show in that state.

"Big studios will not tackle this subject matter for exactly that reason," Cox tells Zap2it.com. "I never set out to bash Mormonism. It's a love story foremost, and it's really personal to me."

Madstone Theaters received threats of a boycott, and Cox says, "It's obvious they were trying to save their ass."

He's written for Bette Midler, Antonio Banderas, Walt Disney and Columbia Pictures. His first screenplay was optioned by Norman Lear, but his real story was never known.

"I was raised Mormon; I was that character in the movie," Cox says. "I was disowned, there are some family members who don't speak to me, some are guarded, but accepting, and some are quietly cheering me on."

The film is about a West Hollywood party boy named Christian who gets into a bet with his fellow waiters that he could seduce a sexually confused Mormon named Elder Aaron Davis. Both of them are shaken up in the process and their outlooks on life and love are forever changed.

Christian and Elder Davis are both extensions of himself, the screenwriter says, and when he cast the actors, their sexuality was unimportant.

"The sexuality of the actors never came up during the process, it was important for me to find actors who can show vulnerability," says Cox, who cast Harvard grad Steve Sandvoss as Elder Davis and former "Guiding Light" hunk Wes Ramsey as Christian. "Third Rock from the Sun" youth Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a homophobic Mormon, Mary Kay Place plays Davis' mother and Jacqueline Bisset plays the wise restaurant owner.

The actors have to kiss a lot and get nude, which is why the film is released unrated, but Cox says, "To have them be in bed and hold their sheets up looks ridiculous. I wanted it to feel organic."

So, after a passionate session of making out, the guys talk naked in bed and tell revealing stories about their families and painful memories they've lived through to hide their sexuality.

This past Christmas, Cox showed the film to his family and his mother commented how she personally handled her son's coming out better than Place did as the mother in the film.

"I guess it all depends on your perspective," laughs Cox. "My mother was a little crazy."

In the film, there's an embarrassing excommunication tribunal held by the Mormon leaders. "I had to research that, because I left the church before I went through that," Cox says. "I talked to people who went through the experience and it was a pretty accurate representation, right down to the folding tables. For some reason Mormons have a lot of folding tables."

Landing glamorous Bisset for a role was a fantasy for Cox and she offered suggestions to the script that he feels greatly improved the story.

"She is so much more earthy than you expect, in fact, when we met her hands were scratched because she was pulling weeds out of her garden," Cox says.

Now while rewriting a car racing movie for New Line, Cox says he's hearing some emotional reaction from people who have seen the movie. "I hope it will make parents realize how they treat their kids in this situation, and I hope that it opens up some dialogue with parents -- I know it did with me."

"Latter Days" premiered Friday, Jan. 30 in Los Angeles and will open wider in major cities through February and March.