Television

Why the Director of Napoleon Dynamite Made a Movie About a Mormon Murderer

Jared Hess spent years and collected thousands of items tracking the story of forger and bomber Mark Hofmann.

A man holds two ancient-looking books.
Murder Among the Mormons. Netflix

Murder Among the Mormons covers a lesser-known, horrifying moment in Utah history: the 1985 killing of two esteemed members of Salt Lake City’s Latter-Day Saints establishment by someone from their very own ranks. Mark Hofmann, a well-regarded dealer in historical Mormon documents who was later revealed to have forged most of his “findings,” was convicted for the murders, which were carried out by bombs targeted at some of his business partners, and is serving a life sentence. The story of Hofmann and his elaborate deceptions—which also caused a brief crisis of faith within the church—is a complex tale with many interlocking parts, some reaching far beyond Utah.

Advertisement

But even though the story was nationally covered during its time, and the scars remain for church members, little detail of it is remembered today. Thus, the two filmmakers behind Murder Among the Mormons wanted bring it back to the national consciousness. One of those directors, Tyler Measom, is a longtime documentarian whose work has focused on religious groups, including Mormon sects. The other is a perhaps unexpected but familiar name: Jared Hess, known primarily for directing the cult classic Napoleon Dynamite as well other 2000s indie comedies like Nacho Libre and Gentlemen Broncos. Those surprised to see Hess’ name among the credits may not realize he is a practicing Mormon who got his start at Brigham Young University’s film school—where he made the short film that would evolve into Napoleon Dynamite—and has played roles in other Mormon-themed movies over the years. I recently spoke with Hess and Measom over Zoom to talk about how Hess switched gears to work on his first feature documentary, how he worked with Measom to give this story such a vivid platform for the first time ever, and what made these two the most apt storytellers of the Hofmann saga. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Nitish Pahwa: How did you two team up?

Jared Hess: Tyler and I’ve known each other since film school and have been a part of the film community here in Utah. I actually worked as a camera assistant on some stuff that Tyler directed back in the day. He had started researching and working on the project years ago, and then he found out that I was obsessed with this saga as well, so we had lunch and decided to collaborate. It’s been a long time in the making—I think Tyler and I have been researching this story for over a decade, but we didn’t start working on it intensely until about four years ago.

Jared, I know you’d heard about this story during your childhood. Tyler, was this story similarly a longtime presence in your life?

Advertisement

Tyler Measom: Absolutely. I was raised in Utah and I was in the Mormon faith for a while, though I’m no longer. I was a teenager when this occurred, so it wasn’t necessarily the most important thing to me, but I vividly really remember my father one day saying at the dinner table, “This Hofmann thing sure was a black eye on the church.” Plus, my cousin was Mark Hofmann’s college roommate. So it’s always been this story that’s been a part of the Utah culture: It’s in our DNA, in the backstory, in the setting, and the individuals are part of our community.

Advertisement

A lot of my films center on belief in many ways. Sons of Perdition was about kids who leave a Mormon fundamentalist group, and An Honest Liar was about deception and a man who tries to expose deception. So this story was really in my wheelhouse.

Advertisement

Tyler, you’ve been making a lot of religion and crime documentaries for a while, but Jared, this is relatively new territory for you. Your big claim to fame was Napoleon Dynamite, which has roots in your time at Brigham Young University. What made you switch gears and go from indie comedies to Netflix crime documentaries?

Hess: I’m a big American West history buff, and I’m really into early Mormon history. I just find it completely fascinating. So many just wild, bizarre stories within that world, the salamander letter [one of Hofmann’s most notorious forgeries] and Mark Hofmann being one of them. Why people believe what they do is fascinating to me. And there’s really not a true crime story like this anywhere, with the elements of religion, deception, murder, forgery, the money involved. So for me, it was a very natural transition just because it’s something I’ve been obsessed about.

Advertisement
Advertisement

In Murder Among the Mormons, there’s footage of Dan Rather covering the story, of people comparing it to the Beirut bombing the previous year. But you’ve both said that even in Utah, very few people seem to remember that this happened. Why do you think it became so memory-holed?

Measom: This was 35 years ago, and most people in the age of Trump couldn’t remember what happened last week, so I think people have forgotten about it. It was a tough, really horrible period for many people in this state—many victims, deaths, and the church had the wool pulled over its eyes. I think there was a bit of “Let’s just forget about that and move on” from a lot of individuals.

Advertisement

Hess: Ultimately, I think the community wanted to heal and move on. It didn’t hang around very long, and unless people have read a book on it, they might have bits and pieces of information that are pretty far off the mark. So from a storytelling standpoint, the way we were able to structure it helps keep people engaged because they’re learning new things that they didn’t know about this.

Advertisement

A lot of the people that you talked to hadn’t spoken at all about this since it happened. How were you able to get them to open up?

Measom: Jared and I know all these individuals. It wasn’t just that we came in and said, “We want to interview you on Thursday and we’ll talk to you then, and this is the time, and we’ll set up a camera in your house.” We met with them for years—literally—and we became friends with them. They trusted us that we were going to tell a good story. And I hope that we did—I think it comes across that we like these individuals, that we care for them. And I think they wanted to tell this story: They all knew this was a remarkable story that has yet to really be released to the world. So everyone outside of Mark Hofmann himself, for the most part, was willing to speak to us. For a lot of them, it was therapeutic in many ways to rehash a very difficult incident in its entirety.

Advertisement

How did you find all the archival news footage you did, both on the local and national level?

Advertisement

Hess: A lot of our subjects had stuff that they recorded off the TV when it happened.

Measom: A lot of the people that were involved in this incident knew it was newsworthy and noteworthy. They would turn over boxes of materials to us, VHS tapes and photos. One of the boxes we got was from Dorie [Mark Hofmann’s ex-wife]. And we mention in the film how Mark loved to watch himself on television. Well, he had VHS tapes of himself that he had recorded off TV. So we were able to use Mark’s own recordings of himself on television.

Advertisement

One thing that was interesting is, after Mark had gone to prison, all of the stuff that had been confiscated from his house eventually went to one of the victims, who auctioned it all off. So a lot of his journals and letters and yearbooks and photos had gone to collectors here in Utah and throughout the country. We traveled around and picked it all up. We have thousands and thousands of pieces of material—a lot of it obviously didn’t make it into the film, but a lot of great stuff did.

Hess: Also, the NBC affiliate in Salt Lake City, Channel 5 KSL, they did incredible reporting on it back in the day. One of our subjects, Richard Turley—at the time we interviewed him, he was the director of public affairs for the entire LDS church—was able to help us get unprecedented access to archival footage that had been sitting in a vault at KSL. It was such an incredible artifact of that time, being able to see things as they unfolded and as the community was just baffled as to what was going on, but it really kind of puts you in that moment. And we were very, very lucky to be able to get access to it.

What is the story about the Latter-day Saints church that you wanted to convey in this documentary, and through this particular part of its history?

Hess: I mean, it was such an uncomfortable time period for them. They’ve never had this level of controversial spotlight. It was uncomfortable for the membership, for the leadership, for everyone involved because these were things that were directly undermining the faith-promoting history that they taught for years. And when people suddenly started getting killed and that had some kind of connection to the “white salamander” letter, it was like, “What’s going on?”

As far as the response is concerned, I think there’s a lot of initial worry and concern and fear just based on the subject matter alone. But I think it’ll be empowering for members and people that don’t know much about this: to face their fears about what occurred, and be able to understand the details of what happened and that it’s OK that leaders they revere make mistakes under incredible amounts of pressure. We’re all human. No one is immune to deception. I think it’ll hopefully be healing for them in some ways.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

The church … there were moments along the way that I think were difficult and embarrassing for them. But the focus is on Mark, his crimes, how heartless he was, what he did, and what he got away with. Ultimately, the church was a victim, just like everyone else who dealt with him was.

Tyler, you told the Salt Lake Tribune that the story is ultimately about how Hofmann was able to utilize the culture in order to perpetuate his crimes. What do you mean by that?

Measom: The Mormon faith is renowned for being stewards of their history—it’s a short history, but looking into and finding out their history is something that’s very important to them. This community is also very trusting, and Mark was this seemingly good member of the Mormon faith who utilized this love of history and this trusting nature of these individuals to commit these crimes against them. It was because of this environment that he thrived. And there was an element of the Mormon faith trying to hide some of these documents that Mark had purchased. So he knew he could sell them a document and they may not look into it too deeply. They may not research it. They may not send it out into the world.

Advertisement

This is the context in which Mark Hofmann was able to make millions of dollars. And then, of course, he expanded. He knew that after a while, he could play on the joys of collecting, not just here in Utah but nationally. Above and beyond all, Mark was very, very gifted as a criminologist, as a forger, as a cold-hearted, callous person, and this environment in which he was raised, in which he lived, allowed him to thrive in that, I believe.

It happens all over the place. I think today, more than ever, we’re being fed misinformation and faulty information, and it comes from various sources, and it basically does the same thing. There’s always going to be a person who’s going to sell a certain demographic materials and lies and information and fake news that they want to hear. So they’re ready and willing to accept it and buy it. It’s a problem today just as much as, if not more than, it was during Mark Hofmann’s era.

Advertisement

This is a huge platform for both of you, a co-production of BBC and Netflix. Do you hope this will also be a chance for people to also explore your earlier work and the religious themes that pervade those films as well?

Advertisement
Advertisement

Hess: Yeah, who knows, maybe that’ll happen.

Measom: Look, when you make a series for Netflix as a documentarian, you’re ostensibly being called up to the bigs. And to have such a willing and wanting audience for this genre right now, we’re very lucky, though we did work very hard and surround ourselves with amazing individuals who helped us tell this story. If that leads people to our other work or to what our next projects will be, fantastic. But right now we hope everyone loves the dinner that we just created instead of the breakfast we made earlier this morning, if you will.

Advertisement

If this show is well received, do you both think you’d want to do more on the story to try to cover the tracks you weren’t able to?

Measom: There were some stories. One of them was that an Emily Dickinson poem had resurfaced, a lost one. The Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, Massachusetts, had purchased it and had this community fundraiser. And then it was uncovered that it was a Hofmann forgery. That was a great story that I wish we could have pushed in. It’d be nice to do something more, but the best thing that I can hear upon finishing a documentary is, “I wish there were more.”

Advertisement