The story of Mark Hofmann—whose serial forgeries of historical documents, including documents challenging LDS Church doctrine, led him to murder two people in Utah in 1985—is one of the strangest and most compelling in recent state history. It's exactly the kind of story that seems ideal for a Netflix true-crime docu-series like Murder Among the Mormons (premiering March 3)—but the filmmaking partnership behind it might not be as intuitive.
Co-directors Tyler Measom and Jared Hess came at Murder Among the Mormons from two very different creative backgrounds—Measom a non-fiction veteran whose work includes the "Amazing Randi" documentary An Honest Liar, and Hess a narrative director best known for Napoleon Dynamite. Yet for the two men, who have known each other for years going back to Hess working as a camera assistant for Measom's directing of commercials and music videos, the collaboration proved to be ideal pairing, and not just so the hybrid of dramatizations, interviews and archival footage could allow each to stay in his comfort zone.
"We did it all together," Hess says. "I think we'd just trade off where one of us got tired, and said, 'Man, I can't feel my legs."
"We came at it from kind of the same angle," Meason adds. "I've co-directed all my projects before, so I'm used to collaboration. And it's nice not just to have someone to bounce ideas off of, but to have someone say, 'Come on, let's do this.'"
While both Hess and Measom grew up in the LDS Church, they were still relatively young when the Hofmann case became national news. Measom, who was 14 years old in 1985, says, "I distinctly remember as a kid, my dad saying, 'That Hofmann thing really is a black eye on the Church.'" Hess, meanwhile, recalls it only being a story "on the periphery," until he became a Mormon history buff in adulthood, and ultimately used the story as inspiration for the character of a fraudulent antiquities dealer in his 2015 film Don Verdean.
It was Measom who began the process of developing Murder Among the Mormons, then learned from a mutual friend about four years ago that Hess was also interested. As they began the process of reaching out for interviews, they were pleasantly surprised at finding that most of the people they wanted to speak to were willing to appear on camera (Hofmann himself, who is currently serving a life sentence at the Central Utah Correctional Facility, did not participate). "Some needed a decent amount of convincing," Measom says, "because some pieces in the past had been done poorly, or they were just done talking about it."
Once the interview work was complete, the question then became how to shape the story, especially how to frame the LDS church history that Hofmann's faked documents—like the infamous "salamander letter," challenging the official story of Joseph Smith's discovery of the Book of Mormon's golden plates—was threatening. "The main problem that created this whole saga is, you really have to understand the founding beliefs that are sacred to the LDS Church," Hess says. "How much information would people who had no familiarity with Mormonism need to understand?"
"Like any story," Measom says, "you have to get context from the setting, but we had a hard time setting up the details enough, but not so much that [viewers] would be swimming in the extreme details of the religion."
Ultimately, the story became a three-episode series—which Measom admits is both a function of the current marketplace for longer-form non-fiction storytelling on streaming services, and a format which served the story best. "For this, the content warranted a longer piece," he says. "It also gave us the opportunity to have distinct 'act' breaks; each one has a beginning, middle and end in and of itself. And it allowed us to keep more secrets."
Those secrets make for a compelling and fascinating story, but for the filmmakers, the biggest revelation that came from making Murder Among the Mormons is just how personal this story remains for those involved more than 35 years later. "A lot of [the interview subjects] hadn't talked about it or confronted it, or had to relive it, for some time," Hess says. "So I think the emotional aspect of it was still very raw."
Measom, meanwhile, remains gripped by the idea of those who are able to fool people. "I'm fascinated with people who can keep secrets," he says, "like magicians, how they can set up a trick, and how they can just not tell anyone. For Mark, to not be able to tell anybody how he was fooling everyone, must have been extremely difficult for him. And to see all these people who put their faith in him. The millions of dollars that was lost pales in comparison to that."