LDS church members may or may not know the name, but they are likely familiar with the work of talented filmmaker T.C. Christensen. As a cinematographer, director, writer, and producer he has had a hand in many beloved films, including The Testaments of One Fold and One Shepherd, Joseph Smith: The Prophet of the Restoration, The Work and the Glory, Finding Faith in Christ, Forever Strong, Emma Smith: My Story, The Buttercream Gang, The Touch of the Master’s Hand, Mouth of Babes, and many more.
His latest film, 17 Miracles, chronicles the deadly trek of the Willie and Martin handcart company, a group of Mormon pioneers who risked (and gave) their lives for the faith. It opens in select theatres on June 3. T.C and I spoke over the phone for a while, and I can tell you that he is a delight to interact with. Afterwards he was gracious enough to answer a serious of interview questions via voicemail so I could transcribe them. They are found below, in the same conversational manner in which he gave them.
JONATHAN DECKER: Your latest film, 17 Miracles, opens in theatres June 3. What is the premise, and what attracted you to this project?
T.C. CHRISTENSEN: Well, I was actually researching for just a little story that happened during the handcarts, thinking maybe that would make a film. As I got into it, reading journals and learning more about the Willie-Martin handcart trek, I kept coming across stories about families getting into these dire circumstances, and then a miracle would happen, and it would sustain them and help them. Then I’d read about somebody else and it was the same kind of thing, over and over, where these great sustaining miracles were happening, that the Lord would give them, and I thought “There’s my story, I love that!” So I decided to try to write a script and see if I could make it into anything.
Levi Savage, he’s the protagonist of the film, and his story drives the premise. In Andrew Olsen’s book The Price We Paid, there were two sentences that struck me to the core. I’d never heard of this before, but it says that Levi Savage was a member of the Mormon Battalion, and he went up to Eastern San Diego and up the coast to San Francisco, and while he was there with those guys who discovered Sutter’s Fort and gold and all that, he got word: “Hey there’s been some disaster up in the mountains, on the way home we want you guys to check it out.” So he’s part of the Mormon battalion that goes up into the Sierra Mountains and discovers the Donner Party’s remains.
So now I’ve got a protagonist who’s seen what pioneer disaster can be, then years later he was asked to be a sub-captain in the Willie Company, and he’s pulled further and further into the tragic situations (of the early winter and leaving too late). What’s happening, or could happen, is the same thing he saw [before with the Donner Party]. So he becomes the eyes we see [the story] through. Levi Savage was a great journal writer, one of four people who wrote daily journals, and his discovery is that if people have enough faith and are spiritually based and aren’t just out looking for gold or land in California or whatever, then they can persevere and remain Christ-like.
JD- What can you tell us about the research that went into this screenplay? How much of this is taken from true accounts?
TC- I read every book I could find…just tons of journals. I involved several historical advisors, Jolene Allphin…Andrew Olsen was the most prominent one. They’ve both written very successful books. The whole film is true [though] you can’t make a dramatic film based on this without some conjecture, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to have any dialogue or fill in any blanks or anything, so there’s some of that. I wanted to make sure, though, that it is true to these people. I didn’t want to combine characters and be making up a bunch of stuff. I did [one thing] which freed me up. There’ve been other guys who made films that tried to geographically keep track of, documentary style, the Willie-Martin handcart companies… who’s where, who’s at what point, etc…and that’s great, but I don’t care about that. I care about the people, their stories, and the miracles that happened. So what I ended up doing, I combined the Willie and Martin handcart companies and we just show it as if they traveled together. So that freed me up from going “Oh, back at the ranch, meanwhile with the Martin company, this is happening.” None of that. You just meet these people and you just go along with them, and I think it really frees up the film to where you can connect with them on a personal level.
JD- Why should people care enough about the film to see it in theatres, if possible, instead of waiting for the DVD?
TC- Probably the best answer I can give to that…we had a test screening, and of course this is when the film is not mixed, it’s not color-corrected, there’s CG work that needs to be done, but we had about 220 people come to a screening to try and make some determinations. Afterwards, I had one of the best comments. A person told me “I cannot remember ever sitting through a movie and having so much electricity in the audience.” They were all members of the Church, it was our target audience, but he said there was just electricity in the air as everyone was watching these events unfold and these miracles happen. You don’t get that when you’re sitting alone by yourself on your couch eating potato chips while watching the DVD. [Not] the way you do when you go to a theatre with a group of
JD- What would you say was the most taxing part of making this movie? The most enjoyable?
TC- There were two things that were really tough about this. One was the weather. We filmed ten days in the dead of winter, and you know, I’m in a full parka and whatnot, I’m taken care of and I’m cold, but the actors are in their skivvies. They’re in what the hand-carters were in and they’re freezing all day long. They’re not like me where they’re thinking, “Okay, what’s next? Get that person ready, get this shot right.” They’re just out there freezing, bless their hearts, and they stuck with it and did a terrific job.
The second thing that was really taxing was that we had to do a summer unit and a winter unit. Well, in movie-making that’s bad business, because you can imagine, now you’ve got the cost of starting up again, which is one thing, which is bad but…what if something happened? I mean, you’re splitting it up and you’ve got two and a half months between units.