By Jonathan Decker, Clinical Director, LMFT
Note: This interview originally appeared in Meridian Magazine and is written from a Latter-day Saint perspective.
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 theaters 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 like-minded people. I think there’s something to be said for that.
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.
What if an actor got a job on Broadway and they’re gone and they’re not coming back for my little movie? Even worse, what if an accident or death or something happens to an actor? I’ve got no way to deal with that. That was just tough, that was an area you don’t want to be in, but we had to be.
The rewarding part of it was that we were making something that was worthwhile. This is a great story, and everyone kind of rallied and got in there and slugged it out with me. I think when you’re making something that matters it’s way easier.
JD- 17 Miracles seems to be a natural, feature-length extension of what you’ve been doing lately with your short films Only a Stonecutter, A Pioneer Miracle, and Treasure in Heaven. You’ve been shedding light on real stories and real heroes from Church History. Members know plenty of stories about the General Authorities from the early years, but you seem intent on drawing attention to average members who, with great faith and the Lord’s help, did extraordinary things. How did you get on this track?
TC- It’s not so much that I’ve gone out looking for everyman, small-man stories…I just love good stories. That’s probably the main thing. I’ve just happened to find ones about people who were not ecclesiastical leaders or civic leaders..they’re just guys. There is something that appeals to me about that, but predominantly it’s just that…I keep a file of what I think are great stores, so these have all been stories about everymen.
JD- In 17 Miracles you reunited with two actors recognizable from your previous projects: Tomas Koford, who played Jesus Christ in The Testaments of One Fold and One Shepherd and Finding Faith in Christ, as well as Nathan Mitchell, who portrayed Joseph Smith in Joseph Smith: The Prophet of the Restoration, Emma Smith: My Story, Praise to the Man, and The Restoration. What can you tell us about these actors on a personal level, and what can we expect from their characters in your new film?
TC- Both of these guys, Tomas Koford and Nathan Mitchell are terrific individual people. They’re good to be around. I needed a Danish man to play Jens Nielsen…well, who am I going to get in Utah to do a convincing Danish accent, who’s [also] a good actor? Really, I looked around, I couldn’t find anybody, I couldn’t think of anybody. It was expensive to get Tomas over here from Copenhagen but he does such a great job and brings so much to it…there was nothing else to do. And then, with Nathan Mitchell I’ve worked on most everything he’s done, and I’ve always thought that, forget the fact that he does a great Joseph, he’s great as an actor. He’s a great actor. He’s has great sensibilities and sensitivities and emotion, and I’ve always been looking for something else I can have him do. He was glad to get to do something else and he does a terrific James G. Willie.
JD- Speaking of The Testaments, I understand Keith Merrill directed that one, but you were the cinematographer on it, and my goodness, that’s a gorgeous-looking film! Every time I watch it I’m impressed with its beauty, and I think it accentuates the beauty of the message. What are some of your best memories of working on that film? Did it draw you closer to the Lord, to be “on the scene” as it were?
TC- Well, we were filming on the Bountiful set, on the temple set in Kaua’i, so it’s part of the sequence when the Savior is there, He’s returned in all his glory. So we have a lot of extras there too, the local Hawaiian people [portraying Lamanites] that are worshipping him and so forth. Well, in between shots I was walking from one place to another…I don’t know what I was doing, I was probably eating, which is what I spend most of my time doing [laughs], but as I was walking back toward the camera position I heard a noise. It struck me, because you get used to certain noises on a movie set, you don’t even hear them…hammer pounding, a car starting and taking off, the crew shouting and Motorola radios going off…but this was a sound that I was not used to hearing, and I couldn’t tell what it was or where I was coming from exactly, but I was attracted to it.
I moved around a group of people, trying to see where this was coming from, and as I did I saw that Thomas Koford (who plays the Savior), in between setups, had sat down on a fake rock, and spontaneously all these little children, who are not actors, they’re just little kids from the local wards on Kaua’i, they had gathered around him. One was sitting on one knee and one on another and one slung over his back. I don’t know… there must have been 25 children just all circled around him, squeezing in as close as they could get, and they had spontaneously begun to sing primary songs to him. And I know as well as anybody that it’s a movie set, but I took a moment and I stood there and listened to them sing. I watched that and thought “Boy, that’s the way it would’ve been, with the Savior in their midst, that those kids were so drawn to him, and sat as close as they could to him, and worshipped him and sang to him and praised him.”
JD- You worked with Gary Cook on Joseph Smith: The Prophet of the Restoration and Emma Smith: My Story. What can you tell us about that collaboration Are you usually so focused on getting the job done that you detach, or are there times that shooting a scene affects you, spiritually and emotionally? I ask because every time Nathan Mitchell, as Joseph Smith, stands in chains to silence the guards at the jail, I get chills and I have to imagine that filming scenes like that leaves an impression on cast and crew.
TC- Gary and I co-directed and he’s a great friend. There’s lot of yin and yang and people go “How can you have two people co-direct?” Maybe it isn’t always the best way to go about it, but he and I …sometimes we think about things the same and sometimes we think about them totally different, but we get in there and slug it out and find a way that makes us both happy. That was really a terrific experience, the two years I spent doing that project.
You’re right, Joseph Smith in chains, when we were filming that, we started out with Nathan playing it a little calmer and a little more restrained. Then we kind of took the shackles off of him, so to speak, and said “You know what? Really go for it this time!” I thought it was electric, it was just so powerful. The actors playing off of him didn’t even have to act, they could just react to the strength and the spirit that he portrayed in that scene.
Knowing that it was real, that that really happened, that men sitting there with guns and power and control, because of what the prophet was saying to them, quivered and withdrew…it was really powerful.
JD- What’s your take on the new edit of that movie, recently released by the Church online?
TC- My take on the new edit of the Joseph movie is that I hope that it accomplishes just what they wanted. They’re trying to make it a little more non-member friendly and explain a little more than the first film did for non-members, and I think that’s great. I hope it works and it does what they want it to do.
JD- The Touch of the Master’s Hand and The Buttercream Gang are two classics that you worked on back in the day. You seem intent on doing “message movies.” Why is that?
TC- It’s kind of what I mentioned earlier, in that I want to be involved in projects that last. I spent a lot of years doing a lot of TV commercials, and it was a great period in my life in a lot of ways, but you know what? After a few months or even weeks or even immediately…who cares? But you make a good film with a good message, and we don’t know how long it will continue in the public psyche and how long people will refer to it and be touched by it. I just find that to be more rewarding.
JD- Your film Gordon B. Hinkley, A Giant Among Men, brought tears to my eyes. President Hinckley was the prophet of my adolescence and my missionary service. This movie was a perfect tribute to the man and to the many righteous people (mostly women) who helped shape him. How involved was the Hinckley family in collaborating or consulting for that project? What can you tell us about working with the actors?
TC- The Hinckley family was not involved in that film. It came at a time when… I don’t know, they were just too busy…I really can’t speak for them. I got the stories and information from research, [from] the book that Sheri Dew had written [and] a lot of conference talks. We started out with a lot more stories and pared them down before we shot, and I felt that we came up with a lot of great insights on President Hinckley’s youth. There were other, terrific films that centered on his apostolic and First Presidency roles, so I was more interested in what got him there.
I found that choosing this family of young actors, the Stinger family…we were able to use several of their children in these roles, and it was terrific because we’d have one kid who was five be President Hinckley and when he was three years older, we’d tell another story and use his older brother who was eight. So it looked like we’d aged the kid but it was really because of the Stinger family that we were able to pull that off.
We invited quite a few of the Hinckley family to the premiere at the Legacy Theater and quite a few of them came and had great reactions. Several spoke to me afterwards and were pleased with the portrayals, especially of their mother because Marjorie was one that had not been dealt with as much in the media, especially in terms of acting and having someone act [her] part. I’ve come across some [of the Hinckley] family in meetings and so forth later, and they’re very positive. I’m happy with their reactions to the film.
JD- Finally, The Mouth of Babes, which you produced and directed, is a Sunday favorite in my household. My wife and I teach Sunday School to 12 year olds; we showed it to them once, and now almost every week they ask if we brought it or if they can borrow the DVD to show their families. Any plans for a modern update? If not, would you mind seeing someone else have a go? Can you tell us what any of those kids are up to now?
TC- I really don’t plan to do another modern update on it. Actually, there have been a couple of others that have done it. I just feel like “been there done that” and I don’t think I could do any better than I did then. I’d rather take my time to do something fresh that I’m more interested in.
You ask about the kids and what they do now. Dagan Merrill, Kieth Merrill’s son, is one of the boys in the film, he’s a filmmaker. Another kid, Greg, he’s a relative of mine, he’s a very successful hobby writer and advertiser in Dallas. There is a website that tracks what happened to those kids, and people write and they talk about it. See, it’s rewarding! I made that right out of college. I had almost no money, I was taking whatever dimes I had at the end of the week to make it, and people still enjoy it and talk about it. I like that.
JD- Any final thoughts on 17 Miracles that you’d like to share?
TC- I think [a movie like this] is only really going to be terrific if it relates to our day. There are so many things about 17 Miracles that, even though it happens in 1856, I think somebody can look at it and go “well maybe in my life [I can apply that].” What makes this story so powerful is that these are real people, these are their life experiences, and they persevered, they overcame, and so can we. There are parts of this film, when you see it, even if you hate the film Jonathan, whatever, you’ve got to relate. You see some of these stories and you think “They must have made that up!” And we didn’t! There are pieces of the story that still amaze me. I could not think up the arcs and the way some of the characters end up from where they began. That’s good stuff. I’m no great writer …if I have a talent it’s that I recognize a good story, and that’s what this was. There’s several of these characters that still, when you get to the end and see how their story finishes, it’s like: “Man! Hollywood never could have thought of this, it’s too good.”
Well, I hope that’ll do ya. We’ll talk more, I appreciate you hooking up with me. I always enjoy your critiques and you’ve always been good to me. Tomorrow’s my big day, I wish you were coming up to see it, but we’ll keep talking Jonathan, and I look forward to meeting you someday. Take care.
JD: Based on your past work, T.C, I’m sure I won’t hate it, though I’ll be sure to be fair and unbiased in my upcoming review. Best of luck in your future projects.
Jonathan Decker is the clinical director of Your Family Expert. He is a licensed marriage and family therapist, husband, and father of five. Jonathan earned a masters degree in family therapy from Auburn University as well as a bachelor's degree in clinical psychology from Brigham Young University. He is an actor, author, and television personality.