Prolific Mormon filmmaker T.C. Christensen has an opportunity and a challenge all rolled up in one.
The opportunity is bringing to the big screen the story of the James G. Willie Handcart Company. The challenge is taking such an iconic episode from Mormon pioneer history and giving paying audiences an experience they haven't had before.
The Willie Handcart Company of 500 individuals — and the slightly larger Martin company 13 days behind it ?— encountered relentless winter weather on their trek from Iowa to the Salt Lake Valley. Many died and were hastily buried on the high plains. Mormons today consider these pioneers to be revered progenitors, whether the relationship is by blood or through a cultural adoption.
"Everyone already knows the outcome," Christensen said of the handcart company's 1856 experience on the Mormon Trail. But two years of research has uncovered a collection of experiences from that episode that are not yet part of Mormons' cultural lexicon.
"17 Miracles," the film's working title, is not a documentary but rather an ensemble of stories woven into a feature film, Christensen said Tuesday, Aug. 24, as his cast and crew began to assemble in a secluded spot in Provo where the production's eighth day of shooting was about to begin. True to many T.C. Christensen projects, he not only wrote the script but is also directing and shooting the film. "The story hasn't been told this way. It's more about individual people and the things that happened to them," he said. "It is not end-to-end tragedy."
Christensen builds a leading role around the trail experience of Levi Savage, who had been a member of the Mormon Battalion and was recruited to help lead the handcart company as he was returning from a mission in Asia. Savage's experience and the way he is used in the movie script knit the individual stories together. "The film begins and ends with Levi Savage," Christensen said, adding that he took artistic license with the chronology of some events while preserving the historical accuracy of the individual stories.
"Levi has the image of the Donner Party in his head. He doesn't want the Willie company to go through that," said Ron Tanner, the film's producer.
Jasen Wade plays Levi Savage and recently worked with Christensen in "Treasure in Heaven: The John Tanner Story."
"For me this was one of those 'I have to do this' roles," said Wade, who added that he would be happy crafting his acting career around westerns. "The thing about Levi was his faith, the way he viewed the world. He knew the outcome (the Willie company would face). He knew he could save some of those souls."
Wade said he reads Savage's journals every day. "There is no more wonderful gift for an actor than these journals."
Danish actor Thomas Kofod is probably best known in Mormon culture for his role as Jesus Christ in "The Testaments, One Fold and One Shepherd" produced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
In "17 Miracles," Kofod plays Jens Nielson, a member of the handcart company emigrating from Denmark. "T.C. and I worked together on 'Testaments.' He needed authentic Danish; that's how he thought of me." Kofod said.
Most of Kofod's work in Europe is in musical theater. He described his experience with the current film in between the calls for "quiet" while another scene was being shot on the other side of a clump of trees.
"On stage you have to create your own focus. In film that's all done for you" by the camera, he said. "That makes every little movement critical." Kofod said the biggest challenge for him was speaking English with the Danish accent Christensen wanted. "I worked so hard to dim (the accent); that's been the most difficult for me."
On Tuesday Kofod was filming a scene where his character is gravely ill. A tight camera shot shows only a suffering Jens Nielson inside a handcart, covered by theatrical snow made of rice. Kofod had to return home to Copenhagen the next day; the rest of the film's winter scenes will be shot in November and December in Utah's west desert.
"As we try to look back at historical people, we tend to forget they're just like us. I try not only to play (the part) but to try and be it," he said. "I relate to these early pioneers. Many, many times in my life I have looked at a simple meal or a pair of boots and thought 'Gee, I wish I could go back and give them this one meal or this pair of boots.' I feel the closest connection to them somehow."
Karen Taylor flew in from her home in Las Cruces, N.M., to be an extra in the cast. She is one of many extras who traces her ancestry to a member of the Willie company. Christensen contacted her sometime ago, asking if she would send him the story of her great-grandmother, Elizabeth Painting. Elizabeth had been gathering buffalo chips when conditions in the Willie company were bleak. A man approached her and led her to a cave, where he had a supply of jerked meat. He filled her apron with the meat, and she began working her way back to camp. The man was gone when she turned to thank him.
"I always wondered why that story wasn't told when I would hear stories about the handcart companies," Taylor said. With that story now among the material for Christensen's script, Taylor asked if she could be an extra in the film.
Dianne Enslen and her husband, John, traveled from their home in Wetumpka, Ala., to be extras, along with six of their family members. They are part of the Mormon pioneers' adopted heritage, joining the church in Alabama more than 30 years ago. "The first talk I ever gave in church was on the pioneers."
Tanner is not only producing the film but managing approximately 400 extras.
"President (Gordon B.) Hinckley said something to the effect that we should read these stories to our children and grandchildren. That won't happen unless they're put on film," Tanner said, adding that character depth is one reason "This is not just a handcart film."
Excel Films publicist Lois Blackburn said Excel plans to release the film in theaters next summer with a DVD release to follow.