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 knits 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 acPcent); that's been the most difficult for me."
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