You've got to like what you’re going to do — you’re going to do it for 50 years. —T.C. Christensen
T.C. Christensen’s career in filmmaking evidently started with his favorite food.
“I was probably sitting on the couch, eating potato chips,” he said with a playful smile, “And in between bites, thought, ‘Hmmm, movies.’”
While many appreciate his genuine sense of humor and easygoing manner, those who know the skilled cinematographer also praise his professionalism and ability to make a compelling movie. It’s what he’s always wanted to do.
“You've got to like what you’re going to do — you’re going to do it for 50 years,” Christensen said.
Starting with a home-movie camera as a young boy, Christensen has spent most of his life producing or assisting in the production of countless movies, short films, commercials, etc., and in the process, received more than 270 national and international awards.
Christensen could opt for Hollywood, yet he remains in Utah making family and LDS Church-themed films. His newest film, “Ephraim’s Rescue,” premieres May 31.
For Christensen, it’s all about telling stories that will make a difference in people’s lives.
“I think story is everything. I would much rather see a very poorly done, cheap little movie that has a good story than some big Hollywood blockbuster with all the bells and whistles but the story doesn’t hold water,” Christensen said. “That’s been my big effort — trying to find stories that are strong and have a meaning so that people come out of the theater with something to chew on and think about, something to talk about with their families.”
The first camera
Christensen grew up in a family of 10 children in Layton, Utah. His uncle had served as a combat cameraman in World War II and this uncle’s family owned a photography business in downtown Salt Lake City. Christensen’s father, a dentist, arranged to do dental work in exchange for items from the store. One day, his father brought home a movie camera, a rare privilege for a family in the 1950s. For Christensen, 5 or 6 at the time, there was something special about that camera. While several of his siblings would grow up to pursue careers in the medical field — including doctors, dentists, nurses and dental assistants — Christensen knew at an early age that he was destined for the film industry.
“It was really a boon for me; I loved seeing that camera. What is he doing? How does it work? It just fascinated me,” Christensen said. “By the time I was in eighth grade, I had said, ‘I’m going to figure out how to get into movies.’”
Stories that matter
With movies on the mind, Christensen steadily pursued his goal. As a young man, he preferred to make comedies, and some of his short films were shown in school assemblies.
As a freshman in high school, he produced a short, heartwarming film called “Count Your Blessings,” which drew an emotional response from his audience.
“It turned heads more. I thought maybe there is something more to these kinds of stories,” Christensen said.
Christensen served an LDS mission in parts of Ohio and West Virginia from 1972-74. He returned home with an increased testimony of the gospel and a solidified desire to make films that inspire, uplift and make a difference in people’s lives. He also realized church history was loaded with remarkable stories.
Christensen remade “Count Your Blessings,” sold numerous copies and won awards at film festivals.
“When you win a few awards, other people start to think he must know what he’s doing,” Christensen said. “I wouldn’t say I’m a great storyteller, I wouldn’t say I’m a great anything, but I think I have a pretty good nose for what a good story is. That was partly developed from being a missionary, sharing the story of the gospel.”
Following his mission, Christensen studied filmmaking at both BYU and the University of Utah.
“It wasn’t like now where everybody has a video camera. You had to have professional equipment, which was expensive, and film, which was expensive, and you had to have an education to know how to do all that stuff,” Christensen said. “I used equipment at both schools to start making movies.”
While attending school, Christensen worked as an intern and part-time cameraman at KSL-TV for about five years. He had several offers to go full time, but always declined.
“That’s not what I wanted to do. I knew that if I got in there full time as a news guy, I would get pulled in that direction,” he said. “It was a great opportunity to shoot a lot of film, try different lighting and editing. I did it until I had enough movie work and things going that I walked away.”
Freelance filmmaking is a competitive business, but Christensen developed a reputation for doing quality work and created a base network of connections. Christensen is grateful to Kieth Merrill, a writer, producer, director and author, for being a mentor and friend who gave him many opportunities over the years.
“He won our hearts forever when he did ‘The Mouths of Babes’ using my cameras, short ends of 16-millimeter film and all my kids,” Merrill said. “We still love that movie.”
Christensen also learned to be selective about which jobs he accepted.
“You are only as good as your last film, and if you do something that’s not very good, people notice and your stock goes down,” Christensen said. “I heard Carol Burnett say she never made a decision based on money. It was always, ‘Is this job good for my career?’ That changes your thinking, and it did mine. Financially, a job may not be that good of a deal, but you think if I can pull this off, somebody is going to see it and it will advance my career. I’ve always tried to stick with that.”
Married and making movies
Christensen was 27 years old when he married his wife, Katy, in 1980. Her unwavering support has been crucial in his career.
“She has been so terrific; so many women wouldn’t have been,” Christensen said. “The hours are weird, the insecurity, no insurance, jobs where I was gone six to eight weeks. Katy has been wonderful and enabled me to go after this.”
With her encouragement, Christensen has directed or helped produce a large collection of films based on events in the scriptures or LDS Church history, including “17 Miracles,” “Emma Smith: My Story,” “Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration,” “The Testaments: Of One Fold and One Shepherd,” “The Work and the Glory,” “Only a Stonecutter” and “Treasure in Heaven: The John Tanner Story,” to name a few.
Merrill said Christensen’s filmmaking abilities go beyond bringing historic events to the screen — he is “a gifted cinematographer and visionary that can see pictures in his head.”
“His great talent is using those powerful images to tell powerful stories,” Merrill said.
A filmmaker should always say his latest film was his best because it shows continued improvement, but in reality, each movie project has meant something special to Christensen. “Joseph Smith” was a consuming, two-year project for the LDS Church that he will not forget. “Treasure in Heaven” was also momentous because it spotlighted the life of his great-great-grandfather, an early convert of the church. The experience was also memorable because Christensen produced the movie with his cousin Ron Tanner.
“It unified the family,” Christensen said. “It made us more proud to be a descendant.”
In addition to working with Ron Tanner, Christensen’s son Tanner and daughter Tess have contributed to movies he has worked on. Tanner has assisted in editing and computer-generated effects on both “17 Miracles" and “Ephraim’s Rescue.” Tess has primarily worked in the makeup department. Jared Hess, known for directing “Napoleon Dynamite” and “Nacho Libre,” has also worked with Christensen over the years.
“Jared started working with us every summer from when he was in junior high,” Christensen said. “We’ve been pals ever since.”
It was never Christensen’s goal to make so many pioneer films — he was just looking for a good story. Their stories contain all the compelling elements, Christensen said, including conflict, a sense of humor, great resolve and a worthwhile lesson.
“They are a type of story that will endure,” Christensen said. “For example, the John Tanner story really isn’t about John Tanner, it’s about a principle he exemplifies. That’s why a film resonates. He did things that I can take and live in my life.”
Staying in Utah
Ron Tanner said his cousin could easily go to Hollywood and be a profitable producer, yet Christensen remains in Utah making wholesome family and LDS-themed films.
“Most people are so money-driven and sucked into the dark side, even if they start off good, noble and pure,” Tanner said. “(T.C.) has been able to keep his boundaries. That takes a commitment. He has the ability to bring moments in church history to life. I think that’s a calling in life.”
While a member of the American Society of Cinematographers, Christensen said he decided early in his career to maintain church standards, and those core values have only enhanced his career opportunities, never hindered them. These values help him find stories with longevity, meaning and heart instead of "fluff."
“Most of us have come out of a big-budget Hollywood film and said, 'What was that?' Who thought that was going to be good? It’s all good production value, effects, look, lighting and wardrobe, but it all comes back to story,” Christensen said. “There have been some great entertainers and filmmakers that have made a great living off fluff; I don’t disparage that. But for me, the church helps you have a clearer vision. I think it’s helped me to find things that have weight.”
Merrill applauds what Christensen has been able to do in Utah.
“He has created a huge success with a very astute sense of the market and creating films that tap into the heart and soul of a pioneer heritage irresistible to the LDS audience,” Merrill said.
The idea for Christensen’s newest film, based on the life of pioneer Ephraim Hanks, started with “17 Miracles.” Two scenes involving Hanks were shot, but Christensen was hesitant to include them because they didn’t do the man justice.
“It was too big and we were making it this little appendage,” Christensen said. “I put it aside to think about later.”
After “17 Miracles,” he researched more on Hanks and concluded he was worthy of his own film.
“He was a stellar pioneer and somebody worth learning about,” Christensen said. “He was ready at a moment’s notice. ... He lived his life in a way that was exemplary. He wasn’t a perfect guy, he had some troubles, personal problems and faults, but he did several things throughout his life that if any of us could encapsulate and use them in our lives, we would be much better people.”
The story follows Hanks’ life from his early years to his Latter-day Saint conversion and on to his role as a rescuer for the starving handcart pioneers in the winter of 1856. The film also follows the life of 18-year-old Thomas Dobson, a member of the Martin Company, who eventually shares a life-changing experience with Hanks.
Christensen said he took some artistic liberties with the film, but what unfolds is pretty much what happened. As he has done in previous movies, Christensen invited many descendants of the original pioneers, including the Hanks family, to be extras in the film.
As with all his pioneer films, Christensen hopes people come away from “Ephraim’s Rescue” with greater appreciation for what the pioneers endured. One scene in the movie depicts the North Platte River crossing of a woman named Elizabeth Bradshaw and her son who both nearly drowned. Christensen said the crossing actually happened during the winter, but they shot the scene in 90-degree summer weather.
“The actors were feeling hypothermia and shaking,” Christensen said. “We just can’t fathom what the real people did in the winter, with 32-degree water and floating ice.”
Making a movie like “Ephraim’s Rescue” can be stressful and challenging, mostly because budgets are tight, but people who work with him say Christensen is able to get the most out of his actors and crew because he is honest, patient and has a sense of humor.
Darin Southam, who plays Hanks, said Christensen does a masterful job keeping track of tiny details that keep an audience engaged in the story. He learned to trust Christensen when shooting a scene that involved a rattlesnake.
James Gaisford, who plays Dobson, appreciates Christensen’s demeanor.
“You don’t doubt for a second that he loves what he does, and that’s so nice,” Gaisford said. “But he will be honest with you when he needs to be — ‘That was awful, James, now let’s do it again.’ He’s awesome.”
Dawn Bollinger, an extra in the film, said there is always a special spirit on the set.
“T.C. and Ron always treat us with kindness and gentleness, a lot of respect,” Bollinger said. “They feel their stories, they have done their research with the characters and the feelings portrayed are authentic. Many times on set we’ve been moved to tears.”
Rick Macy, who has worked extensively with Christensen over the years in various films, said the filmmaker’s work bears testimony of Jesus Christ.
“It’s more than just telling a nice story; it reflects his commitment to the Lord and the gifts that he has,” Macy said of his friend. “He likes to commemorate the Lord in his work through what he does in visual form, like through the life of Ephraim Hanks and lessons that we can learn from the examples of other people. It reflects his own testimony.”
“T.C.’s films deal with ideas and stories that tap into inner feelings and thus the spiritual dimension,” Merrill said. “When the spirit touches your heart in the middle of a movie, as so often happens in a T.C. Christensen film, there is no question hearts are touched, lives are adjusted and they make a difference.”