“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.”
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