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.
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