The 17 in the title of “17 Miracles” is just a number. Filmmaker T.C. Christensen, whose new movie about the 19th-century Willie and Martin handcart pioneers opens June 3, said that he thinks the hand of God is in the eye of the beholder. “I could tell you 25 miracles,” Christensen said. “Somebody else might watch the movie and say, ‘I don’t know, maybe I’ll give you two.’ ”
Pondering the nature of miracles — deemed by most people of faith to be instances of divine intervention that favorably affect the course of normal human events — is partly what inspired the film. Christensen, a veteran cinematographer who also holds numerous writing and directing credits, didn’t want to just revisit a famous chapter in the pioneer history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Other people have made films about the handcart companies,” Christensen said. “I’m not so interested in just telling what happened to them.” Actually, he said, “17 Miracles” leaves out numerous details of the historic westward trek led by James G. Willie and Edward Martin. Instead, Christensen, 58, wants viewers to think about the events that saved some members of the companies from disaster.
“I might go, ‘Wow, look at that, that’s a miracle,’ ” Christensen said. “Somebody else might look at the same thing and say, ‘What are you talking about? That’s a coincidence.’ ”
Actor and Saratoga Springs resident Jasen Wade, 37, said that he wondered while making the film whether people always recognize a miracle at the moment that it takes effect. Sometimes, Wade said, “you go through something and you don’t notice the miracle until after it’s happened.”
Wade said he thinks that the people in the handcart companies were probably a lot like people today. “They all had their own kind of faith,” he said. “Some of them probably saw the miracles when they happened. Some probably got to the valley without feeling like they’d seen any.”
Actor Nathan Mitchell, who plays James G. Willie in the movie (and will be familiar to many viewers from his portrayal of LDS Church founder Joseph Smith Jr. in the LDS Church film “Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration”), said that he thinks the film may make people re-evaluate their own experiences. “If we have the eyes to see them,” he said, “there are miracles in our lives.”
Levi Savage and filming on location
In “17 Miracles,” Wade plays historical LDS missionary Levi Savage, whose carefully kept journals were a key component of Christensen’s research. Before serving a proselytizing mission to the Far East, Savage had marched with the Mormon Battalion during the Mexican-American War, which gave him a unique perspective on the potential dangers faced by the handcart pioneers.
At the end of his enlistment, Christensen said, Savage was part of the detachment sent to investigate the disastrous crossing of the Sierra Nevada by the members of the Donner Party just months before. The soldiers, Christensen said, “were sent to discover and dispose of the remains of the party members who didn’t survive.”
In part because of that experience, Savage, who was returning from missionary service when he agreed to assist the Willie and Martin companies, urged the pioneers to wait until spring before pushing on to the Salt Lake Valley. In the film, as in real life, Savage swallows his owns doubts and makes a late summer departure with the company.
After the weather takes a turn for the worse, Christensen said, “with every step he’s getting closer and closer to the same kind of disaster he’s already seen firsthand.”
Wade said that Savage’s hesitation is the part of the character he connected with most strongly during filming. “That was exactly why I wanted to play the role,” he said. Wade, who is LDS, said that at times he’s been spiritually conflicted himself. “I knew where my loyalties were,” he said, “but I also knew where my heart was, and they weren’t the same thing.”
Filming was completed entirely in Utah, with the Sevier River in southern Utah being especially useful as a scenic double for the wide, slow-moving rivers that wend through the Great Plains.
The dramatic shift in weather that befell the companies on Oct. 19, 1856 — Christensen said that the date is recorded in numerous journals, including one that reads “winter came on all at once” — meant that only about two-thirds of the movie shoot could be done in summer before crew and actors had to stop and wait for snow.
“You can create rain, or create snow falling,” Christensen said, “but you can’t create anything with any scope.” The final 10 days of the 28-day shoot were handled in actual foul weather conditions.
Too much apathy about another Mormon movie?
Despite moments of being wet and cold during the winter shoot, the actors didn’t resent suffering for their art. “There were some uncomfortable moments, but I think we’re pretty spoiled as actors,” said Mitchell, 35, who’s a family therapist in Arizona between acting jobs. When confronted with less-than-ideal filming conditions, Mitchell said, he had a ready frame of reference to keep things in perspective.
“Every time I would start to think, ‘Man, this is not very fun at all,’ all I would need to do is think about the actual handcart pioneers,” he said.
Wade, who works as a firefighter for the Bureau of Land Management, said that he actually relished the more physical challenges of making the film. “I love getting down and dirty,” he said. “It helped me forget about the acting part.”
Christensen said it was no small task finding the funds to make “17 Miracles.” Period movies are expensive and don’t always find a ready audience, in Utah or elsewhere. And though Mormon-themed movies were a hot item 10 years ago, the genre has come to be viewed as a financial sinkhole.
The key for Christensen was finding people who believed in the project, and believed in his lengthy resume from 35 years of filmmaking. (Christensen’s body of work received an impressive show of respect from his peers when he was admitted to the American Society of Cinematographers last summer.)
The production costs on “17 Miracles” were “less than $1 million,” Christensen said, “but it looks like it was $50 million.”
Deseret Book film subsidiary Excel Entertainment, which is distributing the film theatrically and on DVD, is hoping that local interest in LDS history will reward the film’s limited release, which might potentially be expanded to such nearby states as Colorado, Washington and Arizona.
“There are a lot of people in Utah who are literal descendants of the people portrayed in this film,” said Excel business operations manager Dave Brown. “That’s the kind of thing they care much more about than the latest film with Angelina Jolie.”
Christensen said he’s aware of the dicey prospects for a locally made Mormon-themed movie, but that he hopes “17 Miracles” will be powerful enough to “make people sit in the dark and care for 100 minutes.”
“If I can do that, then I won’t worry that there have been a lot of flops.”