T.C. ChristensenOctober 2013 • Interview by Candy Eash
T.C. Christensen is a filmmaker best known for his Church history films including Joseph Smith: The Prophet of the Restoration, Gordon B. Hinckley: A Giant Among Men, 17 Miracles, and most recently Ephraim’s Rescue.
What was the first movie you ever watched?
My first memories of watching a movie would probably be home movies my dad shot of us. He had an 8mm camera in the ’50s which was pretty unusual. If he hadn’t done those home movies, I don’t think I would’ve been zinged by the movie bug so early in life.
You started as a camera assistant, which later led into your working as a director of photography. When did you first decide to take the reins of film? And what was it like when you first held the whole of a film on your shoulders?
Actually, I didn’t start as an assistant. I did do a little assisting but I was terrible at it. Even today, I couldn’t do a quarter of what my assistants do to keep everything moving along and working. I wanted to be a director of photography and pretty much just started shooting and trying to get others to hire me as a D.P.
The key to it, I think, is the same lesson Ephraim Hanks teaches: Great things can happen when preparation meets opportunity. Even though I hardly even knew what I was doing, I realized that if I read, practiced, and learned, when I got an opportunity I could hopefully meet or exceed the expectations of those who hired me, and then I’d be able to continue on and move up.
When did you start writing scripts?
Eighth grade, Central Davis Junior High. There were some real great ones in there, I’ll tell ya.
Professionally, during college at BYU and the U of U.
How do you choose which aspects of an individual’s character or events in their life to combine when writing an autobiographical film?
The truth is, even though I have made several films that seem to be based on a person, my films are actually about principles. I decide what lessons or themes that person teaches and try to make the whole film revolve around those principles, not just a biography of that person.
Can you tell us about making Gordon B. Hinckley: A Giant Among Men? How did you become involved in the project?
I was asked by Living Scriptures to make that film. Their two principals are old friends of mine, Jared Brown and Seldon Young. It was a pleasure from start to finish. I am very proud of that film. We all knew Gordon B. Hinckley in his years as the prophet, so I wanted to concentrate more on his youth. In many ways, he was like most boys—a typical little rat child, getting into trouble, causing problems. There were so many great stories about his youth to choose from that I thought all we needed was Janice Kapp Perry’s great song “I’m Trying to Be Like Jesus” to tie the whole thing together.
I think people can take great comfort in learning that our prophets and President Hinckley in particular were not born perfect. They were imperfect people, but they had a goal to become better and worked at it throughout their lives.
Some filmmakers feel that in order to be good and successful at film, they need to expose themselves to films with questionable material. What would be your advice to future LDS filmmakers about remaining faithful to their covenants while still being able to make authentic, honest films?
You have to be careful what you fill up your think tank with. I think it’s like a Sunday School lesson on any subject about choices. You decide now what you will and won’t do. Then, when given the opportunity to do something that crosses the line into the “don’t do”s, the decision is already made and you step away from it.
No matter how much planning and preparation goes into making a film, something always goes wrong. But in trying to solve these issues during filming, the most amazing and miraculous events can occur. Can you share a few of these moments from your own career?
There have been many, many times when we’ll have a problem in filmmaking that at first glance seems to be waxing us—an actor with a conflict who bows out at the last minute, etc. … but then we find someone better suited for the part. That type of thing has happened over and over in every department. There have been times when it’s not been beneficial to the film, but I’d say eighty percent of the time it works out better. Amazing!
In many of your own projects you have decided to use film instead of digital. Will you share your thoughts on the two and why you choose one or the other?
My own projects have tended to be historical in nature. I believe that it’s easier for an audience to accept something shot on film as having happened many years ago. Also, I still prefer the look of film.
You’ve said that Forbidden Games by Rene Clement is one of your top five favorite films. How has it influenced your own films?
I watched this film again a few years ago and I wasn’t as wowed by it. Let’s use a different example: Fiddler on the Roof. The storytelling, music, characters, humor… I have used ideas from that film many times in my work. Love it, love it, love it!
If it wouldn’t be divulging too many of your filmmaking secrets, could you share a specific idea you’ve used from Fiddler?
When Tevye would be thinking things through, the director, Norman Jewison, would shoot him with a wide-angle lens, creating distance between Tevye and the person he was perplexed about. I was struck by that when I saw it and have used that idea a few times in my own work.
Can you share some of your thoughts on the role of humor in film? What are some of your favorite lighthearted moments in your films?
Yeah, I’m big on trying to find humor throughout. My filmmaking idol is Frank Capra. He said, “Humor in all things.” I try hard to instill light moments in each of my films. Most of them are not historical; some are. The way Levi Savage keeps acting like an idiot every time Ann Cooper comes around has no factual basis—I just thought it would be entertaining and make us like Levi more.
A joke we used in Ephraim’s Rescue where Ephraim tells Reddick Allred to rub horse apples on his lips is a joke that Ephraim actually told. I loved that joke because I remember my dad telling that same joke to us when we’d get chapped lips.
You work often with your cousin Ron Tanner, and the next two questions were inspired by his suggestions. First, he asked me to make you give your word on record that you will never make another winter movie again. All joking aside, though, what did you learn about the pioneers while you were filming in the winter?
In many of my films, I have trouble identifying who will be the antagonist—who’s the guy trying to stop our hero from achieving his goal? In 17 Miracles and Ephraim’s Rescue, I realized that for the most part, that part of the mean guy is played by the early winter storms. They cause Levi Savage, Ephraim Hanks, and others to rise above what they thought they could do and to overcome. Because they did, we know that we can also. That’s why we spent so much time filming in the winter on those shows—I knew that would be when the audience would really get engaged and start to feel for the Saints.
But yeah, Bruce Wing (props) asked me after the last grueling winter shoot, “Weren’t there any pioneers in the Bahamas?”
Ron also jokingly asked if the movie would be much different if you limited yourself to only five takes per scene. How do you know you have the right shot for the scene?
Most times, our editor (my son Tanner) will choose the last take we do. That’s no accident. Many times, something just isn’t right with the early takes and I keep trying new things. Many times I’m exploring because I feel like there’s a better way to do what we’re doing but I haven’t thought of it yet.
Example: on Ephraim’s Rescue, we were doing the scene where Daniel Tyler comes to get Thomas Dobson to dig his first grave. I had scripted that he finds Thomas at the campfire with his new, cute girlfriend, Ester Stock. He says, “Thomas, you are wanted,” then holds up the shovel. It didn’t feel right. I kept trying new things and finally hit on the idea of having him just walk to the campfire and say, “Thomas,” and then he holds up the shovel. Thomas gets it, the audience gets it, it’s understated. That took about eight takes to figure out but it was well worth it.
How has the gospel influenced your filmmaking?
I have great parents and was raised in a wonderful home. I feel a responsibility to do good, positive work partially just because I was so blessed (and continue to be) myself.
What qualities do you think a good director has?
The ability to juggle many balls in the air at once.
Casting: my directing idol said eighty percent of directing is casting. It’s a big deal finding the right talent.
Taste: good taste. Having opinions about what is good, what is bad, why, how to fix something that isn’t going right.
How do you choose which films to direct?
At some level, I make films for myself. I feel that if a story is entertaining and touches me, it will touch others. But here’s what I call the five phases of making a film:
- The part where no one will give you money.
- The part where you decide to do it anyway.
- The part where nothing goes the way you had planned it.
- The phase when everybody hates you.
- The part where you want to do it again.
That’s kind of funny but it’s pretty much true.
You’ve worked on a number of films related to Church history. What is it about those stories that keeps bringing you back?
We have such a rich heritage in the Church. I could never run out of great historical ideas. I think I’m especially attracted to Church history stories because I personally find many lessons to be learned from them as well as being inspired by them.
What keeps you excited about making movies and what do you hope your future holds?
Even though I still feel like I’m one of the young guys, just getting going in this business, I look around on each set and realize that I’m now one of the oldest on the set. Even so, I am still excited to get up every morning and get back into this business of making movies—I think mostly because of the lure of creativity and the constantly changing worlds I find myself in.
I also have to give great credit to my wife. She has allowed me the freedom to run off into a very unstable lifestyle and play in the sandbox. Not only that, all I do is make movies. I don’t do anything around the house. She is burdened with all of that too. (I’ve always said that I realize yard work won’t kill you, but why take a chance?)