T.C. Christensen is a fan of the International House of Pancakes. That quickly became clear when we had lunch in St. George several months ago. Though we’d visited over the phone and I’d interviewed him when 17 Miracles came out, we’d never actually met face-to-face. I live in the area and suggested several delicious restaurant options that were unique to the city. He patiently listened to my exotic choices and then offered: “How about IHOP? My sweet wife doesn’t care for it, so whenever we’re apart I have to get my fix.” It was said with a tone that conveyed no bitterness, only thoughtfulness towards his partner.
As we sampled a variety of syrups, his manner was jovial and relaxed, but his passion for his latest project, Ephraim’s Rescue, was obvious. He was equally eager, however, to talk about my family, his family, Church history, my book, and cinema. Though I’d invited him to lunch, he insisted on picking up the check. It was genuine kindness, not ploy to gain a positive movie review, as he’s always encouraged me to be brutally honest. However, I’ve been a fan of his work since long before we had any contact and there’s not much brutal to be said. When I dropped him off, he took my hand and said “Well Jonathan, now we’re friends for real.” I suppose that a shared affinity for flapjacks, movies, and the Gospel bonded us quickly.
This weekend sees the release of Ephraim’s Rescue in theaters in several states (find theaters here). The film tells the story real-life hero Ephraim Hanks, who dropped everything to follow the prophet’s plea for rescuers to relieve the Willie and Martin handcart companies. The film is marvelous and every bit as inspirational as 17 Miracles. At that memorable lunch, T.C. gave me the inside scoop on his new film and the spiritual preparation of Ephraim Hanks.
JONATHAN DECKER: What is the relationship between Ephraim’s Rescue and 17 Miracles? Is this a sequel?
T.C. CHRISTENSEN: Not really. I call them intersecting films. They have a relationship but it’s not like Ephraim begins where Miracles left off. What this film does more than the other is give a bit more insight into what was going on in Salt Lake, the urgency with which Brother Brigham asked for volunteers to save the handcart people who were dying, and what it was like for rescuers to brave the elements out of love for their fellow man.
JD: Tell us about Ephraim Hanks. Why does he merit his own movie?
TC: I find Ephraim’s story to be as compelling as any in church history, but a lot of people don’t know about it. I wanted his story to be told. He had a tremendous gift of healing, a gift which he developed through humility and obedience, though he’d be the first to admit his imperfections. I thought it was such an inspiring tale that has meaning for us today: Ephraim Hanks lived his life to be prepared to go to the rescue of others at a moment’s notice. The Lord could count on him, in large part because Ephraim had prepared himself. He leaves us several lessons from his life, but beyond that he’s just plain entertaining and funny!
JD: For years people have said that Mormon cinema is dead. They say that an over-saturated market and too many low-quality films killed it. Yet 17 Miracles was a hit and there’s a lot of excitement for Ephraim’s Rescue. Why do you think this is?
TC: You’re very kind. All I know is that we try to make the best film we can and just hope LDS audiences will enjoy it and find lessons to learn from it.
JD: You’re an artist and a man of faith. You’re talented enough to make it in Hollywood; why do you do this instead?
TC: Hmmm…I’m not sure about either of those labels (laughs). I will say that I see some parallels in my life to the life of Ephraim. As I look back I see preparation, being guided and pushed in certain directions, even though my first impulse would have been to go another way. Like Eph, I’ve tried to figure out what this life is all about and move in that direction.
JD: Regardless of good intentions, it takes money to make a movie. As an independent filmmaker, how did you secure funds for Ephraim’s Rescue? Was it easier after the success of 17 Miracles?
TC: I had made many short films that were, on some level, successful creatively and financially. Then Ron Tanner and I made two more short films (Only a Stonecutter and Treasure in Heaven . They did well also, so we had a track record of making films that returned their investment. That makes it much easier to knock on that big mean door and ask those ugly, scary people for money. The success of 17 Miracles made Ephraim’s Rescue even easier to fund.
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<hr class=’system-pagebreak’ />0001pt; line-height: normal;”>JD: 17 Miracles was much-beloved, but some critics wondered if all those incredible stories could actually be true. You later released a book, More Than Miracles, detailing the real-life sources of the stories featured in the film. How would you pre-emptively address the critics who might surface to claim Ephraim’s Rescue takes historical license?
TC: With any of these pioneer films, I have never claimed to be making documentaries. I have claimed that the key story points and miracles are true. Those things all come from journals, eyewitness accounts, family histories, and other sources. That being said, I openly admit…I have to write dialogue and find ways to tell history more as a story than just as a series of incidents. My goal is that even what I make up and write be true to the actual people and what we know about their personalities, goals, and desires.
JD: So you’ve got an entire feature film about Ephraim Hanks, with all of the spiritual, historical, and financial responsibility that comes with it, and you put your trust in a largely unknown actor to carry the lead role. What did you see in Darin Southam that suggested he was the man for the job?
TC: We put Darin through the wringer. He came in for several call backs. We tested his photo and his auditions with many people. When it came right down to it, I felt like he had the commitment, the looks, and the acting chops to pull it off. Besides that, he is a good person with a good heart which means a lot to me.
JD: You’ve had a hand in many well-known and cherished movies. Is there anything in your filmography that you wish had found a larger audience?
TC: Hey, I am just thankful that people have found my films as well as they have. We haven’t had the money to give a good marketing push to any of them so we mostly depend on word of mouth. Almost all of the films I have produced are still being sold so we’re not dead yet! Hopefully they will continue to find their way into eyeballs for a few years longer.
JD: What are some of your favorite films?
TC: Fiddler on the Roof. What’s up Doc? It’s a Wonderful Life. Ben Hur. I may have said You’ve Got Mail, but my wife has made me watch it with her so many times it’s gone down a notch!
JD: What’s on the horizon for you? Any projects in the works or things you’d like to do?
TC: As we wrap up production and promotion on Ephraim’s Rescue, I am starting to write a new film. I don’t have all of the legalities taken care of yet so I don’t want to say much, but I will confess [that] it’s not a pioneer film. Yikes! That’s a big departure for me!
T.C. invited me to an early screening of Ephraim’s Rescue in St. George last week. I told him I’d be coming and bringing 50 friends with me. “That’s terrific!” he exclaimed, then without missing a beat he dryly added: “Do you even have 50 friends?” After the show T.C. sat outside, greeting with a smile moviegoers who were still wiping their eyes. He signed posters, shook hands, and visited at length with anyone who wanted to talk with him. It became clear to me that his love for others drives his work. The movies he makes, the stories he tells, it’s all for them and for the Lord. There is no self-aggrandizement, just humility and good humor.
After the show I ran into Jasen Wade, star of 17 Miracles and a guest of honor (along with his wife) at the St. George screening. “Jonathan, use your influence to get T.C. to put me in his next movie,” he joked. “Whatever influence you think I have,” I replied, “yours is much greater. You made a movie with the man. I’ve only had lunch with him at IHOP.” Jasen laughed. “IHOP? Oh man, T.C. loves that place!”
EPHRAIM’S RESCUE IS NOW PLAYING. FOR MORE INFORMATION, AS WELL AS TO FIND A THEATER IT’S PLAYING AT OR REQUEST A SCREENING NEAR YOU, VISIT WWW.EPHRAIMSRESCUE.COM
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