'Work' in progress Movie version of popular pioneer page-turners now rolling
01, 2004 |
THE DAILY HERALD
On Oct. 1, filmmakers Russ Holt and Scott Swofford and Utah automotive mogul Larry H. Miller sat down at a news conference to announce a $7.4
adaptation of "Pillar of Light," the first of Gerald Lund's best-selling historical novels depicting events in the early history of the Church
Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
A little more than six months later, on April 13, principal photography on the first film in what producers hope will become a multi-picture
kicked off at a ranch 30 miles outside of Knoxville, Tenn.
That's big news in Utah Valley, where interest in Lund's epic-length "The Work and the Glory" series remains intense despite the nearly six-year
interval since the publication of its concluding volume, "All is Well."
The Orem Public Library, for example, currently has 58 copies of the nine "Work and the Glory" books in its collection, which have circulated,
total, slightly more than 4,200 times. As of April 23, eight of the library's 11 copies of "Pillar of Light" were checked out.
That would suggest that the series, which boasts worldwide sales of more than 2 million copies, is still attracting new fans. Fans like Holt,
"Pillar of Light" with his family in the fall of 2002.
"I saw the impact that it had on our teenage children, especially on our boys," Holt said in a telephone interview from the set of the movie. "I
that the story had enormous potential as a feature film."
Holt, who adapted "Pillar of Light" for the screen and is also directing the new film, may not be recognizable by name to "Work and the Glory"
but odds are that most of them have seen his work. He previously directed the LDS Church-produced films "How Rare a Possession: The Book of
and "The Lamb of God" (initially created as an LDS seminary video titled "To This End Was I Born").
"The Lamb of God," coincidentally, was written by Lund, then serving as a media production supervisor in the LDS Church Education System. Hence,
author and filmmaker had already been acquainted for a number of years when Holt and Swofford approached Lund about acquiring the "Work and the
Lund, who visited the Tennessee set prior to the start of filming, guessed that he had been pitched on "Work and the Glory" movie projects "
10 different times" prior to his meeting with Holt and Swofford. Having committed a decade of his life to writing the series, Lund was
wait for the right movie proposal.
"Once you sell a book in Hollywood," Lund said, "it's called 'the property.' I didn't want somebody to say, 'You've sold us this, thank you very
"I wanted the story told right."
Like many of his contemporaries -- "Harry Potter" author J.K. Rowling springs to mind -- Lund wanted to retain a degree of control over the
project. An important factor in his decision to work with Holt and Swofford, Lund said, was an upfront agreement that he would have final say
regarding the content of their screenplay.
Which is not to imply that Lund, currently an LDS general authority serving in the presidency of the church's Europe West Area, will be directly
involved in production. Having approved the script, he's content to leave the rest to the filmmakers.
Lund's desire of getting things right is shared by Holt, who said he is very aware of the enormous popularity of the "Work and the Glory" books
committed to creating a movie that will meet devoted readers' expectations. The $7.4 million production budget -- the largest yet lavished on
-targeted feature -- has given him considerable creative freedom.
Tennessee was chosen for the filming of scenes that take place in Palmyra, N.Y. "It actually looks more like New York of the early 19th century
New York does," Holt said, adding that the filmmakers are taking great care to create a sense of historical authenticity.
To that end, a number of elaborate sets have been constructed, including replicas of Palmyra's Main and Canal streets. Crews have even mocked up
section of New York's famous Erie Canal -- Palmyra was an important hub -- complete with two horse-drawn canal boats.
Another benefit of the larger-than-usual budget was that it enabled the filmmakers to hire what is described in an April 7 news release as "the
experienced and professional cast ever assembled for this market." Auditions in Los Angeles, Atlanta and Salt Lake City, among other locales,
a roster of both experienced actors and intriguing newcomers.
Though not the film's main character, LDS Church founder Joseph Smith is an important figure in the story. Smith will be played in the movie by
Canadian-born actor Jonathan Scarfe, who, between this role and his appearance as Jesus in the made-for-TV movie "Judas" that aired on ABC
this year, could be said to have stumbled into a rather unique rut.
"It sort of freaks me out," said Scarfe, who added that he's most accustomed to finding himself cast as greedy lawyers, nasty WASP yuppies and
nefarious types. "My wife just laughs. She says that I should take it as a compliment."
Scarfe has a long list of television and film credits, as does fellow Canadian Eric Johnson, who will play Joshua Steed, the wayward son of the
fictional frontier family who are Lund's main characters.
Prior to joining the production, Johnson had no knowledge of Lund's bestsellers, but said he plans to read at least the first volume soon: "It's
of a pet peeve of mine, actors who do movies, who haven't read the books."
Whereas Johnson and Scarfe are seasoned actors, two other performers selected for key roles are, in terms of their professional resumes, just
their feet wet.
Alexander Carroll read for the role of Joshua initially but wound up cast as Joshua's brother, Nathan, the story's principal protagonist. Having
appeared only in a handful of TV commercials and one TV pilot, Carroll is so new to the business that Nathan is his first film role.
Carroll became interested in acting a few months prior to graduating from Michigan's Albion College with a degree in chemistry. "I said, 'Mom,
think I want to move to L.A. and become an actor,' " Carroll recalled. "My original plan was to work for about a year and save money." Then,
after arriving in Hollywood, "by coincidence I met this agent and he agreed to represent me."
Holt, who said Carroll was chosen from among dozens of potential candidates, is undeterred by the young actor's lack of experience. Carroll, he
"has that unique combination of quiet strength and frontier vigor that we wanted in Nathan."
Tiffany Dupont was picked to play Lydia McBride, a woman who first pursues a relationship with Joshua, but later finds herself increasingly
Nathan. Dupont, who has already done Johnson one better by actually reading "Pillar of Light" -- "I read the book on my own," she said, "they
ask us to do that" -- has a couple of series television guest appearances and one small feature film role under her belt.
One thing that Scarfe, Johnson, Carroll and Dupont have in common is that none of them is LDS. That's to be expected when casting outside of
course, but Holt said additionally that one goal of the production was to use actors who wouldn't be immediately recognizable to avid followers
Utah's thriving Mormon cinema subculture.
That doesn't mean there are no LDS actors involved. "We tried to cast as many good LDS actors as we could who haven't been overexposed in this
market," Holt said.
An actor from BYU-Idaho will portray Hyrum Smith, and two LDS actors with strong Utah County ties also have roles: Sara Darling has been cast as
Smith and John Woodhouse was chosen for the role of Will Murdock, one of the story's principal anti-Joseph Smith antagonists.
With second-unit filming already wrapped, and principal photography expected to be completed before June, everything is currently in line with
filmmakers' goal of a pre-Christmas 2004 theatrical release.
Excel Entertainment, which has released a number of LDS-targeted films including "God's Army," "Brigham City," "Pride and Prejudice" and the
forthcoming "Saints and Soldiers," will handle distribution duties.
Holt listed the jobs that will remain once filming wraps: post-production, editing, scoring, sound-mixing and special effects. "We'll be doing
that until late October, I'm sure," he said. Then test screenings, a final edit, a wing, a prayer and -- voil & aacute;! -- tickets available at
theater near you.
That, of course, is only the first film. There are, don't forget, nine books in the series. Both Holt and Lund are optimistic that additional
will follow. But all concerned are relying on the first film to reap the financial rewards that will, at least in part, cover the cost of future
"We would like to do sequel films that condense some of the later volumes in the series. We plan on doing two or three films in addition to this
Holt affirmed, "if public response warrants it."
That, no doubt, is what fans of the series want to hear. They'll also be happy to know that at least one important critic is quite pleased with
he's seen so far.
Lund said his visit to the set entirely confirmed his confidence in Holt and Swofford. "My first reaction was, 'Yes, this is what I was hoping