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LAYTON - Even though school’s out for the summer, movie magic was in session at one local elementary.
Director T.C. Christensen was filming scenes for his upcoming movie, currently titled “Cokeville Miracle,” at E.M. Whitesides Elementary in Layton last week. The movie, which is expected to be released sometime in 2015, is based on the 1986 Cokeville Elementary School hostage crisis in Wyoming.
“A relative of mine came to the premiere of one of my movies several years ago and said ‘Have I got a story for you,’” said Christensen. “Finally I went up to Cokeville, started interviewing survivors and townspeople, and just got more and more hooked.”
David Young, a former police officer in Cokeville, entered the school the afternoon of May 16, 1986 with his wife Doris and a large bomb. They took 136 children and 18 adults hostage for over two hours, at which point Doris prematurely detonated the bomb. David then shot both himself and his wife, making the two the only deaths connected to the incident. Though 79 of the hostages were burned, they all survived.
The shooting location was an important part of the story, since the classroom used for filming needed to match the original Cokeville classroom in several key ways. The most important was that the windows in the classroom needed to open, since several of the original hostages escaped through the windows.
‘We looked and looked,” said Christensen, citing double doors and the location of a bathroom as also being important to the script. “Then I thought, ‘Hey, my old elementary school might work.”
Though Christensen has recently been best known for his pioneer movies, including “17 Miracles” and “Ephraim’s Rescue,” he said the transition to a relatively modern era was no problem. The story, however, did provide its own challenges.
“In my pioneer movies, my antagonist is the weather or the time of year,” said Christensen. “This one, though, has a real antagonist, and he’s a crazy, mean guy. One of the lines I’ve been trying to walk is that this could easily be an R rated movie. We need to really watch that and give him the feeling of being a bad guy without really showing it.”
Nathan Stevens, who appeared in “Punch-Drunk Love” and plays David Young in “Cokeville Miracle,” said that capturing that balance was odd for him as well.
“I like kids, so it’s a little strange making them cry instead of making them have a good day,” he said.
`The kids themselves, both those playing named characters and the ones brought on as extras, seemed to be in good spirits. Groups were brought in at key moments to fill out classroom scenes, and cast members ran through scenes multiple times guided by suggestions from Christensen.
“It’s fun to be in this movie,” said Kimball Stinger, who has been in movies such as “17 Miracles” and “Christmas Oranges.” Here, he plays a hostage named Jason Hartley.
“They don’t tell you what to do and just leave you there,” he continued. “They give you instructions on how to do it.”
Those instructions become just one part of the blur of activity on set, from Prop Master Bruce Wing adjusting the reading books in the students’ hands to Production Sound Mixer Steve Laneri identifying different sources of background noise and eliminating them.
“It doesn’t matter what aspect it is Р it’s like a Swiss watch with all these moving parts,” said Ron Hartley, the lead investigator on the case and the father of four children involved in the crisis. He, like other survivors, was on set for the filming.
“When we go to a movie, we just see the face of the watch,” he continued. “We have no idea what’s behind it.”