Set to premiere Thanksgiving night, BYUtv's new holiday film, Winter Thaw, stars John Rhys-Davies, best known for his roles as Gimli from Lord of the Rings and Sallah from Indiana Jones.
While this one-hour film captures a heartwarming story of redemption and reconciliation enhanced by striking cinematography and remarkable acting, some of the most beautiful aspects of the film all happened behind the camera.
Based on Leo Tolstoy's classic short story "Where Love Is, There God Is Also," Winter Thaw follows the story of Martin Avdyeitch, a struggling cobbler embittered by the death of his wife and the estrangement of his son. Haunted by past memories, Martin has given up on God and his faith—until his dead wife appears to him one night, telling Martin God will soon visit him.
"The message [of the film] is it is never too late," John Rhys-Davies shares. "Traditionally Christmas is the end of the year and a time at which we look back on the things we did and the things we didn’t do and analyze our achievements and deficits, and that can be a moment for some of us of great self-analysis. But the moral of the story is this: that love redeems us."
"It's a very fitting movie for Christmas time because of the message of Christ, there is hope. The story of Martin is one of a man who is at the end of his life who has lost hope," says Russ Kendall, the film's producer and co-writer. "He realizes it's not too late; it's not too late to change; it's not too late to reconcile with his son; it's not too late to reconcile with God."
Part of the power of the film stems from the resurgence of faith and renewal of hope many of those involved in the filming experienced as they created the project.
"Four to six months before the shoot started, I personally was very ill," director Adam Thomas Anderegg shares. "I was faced with my own mortality, and this project pulled me off my hospital bed and back into the working world. The whole thing was a blessing. . . . I'm a middle-aged father of four teenage boys, and for me, [this film] was some mark to leave on the planet that was worth living for."
Adam Thomas Anderegg (left) and Russ Kendall (Right) on set. Image courtesy of BYUtv.
While helping to write the script and capture Tolstoy's view of "life and the challenges and the frailties of the human journey," Kendall pulled from his own personal experience to add authenticity to the script.
"About two years ago, we lost our teenage daughter," Kendall shares. "And it causes you to evaluate yourself . . . It can really shake your foundation. I felt in writing this I brought that experience [and] the viewpoint of looking at our relationships. Are they where we want them to be?"
Whether we are distanced from loved ones or God, Winter Thaw teaches "we can overcome those distances. It's not too late," says Kendall.
Rhys-Davis notes the uncommonly joyous feeling that pervaded the shoot. "It's not always the case for a project that is so ostensibly virtuous to actually have such marvelous good will. . . . There is a sense of love and redemption in the show, and it created us as much as we created it."
Filmed in Lithuania, Winter Thaw has an authentic ambiance that hearkens back to its setting in Russia in the 1800s. "We found the architecture there and the textures and the antiquity that you find there make you step back in time," Kendall shares.
Along with a beautiful setting, the script evokes "heart on every page, and you just feel that humanity," Anderegg says.
"I just love characters and scripts that are not just surface and the now," Rhys-Davies says. "At our best we are moral, thinking animals, and that is part of our divine. It's not often you get the chance to show it. . . . We all put in our widow's mite [in this film], and what we got out was a rather beautiful gold coin."