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'Dawn' recalls Sept. 11 killings -- but in 1857 Utah

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Cain conversation: Religious fanaticism leading to a Sept. 11 massacre sounds very contemporary, but "September Dawn" is actually about events that happened in 1857.

What the movie from director Christopher Cain revolves around isn't the 9/11 tragedy that redefined our world in 2001, but one that took place in Utah on the very same date in 1857 and is known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Some 120 men, women and children traveling through Utah to reach California at the time were slaughtered by Mormons living in the area who feared the settlers had been sent to invade their territory by James Buchanan, the 15th president of the United States (1857-61).

The families on the ill-fated wagon train were mistakenly thought to be part of a Buchanan plan to oust Mormon leader Brigham Young as the state's territorial governor. When the settlers arrived, Young had already declared martial law in his territory and his followers were primed to fight any invaders.

The massacre was carried out by a group of Mormons, many of whom were disguised as Paiute Indians, who had just helped them launch a raid against the settlers in which many Indians were killed. Only the lives of 17 babies on the wagon train were ultimately spared. The film reflects the controversial point of view held by hundreds of direct descendants of the slaughtered settlers that Young, himself, had complicity in the massacre, a charge that the Mormon Church denies.

It's against this massacre that Cain ("Young Guns") sets an emotionally charged Romeo and Juliet relationship love story in which the oldest son of the local Mormon bishop falls in love with the wagon train minister's daughter. Opening nationally June 22 in about 800 theaters via Cain's Black Diamond Pictures, "Dawn's" screenplay is by Carole Whang Schutter and Cain. Produced by Scott Duthie, Cain and Kevin Matossian, it was executive produced by Michael Feinberg, Patrick Imeson and Wendy Hill-Tout.

Starring in "Dawn" are Jon Voight as the Mormon bishop, Trent Ford as his eldest son, Tamara Hope as the minister's daughter, Terence Stamp as Young and Jon Gries as the Mormon deacon who first meets the settlers and refuses their request to rest on their way to California. Others in the cast include Taylor Handley, Huntley Ritter, Krisinda Cain, Shaun Johnston, Lolita Davidovich and Dean Cain.

Voight's bishop, the film's villain, intervenes at first to let the settlers remain for two weeks, but then orchestrates their slaughter under a flag of truce that leads them into a deadly ambush. Seeing "Dawn" makes you realize how little things have changed over the past 150 years in terms of religious fanaticism driving political events and leading to the taking of innocent lives. With that in mind, I was glad to have the opportunity recently to talk about the making of "Dawn" with Christopher Cain.

It's a film he cared passionately about making, actually coming out of his comfortable retirement in Aspen to do so. Cain's best known for his classic 1988 western action drama "Young Guns," a biker movie on horses about Billy the Kid and five other Old West young punks. Among its stars were Emilio Estevez, Kiefer Sutherland, Lou Diamond Philips, Charlie Sheen, Terence Stamp and Jack Palance. Produced by Cain and Joe Roth, "Guns" was a Morgan Creek production released through 20th Century Fox. The film opened to $7 million and wound up grossing nearly $46 million domestically, a healthy cume in its day, and spawned a sequel (which was not directed by Cain). Among Cain's other films are the 1984 drama "The Stone Boy," starring Robert Duvall and Glenn Close, and the 1994 action comedy sequel "The Next Karate Kid," in which he cast Hilary Swank in her second feature (after her feature debut in the 1992 horror comedy "Buffy the Vampire Slayer").

"You don't often get to make a movie of substance," Cain told me when I asked why he chose to return to directing to make "Dawn." "It's rare when you get a movie that has some relativity to the world we're in today. This came along and I tried pretty hard to stay away from it. But (when) I started doing some research and (began) understanding the subject matter a little bit I just found such a close parallel to what we are dealing with on a global basis today in that story that took place 150 years ago inside our own country.

"It's easy to dismiss it as those nut cases over there, meaning on the other side of the ocean. But if you examine this little microcosm of this movie that we did, this exact same kind of behavior took place within our own country 150 years ago in the heartland of America (with) somebody interpreting the will of God to their own end."

Clearly, we haven't come very far in 150 years. "Well, we haven't, you know," he agreed. "Somebody once said that history tends to repeat itself and that may have something to do with the ignorance of man never learning from history. We tend to go down the same roads and like things keep recycling. (With) things that happened 40 years ago, if you turn around and look today they're similar kinds of things happening just in a different time frame."

Of course, with today's unending news cycle on cable television and with the immediacy of communication via the Internet, we know instantly about anything that happens anywhere in the world. That wasn't the case 150 years ago when better and faster communications might have been able to prevent the horrific massacre at Mountain Meadows and faster news reporting might have resulted in the punishment of those responsible for the killings.

"It was never really widely reported because there wasn't the facility to do it then," Cain said of the massacre, "and after the facilities became (available) it served no purpose, particularly for the LDS (Latter Day Saints) Church to report it. It was not a happy day in their history."

Asked how it is that 150 years later we know what happened at Mountain Meadows, Cain replied, "One of the interesting things about the LDS Church is they document everything. Their documentation is (extensive) and now with Internet availability you can get to most of that stuff. One of the pieces of information that we used was the deposition of John D. Lee (the Mormon deacon played by Gries), who 20 years later was tried and executed for the crime. He kind of was the scapegoat for everybody else around him. He wrote a 27 page deposition telling exactly what happened from his perspective. So we had that and it's really very, very detailed. We also have the deposed Brigham Young for that trial. That deposition obviously is a public record so we have that.

"And then there were actually quite a few articles written and there were some eyewitness statements that came out years later and people's guilt trips forced them to write things. With the Internet we were able to search all that stuff and it became available to us. And then there have been maybe a half dozen books that have either been written specifically about the Mountain Meadows massacre and that particular point in history or were books about Mormon history that had two or three chapters in them dedicated to this. So a lot of other people have done similar research that we were able to go to. There was a book called 'Under the Banner of Heaven' that Jon Krakauer wrote that (included several chapters about) this."

There also was, Cain noted, a book by "Will Bagley, who is a Mormon historian, called 'Blood of the Prophets" that detailed the history of this particular time. I showed him the film the other day (because) we wanted to get his perspective on our accuracy and he was extremely supportive. When you show a movie to a historian you expect to have them find things that they pick apart, but he was extremely complimentary. He liked the movie a lot and actually did a little interview afterwards on camera for us and said, 'Feel free to use this in your publicity.' So we were happy to see that. We stand by the historical accuracy of the film. We feel that our research was as good and as deep as is historically possible after 150 years."

"Dawn" is the first time, according to Cain, that the Mountain Meadows Massacre has been the subject of a feature film: "There have been a couple of documentaries that have been made over the years. The History Channel did one and (someone) in Utah did one. But this is the first feature film that's been done."

Initially, he explained, the story of the massacre "was told to me as an idea by a young lady named Carole Whang Schutter. Carole is a friend of ours that we ski with occasionally in Aspen (where she) lives. She's a writer of children's novels and other stuff and had never written a screenplay. So being what I thought was retired and removed (from moviemaking) I did the lazy thing and said, 'Well, go write a screenplay.' A couple of weeks later she came back with a screenplay. I then said, 'Here's a program called Final Draft and here's what a screenplay looks like.' She'd never read one before so it was a format that she (didn't know). So she went and put it into a screenplay form and brought it back.

"It was mostly a historical movie at that time. It was more documentary and more literature than it was a film. Then I got an idea of how to turn it into a movie that would be involving and emotional for people to watch. I went and did two or three drafts after that and we ended up with a screenplay that I sat down and read and said, 'Well, this is pretty good. It really ought to be made.' This was about two years ago."

At that point, Cain observed, "like a crack addict that never really quits I said, 'I think we should make it' and you start to analyze where you would go to get this movie made. It was clear to me that no studio would touch it because it's a controversial piece to some extent in that it does point the finger at Brigham Young, who is an icon in the religious world today. The controversy regarding Brigham Young's position in the history of that time is that some people -- and I would say specifically the president of the Mormon Church and the publicity people within the LDS Church -- say he didn't know anything about it and it happened and he tried to stop it and sent a rider and he didn't get there in time.

"The historians disagree (and) say he knew about it, he ordered it and was implicit in the cover-up. Our position is that he clearly knew about it, clearly covered it up and was, in fact, part of at least the spirit of the time that caused this to happen. We are very comfortable with that. One of the things that we did very carefully in this movie is that all of the dialogue that Brigham Young speaks came from his own speeches. So we really didn't write or create any dialogue for Brigham Young in this movie."

Not surprisingly, Cain did not shoot the film in Utah where the events took place and where the filmmakers could have run into problems. "We shot this under the radar outside of Calgary, Canada," he said. "The movie is not intended to condemn this specific religion. It does condemn this specific act at this specific time in history and it relates it and points, I hope, an interesting finger at what we are living with today and why we're living with it. One of the things that has always fascinated me about suicide bombers and people willing to go blow themselves up is why would a kid 20 years old with his life ahead of him strap a bomb on his back and walk into a school or a bus or a mosque and blow up himself and everybody around him? It's a question that always bothered me.

"This movie kind of tells you how that can happen. It's done in the name of God and religious fanaticism. It's not the religion, itself, that causes it, but the extremist leaders that are running the different religions and the different sects that can drive people to do that. You know, Jim Jones' people didn't drink the (poisoned) Kool-Aid because they were thirsty. There have been over the time of history lots and lots of these kind of fanatical crazy things that have happened in the world and this points to one of those times, one of those places where it happened. By watching this movie you get some understanding of how these things happen."

Asked about the project's time in production, Cain told me, "Part of the problem is that when you make an independent film you are limited in the amount of resources that you have. So you have a budget and you have to live with it. There were roughly 120-plus men, women and children in this wagon train, which means you have to period wardrobe 120 men, women and children, you have to have horses on every wagon, you have to put stuff in every wagon -- you have to find the wagons to begin with. Calgary's one of the few places that still has old western stuff and lots of it. And you've got to feed the horses. So every time you move, you're moving a massive amount of people for this kind of a movie.

"The easy part, quite honestly, was we had just a terrific cast. I had Jon Voight, who's won an Academy Award, and Terence Stamp, who's been nominated (for best supporting actor in 1963 for 'Billy Budd'). And then we had these three new kids that you haven't seen before that you will absolutely remember. I'm so delighted with the performances that these three kids gave -- Trent Ford, Tamara Hope and Taylord Handley. These are actors, they're not celebrities -- yet. These, I believe, have the potential of being the next Jon Voights and Robert Duvalls."

Not only did Cain raise the money to make "Dawn" independently, he's also arranged to market and distribute it through his own company. "We put together a distribution company and the reason was that there is a lack of independent distribution companies in our business today that have the capability and the wherewithal to release a picture theatrically in more than two markets at a time," Cain said. "And there are quite a number of good films I've watched over the last couple of years that never get theatrical distribution and probably should (because they) deserve to be seen.

"So we put together a distribution company that's designed to take films that are not films that can be done in 3,000 theaters, but can be done in 1,000 or 800 or 750 (and) that appeal to maybe not the 'Spider-Man' audience but to a fairly large audience of maybe baby boomers, people that are a little more intent on going to something that has substance to it as opposed to pure entertainment. And we think we found a way to do that. We will be very careful as to what we'll release. I think you have to have something other than just pure money to pour at television advertising to release these pictures with. But that's what we're all about. I've gotten a Ph.D. in distribution in the last six months. It's a tough course and we'll find out if I pass it or not at some point!"

That point will come a little later than first planned since "Dawn" is now going into theaters June 22 rather than in early May opposite "Spider-Man 3." "We were going to out in early May against 'Spider-Man,' which we thought was counter-programming," Cain pointed out. "At the time we picked that date there was an avenue of three or four weeks that looked really pretty good for us. But it doesn't look that good anymore. There's a monsoon of pictures (opening then) and I'd like see some of them live or die before we come out.

"We also have found that we've been endorsed by a bunch of big organizations and some of the news (coverage) that we were hoping to get, which we've gotten, wouldn't be ready in time (to help an early May release). Some of these news magazine shows would not have their pieces ready in time so we'd like to give them time to get out there and create a little bit of a buzz."

Filmmaker flashbacks: From May 17, 1989's column: "Movie Merchandising is driven by a film's theatrical success, but because of the time it takes to manufacture items like toys and clothing, work must begin well before anyone knows whether a movie is going to be successful.

"A case in point is Hollywood Road Prods.' animated feature 'F.R.O.7,' produced by Jo Acevski and Norman Priggen and directed by Acevski and Darko Markovic, now in production in England. A tale about a man sized frog -- a French secret agent named Freddie, who saves some British monuments from destruction -- it's due to be completed early in 1991 for release that Easter...

"Efforts are already under way to develop merchandising for 'F.R.O.7,' to arrange a domestic distribution deal and to license it worldwide through territorial pre-sales at the Cannes Film Festival. Those activities are being directed by Timothy Sheridan, president of Paris-based Sherhold Entertainment, located in Cannes in booth 1404 of the Palais.

"'There are two vehicles in the film,' Sheridan told me. 'One is the Frogmobile, Freddie's car, whose name is Nicole and who is very much alive even though she's a car. There's also a vehicle called the Snakeship that the baddie in the film uses to snatch the historical monuments. From that and from the basic characters I saw a very important inter-related merchandising-marketing aspect to the film that had to be dealt with immediately. I know from past experience that it takes a considerable amount of time to develop and launch a line of toys. It's important to get started early.'

"At the top of Sheridan's list is getting a domestic distribution deal for 'F.R.O.7.' He's talking, he says, to several majors, emphasizing that Hollywood Road will pay for both the film's production and the prints and advertising for its domestic release. In return, it's seeking a domestic deal on very favorable terms..."

Update: When the film opened in the U.S. via Miramax Aug. 28, 1992 it was titled "Freddie as F.R.O.7" and grossed just $0.5 million at 1,257 theaters ($398 per theater). It went on to do a modest $1.1 million domestically.

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com