Aspen screenwriter experiences miracle with ‘September Dawn’
August 23, 2007
ASPEN Aspenite Carole Whang Schutter has long believed that miracles happen. In fact, “Miracles Happen” was the title of her first book, an inspirational, Christian-centered publication that dates back some eight years.Over the time since she wrote that book, Schutter’s conviction that miracles happen has only solidified. Today marks the national release of “September Dawn,” a film adapted from her second book, of the same name, and for which she wrote the screenplay. It was Schutter’s first effort at a screenplay, and she says the process of turning the script into a major film – “September Dawn” stars Academy Award-winner Jon Voight, and also features Lolita Davidovich, Dean Cain and Terence Stamp – was a remarkably easy process. Even raising money was a relative breeze. In an industry where screenwriters measure their piles of rejected, reworked scripts in yards and financing is routinely excruciating, Schutter’s experience does border on divine intervention.Schutter recites the statistic that just over 1 percent of screenwriters ever get a movie made. People she has come to know in the industry, she says, “have told me my story is a miracle – that somebody who has no idea how to write a screenplay gets a movie made.”The touch of a higher force gets even deeper. “September Dawn” is a love story, but its setting is more attention-getting than the romance. The film takes place against the backdrop of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, an incident in 1857 Utah in which native Mormons slaughtered a group of settlers, men, women and children. It is a time, landscape and history about which Schutter knew even less than she knew about screenwriting.But one day five years ago, while driving between Buena Vista and Salida, Schutter began thinking about how she had always wanted to be a writer, and 52 at the time, the clock was ticking on long-held ambitions. At the same time, a story started to form – about a woman traveling by stagecoach across the West, who is attacked by Mormons disguised as American Indians. When the idea wouldn’t leave her mind, Schutter began her research and discovered that such an incident had, in fact, taken place.
“I read that this was a true story, and I almost died,” said Schutter, who has lived in Aspen for 20 years.It would make the story even more fabulous to say that Schutter immediately wrote a note-perfect script, balancing the historical component with a “Romeo and Juliet”-type romance between the son of a Mormon bishop and a woman from the wagon train. It didn’t happen that way. When Schutter brought her work to her friend Christopher Cain, a filmmaker who had retired on an Emma ranch, he was skeptical. “He said this doesn’t look like a screenplay,” recalled Schutter.Chief among Cain’s criticisms was that the script backed away from the controversy raised by the actual Mountain Meadow Massacre. At the core of the controversy is the notion that the Mormon church, and church leader Brigham Young himself, sanctioned the killings.”I was chicken,” said Schutter. “I didn’t want anyone to get mad at me. I have Mormon relatives. But [Cain] said, ‘The truth is more interesting. Make it what it was, not a fictitious religious group.’ “After two years of working on the script and pulling Cain out of retirement to direct the film, Schutter began the fundraising process. She said it went very quickly, thanks to her methods. Virtually all of the financing came from friends in Aspen. “This is a movie really conceived in and sort of created in Aspen. It’s a total Aspen movie,” she said. (“September Dawn” was actually shot around Calgary.) Now, after a lifetime of unemployment, Schutter finds herself with a career. She has an option on another screenplay, which she describes as a “family” story. “After such a dark movie, I wanted to have fun,” she explained. She is also writing another book, about her home state of Hawaii, called “The Ohana.” (The word means “family” in Hawaiian.)
“September Dawn,” which was originally scheduled for release this past spring, has garnered some national attention. There was a feature in The New York Times Arts & Leisure section several months ago, and the film is getting national distribution.Schutter’s biggest disappointment as of a few days ago was that the film – which had the first showing in its final form at a private screening in Aspen last November – was not going to open in Aspen. It had been rejected by the Isis Theatre.But she was informed that “September Dawn” was on the Isis schedule, opening Friday.Another small gift from above, perhaps.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org