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'Winter Thaw' brings Tolstoy's Christmas tale to life on BYUtv

"Winter Thaw," an hour-long adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's short story "Martin the Cobbler" starring John Rhys-Davies, will premier on BYUtv this Thanksgiving at 6 p.m. MST.

The story begins on Christmas Day in 1885 Russia with Martin Avdyeitch, a poor cobbler who sees an apparition of his dead wife. She tells him he will be visited by God, and Martin begins to fear for his death.

"One of the key things in the story is Martin has distanced himself from God and also from his son and feels there's no reconciliation with either," said Russ Kendall, producer and co-writer, in an interview with the Deseret News. "And so the message with this is you can reconcile with God. It's not too late."

One of the main challenges, Kendall said, that came with writing the script for "Winter Thaw" was turning a story that takes a few minutes to read into a feature-length film.

"We need to develop Martin's backstory and really explore what led him to a place where he had lost hope," Kendall said.

Rhys-Davies, who is best known for his roles as Gimli in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Sallah in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade," will play the role of Martin. He was at the top of the creators' list for the role from the beginning. Kendall said they sent Rhys-Davies the script, and it resonated with him right away.

Director Adam Thomas Anderegg said working with Rhys-Davies has been a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

"He's a very skilled actor. He has so much experience that it just kind of flows out of him," Anderegg said. "The first time we put the camera on John to do a camera test of the makeup and the hair, I literally was looking at the monitor and just could see how interesting he was to look at compared to everything else I've ever done in my whole career.

"It was one of those times where you go, 'Wow, this is one of those actors that just makes sense to have on screen.' You could just see it in every wrinkle on his face."

Filmed on location in Lithuania, Kendall said their aim was to bring a sense of legitimacy to the film.

"We scouted locations in Russia or near Russia … to find existing streets and buildings and homes that were of the period, that had the right texture and authenticity," he said.

They endured below freezing temperatures when scouting, Kendall said, but once the filming began, the rain had melted away all the snow. Kendall expressed admiration of the local crew that had no problem creating all the snow that is shown in the film.

Both Kendall and Anderegg see the potential in "Winter Thaw" to become a Christmas classic.

"Christmas movies are plentiful every year," Anderegg said. "But the ones you go back to, the ones that become perennials are the ones that resonate. They bring in heart."

He brought up the example of "It's a Wonderful Life," which was not well-received by critics at the time, but now plays on TV every year.

"There's something in the presentation of a tough life, not being able to reach your dreams, things not turning out the way you thought they should," he said. "And then feeling some sense of redemption or some sense that your existence has a part of a larger story, a larger narrative, and that's the perfect kind of story for Christmas."

He feels Tolstoy's original story and their adaptation have that theme.

Kendall added that it's a film that will bring audience's back to the true meaning of Christmas.

"It's a Christmas message that bears hope," he said. "And Jesus Christ made it possible that we can change. We can have hope."

Email: mbulsiewicz@deseretnews.com

Twitter: mgarrett589