It has been nearly seven years since tragedy struck at Utah’s Nutty Putty Cave in Utah County. Twenty-six-year-old John Jones was exploring the cave with his brother the day before Thanksgiving in 2009. While navigating a tight passage, Jones became stuck in a crevice 125 feet below ground and, despite a rescue crew’s best efforts, Jones ultimately passed away inside the cave a day later. The catastrophe remains a delicate subject to this day, but local filmmaker Isaac Halasima believes it’s a tale worth telling.
Already a well-established music video director, Halasima is making his first venture into the world of full-length filmmaking with his upcoming film, “The Last Descent,” which was filmed entirely in Utah and hits theaters Sept. 16. When deciding on how he wanted to break into the movie industry, Halasima told the Deseret News that there was no question in his mind that Jones’ story was the one he wanted to depict. He remembers hearing the tragic news on TV that Thanksgiving weekend.
“It’s a story that, I think, got all of us,” Halasima said. “And the interesting part for me is when it was going on, you heard about how he was trapped and how painful it must be and how hard it was for the rescuers and how everything was going. … But then, when you learned about what kind of person he was, that made it a story.”
With his untimely passing, Jones left behind his wife Emily, who was seven weeks pregnant at the time, and a 13-month-old daughter. During the production of “The Last Descent,” Halasima said the cast and film crew worked closely with Jones' widow (now Emily Jones-Sanchez) and the rescue team involved in her late husband’s attempted extraction to accurately and sensitively approach the story.
Making a movie that audiences immediately know won’t end “happily ever after” is a difficult thing to do, Halasima said.
“For me, I wanted to create a feeling that people want to go back to when they want to feel a certain way,” Halasima said. “I sat on (the idea for this movie) for years, just trying to get an angle on it.”
The director said he turned to movies such as “Titanic” and "Ghost" for inspiration. He hoped that, by drawing on those films and creating a sense of closure for his characters, he could produce a powerful feeling in "The Last Descent" that viewers could turn to in times of contemplation.
After months of research, along with consultation with Jones-Sanchez, Halasima felt he had captured the appropriate “hills and valleys” to depict the events in a way that would both honor the Jones family and impact audiences in an emotional, yet positive way.
Although the film revolves around Jones’ ill-fated excursion, it also takes time to delve into his personality, family life and faith in God.
Actor Chadwick Hopson, who plays John Jones in the film, said that his part in this movie was unlike any role he has ever had.
“John was a remarkable human being,” Hopson said in an interview with the Deseret News. “Usually, your heroes (in movies) have to overcome an internal conflict or a flaw, but John doesn’t really have any flaws in the film.”
Hopson also described Jones’ character as “incredible,” “compassionate,” “tolerant” and “anti-ego.” He said that by studying Jones’ life and interacting with his family, it has motivated him to become a better person.
“I will always be indebted to John for that,” Hopson said.
In the movie, Jones’ wife, Emily, is portrayed by actress Alexis Johnson, who said she also had plenty to learn from a closer examination of the Jones family. Johnson was mentored by Jones-Sanchez in order to prepare for her role, and she said that she was greatly impressed by the family’s faith in the face of adversity.
“Working on this movie and … being in touch with Emily just warmed my heart because of their sincere, honest, authentic belief in God,” Johnson said.
Johnson emphasized that tragedy comes at some point for everyone but that it's a person's reaction that makes the difference.
“No one is exempt from a bad time,” she said. “The question is: How are you going to handle that? … You can give up or you can look up, and Emily looked up. You keep your faith strong and you persevere.”
Johnson said it was the Jones’ faith that gave them strength to move forward in spite of the terrible accident.
“The Jones family did not throw in the towel and give up,” Johnson said.
Halasima hopes "The Last Descent" will inspire audiences to walk out of the theater with a different perspective on their lives.
“This movie focuses on looking for the good in the middle of the bad — not looking for the good in the bad, but the good that’s there,” Halasima said. “(Jones was) a good person. Look at the situation, but let’s look at that person for just a minute and let’s see a good life. … Can we love him? Can we say to him, ‘Yeah, you did good, man’?”
Hopson also believes there is something compelling to be learned from the film.
“I want the audience to participate in the film, instead of us telling them how to feel,” Hopson said. “I want them to see how they would react in a situation like that. … Hopefully, they can tie it to someone they loved and lost or they can learn how to let go or how to love more the people that are around (them).”