The film chronicles the rescue of the Martin and Willie handcart companies in 1856, one of the iconic moments of Mormon history. Nearly 1,000 handcart pioneers on their way to Utah became stuck east of the Rocky Mountains with little food and blizzard conditions. More than 200 people in the companies died before former Mormon Battalion soldier Ephraim Hanks and his comrades arrived.
Among those who survived were James Laird and his wife, Mary Rennieâ along with their 4-year-old son, Edward, and a new baby. The family had left the British Isles to come to the promised land of Utah.
Although he died long ago, Edward Laird is no mere ghost to Cardall he was his great-great-grandfather.
"A lot of kids referred to [Hanks] as Santa Claus for the rest of his life," said the 40-year-old Cardall, who besides being a best-selling pianist is an avid student of Mormon and Utah history.
The film's soundtrack which is now in stores is among Cardall's most personal works. The opening track, "Traveler," is based on a song written by his brother Brian.
The younger Cardall died in June 2009 shocked by a Taser and killed by a police officer during a bipolar episode. The widely reported death at the side of a southern Utah highway spurred the Utah Legislature to pass a resolution encouraging police departments to provide training in how to respond to people with mental illness.
"Traveler" also is the first track on "New Life," Paul Cardall's 13th studio album, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard New Age chart in February 2011 and held a top-five position for more than 30 weeks.
Darin Southam, a Vernal native who portrays Hanks in the film, had listened to "New Life" and recommended it to Christensen for the film.
"I've always loved his stuff," Southam said, adding that he was deeply moved by the "Ephraim's Rescue" soundtrack. "I cried when I listened to it."
Christensen also was inspired by "Traveler," which features cellist Steven Sharp Nelson, one of The Piano Guys.
"I didn't know anything about [Cardall's brother or ancestors]," Christensen said. But he knew, from the first time he heard it, that it would fit in well with the theme of his film.
While "Traveler" became the cornerstone of the soundtrack, Cardall also researched the life of James Laird, who was born on Christmas Day 1825. James' father was a Methodist minister, and James ran away from home, at one point saying he did so because his father read the Bible too much.
"Imagine a Mormon saying that," Cardall joked.
Cardall was inspired by the hardships his ancestors endured. He remembers his grandmother telling him stories about the handcart rescue when he was younger.
"I feel a closeness with the pioneers," he said.
The recording and writing included contributions from local favorite Ryan Shupe, Marshall McDonald, Trevor Price and Rob Gardner. The soundtrack, released by Shadow Mountain Records, includes 13 songs such as "Life and Death," "Drowsy Maggie," written by Utahn Aaron Ashton, "My Kindness Shall Not Depart From Thee," featuring singer and Green River native Dallyn Vail Bayles, and a new arrangement of "Come, Come, Ye Saints" by Nelson.
Cardall said that during the process, a sobering thought kept going through his mind. Had he been a pioneer in 1856, he likely would not have survived the trip across the Plains.
Born with congenital heart disease, he received a heart transplant in September 2009 after waiting 385 days for a match. He wrote and recorded "New Life" after the transplant.
Cardall said when he was lying in a hospital bed, near death, he asked himself, "Where do strength and resilience come from?"
Now he knows.
"It's in our blood," he said.
See it on the screen
"Ephraim's Rescue" will be released in theaters on May 31.