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Q & A

Against All Odds : JIM STOLPA

January 09, 1994|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CBS' Sunday movie, "Snowbound: The Jim and Jennifer Stolpa Story," starring Neil Patrick Harris and Kelli Williams, chronicles the inspiring, true tale of heroism and unconditional love that mesmerized the world just over a year ago.

Three days after Christmas in 1992, Jim and Jennifer Stolpa, both then 21, and their 5-month-old son, Clayton, set out from their family home in San Francisco to drive to Pocatello, Idaho, to be with Stolpa's mother for his grandmother's funeral.

Stolpa, an Army private, wanted to avoid snow-covered routes. So, he and Jennifer took what they thought was a little-traveled but open road. Soon, in an isolated area of the country, they found themselves stranded in deep snow. After spending three days in their truck, the Stolpas set out to find help. Unable to go on, Jennifer and Clayton burrowed in a small cave for shelter, while Jim walked--70 miles--to find help.

After their rescue, the Stolpas were hospitalized for a month and parts of their severely frostbitten feet needed to be amputated. Baby Clayton, bundled inside two sleeping bags and a garment bag throughout, came through unscathed.

Times Staff Writer Susan King talked with Jim Stolpa about the family's ordeal, their life now and the making of the movie chronicling their struggle.

Are your lives back to normal?

Well, they had been for a while. We have been in our own apartment since June. We are doing fine. We can walk and Clay can walk now, too. He is starting to run. I have been given a disability retirement from the Army. Neither of us are working. We are waiting for the movie stuff to get over with because it would be kind of hard to work.

Did you receive numerous offers to have your story turned into a TV movie?

Yeah. I don't know if anybody knows how many offers we got, because while we were in the hospital, they were contacting my stepfather. Then we got an agent and they contacted him, also. So we never really saw it first-hand. We kind of just let them take care of it and between the two of them they weeded through all of them and came up with the five they thought were the best. From there, Jennifer and I interviewed each of those five production companies to choose who we thought were best.

Part of the interview was we asked them how much involvement would there be for us. And Michael Jaffe and Howard Braunstein wanted a lot of participation from us.

Did the writer, Jonathan Rintels, spend a lot of time with you?

The writer came out and spent three days with us just asking us questions at random about this and that. About a month later we got the first draft. Every time a new edition of the script would come out, we would get a copy and we would read it and give our input. Pretty much the whole time, right from the start, we had a say.

You and Jennifer were on location during the production. What was it like to relive your ordeal?

Well, seeing actors trying to portray things that we did was really awkward. At first it was very awkward, not just actors trying to be us, but watching this whole big film crew--watching what they do and how they have to set up.

I think it would have been more emotional watching it if it was shot in order of how things actually happened. But since they shoot things out of order and shoot every scene four or five times, you watch it the first time and go, "Wow, I remember that." But then they do it again and again and again. It is just such an awkward feeling watching them do all of this because of something we did.

Did stars Neil Patrick Harris and Kelli Williams ask for your input?

Yeah. The first day we went to Vancouver, we met them that night and the following morning we all went out for breakfast and talked. Neil and Kelli just had all of these questions. They were kind of asking us all of these questions that would help them understand more how we were feeling and going through at that time. Except for the occasional question on set, that was the only time they asked about us. Other than that, we just hung out.

When you think back to your ordeal, does it seem like it was just a dream?

Yeah. If you think about it, you think, "It's already been a whole year. That's a long time." But then you think, "Man. It was yesterday." But it does seem like it was a dream. It is like it never really happened, but it really did.

Are you amazed at what you and Jennifer did to survive?

When you are put into such a traumatic position where the odds are against you, you kind of step back. Your mind steps back and your body sort of takes over. A lot of people have come up to me and said, "Oh, man. I could have never done that." And these are guys who look like they are in a lot better shape than I am in. I have said it to them a lot: "If I was in your shoes I would say the same thing because thinking about it, I would have never thought I could have done that or Jennifer either."

I think the whole time we made a lot of smart decisions. For what we had in the truck, we dressed about as well as you could probably dress for walking in the snow, with plastic around our feet. We had Clay bundled up and just little things we did here or there. Thinking about it now, I don't remember ever having to think, "Should we do this?" We just kind of did it.

"Snowbound: The Jim and Jennifer Stolpa Story" airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on CBS.

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