Director Randall Wallace embraces faith
Heaven Is for Real, a film based on the bestseller of the same name shocked Hollywood anew that a faith-friendly film could command such a large audience when it grossed over $100 million at the box office. The film is the third Christian film to soar at the box office this year, following on the heels of releases Son of God and God’s Not Dead. Heaven is notable not just for its inspirational story, but for the way Wallace and crew captured the faith of small-town America.
Heaven is For Real is released on DVD and Digital with Ultraviolet on 25 September.
Wallace whose resume includes the films Braveheart, Robin Hood and Pearl Harbour speaks about his faith and what drew him to make Heaven is For Real.
Q. What inspired you to make Heaven Is for Real?
I grew up in a family that took faith seriously; faith wasn’t a luxury, it was a necessity. And then when I went to university I chose to study religion with the feeling that if you understood what was at the core of a human being, about what that person held sacred, then you understood all about them. I aspired to tell stories, and I thought that the question of faith was a purer science of human beings.
Q. How did you come into this project?
It was a couple of years ago when Joe Roth, with whom I had worked on Pearl Harbor, thought of me as a potential writer/director for this project. So they involved me in it.
Q. What appealed to you about the story?
I was fascinated by the notion of what heaven is: Is it a myth that we hold? Is it a metaphor for life? Are there concrete realities to it? Is heaven for one person different than what it is for another? And I had all those questions myself too, so this seemed a perfect opportunity to explore them.
Q. And what did you think of Todd Burpo’s book Heaven Is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back when you read it?
I did not expect to be as taken by the book as I was. And I did not think of it as a Christian book, but as a universal one that celebrated a reality of Jesus. Khalil Gibran said that every 100 years Jesus of Nazareth and Jesus of the Christians meet at the garden of Gethsemane, walk into it at sunset, talk all night and walk out at dawn. And then Jesus of Nazareth says to Jesus of the Christians: “My friend, I feel we will never agree.” That quote had stayed with me since college – the thought of who we would feel Jesus was if we actually could meet him. And the story of this boy who had met him on the other side of life was just irresistible to me.
Q. What was your main focus for this extraordinary story?
In writing the screenplay I wanted to focus on the reactions of his parents and the people around to understand what it would be like for them to have your son merge from an experience like this and start talking about heaven.
Q. How would you compare the movie to the book then?
I think the movie is the book in its basic spirit. I have adapted a number of historical stories and some projects that started off as books like We Were Soldiers, whereas other scripts like Braveheart or Pearl Harbor were original, and in the first case you have to translate the story into a different medium and tell it in 2 hours with visual images. So, I created some characters that would amalgam others like Margo Martindale’s or the one played by Thomas Haden Church.
Q. Greg Kinnear plays the lead role of Todd Burpo.
Greg was the first actor I chose. We had worked together on We Were Soldiers and I knew his sensitivity and strength. Most people know him for his intellect and gentle heart, which he has; but Greg also has this great strength, and I thought that would be perfect for the character of Todd Burpo.
Q. What do you believe makes that character special?
I was in seminary myself and in the end never felt it was my vocation, but I believe in the sense of vocation for every human being – that something calls us that has a claim on our heart and spirits. Those that have the vocation to be pastors are a special breed, and what I liked about Todd Burpo is that he also had other professions that he used to pay his bills and to connect with his friends and the rest of the people in his community, and I respected that enormously. They say that Saint Paul in his letters talked about being a tent maker, which is how he earned his money. So, I loved that Todd was a man’s man that worked with his hands and went out to feed his family. He was a wrestling coach, ran softball leagues, and was a volunteer fireman and a real member of his community. Todd Burpo and I talked about that.
Q. What did he tell you about himself in that respect?
He said he wasn’t remarkable for it and that in small towns everybody had several jobs. And the wives of men like that have to also be involved in their communities in many ways too.
Q. How is the marriage formed by Todd and Sonja Burpo?
They are team players! Many people that look at the people in the church from the outside see them sometimes as pious and even sexless, whereas the way we are portraying the Burpos is entirely the opposite: they are passionate and have a real fire in their eyes when they look at each other. When they kiss there is no doubt that they are in love and full of passion. So, the film is also a beautiful love story between those two characters. And luckily there was also great chemistry between Greg Kinnear and Kelly Reilly.
Q. And what did Kelly bring to Sonja?
Kelly has an astonishing range as an actress and is just so natural. When we went through the casting process I did not know her that well. I had seen her in the Sherlock Holmes movies but had not seen the whole of Flight yet, although our casting director Sheila Jaffe brought up her name. So I had a meeting with her, and within 30 seconds I already knew she wound be Sonja, as she had such a special way of connecting immediately and being down-to-earth. She was all rooted and there was nothing ethereal about her, and that was important because while her husband is concerned with issues of theology her character has to be concerned with how the family is doing here and now.
Q. How did you find the right kid for the key role of their son Colton?
Joe Roth had been key in the success of The Sixth Sense, and that was one of the movies – with Field of Dreams – I talked about as being important for us to think about when executing this story. So we did a national search with casting directors around the country, but Connor was not in our audition group because we thought he might be too young. In the end we had a slot for one more and, looking down through who we had available, his face came up again.
Q. And what can you say of Canadian young talent Lane Styles, who plays his older sister Cassie?
She is fantastic and has an enormous future. Lane brings an enormous color to this picture
Q. Speaking of colour, you have en extraordinary director of photography on this film too.
This is our third movie together, and he inspires me. I don’t take a technical approach to movie making but try to take a poetic one, letting everyone – including the extras – understand what everything is about. But for that process of conveying passion you need everyone to be inspired. So, our director of photography Dean Semler, the first assistant director Kim Winther and I get together and talk about what it is that lights us up. And Dean understands the emotion I am going for and then sees what he can bring.
Q. How would you describe the tone of your movie?
It is very real and has humor and suspense too. In many ways it’s spooky, as it can lead to haunting you with questions like: What if heaven is real? What if there is really something there? What if angels are more than just a metaphor? These are powerful and profound questions.
Q. What effect does Colton’s experience have on his father?
It creates a crisis of faith within his father because he has to ask himself about his son’s experience, and also because he has felt an anger towards God for coming so close to taking his son from him. So, he is confronted with his own connectedness to God or the lack of it – which I believe is at the heart of this for every person. What do we really believe when the time comes?
Q. And what effect has this project had on you?
My mother passed away recently, and I had a peculiar sense of peace when I watched the spirit leave the body of someone I loved so desperately. That’s when you understand why people throughout humanity have believed there is more to us than just our bodies. I think it was C. S. Lewis said that you don’t have a soul but a body, because you are a soul, and this movie celebrates that.