“I would not come to a movie that I thought was a sermon.”
That’s from Randall Wallace, writer of Braveheart and director of We Were Soldiers, Secretariat, and, now, Heaven is For Real. Based on the book by Todd Burpo, Heaven is For Real is about a father wrestling to come to terms with skepticism and doubts, some of them his own, when his four year-old son claims to have visited heaven while having surgery for a burst appendix.
Reviews of the film are still under embargo (yes, I’ve seen it), but some members of the evangelical press were invited to visit the set of the film and ask questions of Wallace, stars Greg Kinnear and Kelly Reilly, producer T. D. Jakes, and the Burpo family.
While each member was enthusiastic about the project, there was also recognition of some of the potential difficulties in adapting a book about heaven. Wallace, who identified himself as a Baptist, cited C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce in advocating the principle that “everyone who goes to heaven will be surprised.” The filming of heaven also provided a challenge for the director who said, “I very much don’t like special effects.” Yet Wallace and Jakes both confirmed that the film does depict heaven. Doing so was important to the director, because the book is about a witness’ testimony and “Colton didn’t see vague, non-specific things.”
In discussing how he handled the pressure of adapting a book that so many readers were passionate about, Wallace referenced his work on Braveheart. It was impossible to make that film without interacting with cast and crew members from Scotland, some of whom joked that if he and Mel Gibson “messed it up” they could well feel the wrath of a whole nation!
Was Wallace worried about working on a “Christian” film? Well, the director has never feared going against conventional Hollywood wisdom. He mentioned that Leonardo DiCaprio was cast for The Man in The Iron Mask before Titanic was released and while “everyone thought [it] would be the biggest flop in the world.” That experience taught him to trust his instincts.
T. D. Jakes was hand picked by Todd Burpo, so, in his words, “Sony had to let me produce the film.” Since a painting of Jesus plays an integral role in the book and film, it was perhaps inevitable that Jakes would be questioned about Jesus’s complexion and whether some viewers might feel as though the film was about the white Christian experience and only for white audiences. Jakes was eloquent in both acknowledging the racial divides in America and speaking to how the church and the arts can help overcome them.
Jakes believes that part of the appeal of Heaven is For Real will be the near universal experience of family. “You may never go to the planet Pluto [….] but you know what it is to have a sick child.” He also said “You cannot use your faith as an excuse for a poor quality film [….] If a film is truly good, it will draw all sorts of people.” He appeared more interested in film’s power to provoke change than its ability to provide a snapshot of what needs to be changed, saying “The greatest stage of reformation, historically has been the arts.”
Jakes ultimately wants to see films that that aren’t merely addressed to Christian audiences. “If we segregate from the world, we will have failed the mission of Christ,” he said, adding that if Christians fail to integrate their art into the mainstream “we will be left screaming at the darkness rather than lighting a candle.”
When asked what heaven means to him, Jakes proclaimed that “In thy presence there is fullness of joy.” That joy he said, “makes me not care if the sea of glass is glass or water.”
Making a film that will provide a glimpse of heaven capable of uniting Christians of all backgrounds while lovingly and artistically rendering the Christian experience for the American mainstream is a tall order. Jakes and Wallace have set the bar high for what they want the film to achieve. Will it deliver? Heaven is For Real arrives in theaters on April 18.