Writer-director Randall Wallace has been entertaining us for years with his amazing filmwork with titles like BRAVEHEART, WE WERE SOLDIERS, and SECRETARIAT. Now the filmmaker is returning to cineplexes with the powerful faith-based drama, HEAVEN IS FOR REAL. The film, co-scripted by Christopher Parker, follows pastor Todd and Sonja Burpo’s (Greg Kinnear and Kelly Reilly) journey after their son Colton (Connor Corum) returns from death’s door with stories about what he saw in Heaven. As you can imagine, this sends the small idyllic town of Imperial, Nebraksa and their church into an uproar, and the family’s convictions are put to the test.
At the recent press day for HEAVEN IS FOR REAL, I was lucky enough to speak with Kinnear, Corum, Thomas Haden Church, filmmakers Wallace and Parker and real life inspirations Todd, Sonja and Colton Burpo about this soul-stirring film.
Here’s a few of the film’s fun facts:
Connor Corum’s favorite scene was the barf scene. “Because it’s funny,” the six-year-old said. Corum, who does not love juice, “had to spit some juice up.” His mother quickly clarified it was thick vegetable juice, which promptly made us gag too.
Thomas Haden Church shadowed a few firemen in his hometown. Church, who plays Jay Wilkins, a bank loan officer and volunteer fire-fighter, “Before I went, I did this two day training with my VFD in Texas. Whenever we got up to …not Nebraska… Manitoba [Canada] we did a little safety sort of thing and rode along with them. Not on any calls – just went riding around. Really cool guys – first responders.”
Randall Wallace was inspired to not only write the screenplay but also direct it. “I only want to do movies I think would be great. In BRAVEHEART, I had written, ‘Every man dies, but not every man really lives.’ That resonated with a lot of people. It seemed to me HEAVEN IS FOR REAL asked the next question, ‘Everybody dies. Then what?!’ That’s a question that cut through every culture, every religion. What if this story this kid is telling has any truth in it? What do we make of that? I wanted to direct it because how you convey all of that could really get messed up. Being able to cast and try to answer those questions is really exciting. And, to tell you the truth, I felt my mother’s smile.”
This isn’t the first time Greg Kinnear has tackled the subject of the afterlife – he was in the superb and underrated comedy, GHOST TOWN. Though the films couldn’t be more different in terms of tone and approach, Kinnear said, “I really thought this script [HEAVEN IS FOR REAL] did a nice job of – regardless where you’re at on the spectrum of spirituality or faith, whether you believe in it or you don’t – having a front row seat and getting a sense of their [the Burpos] story. I really felt that was more of an important story.”
Kleenex alert: Connor Corum shares some tough emotional scenes with Kelley Reilly and Greg Kinnear. The pint-sized actor was tasked to deliver heavy, emotional complex news to two of the film’s main characters – and these two scenes are genuinely the best part of the film. In order to break down these sequences into concepts a six-year-old could understand, his mom said, “We talked about a baby passing away in a mommy’s tummy – would she be happy or sad? He knew that would happen. Talking to him beforehand allowed him to show that emotion on screen.” Kinnear joked and said, “All the credit should go to me.” He then followed up saying, “Randy and I would talk about each scene and how we would handle the Connor issue. The truth is he would come walking in from his trailer – we called him ‘Elvis.’ We would have game plan down. It was something I wasn’t really expecting in the job. I turned into the child whisperer.”
Greg Kinnear would Skype with Todd Burpo. He said, “He and I started our relationship in early 2013 Skype-ing. He was very forthcoming with any questions I had. I got the sense he was a man of extremely strong conviction and a ferocious love of his children.” Burpo said of the family’s contact with their celebrity counterparts, “Connor was a little Colton all the way through. We met with Kelly Reilly and she asked a bunch of questions of Sonja. I skyped with Greg for a couple of hours. Sonja and I went to the set when they were filming. Most of my contact was with Randall.” Colton Burpo chimed in, “just being able to talk with Connor during free time – oh they nailed me.”
Thomas Haden Church was not tempted to swap the Spider-Man figurine for a Sandman one. Throughout the film, Colton Burpo carries around an iconic Spider-Man action figure with him. Church (who played the villainous Sandman in SPIDER-MAN 3) laughed and told me that he never once thought to swap out that prop. He said, “The real Colton told me Sandman was his favorite villain.” Colton, who just so happened to be walking into the room at that exact moment said, “By far, the best part of SPIDER-MAN 3 was Sandman.” Church concurred, “He was really good.”
The book serendipitously made its way into co-screenwriter Christopher Parker’s doorstep. He said, “ I had been talking to Sony about another film. My sister had said, ‘Hey. I just read this book that I got from Amazon and they sent me two copies. You want one?’ I looked at the cover with the kid in the vest – how cute is he?! I read it that night. The other story [at Sony] kinda went away, and they said, ‘We have another project we think you’d be good for called HEAVEN IS FOR REAL.’ ‘Really?! I just read that two days ago!’”
Colton Burpo can still see the images of Heaven in his mind. “Yes, but the hospital stay and all the experiences before that – like sickness – I don’t remember much of that. The images of Heaven are very vivid.”
On the day of shooting, Randall Wallace used a practical set rather than CGI to create the Heaven sequence to get a better reaction from child-actor Connor Corum. In the film, it plays as a CGI-studded sequence where the blue walls of the church turn into the sky and angels appear. Instead of conducting this under normal green screen standards, where the actor is told to look at a tennis ball and imagine what’s happening, Wallace had built a practical set and had actors dressed as angels and Jesus. Corum’s mom explained, “He didn’t have to completely imagine heaven – when he came in, there was real angels he saw that sang. Jesus was in full dress. It wasn’t as imagined as it may come across in the film.”
That’s not Connor Corum on the film’s movie poster. After we took our group photo with Greg Kinnear, he let it slip that Corum’s body double is the child on the poster.
HEAVEN IS FOR REAL opens nationwide on April 16 and is rated PG.
Courtney Howard is the Senior Editor/ LA Correspondent for VeryAware.com. She also is a contributing writer for ReelVixen.com and ThatsItMommy.com. She resides in Southern California with her husband and perfect little dachshund.