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HEAVEN IS FOR REAL

Production Notes
A Little Boy, A Mystery and Life's Biggest Questions

In 2010, a book by an unknown author - fueled entirely by word-of-mouth and the fiery enthusiasm of curious and inspired readers - suddenly and from out of the blue hit the vaunted #1 position on the New York Times best-seller list. This was Todd Burpo with Lynn Vincent's Heaven Is For Real and it would go on to sell millions of copies with over 10 million in print worldwide and to be translated into 35 languages, while sparking lively conversations about the nature of life, faith and eternity among families and communities everywhere.

The soaring journey of the book began with a parent's worst nightmare: a sick little boy doctors said was unlikely to pull through. But little Colton did pull through and that was just the beginning of his surprises. After he recovered, the 4 year-old began to tell an incredible story: that during his touch-and-go surgery he had gone to heaven and been shown a realm of indescribable beauty and supreme peace, even meeting deceased relatives he had never known personally.

At first, the Burpos were unsure what to make of their son's revelations. He had such a childlike innocence when talking about it, they were 100% convinced he wasn't making it up. But even though they were already people of faith - indeed, Todd served as a pastor in their small Nebraska town - they were suddenly confronted with questions they had never really considered. Sure, they had talked and thought plenty about heaven in the abstract; but was it possible their son had experienced it for real? And if he had unlocked one of life's greatest mysteries . . . should they, and how could they, share this bewildering event with a world prone to disbelief and skepticism?

It was this part of Todd Burpo's journey - through a storm of doubt and into standing up for his son and his own hard-won convictions - that intrigued the filmmakers behind the book's screen adaptation. They saw a story that nearly anyone who has wondered about life, death and the meaning of it all, or ever took a risk for their deepest beliefs, could relate to on a personal level.

Like so many people, Heaven Is For Real's director and co-writer Randall Wallace has lost loved ones and pondered the promise of heaven - but he also has found himself often engaging with the big questions about life in the here and now. As one of Hollywood's most sought-after screenwriters, he has become known for work that touches in myriad ways on the powerful theme of courage in the face of adversity in such films as Braveheart, Secretariat, We Were Soldiers and The Man in the Iron Mask. Heaven Is For Real would do the same, yet at the same time take him into direct engagement with some of the most personal subjects of all: the nature of belief, near death experiences, the question of the afterlife and the potential of this life.

"This story gets into some fascinating topics," Wallace muses. "The question of what happens when we die is certainly a question that everyone in life ultimately asks themselves. But the Burpos' story also gets to some other really important questions: What makes us feel alive right now? What is the source of faith? What motivates us? What is the instrument of change in our lives? What makes us stop fearing and start moving forward in our lives with belief and confidence? What I liked about this story is that it pertains to all of that."

He adds: "The best stories are those that both capture the imagination and can direct us toward the future - and the kind of stories that require courage to tell. This is one of those stories."

The story came to Wallace through veteran Hollywood producer Joe Roth, who initially read about the Burpos in a two-paragraph item about the book even before it was published. Having produced dozens of hit films since the 1970s, Roth's instincts were instantly set in motion.

"I've had a habit these past 40 years of reading the New York Times book section in the hope that I'll come across something that nobody else has thought of - and up until now it's never worked because by the time it makes the Times someone's already bought it," Roth recounts. "But when I read about this book, it seemed like such a terrific idea for a movie. It poses a question everybody asks: what happens when you die? It doesn't matter what religion or background you come from, or whether you lived 2000 years ago or in 2014, it's a question that intrigues everyone. "

The nature of the Burpo family, pillars of the community in a small heartland town, made it even more relatable and inherently dramatic, Roth felt. "Here you have a pastor who when confronted with his son's story, wasn't really quite sure he if believed it himself and was in conflict about whether he should stir up the townspeople, or simply put it aside," Roth explains. "And he did the unsafe thing, which was appealing to me -- he backed his son's vision even though it could have potentially lost him his job and made him quite unpopular in the town."

Roth was thrilled to find he was the first major producer to approach the Burpos - and just four weeks after he made a deal with them, his instincts were rewarded, when the book hit #1 on the bestseller list, demonstrating its broad cultural appeal. By that point, he was already pursuing Randall Wallace as a writer and director, having previously worked with him as a screenwriter on Pearl Harbor and We Were Soldiers.

For Roth, it was an exciting prospect to ground Heaven Is For Real in the vision of a skilled cinematic storyteller. "Randy is probably one of the top screenwriters in Hollywood and a terrific director," says the producer. "He's also someone who has an ecumenical background and an ability to tell appealing stories about hope."

At the Burpos urging, Roth joined together with producer T.D. Jakes, a popular pastor and spiritual leader, to bring the project to the screen. Jakes, too, was moved by the story's demonstrated ability to make a difference to all who came across it - from those seeking encouragement in their faith to those just curious to know more.

"I think anyone can relate to an ordinary family who is grappling with the biggest questions," Jakes says. "We've all known tragedy and adversity -- and I think to see this family go through a crisis, and find a place of real resolution, it helps others to believe they'll find their own place of resolution." While millions of readers have come away from Heaven Is For Real with a thrilling sense of deepened convictions, Wallace is well aware that not everyone will interpret the things Colton saw during his surgery the same way - and the script wrangles with those very same doubts.

"There are going to be people who will be immediately skeptical," Wallace acknowledges. "I certainly have been skeptical of different elements of the story -- what the characters said happened, what they believed happened, what they reported experiencing . . . I questioned everything. But one of the features of any great story is that it has mystery and suspense. It's that questioning that keeps us moving forward in this story . . . and in life."

For Wallace, the full power of Heaven Is For Real comes down not only to what Colton says he saw in heaven, but even more so to how his story has touched, and changed, so many lives here on earth. "Ultimately the issue every person faces in this world is what am I going to do with this breath that I am taking now, with this heart I have, with these thoughts I have? What am I going to do with this life? What happened to Colton makes us think about these things," he concludes.

As the script progressed, Wallace also began to develop a ground rule for the production. "When we started this process, the one thing that I said to everybody who came aboard the film was, 'remember the title: Heaven Is For Real.' I always felt this needed to be a real story about real people -- so it was vital that every scene, every action and every word feel a part of everyday life."

The Burpos were gratified by Wallace's down-to-earth but passionate approach. "I just really like how Randall's brain works," says Todd Burpo, who today remains a pastor in Imperial, Nebraska, though his book has become a worldwide publishing phenomenon. "As a matter of fact he's written several things into the script that we never even talked about, but somehow he nailed details of our small-town life and my relationship with my granddad. He thought he was inventing, but he came right up to reality perfectly. What he's done with the script has been incredible."

Though they understood that the film adaptation would change some of the contours of their story, the one fundamental for the Burpos was absolute fidelity to their son's point-of-view. "Todd was very clear with me that he didn't want to be in a situation where Colton could come to him after seeing the film and say, 'Dad I didn't say that,'" Roth explains, "so we have been vigilant in maintaining the specifics of Colton's words."

While the film is destined to bring Colton's disarming message about heaven to many more people, the Burpos also know the film's release will also raise more questions they'll have to tackle - something they don't mind doing. (Colton himself is now in high school and continues to speak openly about his experiences.)

"We feel we've planted a seed, or at least presented it, and people have an opportunity to believe it or not," explains Todd Burpo.

For Wallace, the bottom line was presenting the Burpo's story in an authentic, compelling way, and leaving the rest open to personal contemplation and community conversation in the aftermath. "What I think will draw people to Heaven Is For Real is the idea that they're going to be captivated by a story. People want to be moved, they want to be grabbed, and they want to be spoken to from the heart," he summarizes.

That, says TriStar Pictures executive DeVon Franklin, is exactly what Wallace accomplished. "Very few directors have a sense of the human spirit, and where that spirit fits within the context of all of our experiences in the world, and Randy is one of those directors that sees the bigger picture, but also has not lost the ability to translate the common touch," says Franklin. "What he's done on this film goes beyond anything we were hoping for. He brings such humanity to even simple scenes, right down to the family at the kitchen table."

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