HEAVEN IS FOR REAL
Forging The Burpo Family
To play Sonja Burpo, the vivacious mother and wife who is swept up into
something extraordinary when her son says he was taken on a journey through
heaven, the filmmakers turned to Kelly Reilly, the British actress known for her
roles as Mary Morstan in Sherlock Holmes and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.
Randall Wallace was instantly taken with Reilly upon their first meeting.
"She has an earthiness as well as a delicacy," he says. "I knew within 10
seconds that Kelly had to play Sonja. Many people believe that the wives of
ministers are sweet but sexless, butter-wouldn't-melt-in-their-mouths kinds of
women, and that was the opposite of who I thought Sonja was or should be. Kelly
is strong and fiery and she's just magnificent in this movie."
Adds Joe Roth: "Kelly is a beautiful woman whose career is really emerging
here in the States. I'd seen her in Flight, and then she came in and did a
wonderful job in the audition. It was great to have the chance to cast a fresh
Reilly was immediately pulled to the story. "I was intrigued by how such an
extraordinary thing could happen to a very regular family, and then affect them
so deeply and change lives on so many levels. It always has to start out with me
wanting to know more and I did. I wanted to know how does a family deal with
something like this? And how do they live a normal life again after?"
Right away, Reilly had a grasp on Sonja. "I think she's very no fuss, very
practical, very present, very real," says the actress. "The most important thing
is family, that's her driving force."
In the film, Sonja is more comfortable with allowing Colton's experience to
speak to the unfathomable mysteries of faith, whereas her husband searches for
verification, for an end to doubt. "Randall described it as Greg's character
undergoing a sort of dark night of the soul and Sonja of course supports him
through that. She loves him, whole-heartedly; she would do anything
for him. But she can't go where he's going, because she doesn't handle it the
same way as he does," Reilly observes. "She is someone who can accept that her
son had this experience and then go make the dinner, because taking care of her
family is what is most important."
Reilly especially loved having the chance to work so closely with Greg
Kinnear. "It's always nice to work with people that you respect and you admire,
and he's also a wonderful man," she says. "We were able to create Todd and Sonja
as a real team together. And I feel like Greg has brought such truth and
lightness, as well as honesty, to Todd."
The crux challenge of casting Heaven Is For Real was the search for a very
special child who could play Colton Burpo with the natural, easy-going innocence
that made his story so persuasive.
"Finding Colton was a huge challenge because the movie could not succeed if
Colton seemed artificial. If you believed that he was just reciting lines, you
would never believe any of what he was saying," Wallace explains.
Casting director Sheila Jaffe launched a nationwide search - but it wasn't
until the very end that they found their Colton. "We saw a lot of tapes and
finally got down to eight boys. Seven boys were very similar to one another but
one boy was different," remembers Joe Roth.
That one boy was then five year-old Cleveland native Connor Corum. "He was
incredibly natural, and he wasn't thrown by anything. Once we saw him there was
no choice - he was the kid," Roth continues.
When Kinnear started working with Connor he was enthralled by his lack of
artifice. "He's kind of the greatest version of an actor, in the sense that
everything that he does is on instinct, it's effortless, it's just kind of there
without any artificiality to it. It really makes me mad," he quips.
Much as this opportunity was a thrill for Connor, his mother Shannon says
they were cautious about it at first. "Initially, it was a mixed bag of
emotions. There was certainly some concern about whether we were thrusting our
son into the limelight and also about whether he would be able to stay grounded
and enjoy his childhood," she recalls. "On the other hand, it was pure
excitement and joy and something really positive for our family. My grandfather,
who turned 95 last October, was thrilled. He's a very spiritual man and I really
feel like this has given him something wonderful to focus on in his life."
Working with Connor came naturally for Wallace, who helped to set the family
at ease. "I'm the father of sons and I'm a little boy myself still, at heart, so
I wanted Connor to come onto the set and feel that he was part of a great, big
family," he says.
Wallace continues: "He's a brilliant young man. He always came to set
prepared and Greg was wonderful working with Connor. Sometimes I would say
'action' and we'd film the scene and the magic would happen right there. Other
times Connor would be full of energy, distracted and bouncing off the walls and
we'd have to wait and let him calm down. What ultimately happened, when he
forgot that it was a movie, he just began to be that character in that space,
which is what we want of any actor, and then he was riveting."
Rounding out the Burpo family is their older daughter Cassie, who is played
by Lane Styles, a young actress from Winnipeg, Canada. "Lane is a tremendous
little actress," says Kelly Reilly. "She has such a still, ladylike quality and
she's very intelligent and perceptive."
As the story unfolds, two other characters become entwined in the mystery of
what Colton saw: the Burpos' friends and church council leaders Nancy Rawling
and Jay Wilkins played by two award-winning actors: Margo Martindale, most
recently seen in August: Osage County and Thomas Haden Church, an Oscar nominee
for Alexander Payne's Sideways.
Martindale enjoyed that her character brings in another perspective - that of
a woman who has struggled with her own devastating loss and is skeptical because
she can't countenance any false answers. Nancy also represents the worry that
Colton's story could bring ridicule on their small but vital church. "Nancy is a
traditionalist. She has been raised in the church in a very buttoned-down
fashion. But as a woman who has lost a child, she has gone through a lot of
bitterness and pain and she is trying to find her way back to being open to love
again," the actress explains.
When she hears Colton's story it is almost an affront to her, Martindale
notes. "At first, it makes her even madder at God," she points out. "If Colton
went to Heaven and came back, she wonders why wasn't my son given back to me?
Her journey in the film is to understand that God loves her and her son just as
much as he loves Todd and Colton. And I believe there's a breath of grace in
Wallace was thrilled with the depth she brought to the part. "The only person
I ever thought of to play Nancy was Margo," he states. "I'd worked with her on
Secretariat and found her profoundly powerful and natural. In this film when she
has her pivotal conversation with Greg, you feel you are witnessing something
from real life, something moving and straight from the heart."
For Martindale, a big part of the joy of the film was taking on topics that
are so much a part of the fabric of life for many. "When I have in-depth
conversations with people, we always explore questions like, 'What do you
believe? How do you feel? What did that mean to you?'" she says. "So I think
these are the kinds of stories that can enrich the way you look at life."
Jay Wilkins, played by Thomas Haden Church, is not only Todd's banker in
tight times, he's also his best friend, trying to help him through a family
crisis. For Wallace, Haden Church was always a frontrunner for the role. "Thomas
is from Texas. He has a deep rootedness in what is natural and you can
completely believe him as a guy who would be both a banker and a volunteer
fireman," Wallace notes. "He's also a force of nature."
Haden Church didn't yet know the book when he got the script, but he was
taken with the story. "I liked that it was about facing a crisis of faith, and
that the writing approached that in such a human way," he says. "In a community
like the Burpo's, which is not that different from where I live in Texas, if
there's a crisis with one family, people close around in a loving, supportive
way and that's also what I really liked about this story. It really appealed to
me as the story of a community."
Another draw for Haden Church was his rapport with Wallace, with whom he'd
never worked before. "What I admire about Randall is that he is a very honorable
person and a true collaborator. Our conversations were thoughtful and
thought-provoking and he was always open to adjusting things to fit my character
and to sharpen my relationship with Greg's character," he says.
As for his character's impact on Todd Burpo, Haden Church says: "Jay is
someone who really finds he has to challenge Todd in the way that only a close
male friend can - he challenges him to move forward, to decide in his heart what
the truth of this is - and then to embrace that."
Finding Heaven on The Prairie
Just as Randall Wallace insisted that the characters of Heaven Is For Real be
grounded in daily life, when it came to the look of the film, he was committed
to uncovering the everyday beauty and grandeur unfolding all around the Burpos
in their Nebraska prairie home. To do so, he brought in a crack technical team
including Academy Award winning director of photography Dean Semler and
production designer Arv Greywal.
Grewal recalls that Wallace came to him with one word to describe the overall
look he was going for: majesty. "Majesty was the very first term that Randall
used," the designer points out. "So we endeavored to find the most expansive and
majestic locations we possibly could."
Shooting in Winnipeg, Canada, Wallace and Grewal utilized abundant fields of
wheat, radiant sunflowers and the crisp-blue, boundless sky as the foundation
for the film's visual architecture. Wallace explains: "The way we approached
this story cinematically is to take seriously the concept of heaven being real
-- to say that God has painted this world around us in a way that causes us to
stop and wonder. When we arrived in Winnipeg, everything was covered in six feet
snow. But then the snow melted and the earth erupted into a glorious spring, and
we began to film the sky and the sprouting fields, and we started to see
Locations were also kept authentic - for example, the fire hall, fire trucks
and other fire-fighting equipment in the film all belong to the firefighters of
Rosser, Manitoba, who served as extras in the film along with several members of
the Imperial, Nebraska volunteer fire department.
For the Burpo house, Grewal searched for a locale that had the comfort of a
family gathering place with a sense of the surrounding natural splendor. "When
we first saw this house, nestled in a lovely meadow, we knew that was it,"
Grewal recalls. "Inside, the geography of the house allowed for a lot of camera
movement, and a lot of interaction between the actors."
When principal photography began, Wallace collaborated closely with
cinematographer Semler to keep that mix of authenticity and simple awe woven
throughout the visuals.
"The visuals for this movie came about in very organic way," Grewal notes.
"For example in the opening scene, Dean and I decided that the space should be
bathed in beautiful rays of light. In my research, I looked at conceptual
drawings in the Guggenheim museum and also photographs of the Parthenon, where a
giant ray of light penetrates the structure. As I was doing this I also came
across images of rays of light coming through barn boards. Ultimately we found
an abandoned Dutch barn that had deteriorated on the sunny side allowing light
to pour through, which Dean then captured so beautifully."
"One of the reasons we wanted Dean Semler to shoot this film, is that he is
one of the greatest cameramen in the world, someone I've worked with for 25
years," notes Joe Roth. "We wanted this movie to have a richness, a feeling of
open spaces, a kind of heightened reality that says what we have here on earth
is pretty miraculous, and Dean was able to achieve that."
For the filmmakers, the idea of audiences taking away that kind of visceral
uplift became the most essential consideration in both the look of the film and
its storytelling. "I think we all believe this story will connect with people in
an amazing way," concludes T.D. Jakes. "It is a story about courage, a story
about fear and faith and how they often cohabit within the realm of one human
being - and how we work that out."
Adds DeVon Franklin: "In the midst of all of the blockbusters and superhero
films, I think this film will find a place with audiences because it taps into
universal questions: 'Who are we? What happens after we die? How do we deal with
loss?' I think if you're a family, you're going to see your struggle on the
screen, but we're not going to leave you there. It's not just about showing the
struggle, it's also about showing the hope and the love."
For director and co-writer Randall Wallace, love is the central element that
everyone can experience in the Burpos' intriguing story, even as they explore
what Colton saw from their own perspectives. "It's really about the idea that we
just might find out that life is greater than we have ever imagined," Wallace
sums up. "And that we might not only find love, but we might also find how to
give love - that, to me, is the essence of faith."
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