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Director found Manitoba's big skies perfect background for film about faith

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Director Randall Wallace (left) and Greg Kinnear.

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Director Randall Wallace (left) and Greg Kinnear.

Based on a No. 1 bestselling book, the movie Heaven Is for Real makes the case that a four-year-old boy's visions of a paradise in the afterlife are not to be taken lightly.

The film's more grounded message is that the notion of heaven should not be entirely alien because we are often given glimpses of paradise here on Earth.

In the latter department, the movie's director, Randall Wallace, says the decision to shoot the film in southern Manitoba gave the film the touch of heaven it required.

That may seem an unbelievable claim after the province has endured its most bitter winter in a century. But Wallace, 64, says the locations -- including Winnipeg, Selkirk, Beausejour, East St. Paul, Rosser, Meadows and Warren -- delivered the goods as photographed by cinematographer Dean Semler (Dances With Wolves).

Wallace also admits he didn't expect that to be the case. He was initially drawn here by the province's aggressive tax incentives.

"The tax rebates were so attractive, we had to go there to look," says Wallace on the phone from his home base in Los Angeles. "I didn't think it was going to work. I sort of went to Winnipeg the first time for scouting thinking I was just doing due diligence. I wanted to be sure in my head that it wouldn't work.

"But when we got there, we saw immediately that it would work," he says. "We fell in love with the sky and the landscape, and then later fell in love with the people."

It helped having those elements in place, since he knew the film's message -- right there in the title -- might meet resistance.

"For me, the people I wanted to communicate with were the people who find any suggestion of religion to be a dirty word," he says. "They are the people who would make the assumption that a movie like this would be preaching a dogma, rather than describing an authentic experience."

The challenge certainly met with Wallace's field of expertise. Oscar-nominated for his screenplay of Braveheart, the Tennessee-born filmmaker majored in religion and minored in Russian and creative writing at Duke University. He has not shied away from delivering a Christian viewpoint in films such as Secretariat, which opens with a quote from scripture. But he asserts the film should not be pigeonholed in "what everyone likes to call a faith-based genre.

"This is a movie that speaks to a universal question," he says. "I wanted this movie to be an emotional experience, rather than a doctrine, and that was largely my fight through this."

Wallace says he was sold on the story by its two central characters, Todd Burpo and his son, Colton.

"Todd Burpo was a pastor at a local church, but that was just one of the many hats he wore in his life. He made most of his living installing garage doors and coaching wrestling and running softball leagues. And he was a volunteer fireman. He wore at least five hats professionally.

"And I liked that. To me, that connected him to the world that we all live in. And he was a character I could really respect."

Wallace says he also responded to Colton's visions of heaven, which included meeting Jesus, his dead grandfather and a stillborn older sister.

"The stories that the boy told were down-to-earth," Wallace says. "They suggested to me that to have an experience that was concrete.

"I've heard a lot of descriptions of near-death experiences in the course of my life that seemed kind of airy-fairy to me," he says. "They all had a bright light and a good warm feeling, but what the boy was describing felt like a concrete and tangible experience, not a disembodied, ethereal experience, and that fascinated me."

When it opens in theatres Wednesday, Heaven Is for Real will join a crop of religious-based films at city theatres, which range from the studio box-office hit Noah to the newly released anti-atheist screed God's Not Dead.

For his part, Wallace says a movie about religious faith is neither more nor less difficult to make than any other movie.

"It's difficult to get any movie made," Wallace says. "I don't think there's an anti-faith thing.

"In Hollywood, it's 'chase the money.' And if a faith-based movie or a movie about a spiritual experience makes money, then Hollywood will try to replicate that."

 

Heaven Is for Real opens Wednesday, April 16, at Polo Park and St. Vital.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 14, 2014 D1

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Updated on Monday, April 14, 2014 at 6:39 AM CDT: Changes headline, replaces photo

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