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.
WHEN it comes to casting studio movies shot in cities far removed from Hollywood (such as Winnipeg), the modus operandi is to import the big speaking roles from elsewhere.
Writer-director Randall Wallace bucked that trend when he shot Heaven Is for Real in southern Manitoba last year. "We were surprised well beyond our expectations with the quality of the local talent," Wallace says.
He cast Manitoba actors in key roles, including nine-year-old actress Lane Styles, who plays young Cassie Burpo, sister to Colton, the young boy who emerges from emergency surgery with visions of heaven, and daughter of embattled pastor Todd Burpo, played in the movie by Greg Kinnear.
"Certainly Lane was just incredible. I don't think there's a young actress anywhere we could have found who could have done a better or as good a job as she did," Wallace says. "She was fantastic."
Lane, a Grade 4 student with four movie roles to her credit, wants to be a professional actor when she grows up. She says Heaven Is for Real offered a unique opportunity, since her character is obliged to punch a couple of boys who mock her brother in a school playground.
"We had to get a couple of lessons before the movie started so I'd know how to fake-punch," she says.
Among the film's local adult actors, which include Darcy Fehr, Mike Bell and Ali Tataryn, Nancy Sorel scored a key role as a skeptical psychologist -- Dr. Slater -- whom Kinnear's character consults.
The role, Wallace says, had actually been offered repeatedly to John Malkovich.
"(We) had not intended it to be a woman, but she came in and auditioned for another role and she was so magnetic that we tried her in the Dr. Slater role," Wallace says. "And everybody loved her in that role."
Sorel says she didn't know she was playing a role earmarked for Malkovich until after shooting her first scene.
"He said that to me and gave me a big hug," Sorel recalls.
"I said to my husband, 'You know what it felt like? It felt like I had finally been invited to the grown-up table,'" says Sorel, perhaps best known for playing the libidinous Aunt Clara on the Winnipeg-set HBO Canada series Less Than Kind. She says the studio movie experience "took my performance to another level."
"It's such a treat to be able to work the scene so much," she says. "In television, you can't (do that), but in a large-budget feature like that, you can rehearse, talk about it, change it, discuss it, and Randall was such an amazing director," she says. "He would just let you go.
"The conditions were just amazing and I just felt so lucky to be there."
-- Randall King
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.