Heaven is for RealHeaven is for Real is the near death story of a young boy named Colton who visited heaven, while fighting an illness that brought his father and mother to their knees in prayer. During his recovery, Colton shared what he saw in heaven, which changed his family, community and world forever.

The film was directed by Randall Wallace (Braveheart, The Man in the Iron Mask) and is based on the best selling book by the same name, which was written by Colton’s dad, Todd Burpo. Todd is a down to earth pastor of Crossroads Wesleyan Church in Imperial, Nebraska. He is also a firefighter for the volunteer fire department and a chaplain for the Nebraska State Volunteer Firefighter’s Association.

Todd BurpoI had the good fortune of connecting up with Todd and here are the highlights of our conversation:

CJ: During the pre-screenings, was the film enjoyed more by conservatives or liberals?

Todd: When many comment about Heaven is Real the movie they don’t identify themselves as one or the other. They’re either a fan or a hater. But I will say this, on Heaven is Real the movie, I’ve seen God assemble incredibly talented people and some strong Christians for this project.

CJ: Your book is about your son Colton’s life experience. Were you concerned about the filmmakers getting the story right?

Todd: Three years ago when I agreed to do this (film), I didn’t want to do it because I was scared, you know, how are we going to make sure we tell this story accurately? I had a lot of serious questions and God said, “Well, you’re gonna have to trust me. But I’m going to show you that I’m bigger than Hollywood.” And three years later, what you’re going to see come to that screen…God has answered that prayer. He has brought Christians like Devon Franklin, T.D. Jakes and Randall Wallace to this project…But one of the things they’ve all done is commit to telling the story Colton’s way.

CJ: I like how the team was committed to “tell the story Colton’s way.” Did this come about organically?

Todd: At the very beginning, if I was going to agree to this process, that would be the agreement the producers and Sony had to make. This is Colton’s story that they couldn’t change. There were boundaries they had to agree on and they were willing to accept those. And throughout that, I think the person in the creative process who triumphed that more than anyone else was Randall Wallace.

CJ: Can you give me an example of how that unfolded?

Todd: I would hear actors and actresses talk at the end of the day about how Randy Wallace would bring the cast together and say, hey this is what we’re doing today. This was not only meaningful and creative, but a spiritual journey for Randall Wallace and he kept that on the set throughout the whole making of this film.

CJ: Wallace is known for films like Braveheart and my favorite, The Man in the Iron Mask. Those films have a lot of heart and it sounds like he drove this picture in the same way.

Todd: People think I’m joking when I say this, but I’m serious. I tell people you’ll find that I’m the simple one and he’s the brilliant one.  He’s incredibly brilliant. But the thing about Randall that he says about faith and that he brought to this movie, and he did it wonderfully, he says faith is not just a decision of the intellect, but it’s a decision of your heart – your whole soul. The emotions and everything, which I wanted to make sure was a part of this movie.

CJ: How do you think the film will do with all the adventure films being readied for release?

Todd: This is not going to be a big sci-fi type movie, but it’s a reality movie. And the reactions from the audiences that I’ve seen has surpassed what I’ve seen from big action movies…I’ve seen people cry and later stand up and cheer in this film. It’s amazing. I think the only other film I’ve seen the audience react so emotionally and get tied into was The Passion of the Christ.

CJ: Typically distributors don’t put a lot into the distribution of stories likeHeaven is for Real.

Todd: The giant’s getting ready to wake up. There’s going to be a huge push to more than 2,000 plus theaters and you’re going to see all that media stuff come. From everything I’ve seen, Sony is not only surprised, but they are incredibly behind this movie because of the screenings and just how positive they’ve been.

CJ: What was it like when Colton first started sharing his experience?

Todd: People in the city don’t understand the small town dynamic. You can’t do anything in private in a small town of 2,000. Everyone knows everything. In fact, I can probably almost tell you who lives in every house in my town. So when Colton started sharing with some of his friends and other people…there’s no way to put a lid on the bottle. I mean, it either happened or it didn’t. He’s going to tell what he saw and experienced. This has happened now eleven years ago and the thing about our community, I think in the movie you have to compress time a little bit, but this happened slowly as people discovered it.

CJ: How has it impacted those around him?

Todd: Today, his friends at school are some of his best defenders, which I like that as a parent. When people criticize him, they’re like, “He’s been telling this story for years, way before the book came out, and nothing’s ever changed.” I think that’s some of the best credibility. Of course, we still have people around here that because of other faith or things they’ve been taught, they don’t want to accept what Colton has said, but the fact that Colton has been saying this for eleven years, no one can deny that.

CJ: Sharing an experience all the way through childhood gives credence to the story and it’s hard to argue.

Todd: Well, some people still try to, but I agree with you. You know, when he said, “I know what I saw.” That’s been Colton’s position and he’s been consistent on it.

CJ: Some times the greatest messages come through the innocent perspective of children. What do you hope the audience will take away from the film?

Todd: I think there are a few messages in this film that I think are outstanding. The first one is that faith is a struggle. Some people think you have to have everything figured out to believe in God or to trust God in the midst of difficult circumstances and that’s not true. Faith is, even when God doesn’t do exactly what you prayed for, you still believe and trust in him anyway. You’re gonna see that struggle…the honesty about faith in this movie. I think some times as Christians we try to pretend that we’ve got everything all fixed and that’s not being honest.

I think we need to get people grace and understand. I know what its like to hurt. When my son talked to me about my daughter in heaven…We had a miscarriage, we didn’t know if it was a boy or a girl. We were carrying that broken piece (of miscarriage) around, as a lot of people do, and when you can admit your broken pieces that’s when you can start addressing and sharing them, and get some help with them. This movie is going to help people do just that, talk about what’s broken inside so hopefully God can fix those broken pieces.

CJ: The film is scheduled to open after the blockbusters start to release. Do you think the film will be able to make as big of an impact?

Todd: Audiences have connected with it so well. I was marveling at the reaction of it. And, I think the realness…is what really gets the audience into this film.

CJ: What’s next for you and is your family ready for it?

Todd: I learned that God’s got lots of surprises in store for me. So we just try to get through every day, (one) at a time. I feel as a person of faith that I can try to do the right thing and be obedient today and just leave the results up to God. When we come back home, where we spend most of our time, we say no (to speaking requests) way more than we say yes because we want our kids to still be in school. In fact, Colton is still in public school, not home schooling, and he cant’ miss so many days of school. So the fact that we spend more days at home rather than out on the road and we’re just the Burpos at home, I think that’s the best thing for us and Colton to keep grounded.

CJ: Do you talk through issues with your kids about being in the public eye?

Todd: The biggest thing that Colton’s concerned about now is what his friends are going to say after the movie comes out. So he deals with some real teenage questions that as mom and dad we have to sit down, pray about things and talk through things with him. We’ve said to him that worrying will never make tomorrow better, but it sure can make today a lot worse. We’ve just got to pray about those things, but we as a family have to have those discussions.

CJ: I appreciate your time and openness in sharing about Heaven is for Real.

Todd: Thank you.


Erin Bethea Interview: THIS IS OUR TIME – Review

I had a  comfortable conversation with Erin Bethea last week. She is one of the ensemble actors starring in This is Our Time!, which releases on DVD Tuesday, April 16, 2013.

erin betheaHere is a small portion of our conversation:

CJ: You’ve had experience working with new directors, experienced directors, and now a female director. What was it like working with Lisa Arnold?

ERIN: What is great about working with Lisa is that she wrote the script and is a talented writer. She really knew the story well.

CJ: Did that background help Lisa cast the roles?

ERIN: She is amazing at casting. She knew what she wanted and got it…a perfect cast. They picked people that were the characters. When I met them, they were just what I expected and we built strong friendships, just like our characters.

CJ: What was it like working under Lisa?

ERIN: She has a quiet grace on set. Not too dynamic…she’s gentle and gracious. She is subtle, but pushes you in a way you don’t realize. I would happily do anything with her again.

This is Our Time PosterCJ: There are a lot of Christian films about good people becoming better people, which make finding a unique role difficult. What was a unique aspect of your character Alé that you hadn’t played before?

ERIN: I do play a lot of the same roles in faith-based films, but Alé is the first sold out believer, instead of the person that is not yet quite there. She was warm and friendly. I wished I were more like that girl. She has a warmth…she’s sweet.

CJ: The story was about the character of Ethan finding what gift God had given him and choosing to live it out loud. It seemed like your character was Ethan’s archetype or role-model that encouraged him to step up his life to God’s calling. What was it like to play such a powerful role-model with humility?

ERIN: It was a bit of a challenge. I wanted to keep Alé likeable. Because she’s everyone’s favorite, you don’t want to play her in a way where she becomes annoying. We all know amazing people who don’t realize how amazing they are, and she didn’t’ realize the gift she brought to others. She was just being who she was, so her seemingly perfection didn’t come across contrived.

CJ: In the film, Alé inspires everyone in the story. In what way did she inspire you personally?

ERIN: We shot in India in an actual leper colony for three days. For three days I really lived out her ministry. You can’t walk away from something like that without being impacted, challenged, and being other’s minded.

CJ: Do you find that the audience wants you to be that person in real life?

ERIN: There is an expectation that is placed on you as an actor. Fans are taken aback when they find out that you are not like the person they fell in love with on the screen.

CJ: As a Christian actress, are you limited to always playing the good guy? Wouldn’t it be refreshing and expand your acting chops if you played a bad guy?

ERIN: I would so love to play a bad guy. Please, someone put me in a film as a bad guy. I just want to play a villain…a rotten person. A friend of mine has a theory that nice girls can play bad people really well by playing the exact opposite of who they are.

CJ: Christian movie fans seem to put a lot of expectations on Christian films. Do you have any thoughts on the matter?

ERIN: I think that Christian films in general have a different set of expectations. People will accept certain things in a secular film that they won’t accept in a Christian film.

CJ: But what about films like Les Miz, which in my mind is one of the greatest stories of redemption ever told.

ERIN: I loved Les Miz. It was a great story of redemption. But if it were made as a Christian film, there would be an uproar over there being a prostitute in the film, and rightfully so. We are called to something higher.

CJ: We do have a higher standard to live by. But, how much greater is the value of redemption when the person’s devastating choices are revealed in the storyline?

ERIN: Storytelling…when Christians see that the arch of the story has redemptive qualities…if they see it embrace people…they get behind it like they did with The Blindside.

CJ: You seem genuinely thankful for the acting roles you’ve received. You must have fun playing the various characters.

ERIN: Making a movie is pretty much the most fun thing on this planet. You make friends on set that will be your friends for years.

CJ: Erin, thank you so much for your time today and chatting about your experiences.

ERIN: Thank you, CJ. It was a pleasure meeting you.

Copyright © 2013 by CJ Powers
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received one or more of the products or services mentioned above for free in hopes that I would mention it on my blog. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will be good for my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

A Chat with Pixar’s Matthew Luhn

I had the privilege of being introduced to Matthew Luhn this past weekend after a producer of a live interview show invited me backstage to meet him. While our conversation was limited to a few minutes, I can tell you that he is genuine and a caring person with strong family values.

Pixar Story Artist

Matthew started out working as an animator on the Simpsons, but soon shifted over to Pixar. His first project with Pixar was as an animator on the first CG movie, Toy Story. This seemed to be a natural fit for him since he came from four generations of toy store owners.

His move into animation was not only supported by his dad, but also pushed by him. Matthew’s dad had a lifelong dream of becoming an animator, but was forced to keep the family business going. To make sure that didn’t happen to Matthew, his dad pushed him into animation.

Matthew is currently a Story Artist at Pixar Animation Studios and worked on Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, Cars, Ratatouille, UP, and Toy Story 3. He works with a creative team including a director, writer and storyboard artists. It’s his job to translate the script elements into the visual look and feel of the show, and to make sure the story works well on screen.

During the process of creating the visual personalities of a character, it’s common to borrow from the lives and people on the team. In fact, if I were to guess, elements of Matthew’s demeanor may have been borrowed for the character of Woody in Toy Story. Let’s just say there are a lot of similarities.

Matthew loves to give back by teaching master classes to professionals and university students, and helping young kids get started in animation. He has traveled the world promoting the skills and techniques needed to bring about quality images and a strong story. He even created several books that can help kids develop their cartooning skills.

It’s been widely recognized that it takes 10,000 hours to become highly skilled or a master at something, and Matthew humbly admits that what took him a week to do in his early years, he can now do in a day. I saw his mastery first hand as he drew the character of Jessie from Toy Story for a little girl. It only took him a few minutes to draw a perfect character.

By the way, this summer will be a blessing to the Luhn family, as Matthew and his wife are expecting a baby. I’m sure the household excitement extends to his son looking forward to being a big brother and certainly all of Matthew’s cartoon characters are also happy.

Copyright © 2013 by CJ Powers