Faith, Media & Culture

Faith, Media & Culture

Easter Sunday TV treats: “Apple Mortgage Cake” on UP ; Martha Williamson’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” debuts on Hallmark

posted by John W. Kennedy

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

Nice people are staging a comeback on TV. Tonight’s first-run offerings on UP TV and Hallmark Channel proves that programming about nice, decent people can be both entertaining and intelligent. The broadcast networks should take note. These two up-and-coming cable outlets are tapping into the pent-up demand for quality television that is neither cynical nor dark.  Together they are putting into practice the ideal of lighting a rather than cursing the darkness.

The UP Original Movie Apple Mortgage Cake debuts @ 7:00 PM (ET) with an encore at 11:00 PM (ET). 

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Synopsis (from the UP website): A five-year-old Angela Logan (Millie Davis) is in her grandmother Nellie’s (Darlene Cooke) kitchen in Teaneck, New Jersey learning how to make apple cake and discovering the joys of baking. Nellie tells Angela: “Cake makes people happy. One bowl, one mixer, and the right company, and you’re set for life.”

Thirty-five years later, Angela (Kimberly Elise) is a single, working mom with three teenage boys, Marcus (A.J. Saudin), William, (Stephan James) and Nicolas (Lamar Johnson). She juggles various jobs and helps with employment counseling at the local Mission. While thrilled to be in the family home where she learned to bake, the house is falling apart, with sections deemed uninhabitable by inspectors after storm and flood damage. Plus, the car just decided not to start – and the boys all still need shoes, books and food.

She has always made due until now – when her lender calls in the mortgage loan and puts her into foreclosure. Angela has 10 days to come up with $4000 or she loses her home. This is the true story of a woman who decides to bake 100 apple cakes and sell them at $40 each in order to save her home – and how this idea completely changes her and her family.

As word of her “bake sale” ripples out through neighbors, friends, her church and even old flames, such as Melvin (Kevin Hanchard), the story soon spreads to the news, locally, nationally and internationally. Orders fly in from all over the world. Angela is taken off guard by the overwhelming support. But soon, this fiercely independent woman learns to depend on the kindness and love of others that comes her way, particularly when the community and local businesses rally around Angela to help her finish and ship the initial stack of orders.

The real-life inspiration for the film can be found at www.maccakes.com.

Mini-Review: Like all good desserts, Apple Mortgage Cake goes down easy. While doing so, it spins an inspirational (true!) story about overcoming life’s obstacles. It’s also a reminder that while pulling one’s self by one’s own bootstraps is a virtue, no one succeeds entirely on their own.  Some combination of friends, family and the kindness strangers is part the recipe for anyone’s success. Mixed in with that nice life lesson is a touch of humor and a pinch of romance. In short, Apple Mortgage Cake has all the ingredients of fine UPlifting Entertainment. Recommended.

Signed, Sealed, Delivered arrive on Hallmark Channel at 8:00 PM (ET).

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Series Synopsis (from The Hallmark Channel website): The new original series “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” is a wonderful combination of romance, comedy and drama that follows the lives of four postal detectives who transform themselves into a team of detectives to track down intended recipients of undeliverable mail. Their missions take them out of the office and into an unpredictable world where redirected letters and packages can save lives, solve crimes, reunite old loves and change futures by arriving late but somehow always on time. The team includes charming Oliver O’Toole (Eric Mabius), a genius postal detective and the group’s leader; new team member, Shane McInerney (Kristin Booth), a technophile who brings 21st century sensibility to the group; free-spirited, “girl next door” Rita Haywith (Crystal Lowe) who has a photographic memory; and lovable Norman Dorman (Geoff Gustafson), a master in conventional research methods.

Mini-Review: Tonight’s series opener features Valerie Harper as a legendary postal supervisor who is evaluating the team of postal detective as they unravel a dangerous mystery involving a letter from a young boy to his grandmother.

As I wrote when reviewing the series two-hour movie pilot last October, the show seems “ironically subversive in this era of dark and cynical television.  Oliver, the leader of the team, winningly played by Eric Mabius (Ugly Betty), belies the idea (too often taken as a truism in Hollywood) that only snarky, cynical heroes can be interesting. The dignified and quietly compassionate Oliver is the polar opposite of both adjectives yet he’s as interesting as hell heaven.  Somehow simultaneously suave and what some would consider nerdy, he is a man of deep integrity who carries within himself a deep wound from his past. But where recent TV protagonists (i.e. House) have channeled their inner hurt through sharp-edged putdowns and general amoral unpleasantness, Oliver deals with his pain by throwing himself into his work and struggling to do the right thing. He’s all about following rules — like never reading more of a letter than is absolutely necessary to ascertain its proper destination — but it’s clear as an envelope window that he cares about the people involved.  The bottom line is you can’t help but like the guy.”

I’m happy to report that that all that still applies — though it does seem to me that that rule about not reading any more of a letter than is absolutely necessary has fallen by the wayside. That minor quibble aside, as a weekly series Signed, Sealed, Delivered delivers on the promise of its pilot with the regular cast gelling into a cohesive and appealing ensemble.

Next week’s edition, which was also made available for preview, deals with the aftermath of a soldier’s tour in Afghanistan — demonstrating that like Martha Williamson’s CBS hit Touched by an Angel, this show has the ability to shift tones from week to week while also occasionally taking on some contemporary issues.

Valerie Harper, whose character’s story arc continues into next week, follows Daphne Zuniga (from the pilot) in the role of a postal supervisor overseeing the team as they handle their cases of the week. The idea, as I understand it, is to feature various well-known TV stars in that position. Upcoming episodes will reportedly tap the talents of Della Reese, Valerie Bertinelli, Marilu Henner, Dick Van Dyke and Carol Burnett. That’s certainly an impressive list and, no doubt, Martha Williamson has the clout to attract many other stars who are attracted to her brand of television.

While the idea has certainly worked so far, I can’t help but wonder whether the show might, in the long run, be better served by utilizing its guest star power on the sending or receiving end of the letters at the center of the episodes. Conversely, my gut feeling is that having a regular supervisor would provide more consistency and ongoing tension (if the supervisor, say, wanted to see the Dead Letter office closed).

In any event, Signed, Sealed, Delivered is a sure-footed drama with a unique premise, great characters and fascinating story possibilities. Touched by an Angel ran for nine seasons on CBS. I think it’s quite possible that this charming show can match or, perhaps even, exceed that. BTW, word is that CBS passed on this series. Their loss, IMHO, is Hallmark’s gain. Highly Recommended.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

This Easter weekend, Roma Downey wants you to know that “Son of God” is still in theaters and still changing lives

posted by John W. Kennedy

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

Son of God lives. Faith audiences certainly have option at the box office this weekend — with Randall Wallace’s genuinely sweet slice-of-life (and afterlife) Heaven is for Real joining Darren Aronofsky’s strange take on Noah, and the Pure Flix sleeper his God’s Not Dead.  But Roma Downey called in to ask me to remind you that there is a fourth option. Son of God, the hit film that grew out of the success of The Bible miniseries she produced with husband Mark Burnett, is still in theaters and, as she says, changing lives. It certainly does seem an appropriate choice — particularly on Easter Sunday.

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JWK: So, Son of God came out in theater on February 28th and is still playing. I guess that’s what they call legs.

ROMA DOWNEY: It is still in theaters and it’s been doing phenomenally well. We’ve been so encouraged and so excited. And here we are (in) Holy Week and Easter, we’re just so glad it’s still in theaters giving families an opportunity to come together…to see it.

JWK: And the soundtrack album also continues to do well.

RD: Yeah, the soundtrack album is absolutely gorgeous!  I have mine in my car and it plays like a prayer. We took some of the scenes from the film and integrated it in there with the soundtrack (along with) some beautiful Scripture and prayers. And then on there we have some remixes which are just stunning — from CeeLo Green, One Republic, The Fray, Hillsong and so many more. You know, it released into the top five. It’s beautiful. It’s an emotive experience to listen to the soundtrack. You hear that in the film. Hans Zimmer is one of the great film composers of all time. To have had him on this project from the beginning has been just a blessing.

JWK: And, as you told me in our prior conversation, you’ve heard from people who have seen the film and say it has affected their lives in very positive ways.

RD: I think that’s been the real success of it. You know, we can add up in numbers how people who we believe saw the TV series – at least 100 million in America alone and the millions more around the globe. We can tell, at this point, that many, many millions have seen Son of God here in the states and we anticipate many, many millions more by the time it open around the globe. But there’s something very abstract in that, I think. It’s only as the personal stories start coming in — when we hear of the individual lives that have been touched (and) transformed by the film that we really begin to understand the scope, the breadth and the real success of this project — because you know lives are being changed.

We had one mother who reached out to us. She had a 17-year-old boy who was in a very dark stage of his adolescence. She felt that he was sullen, he was angry and he certainly had stopped going to church. Every time she would invite him to go with her, it ended up in an argument. But she asked him to go see Son of God with her. It was a reasonable ask, to go to the movies — and an invitation that he accepted. She said somewhere around the Crucifixion sequence he started to cry quiet tears that became bigger. It opened his heart and we know that when hearts are opened grace can move in. She shared that he cried all the way home and that something really shifted inside of him. He really understood what Jesus had done for him personally, how loves he was, how worthy that made him feel. The next morning when she went down to get in her car to go to church, he was sitting in the car waiting for her. That’s one story of many stories that are just extraordinary feedback for us as filmmakers — to hear this kind of beautiful testimonial.

We also heard from a 100-year-old lady who had been born in El Salvador and now lives in Los Angeles who has never been to the movies in her whole life. The first — and only — movie she went to see was Son of God. She went with her family and was incredibly moved by the experience. She loved the movie. She wept during the Passion scene and the Crucifixion, of course. Afterward, she said she would recommend the film. Of course, that got our attention…We felt so privileged that if she was only going to see one movie that she saw our movie…

…She was a Christian but had never seen a film on the big screen. I think, even for Christians and for believers going to this film, something extraordinary happens when you see it played out on the big screen. It’s larger than life. It serves as a stand-along, larger-than-life experience. When you see what He went through for us, I think there is something so humbling in this that just is moving people.

So, we’re hearing of people haven’t known Jesus (and) are falling in love with him for the first time through the movie. But I think we’re hearing more stories from (Christians) who were in a sort of complacent place (and were) taking it for granted. It’s helped to…reawaken (something inside them and) they’ve falling in love with Jesus all over again and (they are) now are going back to Scripture, going back to church with a new aliveness because, you know, if you consider, John, all from the beginning of time — though religious art, stained-glass windows, through all the many ways we…have tried to create imagery for our sacred text — we’ve tried to find ways to paint pictures to explain the Gospel to the masses.

This in 2014 so the natural way to allow people to re-experience the Gospel is through film. It’s not instead of, it’s as well as. Think of it as invitation. Think of it as an introduction — and you go back to church and you go back to Scripture with a new aliveness because you’ve seen it. You know, we’re such a visual age (that it helps) to see it played out. And Diogo Morgado’s performance as Jesus is just beautiful. He brings the absolutely perfect combination of qualities…He has strength and yet he has gentleness.

JWK: What’s your reaction when you hear Diogo Morgado referred to in the media as the “sexy” Jesus?

RD: I think that he certainly is a good-looking guy and I think that people responded to that. But he is beautiful inside and I think that’s what comes across the screen. There’s a kindness and a compassion to him. My experience with good-looking actors is that normally they know they’re good looking and there’s a little bit of a swagger in how they present themselves. When I first met Diogo Morgado, he had none of that swagger. He has none of that narcissism that we might associate with the very good looking. He’s a naturally very humble and kind man and his portrayal of Jesus — at the center of Son of God — is deeply touching.

JWK: I understand you arranged to have a group of about 250 people to see the movie for free in Los Angeles.

RD: Yes, we did. We had a group of low-income families bussed into the Pacific Theater in Glendale. Dinner was provided (along with) a screening of Son of God. After the movie, a short Gospel message an invocation were given and one-fifth of the audience that afternoon stepped forward and dedicated their lives to Jesus. S0, (it’s) extraordinary how the movie is being used.

RD: Pastor Rick Warren, who is a dear friend of ours, has always joked with us that the most dangerous prayer you can pray is “Use me.”

I know that all through my years on Touched by an Angel — which lasted almost ten years and, at its height, reached 20-million people a week — there was always a central scene (we called) the Angel revelation scene. In this scene — having been an undercover angel though the whole episode — I would now reveal who I was…an angel sent by God with a message. The message always contained the hope and the promise that there is a God and God loves you and wants to be part of your life. It was such a privilege for me, John, to be the messenger — as a believer.

In the years after Touched by an Angel, remained “Use me.: What is it that I can do to combine what I love to do — which is making films — with what I believe and love — which is God.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

Valerie Harper on her health, her thoughts on faith and her role on Hallmark Channel’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered”

posted by John W. Kennedy

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

Taking life one day at a time. Valerie Harper guest stars on the first two episodes of Signed, Sealed, Delivered, the humorous drama series debuting on Hallmark Channel this Sunday night (4/20) at 8:00 PM (ET). The show, created by Martha Williamson (Touched by an Angel) follows a team of postal investigators (led by Eric Mabius of Ugly Betty) as they work to unite lost letters with their rightful recipients. Valerie plays a colorful post office supervisor with a surprising personal story that helps sets the tone for the series going forward.

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That premiere date, BTW, marks the second Easter since the actress was diagnosed with a terminal cancer involving the lining of her brain. She was given an estimated three months to live. All this time later she is still going strong — though a recent media report pronouncing that she is now cancer-free is not quite accurate. “In response to a recent erroneous quote concerning my health,” Harper says, “I am not ‘absolutely cancer-free.’ I wish I were. Right now what I am is cautiously optimistic about my present condition and I have hope for the future.”

The good news is that her cancer has remained contained — a fact to which she credits the prayers and good wishes of her friends and fans, along with the dedicated work of her doctor and medical caregivers. She remains active her. Since her diagnoses, she’s also been seen in the UP TV movie The Town That Came A-Courtin’ and an episode of TV Land’s Hot in Cleveland that reunited her with fellow MTM alums Mary Tyler Moore, Georgia Engel and Cloris Leachman.

I am pleased to report that when I met her in New York City earlier this week at a Mastermedia luncheon (featuring Martha Williamson as the speaker), she looked great, had a fantastic attitude — and a hearty appetite to match. She was there with her devoted husband (since 1987), former personal trainer to the stars Tony Cacciotti. We were joined in our conversation by Marcie Gold, the executive vice president of Moon Water Productions (Martha Williamson’s production company).

JWK: What made you decide that you wanted to do this particular show?

VALERIE HARPER: Well, I’ve known Martha so long…Actually, we were at Thanksgiving dinner together, the families. She said would you want to do a guest shot in a show I’m thinking of writing? I said “Absolutely!” She said “Well, let me tell you (about) the character.” She said “She’s bigger than life! She’s very, kind of, ebullient!” She saw me in a play about Tallulah Bankhead. It had a lot of bad language because that’s how Tallulah talked…She said “(I want you to) do a character like that — over-the-top, dramatic and loving show business.” She made her a supervisor in a post office. She goes around and evaluates everyone’s work. So, she goes from place to place. I said “Absolutely! It sounds like fun!” She wrote wonderful lines. She call and say “Listen to this line. What do you think of this?” I’d says “Wonderful! Wonderful!” We had a (blast)! That’s how it happened.

JWK: So, you and Martha go back a long time.

VH: Oh, yeah — (all the way back to) Touched by an Angel. Martha’s husband Jon directed. I loved it. I loved working with them. So, that was 1997. Then we did (another Martha Williamson show called) Promised Land. Promised Land was a wonderful show.

JWK: The TV shows you’ve been involved with have I think, generally, been somewhat gentle in tone. They were very smart and extremely funny but I don’t think The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rhoda wouldn’t be considered particularly edgy by today’s standards.

VH: That’s correct. There are no nude scenes in my career!

JWK: But more than that there was a kind streak running through them that I think audiences miss in much of today’s programming.

VH: Ah, that’s sweet. That’s lovely. Kind — that’s the word we need to get.

JWK: How are you feeling?

VH: Good.

JWK: You’re looking great!

VH: I’m much improved. It’s not anything real curable. They say “We can’t cure this.” They say this is incurable but day after goes by and I’m thriving.

JWK: Thank God!

VH: Thank God indeed! Yeah!

MARCIE GOLD: I will go on record, I have found Valerie — and Tony, her husband — to be the most generous people I’ve ever met! Anybody can say they don’t believe in the laws of generosity — you know, that if you give it comes back to you — and yet I see it in action. That’s what I see. The energy that I feel when I’m with people like Val and Tony is that love and that generosity and that care for people. It’s the most beautiful thing that I have ever seen.

VH: It’s interesting — because you’re saying that in such a sweet and complimentary way (but) it’s really natural (for you), knowing who you are as a human being. It’s a natural outcrying of just appreciating others and then you can come face to face with yourself…It’s (not about) denomination necessarily. That’s what I love about Martha. She’s highly spiritual…as a Christian, (she has) a wonderful deep (faith) — but never finger-wagging, never using it as a way to put others down…She’s operating above politics. It’s wonderful.

MG: It’s the laws of love. We weren’t commanded to hit anybody over the head. We were commanded to love people. That’s all — and I think when it gets it be more than that, a lot of times it’s people’s interpretation.

VH: It’s a misuse of Jesus and God — the whole concept of us as a family, a human family.

MG: Yes.

JWK: Is there anything you’d like to add?

VH: Just that I love the show and I really implore people to watch it. (Martha) is a genius…and she’s continually excellent. It’s not like she got lucky.

Next Week: Martha Williamson

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

Comparing “Heaven is for Real” with “God’s Not Dead” + an interview with “Heaven” writer/director Randall Wallace

posted by John W. Kennedy

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

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Heaven is for Real arrives. the highly-anticipated based on the New York Time #1 bestselling book by Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent opens in theaters nationwide today (4/16)

Synopsis: Heaven if for Real tells the true story of Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear), a small-town church pastor who must confront his own true beliefs about God and the afterlife when his four-year-old son Colton (Connor Corum) nearly dies during emergency surgery, after recovering, begins recounting a near-death experience includes a journey to Heaven, an encounter Jesus and details about his family’s history that he could not have known. How Todd and his family (which includes his wife Sonja [Kelly Reilly] and Colton’s older sister Cassie [Lane Styles]) and their church community deal with a situation that both supports what they purport to believe yet challenges it at the same time drives the drama forward. Cast: Greg Kinnear (Rake, The Kennedys), Kelly Reilly (Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows), Thomas Haden Church (We Bought a Zoo, Wings), Connor Corum, Lane Styles and Margo Martindale (The Americans, The Millers, Justified). Directed by Randall Wallace (Secretariat). Screenplay by Randall Wallace (Braveheart) and Christopher Parker. Produced by Joe Roth and T.D. Jakes.

My review: With Heaven is for Real sharing marquis space with God’s Not Dead (already a box office hit), it wouldn’t be too surprising if someone got drunk and mistook their local theater for their local church and the movie titles for sermon subjects.

If they were sermons, God’s Not Dead would be more apt to be described as being of the fire-and-brimstone variety. Heaven is for Real, on the other hand, strikes a much less condescending stance toward those who may be skeptical toward its central premise and even believers who may, nonetheless, doubt Colton’s experience.  I criticized God’s Not Dead as a missed opportunity to engage those outside the choir in a film dealing with a big question involving faith, the makers of Heaven is for Real seize the opportunity by offering a judgment-free story that tackles the question (or, more accurately, answer) put forth in its title.

God’s Not Dead deals with a college debate over the existence of God and, therefore, may have, in my view, benefited from a title that is less-weighted toward a conclusion (even though I agree with that conclusion. The declarative title works for Heaven is for Real though because the story is about four-year-old boy’s innocent and matter-of-fact recollection of what happened to him as he hovered on the brink of death — literally hovered as, at one point, we see his POV from above the operating table.

While the movie definitely tilts toward belief in Colton’s story, skeptics are given due respect which is one reason the film will likely outdraw its predecessor at the box office. Of course, having a Sony-sized marketing budget won’t hurt on that score either.

Another difference, of course, is the fact that Heaven is for Real is based on true events — but it also conveys a far truer tone than the somewhat strident and manipulative God’s Not Dead is fiction. It’s portrayal of the life of a small turn church congregation rings true as we witness how Colton’s story is viewed by different people. While there is some taunting (i.e. in the school playground), believers and skeptics (inside and outside the church) are all thoroughly believable with not a cartoon cutout to be found.

In terms of performances, Greg Kinnear (who has certainly come a long way since Talk Soup) is perfectly cast as the well-intentioned pastor and father who is thrown off his game by his son’s experience. While his edgy lawyer series Rake flounders on Fox, this may well prove to be his defining role of 2014.  Kelly Reilly is equally good as his supportive wife who, at the same time, aches for their family to resume their normal lives.  Thomas Haden Church is fine as the kindly town banker (which certainly plays against some current stereotypes) and Margo Martindale gives a standout performance as a congregant concerned that the media attention given to Colton’s story threatens to turn their little church into something resembling a circus exhibit. Probably the most memorable though performance is probably given by newcomer Connor Corum who is so natural in front of the camera. He reminds of (an even younger version of) Ricky Schroder in The Champ.

The script by Randall Wallace and Christopher Parker is a bit slow-paced at the start but picks up as we come to know the characters and definitely held my interest to the very end — which, BTW, included a really nice performance of a song called Compass, written by Diane Warren and performed by Rascal Flatts. I dare say, the faith-filled song (heard in the trailer above) is good enough to have its Best Song Oscar nomination rescinded by the Academy next year.

Heaven is for Real is highly-recommended.

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Bringing Heaven to HollywoodRandall Wallace won an Oscar nomination for writing the screenplay o Braveheart, the 1995 blockbuster that propelled him unto Hollywood’s A-list. Since then his writing and/or directing credits have included such noteworthy films as The Man in the Iron Mask (a personal favorite of mine), Pearl Harbor, We Were Soldiers, The Rookie and Secretariat. His films have always been faith-friendly, reflecting his personal beliefs, and Heaven is for Real certainly is consistent with that.

JWK: Why did you choose to do Heaven is for Real? How did it come to you?

RANDALL WALLACE: This movie came to me through Sony and Joe Roth, the producer. I worked with Joe before on Pearl Harbor and respect him tremendously. I read the book and was both excited and moved by it. When I’m choosing projects I look for something that has the power to excite my imagination and move my heart and this did that.

JWK: Why did it do that?

RW: Well, I’m a father myself and I also, at one point, studied for the ministry. So, I can relate to Todd powerfully and I could also relate to Colton — to the story of a boy. I was going to church my whole life and I would stare at the pictures (on) the stained-glass windows and the pictures on the walls of the church, pictures in my Bible and hear the sermons about Heaven. I could really connect with the thought of what it would be like if one day your son walked in and said that “I’ve been to Heaven.” It was the stuff of great drama.

JWK: How has being involved in this project — and talking with the Burpos — affected your own faith?

RW: I think it’s two-fold. One is that it’s connected me more with the beauty of what we have here — Heaven on Earth. With the Lord’s Prayer — “on Earth as it is in Heaven” — which is a big part of the movie. That phrase becomes powerful. To be able to look at the beauty of this Earth and to think that God has hinted at Heaven with what we see here and, especially with the love that we feel with each other. In knowing love we get a sense of knowing God.

The other thing is that ethereal hope — that sense of a Heaven beyond time that is glorious and full of grace. As I’ve had different people from my parents’ generation pass on — many of them fairly recently, including my own mother — I have had a sense of comfort having looked at the issue of this movie.

JWK: You studied to be a minister. Of what denomination?

RW: I grew up a Baptist and went to seminary at Methodist school, Duke University, but I also don’t worry too much about denominations. I love what John Wesley said — “If our hearts are together, let’s not worry about whether our heads are together. If our hearts are together, then let’s joins hands.” So, I try to do that regardless of denominations.

JWK: How did you move from seminary into show business? How did that transition come about?

RW: I majored in religion for my entire undergraduate career at Duke University and then I went to seminary for a year unsure whether or not I really had the call to be a minister. I spoke with a pastor of my home church and told him I was going to seminary. He said “Do you feel the call to be a minister?” and I said “Honestly, I don’t. I know it’s the greatest call you could have but I’m not feeling that call myself. He said “Well, you know, you’re wrong. It’s not the greatest call. The greatest call is whatever calling God has for you.” That was a wonderful piece of pastoring that he did for me because he let me know that God would find a way to let me know what I should be doing.”

And I love writing. I’ve always been drawn to that and felt a particular joy in it — like the phrase in Chariots of Fire: “God made me fast and when I run I feel his pleasure.” God gave me a love of writing and (I knew) to do it I would feel God’s pleasure.

I first went to Nashville. After a couple of years, I kept going west and ended up in Los Angeles. I began to write stories. Braveheart was my first feature film.

JWK: You also worked in television — with writer/producer Stephen J. Cannell (Hunter, Broken Badges).

RW: Yeah, Steve Cannell was my mentor, one of my main ones. A great man. A great teacher, as well. I worked in television and began to work in features.

JWK: Was working in episodic television good training for features?

RW: I think so. I think it’s fantastic training. It teaches you to focus on story and that’s certainly what this was about. This (Heaven is for Real) is a fantastic story that plays like a mystery. It draws you into the emotion of the story. That’s the greatest thing. It’s not an intellectual exercise. I found the story powerfully entertaining but best of all it was a story that connected to your emotions.

JWK: What is your relationship with Todd and Colton like?

RW: I know Todd best of all. I would call Todd and get to know him. I found him to be really down to earth and also comforting — and a real friend. Every time I would call and talk before we got off the phone he would always want to pray for me. I found that quite moving.

JWK: So, you could feel that his faith was quite real.

RW: Absolutely.

JWK: Did you personally feel like it was perhaps the Hand of God moving you to this project?

RW: I do feel that. I believe that God is carrying us whether we know it or not and is always present. I love what C.S. Lewis said — “You don’t have a soul, you are a soul. You have a body.” I’ve always wanted my life and my work to be something that was letting my soul participate with the souls of others. I have really felt that process (with) this picture.

JWK: Do you see a higher value in storytelling than just captivating an audience in an interesting and enthralling tale? Is there a purpose beyond the entertainment?

RW: I do. I think storytelling is the greatest activity of any culture. Storytelling is how you build a family, how you pass along identity. As I wrote in the dedication in the book for Braveheart, it’s the tales we tell ourselves that make us who we are. Jesus told stories. Rather than trying to argue intellectual points and theology, he would tell a story and the power of that story was that it went beyond intellectualization. It went beyond argument. It told an example of life that everyone could recognize was true. That’s what movies do at their best. They give us a story and let us decide how to connect that story with the rest of our lives.

That’s what I loved about Heaven is for Real. The book was just a great story and then we have to ask ourselves how do we feel about this story? What do we think of it? What do we do about it? How does it connect us with the rest of our lives?

JWK: What do you have coming up after Heaven is for Real? I know you’re working on a film called Conscientious Objector about America’s first conscientious objector to win the Medal of Honor.

RW: Yes. That is a story that I worked on with Walden, a wonderful company…I’ve been working on some projects of my own that I’ve been working on for a long time. One called Love and Honor and I’m also working on some television projects that may prove to be really exciting — one involving the Civil War. So, it could be an interesting year.

JWK: Television has been rather dark over the past decade or so. Do you think the pendulum is starting to swing toward heartfelt storytelling on the small screen as well as the big screen?

RW: I think that television lately has been extremely dark and, in some ways, cynical but I also think that people who are writing those shows probably feel exactly as I do — that sometimes the darkness of a story can highlight the light in a story. There’s a lot of cynical stuff but I think it may be even more in movies now where you see so many movies about cynical and corrupted characters. That’s the state of many movies right now but movies, television, all of culture, there’s always going to be a battle between the stories that are cynical and stories that are hopeful.

JWK: Is there anything you like to add about Heaven is for Real that I haven’t asked you about?

RW: Thank you. I think the biggest thing is that it’s a story that Christian audiences will feel a lot of comfort and joy in. An exciting aspect of it has been people who seem themselves as outside the faith have also responded powerfully to the emotions and the hope of the story. So, this is a movie that everyone can go to see — believer, non-believer and of any age and of both sexes. It’s a movie the whole family can see together. That’s something I’m really excited about.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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