Inspired by John Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’
We sat down with the director and writer of King Street Pictures adventure film, “Heavenquest: A Pilgrim’s Progress,” based on the iconic 1678 novel The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. We explore the essence of the film and spoke about the relevance and importance a film like this has today in a post christian world.
Where did you get the idea for Heavenquest?
Director Matt Bilen – I was doing a lot of film work – shooting, editing, composing music, motion graphics, and, at some point, started producing some short films. As those progressed and I grew in skill a bit, I felt a very strong pull to do a feature film and, in particular, something with Pilgrim’s Progress. I was reading an adaptation to my two young sons at the time, and I thought, “this book has everything, epic set pieces, quirky characters, creatures like giants and demons, a redemptive story, even a sequel.” It hadn’t really been done lately, so the story birthed from there.
Pilgrim’s Progress was written 430 years ago. Do you think the story is still relevant today?
Producer/Writer Dan Mark – Well the Bible is 2000 years old, and that is definitely still relevant to our lives today!
The essence of the Bunyan story so relevant because there are so many obstacles to finding and knowing and walking with God these days. They may not be personified as walking and talking characters like they were in Bunyan’s original piece, but the challenges are universal and remain the same. Our challenge was how to take that essential story and make it into something that today’s audiences would not only understand, but resonate with. So we used the language of fantasy as our method to share the same essential spiritual truths.
What is it about the story of Pilgrim’s Progress? The story seems to be having a resurgence!
Dan Mark – It is not only the original and first novel in history, but it’s also the first book to make the Christian journey into an adventure. It influenced both Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, as well as even the British monarchy as you can see on “The Crown” on Netflix. There is a longing in every person’s heart to know who they are, who they were created by, and why they are here. And “Pilgrim’s Progress” addresses those questions head on. And that’s all the more needed today in our post modern world, where the world tells you that you are no one special, you weren’t created or design by anyone and that there’s no purpose to your life. The book is about a search for meaning and identity, and that’s what we wanted our movie to address as well. The world is hungry for that.
It’s been said that you did everything you shouldn’t do for a first feature film. What was it like creating an epic film like this? What were some of the challenges you faced?
Producer/Writer/Actress Rachel Tan – It was a massive undertaking for the tiny budget we had – which was 1/500th the budget of tent poles like Narnia! Due to our budget, we all had to wear multiple hats. I was the producer and supervised the project from development to fundraising to production to post production to distribution and marketing. I even did the catering myself. Because the budget was so small, I had to find meal sponsors amongst many other sponsors such as sponsored locations and transportation for the shoot. I was one of the people who had to supervise the story from beginning to end and wrote some of it because it was an improv script. We didn’t even have the budget for a script supervisor so I did that too!
We had brutal shoot that was 21 days, 16 hours a day in 100-degree weather under the sun in a ranch (the owner asked us to watch out for rattlesnakes although we didn’t see any). We were freezing when we shot by the coast, we hiked up mountains at dawn, we had 3am call times, we shot “revenant style” by rehearsing and then only shooting at the specific daylight and magic hour. Our wardrobe team sewed each piece of clothing and accessories together and made such beautiful costumes even though they have never done a movie. They previously did wardrobe for a circus!
Because of our huge aspirations and unbending quest for quality, we wanted to work with professional crew and talent – the best! But we had a tiny budget. So we had to use our goodwill we built up over the years and pitch in my meetings to “convince” the skillful professionals in Hollywood to help us with this project. Most of them have never done a faith-based film.
At the end, we assembled an amazing international team. Cha In Pyo is a top star in Korea, Karyme Lozano is a household name is Mexico and the other actors are professional actors from Hollywood.
Our editor was the head of the cutting room and worked on many huge movies like “Revenant”, “Pirates of the Caribbean”, “Hunger Games”, our consulting editor was the editor for Damien Chazelle’s “First Man” and Katherine Bigelow’s “Detroit”. He was a good friend of ours so he did out movie. Our composer is the orchestrator for “Alita” and “Mortal Engines”. He was a Stanford alumni with Dan so he did our movie.
Our VFX team did many big movies like “Superman”, “Captain America” and “Robocop” and they have never done a faith-based movie before, although some were in our network through churches we know. We convinced them to participate in this aspirational project. Our action choreographer is the Blue Ranger from “Power Rangers”
In the end, we really came up with an impressive cast and crew!
The cast is fascinating. How did you choose the actors? How did they feel about the challenges that you faced with the film.
Dan Mark – We wanted to make a film in the faith arena that we haven’t seen before – with something that represented the diversity that we know is in the kingdom. When we get to Heaven someday, all the nations and tribes will be represented, and so we said, why aren’t there more faith films that show this reality? Because we aren’t all just Southern Caucasian Christians. We used to travel the world for ministry all over, and especially to Asia. What you see abroad is that the nations are actually even more hungry for the gospel than people in America. It really is amazing to see. So we wanted with our casting to make the first faith based film native to the global audience, with Asian characters, Latino characters, African American characters, something that really shows the beautiful diversity of the people of God, each different but all united in Him.
And the actors helped write their lines? How was that experience?
Rachel Tan – It was amazing and challenging at the same time. We wanted to let God lead the way and provide a creative space for the talent. At the same time, as mentioned, it was a lot of work to keep track and make sure each line of improvised dialogue would serve the entire overarching story and not just the characters. We had optional worship sessions with the actors. We prayed. We had passionate and fiery brainstorming sessions together. We had to improvise the dialogue when we arrived on set at 100-degree weather! It was truly a unique experience but if all came together at the end.
The film is launching in an interesting way – how and when can we see Heavenquest?
Rachel Tan – Starting on October 25th 2019, Heavenquest: A Pilgrim’s Progress will be available for 48 hours to stream in our HeavenQuest World Wide Digital Premiere! During this time you’ll also have the ability to get your hands on a copy of the film before it’s official release in 2020. You can get tickets now for only $5 at https://www.heavenquestfilm.com/
What’s next for you?
Matt Bilen – I’ve been writing a lot, and I would love to do some sci-fi. I’ve written several treatments, started a few meetings, and that is my current passion. Something with some thriller elements but more contained to 1 or 2 locations. I’m not doing the 14 locations things again unless I have a larger budget!
Dan Mark – Our next project is a romantic comedy that has been near and dear to our hearts for a long time. We are also actively developing several projects for the Asian American community to provide more opportunities for Asian American representation in film, both in front of the camera, and behind the camera.