There was an urgency in director Matt Bilen’s voice as soon as we connected on the phone. His first feature film, Heavenquest: A Pilgrim’s Progress, opens in limited digital release on October 25 and his passion for the project erupts with every word.
Inspired by John Bunyan’s centuries-old novel The Pilgrim’s Progress, Heavenquest serves as a prequel of sorts, taking place 30 years beforehand. The story explores the origins of Bunyan’s character The Evangelist and takes place in a fantasy universe.
Matt tells me the initial targeted budget was $4 million. He spent a year building a core team of professionals to become the foundation for the project. They had a plan – a different story, a bigger movie, and different crew, but –
“Then that just kind of imploded, and it was really frustrating ‘cause I’d been doing this for about a year and a half, two years and it’s just been this like ‘persevere, persevere, persevere,’ I feel like I’m supposed to make this.”
It took an unexpected divine intervention for Matt to regain his original vision for the epic film.
“This kind of stuff doesn’t happen to me like this very often. But I was driving my car and was thinking about giving up on this – maybe I should just try another idea and another project. ‘Cause I really wanted to make a movie. [I] really felt like the Lord told me to go back to my grassroots idea, which my initial idea was to do something in this $150-250,000 range. It’s a very small crew, very small cast.”
The right people came together, and Matt witnessed his vision become challenged, stretched, and ultimately changed. He tells me it only took a little bit of “selling” the project to prospective cast and crew, and they were able to attract talented Hollywood veterans.
“People want to work, and when you catch people at a time between jobs, or if they’re a friend of a friend…it’s all about connecting with people.”
Visual effects artists Josh Galbincea and Steven Miller, whose credits include Captain America and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, respectively, add to the team with production designer Christian Snell, consulting editor Harry Yoon, and editor Richard B. Molina – all seasoned Hollywood veterans.
Composer Jonathan Beard, who’s known for his work on Deadpool and The Handmaid’s Tale, accepted the opportunity to work on Heavenquest, due in large part to the flexibility of Matt and the producers’ expectations. The lavish orchestral soundtrack plays as important a character as anyone in front of the camera.
“You can own the music; you can create it – really make it yours with some real freedom. And that attracted him. What I found was giving people some creative freedom and saying, ‘I’m not gonna really micromanage you. I’m going to give you a general direction’ – and let them go.”
This freedom also extended to the cast, as they were challenged to work without an official script. The action was guided by a 30-page written treatment, and actors were encouraged to write their own dialogue or improvise scenes with each other. Asger Folmann who plays Bandy, plucky travelling companion to Vangel, seems a natural and performs comfortably with this setup.
The cast is led by veteran Chicago theatre actor Patrick Thompson as the once-wicked Vangel, whose physical and spiritual journey to the Northern Kingdom is the catalyst for the story. Patrick at first comes across as rigid but ultimately carries the story with a balanced combination of stoicism and heart.
Christian recording group Anthem Lights’ front man-turned-actor Alan Powell was looking to expand his repertoire of acting credits and was immediately drawn to the role of the villain. He plays the evil Lord Aamon, ruler of the Southern Kingdom, who mysteriously tries to execute Vangel throughout his journey to the north.
A standout was Peta Sergeant, who portrays Azera. I asked Matt about having such a strong female character in the story.
“I wanted a really diverse cast. [That] was my big push and we knew we wanted to have a strong female character. [Azera] could have easily been a male.”
But Peta confidently became Azera, a wise warrior whose role mimics that of the character Help in Bunyan’s novel. Fiery, passionate, and Christian in her faith, Matt says Peta “was able to bring a lot of that dynamic to the character.”
The strong international cast, including Korean stars Pyo Cha and Ricky Kim, help round out the ensemble.
In spite of conditions which included filming in high altitudes and in the deserts of Northern California where temperatures reached 120 degrees (where even their phones ceased working in the heat), everyone on set was determined to finish the shoot. Road trips, pre-dawn call times, shooting in fields of treacherous devil weed, and bonding over coffee helped to strengthen the camaraderie of the crew.
Even so, Matt feels like they were able to accomplish only about 20% of his original vision due to limitations of time and resources. But working with a studio would have meant losing even more creative control. Working independently without that oversight allowed more freedom, but it came at a price.
“I have a friend who’s a DP (director of photography) …and he basically said every person you don’t have on set and every penny that you save on set, it’s going to show up in the end result.”
You might notice there are some dull edges in the details and things that could have been tightened up with more time and larger budget, (scenes showing distant views of a city come to mind) but that’s a lesson learned for the next film.
Because Heavenquest lacks a well-known American lead, several major distributors passed on the project. Executive Producer Darren Wilson, who owns Wanderlust Productions and has had success with independent releases of his own films, is helping to guide the campaign. The film will have a limited time 48-hour digital premiere launch beginning October 25th before a wider theatrical release in December and eventual global distribution.
Matt admits difficult choices had to be made in editing content to satisfy Christian media distributors, while staying true to the essence of the film’s characters. Two terms were overdubbed and they were careful when handling scenes involving violence or sensuality.
“I want to let people that are not churched see this. And there’s enough in there for them. And if you take that, all the honesty of how these characters (the talk and how they would interact) I was really frustrated by that.”
The Big Picture
There’s a larger scheme which lies behind the making of Heavenquest. Matt set out to create a world in which more stories can be told. Inspired by the likes of Narnia and Lord of the Rings’ Middle Earth, he plans for Heavenquest to be the first of many adventures.
“I didn’t think we could do Pilgrim’s Progress right for $250,000. It’s just too big and too epic of a movie. That movie is going to require millions and huge city scenes and set pieces and we just couldn’t pull it off. I like what Bunyan’s done, there’s so much great source material, but we can build something in that world as a prequel to then later tell the actual Pilgrim’s Progress.”
Now that the production team has recovered from the strenuous shoot, Matt is hopeful they have gained experience and wisdom enough to move forward with the next chapters in the saga, which could include a third film based on Christina’s story, a continuation of Bunyan’s novel.
Looking to the future, Matt is inspired to create content beyond what’s typically offered in faith-based productions.
“I love gritty westerns and thrillers and suspenseful movies and crime detective movies. And I love fantasy [but] nobody’s making anything you can show your family and that you can feel good about – the Christian worldview in there. So that is my thing. If I can be blessed enough to get another shot and make more, my drive is to make more films that are a little bit outside of the boundaries, but yet are still okay to show your 13-year-olds.”
When I asked Matt if he wished he had done anything differently in the process of completing Heavenquest, the freshman director answered with humility. He wished he had been better prepared, offered the actors more direction, gotten more sleep, and had more time.
“I’m ultimately proud that we finished it. It’s not exactly what I thought it was going to be, but we did it and we finished the race.”
Check out the trailer for Heavenquest!