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Archive for May, 2014

After the four-hour delay, sitting around the airport when I should have been in bed, thinking about the hour drive once I landed in Baltimore and thinking about being bushed for the next day’s all-day boot camp, I began my impromptu trip in an ill mood.

Upon finally arriving around one in the morning in Alexandria for the Veterans Film Festival, my weary mind and body didn’t appreciate the news that Hotwire couldn’t find me a deal on a hotel as it was after midnight. I pulled into a Travelodge hoping beyond hope that this would be the only 2-star motel in the world that acted more like a 3 or 4-star motel. Upon attempting the separation of my nostrils repeatedly, I concluded that someone had smoked in this room or they used cheap rug cleaners or both.

At this point, I didn’t care that I could’ve found something a lot better for the same price. I simply collapsed. I felt like a coach who had just witnessed his opposition striking out the side…in the first inning.

As I listened to speakers, met fellow producers and screenwriters, I began to get discouraged by the daunting job of producing a feature film.

I was flustered by very minor things. I was ready to give up. That’s when I met U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Travis Mills of the 82nd Airborne. He was the subject of one of the documentaries in the film festival. I asked him if we could get a selfie. He stopped what he was doing, smiled and began to pose on the red carpet. Just then, a hurried, haggard and terse staffer interrupted us. Undeterred, Travis politely told her that he agreed to a photo and put his “arm” around me.

Flashback to April 10, 2012: While on patrol in Afghanistan, Travis lost portions of both arms and legs as the result of an Improvised Explosive Device (IED), making him one of just five quadruple-amputees from the wars there and in Irag to survive their injuries. I saw his film that night. The bomb blew his body apart, but only enlarged his impregnable heart and will. His total focus was to get back to take care of  his wife and baby girl, both whom he adored.

Later, I watched another documentary about a young Marine vet named Shane who had post-traumatic stress disorder from an IED that pummeled  him with consuming headaches and life-changing psychological problems. Then there were films about the atrocities of the Holocaust and another about a Japanese-American WWII hero whose maneuvering and wit in the Asian mountains against incredible odds helped win battles despite losing most of his company. There was another short on two U.S. Army Rangers who returned to Mogadishu, Somalia, after twenty years and reflected on the horrors of their infamous “Black Hawk Down” incident. Another short showed the incredible tenacity of a sniper who had to crawl miles to successfully get his target.

In “Raising The Bar,” Jason Sturm’s life was altered when a training exercise took his leg. He overcomes with a prosthetic leg and continues to push himself harder than everyone else in a gym as their cross fit instructor. He earned the right to have a large “No Whining” sign painted on the wall.

I had been worried about flight delays, lost sleep, some finances and the looming movie I have yet to produce and I had gone to the film festival for all the reasons that producers and writers attend such events. Actually, I had needed to go as a movie-goer who had to take in a little lesson on self pity – on a Memorial Day weekend, no less.

BELOW: HAVING TRAVIS’ “ARM” AROUND ME WAS A GREAT ENCOURAGEMENT AND PRIVILEGE. 

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“Pick up your room.” “Brush your teeth.” “No dessert until after you eat.” “Get your homework done.” “I don’t want you to hang out with those kids anymore.” “Respect your elders.” “Be good to your siblings.” “Visit Grandma.” “Cut the lawn.”

Lots of commands. Lots of broken ones. Is forgetting a deliberate and convenient subconscious subterfuge that’s simply instinctive to our sinful nature?

The irony of Memorial Day is that many do not remember the fallen soldiers who bled so we can live. Each year, the retail sales events get bigger, the barbecues become more involved and the traffic to our respective, favorite haunts can make anyone forget anything but their temper.

Forgetting not only seems to be intrinsic, it is wickedly fast. Whole societies have crumbled because they were like students who flunked their midterms after spending the last several weeks failing to take notes; and reviewing them regularly, at that.

“After that whole generation had been gathered to their ancestors, another generation grew up who knew neither the LORD nor what he had done for Israel.” (Judges 2:6-10)…They quickly forgot what he [God] did”. Psalm 106:13

Remembering is as deliberate as forgetting. That’s why holidays (derived from “holy days”) are instituted. In the Passover meals, young Jews are required to ask their elders various questions about symbols and acts relating to their liberation.

Memorial Day may well be the beginning of summer or the only time you get a chance to sneak away to that quiet lake or invite the family for that overdue gathering. But, if must be, turn on the Military Channel or read an account of the sacrifice of men and women whose blood ran the same color as that juicy red burger on the grill. How about a visit to the V.A. hospital? Don’t write off that little Memorial Day parade. It may not be pretty, but it can be effective to read a detailed account of how a soldier died with all its accompanying humility and profoundness of that very act.

Moreover, if a country fails to recall its fallen soldiers whom it can see, it can certainly blank out on its God who secured the ultimate victory by His blood. That it is nothing short of perilous.

BELOW: DON’T FORGET TO REMEMBER…

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(This is part of a series based on my interview with Heaven Is For Real Screenwriter and Director Randall Wallace of Braveheart, Secretariat, Pearl Harbor and We Were Soldiers fame.)

WHEN THE STORY COMES TO YOU

For me, there was an intensive three-year manhood program that was a stepping stone to my masculinity. Next was the long road to becoming a C.E.O. followed by an even scarier highway to Hollywood and Nashville. And now, as I age, the movie Heaven Is For Real has me thinking about the next step on my way to becoming a man after God’s own heart.

It was during those three years in the National Institute of Kingdom Manhood that I first figuratively met Heaven Is For Real screenwriter and director Randall Wallace. Or did I meet William Wallace of Braveheart notoriety? Perhaps it was a bit of both. Maybe it was some of me. Yes, on all accounts. That’s what Braveheart did for me. It pulled something out of me that I either feared or I had buried or was ignorant about or all of the above.

“Writers and artists have described [extracting a story] for over a 1,000 years,” Wallace said, “the Greeks have their concept of The Muse and the different Renaissance artists would say that the angels came and whispered to them. A story finds you, a story calls you out into something greater and deeper and you make the journey and you say to yourself, ‘This was in me all along and I didn’t know it.’ It’s that interplay of the divine voice that finds us and speaks to us and the way we answer that voice. You have to have both sides to have that conversation.”

The story of Braveheart, for example, came from a trip to Scotland in which Wallace was searching for his roots. He found his story in the legend/history of a namesake and Scottish hero and came back with a blockbuster in his heart.

“I didn’t write Braveheart for money,” he said. “I wrote it to express the kind of movie I wanted to see. Did I want a lot of people to respond to it? Sure, I had that hope but the biggest thing was, ‘Did it tell my story my way?’ ‘Did it tell the story I was made to tell?'”

And, because I had shared with Wallace what a profound effect it had on me, he said: “Braveheart helped heal and find a way through the battleground of your own heart. That’s what it is for me and that’s something I want to share.”

And then, he slipped and said, “William Wallace said…or what I wrote for him in Braveheart…” Yes, it’s that real for him. As a screenwriter and author, I know what it’s like to have your character live for you or for you to live through him. These stories and characters that come to us writers change us indeed. When we are moved, it’s only natural to want to share them with others, as if to say, “You gotta meet my friend. He’s amazing.”

I found that “story” that Wallace says comes to all of us. In his case, it was in Scotland. In my case, it was in San Diego as I was passing by a giant veteran’s park cross that was ordered down by a federal court. Both are David and Goliath tales which tend to be THE story of all of our lives. And this is the book and movie that came to me in the form of Gamaliel’s Advice, based on the true events surrounding the Mt. Soledad cross.

While Braveheart and William Wallace may be household names, “Kelli Peters” and “Robert Peters” are not. Kelli is the young heroine in my movie. Robert is her World War II grandfather. While I live through Robert’s sentiment, I cannot lay claim to having “veteran” status, especially of his kind. He is a composite character who fought at Iwo Jima. Robert Peters is also a combination of my first name and my Confirmation name of “Peter” – the disciple who had to go through quite a character arc himself in order to be the man who would help change the world.

Kelli is loosely based on the rock-solid character of my Marine-pilot niece and carries a perseverance throughout the screenplay that I could only hope to possess. Her nickname is “Never-Give-Up Kelli” and she never does in the movie and doesn’t in real life.

Kelli’s alter ego lived in my mind long before she became a Marine for she was just a girl when I began sketching out the plot. For 17 years, I had thought about characters that would do justice to the true story of the Mt. Soledad Veteran’s cross, the subject of the longest-running lawsuit of its kind in the history of the United States. Kelli and her composite grandfather came out of me or at least who I wanted to be. That’s the characters. And they must live to die.

That’s where the quote that Randall began to recite for his namesake comes in: “Every man dies, but not every man really lives,” says William Wallace in Braveheart. So if I must figuratively die so that this project lives, I will do so. I draw strength from the fictional “Never-Give-Up Kelli” and the real one, as well.

With my story, I literally received a cross to bear and almost two decades later, I could use a Simon of Cyrene to help me carry this burden of making my book into a movie. I am on the way. Yet, crosses usually include a long road.

If you would like to help shoulder the story of the Mt. Soledad veteran’s cross because like myself, the story has come to you, please contact us at norepcom@gmail.com or call 518-435-1250 and ask for Robert Peters…uh, I mean Robert LaCosta. Now I know how Randall feels about William Wallace, the character that helped bring me my brave heart – the very one that was needed to bring Robert and Kelli Peters to the big screen so that it can enlarge the heart of a nation.

BELOW: A SCREENSHOT OF THE SITE WHICH CAN BE VIEWED AT KEEPCROSS.NET  

IF YOU’D LIKE TO  HELP, GO THERE OR CONTACT US AT THE ABOVE NUMBER. TOGETHER, WE CAN “BRING THE STORY” TO AMERICA.

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(This is Part 2 in a series on my interviews with Heaven Is For Real Screenwriter & Director Randall Wallace of Braveheart, Secretariat, Pearl Harbor and We Were Soldiers fame.)

Randall Wallace is a writer’s writer. That may mean different things to different people. To me, it’s a matter of being real. For example, in Heaven Is For Real, Wallace reaches for his general philosophy on faith and writes it into each scene like a movement in a symphony that takes his audience one melodic step nearer to his conclusion.

“My belief is that all people have the same relevant issues,” Wallace says. “We’re all dealing with the same crucial internal needs, the need to be connected with what truly matters, the need to be set free; that ultimate freedom comes from the belief that God’s love is what brought us into this world and God’s love will continue beyond this world.”

Heaven Is For Real certainly fits hand and glove with that concept. It’s so universal that it fits every man, woman and child, and, for Wallace, every script. It’s no wonder he was drawn to a story so poignant and yet so simple that “a child shall lead them,” as it states in Isaiah 11:6. This is literally the case in Heaven Is For Real because the true-story film centers on a four year-old boy named Colton who visits heaven while undergoing an appendix operation. In heaven, he sits on Jesus’ lap, meets and talks to relatives that he shouldn’t know about, sees pets and colors and hears angels sing – although they wouldn’t sing, “We Will Rock You.” The child does, in fact, lead an entire church and community into a confirmation that God loves and most certainly loves beyond this life.

For Wallace, Heaven Is For Real is a more literal work of his faith because it is blatantly about Christianity and the Christian view of heaven. But how does he write more general movies with Christian themes while avoiding universalism? Perhaps Solomon’s universalistic tone in Ecclesiastes 3:11 that God sets “eternity in the heart of man” gives Wallace his intrinsic guidance for what some would call “crossover” art.

“God is bigger than my understanding of God,” Randall explains. “He is not impressed by our labels by ourselves. I see Christianity as a question of identity, that Jesus says, ‘Follow me.’ Our question is: ‘What does it mean to follow Jesus?’ When I look at the lives of all great people…there are times when they walked in darkness; people like C.S. Lewis who identified himself as an atheist for much of his life but he was still in the hands of God who was working on him. One of my favorite parables in The Bible is the passage where the father has two sons and tells them to go work in the field. One says he will but doesn’t and the other says he won’t but does. Which one did the will of his father? I like telling the stories that are not trying to convince someone to believe with the same understanding I have, but allows for someone to be open to the working of God in their life and the identity that God can bring to them.”

While little Colton helped adults step beyond their theology to conclude that heaven is for real, Wallace is helping many conclude that God is real right here on earth.

BELOW: WALLACE, LEFT, BRINGS LAUGHTER AND HIS SEMINARY TRAINING TO HOLLYWOOD.

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(The following is Part 1 of an interview with Academy Award nominee Randall Wallace, who wrote Braveheart, Pearl Harbor, We Were Soldiers and Heaven Is For Real.)

You can tell a lot about a writer by the themes of his works. In the case of Randall Wallace, the black belt who put himself through seminary by teaching martial arts, it’s clear that this screenwriter likes to “pick a fight.” Perhaps it’s no coincidence that this is the phrase he penned for his most famous character, William Wallace of Braveheart.

Even so, Wallace is an affable guy all right. He just happens to be attracted to movies about war. Well, not exactly.

Fighting may just be a means to an end and that end happens to be freedom.

Although there are no war scenes in “Heaven Is For Real,” the way Wallace crafted the story reflects the victory over the varied fronts of life through characters who carry some heavy battle scars.

The set up of the story is based on true events surrounding four year-old Colton Burpo who visited heaven during an appendix operation. As the boy begins to relate fascinating details about Jesus and relatives that he couldn’t have known, heaven appears much more real to him than to all of the adults around him who grapple with the simplicity of his reality.

Wallace never falls for using heaven as a trap door out of life’s current pain. Rather, he cleverly portrays it as a sneak preview of people who are no longer in pain. The clarity and believability of the boy’s revelations eventually succeed in giving hope to those struggling with the wounds of their personal wars.

“We’re all dealing with the same crucial internal needs,” Wallace says. “…the need to be connected with what truly matters, the need to be set free. The ultimate freedom comes from the belief that God’s love is what brought us into this world and God’s love will continue beyond this world.”

Although Wallace doesn’t wear his Christian faith on his sleeve, “Heaven Is For Real” essentially states that the battle for our freedom has been won by Jesus and that is the confidence from which Colton conquers the disbelief and doubt of the adults who needed that win so badly.

While some might question whether Hollywood is an appropriate place for Christians, Wallace has proven it can be the perfect battlefield for those with a brave heart.

BELOW: WALLACE DIRECTING ACTOR CONNOR CORUM, WHO PLAYED COLTON BURPO. 

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“That’s because your not a mother,” was my wife’s quick and nonchalant reply.

It was a simple enough conversation about the kids. She was right. Only mothers can really understand…

I can remember it like it was yesterday. There were no malls back then, so my mother took me to the dry goods store. This is where the basics sat piled on tables. White underwear, white t-shirts, fairly simple shirts (not white, whew). It was September and Mom was taking me on the annual back-to-school shopping “spree.” This included all of the aforementioned items. When a woman has seven children, white is good. Cheap is even better because the beginning of the school year is the same for every child.

We came to some sweaters. They come in handy in the Fall in New Jersey. At 12, I was clueless that they were budget-busters. But my admiration for one did not escape her notice. I tried it on. I could tell it pleased her as much as it did me. The little white register sales slip was a little longer and heavier in Mom’s hand as was the bag that I proudly carried out of there. 

Memories like this and some photographs are pretty much all I have left to remember Mom by. She slipped away from us 33 years ago. I managed to hang on that sweater and pull it out now and then. It itches, but I am just thankful that I can fit into a pretty dated forty-five year-old Autumn sweater. I feel like a million bucks when I wear it because it might as well have cost that to the mother of seven kids. 

It’s better than a picture.

Recently, I met up with my daughter for breakfast. She helped my granddaughter color a picture at the diner and I couldn’t help thinking that my mother would have loved seeing this young mother in action who, in a sense, was unknowingly training up another future mom. 

I was just glad my granddaughter didn’t spill any syrup on that stylish sweater. It really is better than a picture, but here’s one anyway…

BELOW: SURROUNDED BY A GREAT MOM AND FUTURE MOM, I REALLY DON’T CARE WHAT YOU THINK OF MY SWEATER.

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