How Christian Filmmakers Created a Fantasy World Around Pilgrim’s Progress Prequel
By Jessilyn Lancaster, Managing Editor
Matt Bilen is a passionate Christian who is tired of the “vanilla” faith-based film market, so he built a fantasy world to film his prequel to Pilgrim’s Progress called HEAVENQUEST.
“What we attempted to do was to tell the story of Evangelist,” Bilen told Movieguide®. “People who know the story know [Evangelist is] the wise old sage, so we built a world where he is young. It’s the story of how he went from being this kind of nasty judge guy who condemned people to death and became this speaker of truth, this hero in the future story.”
“It’s everything that the Christian would go through in their life, so it’s very allegorical, very symbolic,” Matt continued.
HEAVENQUEST was a labor of love for Bilen. At first, he worked with his brother-in-law, Christian filmmaker and documentarian Darren Wilson, on the production. Wilson (FINGER OF GOD, HOLY GHOST, HOLY GHOST: REBORN), penned the script, but ultimately stepped back because the project shifted away from Bilen’s original vision.
The vision was “just to make a gritty, kind of guerrilla-style, narrative film that had a lot of Holy Spirit in it,” Wilson told Movieguide®. “It was like this uber creative thing.”
Bilen and his team created a fantasy world—imagine a scaled-down version of LORD OF THE RINGS or the CHRONICLES OF NARNIA—to tell the story. The process was far from easy.
“We made an epic fantasy film for a really low amount of money,” Bilen said. “We broke all the rules, so that made it incredibly hard for us. We shot at night. We shot with costumes. We had action sequences. … We didn’t have enough people, we didn’t have enough days and didn’t have enough money, but we pulled it off.”
Wilson and Bilen are counting on the movie being different from the average faith-based fare as they market it to audiences.
“Mainstream evangelical Christians don’t know what to do with these kinds of films,” Wilson said. “They don’t know what to do with documentaries that actually show the Holy Spirit. They also don’t know what to do with a fantasy Christian film, because they don’t know what that really means.”
What sets HEAVENQUEST apart from standard Christian fare is the world Bilen created.
“If I’m really honest, I wanted it to be a lot grittier, but it just didn’t quite get it there,” Bilen said.
“My thing from the very inception of this idea was like, yeah, I’m a Christian, I want to make a faith-based film. I want to do something that, you know, reflects my values, and what’s important to me. But at the same time, like, I want to make something that’s got some action, and the costumes are cool.”
Bilen continued: “I’m talking about a lived-in world where people don’t have perfectly shiny teeth and beautiful skin. Everything’s dirty and lived in and old. There’s dust kicked up everywhere. There’s haze everywhere. It’s just everything looks dirty and lived in.”
Bilen calls it a “rich” world that he wants to deliver straight to homes.
Instead of asking audiences to drive to the theaters, Wilson says the movie will go straight to the viewers.
On Oct. 25-26, audiences can stream the movie for $5 in their own home. In the new year, the movie will be available on major streaming services, including Hulu.
“If you just want to watch an hour and a half movie with some really cool symbolic Christian elements, some action, a little world we created, then yeah, you’re going enjoy it. It’s got a lot in there, and there’s a lot of lessons and stories and metaphors and fun characters,” Bilen said.
Wilson added, “What they were able to pull off with the budget that they had, that’s probably the thing I’m most proud of, that he pulled this thing off with next to nothing. It’s just amazing.”