Locally filmed “90 Minutes in Heaven” is a ministry

The locally filmed, faith-based movie “90 Minutes in Heaven” isn’t so much about a man who nearly died as it is about a man who nearly didn’t live.

The movie, which comes out Friday, is based on Don Piper’s New York Times bestselling memoir. He was returning from a church conference in 1989 when his Ford Escort was struck head-on by an 18-wheeler. First responders initially declared him to be dead. He credits the power of intercessory prayer for returning him to this side of heaven.

But as portrayed with raw emotion by Hayden Christensen in the film, Piper’s road to recovery was anything but joyous. The wreck left him with severe injuries that required lengthy hospitalization and agonizing treatment. The pain that gripped his body was paralleled by the despair that gripped his spirit.

Why let me glimpse the wonders of heaven, Piper anguished, only to bring me back to so much misery?

Hayden Christensen, left, portrays Don Piper, right, in "90 Minutes in Heaven." Photo: Jennifer Brett

Hayden Christensen, left, portrays Don Piper, right, in “90 Minutes in Heaven.” Photo: Jennifer Brett

“I was inspired by Don’s story,” Christensen said in an interview. “I remember reading the script for the first time and being very affected by it. This is a story that’s already affected a lot of people.”

The film’s producers hope the movie will inspire audiences while benefiting charity. “90 Minutes” is the first movie by Giving Films, founded by entrepreneur Rick Jackson. Profits from ticket sales will benefit organizations such as the Christian Alliance for Orphans, FaithBridge Foster Care, Hire Heroes USA and Hope International. (For more information about the film and its charitable partners, see givingfilms.com).

Kate Bosworth in a scene in "90 Minutes in Heaven." She portrays Eva Piper. Photo credit: Quantrell Colbert

Kate Bosworth in a scene in “90 Minutes in Heaven.” She portrays Eva Piper. Photo credit: Quantrell Colbert

The Atlanta premiere for “90 Minutes,” held Sept. 1 at the Fox Theatre, was a night of pomp and pageantry as the stars posed for photos on a dazzling red carpet. Both Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle appeared.

Jackson’s heartfelt remarks, directed to the foster children invited with their foster families to be part of the event, were among the highlights of the evening.

“I know the pain you guys are experiencing,” said Jackson, who described the dysfunctional home he grew up in. “You wonder, why is this happening? Why does no one love me? This film talks about things in life that happen to you. Our earthly parents might not be good. They may even abuse us. What I found out is my heavenly father was my parent.”

Don Piper, second from left, led the cast and crew in prayer on the first day of filming for "90 Minutes in Heaven." Photo: Quantrell Colbert

Don Piper, second from left, led the cast and crew in prayer on the first day of filming for “90 Minutes in Heaven.” Photo: Quantrell Colbert

The day after the premiere, the movie’s principals sat for numerous rounds of interviews with journalists at the Georgian Terrace, across the street from the Fox. Nicole Piper Flenniken, portrayed by Elizabeth Hunter in the film, was 12 when her dad was injured and had to grow up in a hurry.

“There were a lot of times that I questioned, ‘God why did this have to happen to us?’” she recalled. She felt the responsibility of helping her two little brothers enjoy their childhood as much as possible, while emotionally supporting her mother and praying for her dad. Why was he so sullen? Why wouldn’t he respond when his family visited?

“There was a lot of loneliness,” Flenniken said. “My prayer life really developed during that time.”

Nicole Piper Flenniken, left, with Elizabeth Hunter, who portrays her as a 12-year-old in "90 Minutes in Heaven." Photo: Jennifer Brett, jbrett@ajc.com

Nicole Piper Flenniken, left, with Elizabeth Hunter, who portrays her as a 12-year-old in “90 Minutes in Heaven.” Photo: Jennifer Brett, jbrett@ajc.com

Don Piper, who has shared his story with thousands of congregations and millions of readers, said it was surreal to have his life portrayed in film. He and his family attended the Fox premiere and he closed the evening in prayer.

“A lot of people have heard me say if you’ve been there you don’t want to be here,” he said, referring to heaven. “Tonight, I can honestly say I sure am glad I’m here.”