All Rise: The Uplifting Backstory of ‘Sunrise in Heaven’

How Jan Hurst's personal tragedy let to renewed faith, to Voyage Media, and to a film shoot in Hollywood.

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Caylee Cowan in a still from "Sunrise in Heaven." Photo: Jessica Perez.

Jan Hurst would surely have preferred never to write a memoir called His Sunrise, My Sunset, or for the film adapted from it, Sunrise in Heaven, to be made. But when this wife, mother and business executive suddenly lost her husband of 44 years, it was not only a test of her strong Christian faith, it was a challenge to the kind of writer she envisioned becoming. Instead of crafting books on business management, now she felt she had a deeper, more intimate story to put from pen to page. Her courtship with Steve had begun under stress — he was an Air Force man, and Jan’s father steadfastly opposed her dating a man in the service, let alone marrying him. And it ended by Steve’s side, having survived the horrific car accident that took his life. What happened in between, and how Jan found succor and a resurgence of religious faith through his passing, is what make His Sunrise, My Sunset an exquisite and moving tale.

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It was after Hurst wrote the book, which she self-published through a Christian publisher, that another unexpected event took place. Other widows in her social group, much to Hurst’s surprise, responded vividly to her prose. Some cited the 2008 film Fireproof, which remains popular in evangelical circles, as a model for thinking of His Sunrise, My Sunset as a story for the screen. Could her book, Hurst wondered, really become a screenplay? That’s when Hurst turned to CA-based Nat Mundel and his studio, Voyage Media, and began a journey that led to His Sunrise, My Sunset becoming Sunrise to Heaven, which stars Corbin Bernsen, Dee Wallace, Travis Burns and Caylee Cowan.

I spoke with Hurst about writing the book, and how her story made the leap from page to screen.

Leonard Jacobs: How long after your husband’s death did you decide to write your book?

Author Jan Hurst.

Jan Hurst: It was four years after my husband died. But let me take you back a bit, because I had always worked. I’d been raised at a time to think that I was just a girl, you know — not supposed to go to school. I spent nine years getting my Bachelor’s, then working in IT and having a family, then earned an MBA. I wound up at Verizon, then after I retired and we moved to where I am now, I worked at a community college as one of their VPs. I’d decided to write books on management — there were so many areas where the existing books were lacking. And I got my Ph.D. to have credentials to write them. I got my doctorate a month before our accident. When Steve was killed — well, I started waking up in the morning and I had to get what became my book out of my head. I don’t want to go over the edge, but it was a God thing for me. I’d been part of a widow’s group, and very active at church. We talked a lot about the things that people don’t understand about being a widow. What kept coming back was the three days they kept my husband alive. I couldn’t clear my brain of the time that I met him — those three days of our life together came before my eyes, and that’s really the story — how we got together. My dad was so strongly against me even speaking to GIs.

LJ: It sounds like you wrote the book pretty fast.

JH: It was a matter of a few weeks — because I couldn’t stop writing. It’s not that long of a book, but it was just there. I’ve had widows come to me and say “That’s exactly how I feel, but I couldn’t put it into words.” I feel it became something good for people who have never lost anyone to understand the thought process for people who have. If you haven’t lost someone, you don’t know how it feels. We’re all so afraid we’re going to offend them if we say the wrong thing — but it’s almost more offensive if we ignore it. My kids’ loss was different than mine.

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LJ: Once you wrote the book, what was your next step?

JH: I self-published through Xulon Press, a Christian publishing company. I went through them because our pastor had used them.

LJ: And to promote the book?

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The source material.

JH: Well, I’m not a marketer — mostly it was through our bookstore at church, where I had a signing. Then I had friends on Facebook who bought it through Amazon. Then several people in church came to me and said “This needs to be one of those movies!” To which I can remember saying “I don’t know about that.” Some people were insistent, though — I remember someone said to me, “Jan, this could be a really good movie, like Fireproof.” I tried to contact the church in Georgia that did Fireproof to see if there was interest in my book and, if there was, how that would happen. They responded that they didn’t accept outside stories anymore. Then I saw the website that Nat Mundel of Voyage Media has out there. What attracted me was that they specialize in working with people outside of Hollywood, and that they’d assess a manuscript and tell you whether or not it would be good for a movie. I sent a message and asked for more information, and then sent the manuscript, which came back with a really cool assessment. Yes, they thought it would be good for a movie — and they could link me with financiers. I remember when they asked me, “Do you have investors who would invest or would you invest yourself?” That was a big decision. I’ll tell you that I was skeptical — and my daughter and son-in-law are attorneys. But I spent a lot of time with Nat, and any concerns or objections that I — or any of us — threw at Nat, he explained things exactly, always right up front. He said, “If you want to invest in this, that’s great. But if it’s your last dollar, don’t, because there’s risk.” I’ve always appreciated his honesty.

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LJ: What happened then?

Writer Dan Benamor.

JH: Nat set me up with a writer, Dan Benamor, and we conversed by phone and worked on the script. Then I went out to California and met Nat and some other producers, who decided they wanted to go forward. I went out with my granddaughter when Sunrise in Heaven was filmed, too. It was a wonderful experience — the enthusiasm of the cast and crew was almost overwhelming. I’ll also tell you something funny. As we walked up to the house where they were filming, Corbin Bernsen came out. He put out his hand and said, “I’m Corbin. Are you playing Jan?” I said “I am Jan!” and he gave me a great big hug.

LJ: Were you involved in the casting of Sunrise in Heaven? Did the script change once shooting started?

JH: I was told who they were considering. I knew who Corbin was, and I knew who Dee Wallace was. I don’t know that the script changed.

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LJ: What it is like to see your life depicted in a film?

JH: Kind of weird. At times it was emotional — it brought back lots of those emotions from when I first met Steve. The actor who played him, Travis Burns, is very good looking like he was. They also let me sit behind the camera to see the filming — though I didn’t watch filming the hospital scenes. The part of the film where young Steve said to me — my character — “Would you go out with me?” was filmed from many different angles, yet it was always like he was talking to me. So much so that when the director, Waymon Boone, said “Cut!,” I wanted to say “Yes.”

LJ: So I guess the question should be asked: What would Steve think of all of this?

JH: His stepmother, after she saw the film, made the comment “My goodness, Steve would have loved this!” I think so, too. Of course, the movie didn’t capture the true end: they weren’t going to wreck a Corvette!

LJ: Have you ever felt Steve’s presence?

JH: I wouldn’t say I have conversations with him. I share things with him and think “I know you must know this.” But I’ll tell you something else. When Steve first died, he came to me more in dreams about the car. And one morning I woke up and I felt he was around me, his arm around me, holding me. In my sleep, I know I’ve had conversations with him. I believe you get so close that its second nature. I recently remarried and it’s very different. I was 17 when I met Steve; it was young, vibrant love. In our 70s it’s very different.