LOS ANGELES – Kara Tippets was not a Hollywood darling nor a household name. But that didn't stop filmmakers Jay and Sofia Lyons who set out to bring her compelling life story to the big screen.
The husband and wife duo admit their latest project is unconventional. It lacks the industry's standard practice of attaching a big-name celebrity to a film – not to mention its nearly taboo central theme: dealing with death.
"I wanted to do a TV show about people dying," said Jay Lyons, founder of Jay Lyons Productions. "It sounds scary and weird."
"Morbid!" Sofia chimed in. She is both Jay's wife and business partner.
The Ultimate Reality TV
Still, the couple, who had won Emmys for their work producing reality TV, wanted to create content that reflected their Christian faith. Jay felt a show about dying was an important topic that hadn't yet been done and could help people consider the one eventuality that is all but certain for every person on the planet.
"I think, especially as a Christian person, it's a moment of truth and clarity for a Christian and especially the way the Christian community handles dying and death is a beautiful thing," Mr. Lyons explained.
The idea took shape when he stumbled upon a Facebook post from a high school classmate, who described a friend in desperate need of prayer.
Her name was Kara Tippetts, a pastor's wife and a mother of four. She and her husband had just moved the family to Colorado to plant a church.
It wasn't long after when doctors broke the news that she had stage 4 breast cancer.
Sharing the Struggle
Kara was also a popular blogger and wrote about the journey through pain and suffering. Despite the difficult subject matter, the blog captured her warmth, compassion, and heart to share the gospel with others.
"Oh, my heart. Oh, my sad and covetous and jealous heart," Tippetts wrote in an entry titled, "Jealousy: The Longing for Normal." "I have fought to be broken instead of bitter and angry. It's not a simple journey."
"So, last night, the new pain plan didn't work. I was in agony. I was weeping hot and angry tears over the pain. And all I kept saying over and over is, I'm so jealous of normal people. I just want to be kissing my kids goodnight and sitting down for a glass of something and adult conversation, not calling the hospital and debating if I need to go there to spare the kids from hearing my agony. I want a bad hair day . . . I do not want to be back in radiation battling to kill what is killing me... or hurting me . . . I'm not angry; I'm simply jealous this morning of normal people that get to do normal things."
Jay's high school friend made the introduction, which paved the wave for the Hollywood producers to meet Kara at her home in Colorado Springs.
The Lyons described the tension and sensitivities involved in invading a sacred space with Kara's family and caretakers and the delicate balance of filming someone who was dying. Yet they were overwhelmingly impressed with her beauty, grace, enthusiasm, sense of humor, confidence, and humility.
"She was a sincere Christ follower," Jay recounted.
Ultimately, Kara agreed to let them film her final moments as a way to share her suffering with her friends, family, and legion of readers.
Stepping Into Controversy
Her public profile only grew after she penned an open letter to Brittany Maynard, another young terminal cancer patient, who publicly announced her right to die with dignity in 2014.
"My heart ached for you, and I'm simply grieved by your terminal brain tumor," Kara wrote. "With a heavy heart, I left my home and headed for my oncologist. I too am dying, Brittany."
"Your life matters, your story matters, and your suffering matters. Thank you for stepping out from the privacy of your story and sharing it openly. We see you, we see your life, and there are countless lovers of your heart that are praying you would change your mind. In your choosing your own death, you are robbing those that love you with such tenderness, the opportunity of meeting you in your last moments and extending you love in your last breaths."
Despite the compassionate, personal, and pleading tone, Kara had set off a firestorm. Some saw her letter as insensitive and a direct attack on Maynard, who initially postponed her planned death but died days later.
Sofia told CBN News people who drew that conclusion didn't know Kara's true heart.
"She was sad because the whole point was for her to reach to this person – in love – and I think she was sad that her point wasn't received in the way it was intended," Sofia explained.
"In my whispering, pleading, loving voice dear heart- will you hear my heart ask you, beg you, plead with you – not to take that pill. Yes, your dying will be hard, but it will not be without beauty," Kara's letter concluded.
The Long Goodbye
With the release of the new film, timed to coincide with the fifth anniversary of Tippetts' death, the Lyons believe people will be able to clearly see Kara's true heart and learn other valuable life lessons from her example.
The movie, "The Long Goodbye: The Kara Tippetts Story," combines professional and personal videos to paint an intimate portrait of a life cut short but well lived.
"I feel like a little girl at a party whose dad's asking her to leave early and I'm throwing a fit. I'm not afraid of dying. I just don't want to go," Tippetts told the filmmakers.
The film also shows Kara's widespread influence, featuring interviews with leading Christian voices and entertainers who were also impacted by her life. They include New York Times bestselling author Ann Voskamp, Joni Eareckson Tada, and Joanna Gaines, former host of HGTV's "Fixer Upper."
Although it does not contain a fairy tale ending, the producers believe the film's viewers will walk away with hope.
"I know that sounds like a weird thing to say about a movie about someone who suffers, but it's hopeful," Jay explained. "That was the goal of this movie to make it be hopeful – to learn even though this woman, we watch her suffer and die, but you learn how to live."
"It gives you a glimpse into this woman's suffering and pain," Sofia commented. "It's a beautiful experience if you can set your fear aside – if you have a fear of dying for you to see this woman who's excited about meeting Jesus."
"I want to be able to share this story – that suffering is not a mistake, and it isn't the absence of God's goodness, because He is present in pain." – Kara Tippetts