We chatted to Andy Erwin of the Erwin Brothers, directors of Woodlawn and their recent film I Can Only Imagine. We spoke to Andy about filmmaking and the film based on the story behind the song, I Can Only Imagine.
Please tell us a bit about yourself and how you became a Christian
I’m Andy Erwin, one of the Erwin Brothers, we’re filmmakers that have done the movies October Baby, Woodlawn, Moms’ Night Out.
I became a believer, I had been through two years of Bible college and a year of ministry, I was raised in a Christian home and at the end of that year of ministry, finally somebody asked me “Andy where do you stand with the Lord, do you know Jesus?” I finally broke down from my pride and said I had been waiting 21 years of my life for somebody to ask me that. I had to admit I couldn’t be good enough to make God love me, I needed a Saviour. I humbled myself and gave my life to Christ.
What inspired you to get into filmmaking?
I had this love of filmmaking and somebody asked me one day at a missions conference, I had decided I was going to translate Bibles overseas and they laughed and said “is that what you want to do?” I said “absolutely not, I felt I had to do that to be a good Christian”.
They said “Andy what do you have in your hand?” I said “A camera, I don’t know how God could ever use that”, and they said “Andy give God whats in your hand and let Him figure out how to use it”. That was the birth of my desire to be a filmmaker.
What were the next stages for you to get into filmmaking?
It took a lot longer than I thought it would.
My brother and I have worked together since we were kids, he’s kinda the one with he big dreams and I tag along, we work well together as a team.
We had kinda lost track of the dream. I was working for the sports network ESPN, doing sporting events as a cameraman and doing music videos and that kind of thing. Jon was working on the filmset for the movie Courageous from the Kendrick Brothers, and Alex pulled Jon aside and said “Jon what’s your purpose?” and he said “I’m here to get a pay check” Alex said “It’s time for you and your brother to start asking the Lord, what stories He has for you to tell.”
Jon came home with a script he had been working on called October Baby, I read it, fell in love with it and decided to take the risk on this little tiny independent film. That was on the front page of the New York Times and God decided to use it in an amazing way that lead to us doing this job full time. That was 10 years ago and we haven’t looked back.
You have directed a few different styles of movies, but Woodlawn and I Can Only Imagine are both true stories, are these the kind of films you like to make?
I think, true stories is really where we found our voice, on Woodlawn. The first couple of films we were trying to work out ‘what is our brand?’
When we did Woodlawn it was a true story set in the 1970s, an amazing story during the Jesus movement, we fell in love with the power of some of these testimonies, to show the Gospel in action. It allowed us to be a lot more overt with the material without it being preachy, because you couldn’t dispute this was somebody’s real life experience. We were able to show the power of the Gospel to a world outside the Church.
How important is it to find the right balance between being a powerful film without being too preachy?
I think for us, instead of asking that question, message vs not too preachy, I think if you’re trying to please one side or the other, you’re really never going to tell the best story.
What we embrace is, what is this person’s experience and what is authentically telling their story in a way that really resonates with their real life experience and allow their life to really dictate the material.
A movie like Woodlawn took place during the Jesus movement revival and we told it for what it was, it doesn’t feel preachy because it’s part of the story, it’s not there to get a point across.
With I Can Only Imagine, it’s a very similar fashion, it’s a song we all know but the story behind it is so powerful. Bart Millard, the lead singer of MercyMe, that this movies about, he said about his father “he was a monster, he was abusive” but when his dad got cancer, he said “I watched my father go from being a monster, to being a man totally in love with Jesus… If the Gospel could change that dude, the Gospel can change anybody.”
We told that story for every bit it was worth and as a result it may not feel preachy because it’s not an inserted message, it’s really part of his real life testimony, it preaches for itself.
It is important to tell these true stories because they can bring across the Gospel so easily
I totally agree, I think you’ve seen other powerful true stories told in recent years, The Case For Christ really rocked my world, I absolutely loved what Jon Gunn created in that film. There’s other voices out there that have really latch onto that and it’s something we’re happy to be at the frontlines of.
Tell us a bit more about I Can Only Imagine
I Can Only Imagine is obviously the number one, best selling Christian film of all time, the only double platinum Christian song, sold 6 million copies, its been streamed going on one hundred million times. Everyone has a amazing experience when they first heard that song and when it really grabbed them, they can tell you exactly where they were.
When we found out the story behind it, Bart Millard bought it to us and said would you guys consider directing a story they’re developing on my life story and we just fell in love with it.
It’s a father, son story, Dennis Quaid, an amazing actor plays the dad, it’s one of my favourite performances I’ve ever seen of his, a really rough character. Bart has this dream of singing and his dad is really the obstacle in his way. Through his dad getting cancer, he has an end of life conversion experience that really redeems the relationship and Bart finally sits down one day over his dad has passed and writes a simple song about imagining what his dad is seeing in heaven right now. That song really shook the world. It’s an amazing true story, a beautiful story of redemption and it’s my favourite story we’ve ever told. I was just so amazed we got to be a part of it.
How have you seen God working through this film already?
We’ve been doing grassroots screenings around the country, showing to leaders and people of influence, not geared towards who you’re ministering to, just trying to get the word out. Time after time in every screening, its really touched somebody in a profound way. At one screening, a 25 year old guy watched it and said “I haven’t talked to my dad since I was 15 years old, my dad is a lot like this guy and at the end of this film I reached out to him on facebook and asked if we could have lunch tomorrow, we’re having lunch tomorrow and I really need prayer.” Some Pastors got round this guy and prayed for him and he met with his father the next day and the two of them reconciled. There’s story after story like that, its been amazing to see the impact.
Now that it’s about to come out in theatres on March 16th, I’m excited to see whats going to happen on a larger scale.
What do you hope audiences will take away from this film?
The thing I’m excited about is that the song delivers a rush of hope, when you need it the most, it’s a rush of hope, with the film we tried to make it have that same experience.
I think what it communicates to any audience is no one is too far beyond redemption, nobodies too far gone, no relationship is too broken, no individual is beyond hope. The Gospel is good news for people that need it.
That message of good news, that resonance of hope and the power of redemption will come through loud and clear.
What does the future hold for the Erwin Brothers and how can we pray for you?
I’m really excited about opening weekend, we’re sprinting to the finish line. After that I’m hoping there’s going to be some rest and family time. We’ve got three or four projects that are ready to go, not just us but a group of filmmakers that are working together, trying to make more and more quality content, we’re all trying to chase that goal. If this does what we really hope it will, we’re excited that we’re gonna pour fuel on the flames and I feel like God is up to something beyond us, so keep us in your prayers.
I Can Only Imagine releases in US theatres on March 16th.