“This story, if you’ll let it, will change you. It certainly changed us.”
So says Jon Erwin, who with his brother Andy, directed a blockbuster movie that tells the story of Bart Millard of Mercy Me, who wrote “I Can Only Imagine,” the bestselling Christian song of all time, and the first and only Christian single to be certified platinum (twice) for sales of over 2 million digital downloads. The trailer alone has been viewed 125 million times, and has garnered more than 300,000 comments, and is poised to break the record as the most viewed trailer online for a faith film ever. (Go to https://icanonlyimagine.com to see the official trailer and more.)
The movie, in theaters March 16, vividly portrays how Millard’s abusive father – a “monster” in his son’s words – is eventually transformed by faith and his impending death. That transformation, played to perfection by Actor Dennis Quaid, leads to the healing of the father/son relationship and, after the father’s death, the writing of the blockbuster song by his son.
The song imagines what it would be like to be in heaven with Jesus, but to get to the place where it could be written, Millard had to go to hell and back. The Birmingham-based Erwin brothers recently visisted EWTN to film a segment for “Life on the Rock,” which airs 9 p.m. ET, Sunday, March 18, with encores at 3 p.m. Thursday, March 22 and 5 p.m. ET, Friday, March 23. (Find EWTN at www.ewtn.com/channelfinder.) The movie is all about redemption and forgiveness and, after hearing their stories, it’s obvious that neither the cast, the stars, nor the audience was immune from its power.
The song itself was personally important to Co-Writer and Co-Director Jon Erwin when it debuted because he had just lost a close family friend, and it became important to him again this past summer when his 3-year-old son had unexpected heart surgery. “That song, which was an anchor of hope long ago, became an anchor again,” he said. “Pain can become your greatest inspiration. Being able to tell this story while that was happening did change me. God has a plan. [Your] pain can become your voice and can morph into the song you’re meant to sing.”
The two co-directors have many wonderful stories about the impact of the film on audiences fortunate enough to preview the film. For example, after screening the film in South Dakota, Jon said a 25-year-old man in the audience told him that while he was watching the movie he had texted his father – who he hadn’t spoken to in 10 years — and invited him to lunch so they could talk. The two later reconciled.
“The wonderful and dangerous thing about film and entertainment in general is that it gives permission for the audience to do what they’ve seen on the screen,” he said. “In this case, it gave someone the courage to make the phone call they should have made 10 years ago.”
As it turns out, the stars of the film were equally impacted by the story. Trace Adkins initially turned down the role of Scott Brickell, the manager of the band Mercy Me, where Bart Millard is the lead singer.
Director Andy Erwin explains: “I asked him why. He said, ‘I’ve had a rough couple years. I don’t feel like I’m good enough to be in a faith-based film.’” That’s a sentiment to which every Christian can relate! So Andy took him golfing, and remembers saying, “The movie is about redemption. It takes you where you are and offers redemption and forgiveness.” That obviously convinced the star, who reportedly told Andy, “I could use a little redemption in my life!”
Like Adkins, Dennis Quaid has had some well-documented hard times. “He talks openly about overcoming drug addiction,” Andy said. But unlike Adkins, Quaid was eager to take on the role. As Andy remembers it, Quaid said: “I want to do this film. I’ve never played a character that’s gone through this kind of transformation. In the end, he’s so childlike and quiet and redeemed. It’s a beautiful thing!”
Over the course of the film, Andy says Quaid became “a dear friend.” He says the star was raised by a devout Christian mother, but went on a journey to find God in the 70s. He asked questions of different faith traditions but ultimately found “his life and his comfort were the words of Jesus.”
Twenty-five years ago, Jon Erwin said Quaid wrote a powerful song called “On My Way to Heaven,” but never finished it. “He wrote it in the Gospel tradition. On the set of ‘I Can Only Imagine,’ he came back to it. He wrote the bridge and the final chorus. We’re going to release a music video about it next week!”
When the film was finished, Andy took it to Quaid’s house so he and his twin 9-year-olds could screen it. “At the end of the film, Dennis was sobbing. He said, ‘That was just powerful.’” Quaid also told him that after seeing the film his kids began asking him questions about God.
The Erwin brothers were favored with a lot of “God moments” during the making of the film. They were three weeks into filming in Oklahoma, and they had an “unknown kid” playing Mercy Me’s Millard – but no star. Andy called Stephen Kendrick, who produced the popular Christian film, “War Room,” and explained that he and his brother had a serious problem. “He [Kendrick] said, ‘If this is God’s movie and you really feel he’s leading you, you’ve got to leave it in His Hands.’ So I said, “Okay God, it’s your problem!” Next thing we know, Dennis Quaid is on the phone saying, ‘I want to do this film.’”
How did the film come to Quaid’s attention? Andy says Producer Kevin Downes “suddenly” discovered that Noah Hamilton, one of their cameramen, was the brother of Bethany Hamilton, author of “Soul Surfer”, which was made into a film about the courage of the surfer who lost her arm after a shark attack. Quaid played her dad in that movie and Noah said the family still has a close relationship with him. The rest is history!
Another “God moment” came when the Erwin brothers were searching for the finale to the film. The finale came to them as result of a “chance” conversation with someone in the business. When the Erwin brothers told him they were planning to film “I Can Only Imagine,” the man said, “I was in the Ryman that night in Nashville when Singer Amy Grant, [to whom Bart had given his “career making” song for her “comeback”] called Bart on stage and gave him his song back!”
That was a story Jon Erwin hadn’t heard! He realized instantly that this was the elusive finale for which they had been searching! Fortunately, the brothers knew Amy Grant because they had filmed a music video with her earlier in their careers. However, in an incredibly selfless and Christian act, Grant came to believe the song wasn’t hers to sing.
In real life, she called Bart before the concert to tell him he could debut the song himself during one of her own concerts! However, in the film, she has the realization that Bart should sing his own song in the middle of her own concert, and in a surprise move calls the largely unknown singer up to the stage to sing his song before a sell-out crowd. There’s more to the scene, but you have to go to the film to see it.
Will the film become a hit? A movie executive, who declined to distribute “Imagine,” told the Erwin Brothers that he didn’t believe there would be more than 18,000 people who would be interested in a film about Christian music. Yet the Erwin brothers said they believe that by the time the film premieres it will have easily surpassed the 132 million views earned by trailers for the Christian film “Miracles from Heaven.” That would give “Imagine” the distinction of having the most viewed trailers online for a faith film ever. If even a small fraction of the audience that has seen the trailers comes to see the film, that “doubting Thomas” movie executive will undoubtedly be telling stories about “the one that got away” for the rest of his life!
But that’s not something that concerns the Erwin brothers, whose previous films include “October Baby,” “Mom’s Night Out,” and “Woodlawn.” They’re too busy making films that matter.
“For us personally, when we stumbled into [filmmaking], we were kids that had a hobby,” said Andy Erwin, as he and brother recalled their early years making music videos. “I was a Christian. I had entrusted my life to Jesus, but I didn’t have any ambition to have this kind of calling. Along the way, as the Lord has allowed us to tell stories like this, you can’t help but have it shape you. To tell stories to a world that desperately needs the message of Christianity – we have kind of become zealots for the cause!”
See you in theaters March 16!