I Can Only Imagine and Steve McQueen: American Icon co-director Jon Erwin on rooting for the underdog and following your dreams

There are any number of sibling filmmaking teams, from the Wachowskis to the Farrellys and the Duffers, and the Christian movie world has them too. One of those teams is Jon and Andrew Erwin, who have produced several feature films over the last few years, from the pro-life drama October Baby to the screwball comedy Moms’ Night Out and their newest film, I Can Only Imagine, which opens today. Jon Erwin also recently co-directed a documentary about Steve McQueen, which came out on DVD last month. Coincidentally, both Steve McQueen: American Icon and I Can Only Imagine — which tells the story of MercyMe frontman Bart Millard, who wrote one of the biggest hits in Christian-radio history — focus on artists who had to overcome their abusive childhoods.

I had a chance to speak to Jon Erwin (pictured above, on the left; his brother Andy is in the middle, and producer Kevin Downes is on the right) about both films earlier this week. What follows is a slightly edited transcript of our conversation.

There’s an airplane in the Erwin Brothers logo. What’s the story behind that?

Erwin: Our logo is my grandfather’s airplane. The City of Los Angeles is the name of his plane, and he received a medal of honour in World War II while a radio operator on that plane. He actually picked up a bomb that had erupted inside the plane and marched it to the front of the airplane and threw it out, and it actually triggered a series of irregular events — because they thought he was going to die — and it became the fastest presentation of the medal of honour in history. It happened in a week, incredible story.

But I very vividly remember him — when I was younger, holding that medal for the first time when I was five years old — saying, “Freedom isn’t free.” He was horribly burned in the accident. And also, just the embodiment of the medal of honour means to go above and beyond the call of duty — that’s what it means. And that sunk deeply into our hearts and lives, and that’s what we try to embody with our movies, just to go further, go above and beyond, make ’em a little better and go a little further in crafting than the others do.

So that’s the story behind the logo, and our grandfather is one of our great influences. He was an extraordinary individual, and patriotism is a very big part of our life and brand. And also just those character traits that embody the medal and his story are a big part of why we make movies.

Airplanes kind of tie in to the Steve McQueen story [in which McQueen becomes a Christian towards the end of his life through his friendship with a flight instructor]. Were you familiar with that story at all before you made the movie? How did you get involved with that film?

Erwin: Steve McQueen, what an incredible story, and untold! I think this is the first time over the course of my career that we felt like we were investigative journalists or something like that. It’s really incredible.

That story was birthed out of a friendship with Pastor Greg Laurie in Seneca, California. He was actually interviewing Mel Gibson for Mel’s movie Hacksaw Ridge, and we were all backstage, and he had gotten really obsessed with this untold story about the spiritual quest of an actor very much like Mel. And in fact, McQueen kind of defined the modern archetype that Mel and others tend to embody. And so we were talking about the film, and Mel and I were both leaning over Greg’s shoulder and he went away and came back, and I think Mel said it first: “Finish the story!” And it’s just an amazing story about an amazing person. An up-from-nothing underdog story.

And yet there’s this part of it that nobody knows, when Steve McQueen was at the top of his game and had checked every box that culture would say would make you happy, he was still missing something and he went on a spiritual quest, and that led him to a small airport in Santa Paula, California, and it was his flight instructor, Sammy Mason, that had an incredible influence on his life, and that influence changed him, really.

And he kind of found his father, you know. He was in search of a family. His dad abandoned him — he never knew his father, although his dad used to watch him on Wanted Dead or Alive, never met him — his mother was an alcoholic, he was abused by his stepdad, and I think this guy was kind of looking for a dad, and he found him in Sammy Mason, and then he found a relationship with God, and he found a way to forgive himself, really. So it was just an incredible story to tell, very relatable.

There’s an audio cassette of McQueen that has never been heard before, that was recorded two weeks before he died, which blew me away, and yeah, it was a special story to tell. I’m glad we were able to tell it.

Had you heard that story before you got involved with the film?

Erwin: I had not, no, before Greg brought it to my attention. The Great Escape was one of my favorite films to watch with my dad, and I had never heard of this story about McQueen’s faith, and I was shocked that it hadn’t been told. And I was shocked at how real it was, once we really found the true story out.

So with that film, were you there were for all the interviews, or did Greg bring some footage to you that he had done on his own?

Erwin: We shot the whole film. We got it in the can together, and really kind of brought it to life. It was a fun project, great collaborative endeavour, to bring this story to life. And it was an honour to tell it. And I think it confronts a really relatable question, which is what makes you happy. What really makes you happy? And at the end of the day, here’s a guy who had everything on that list and yet he still had this emptiness in his soul. And that’s relatable to all of us, I think. We can all identify with that at some level. And I think a great film asks a great question, and that was the question of this film. I was very grateful that Mel Gibson came on board and did such an authentic interview, and talked about McQueen in a way that only Mel could talk about McQueen, because they’d climbed the same ladder. And Barbie McQueen, Steve’s widow, came on board — she was with him at the time — and just an incredible group of people to interview. I kind of got to taste the golden age of Hollywood vicariously through these guys, and it was a lot of fun.

On the DVD, there are a couple of bonus features where we get longer versions of the interviews, and it’s not just Greg — we also hear a voice from offscreen asking a few questions. Is that you, or your brother?

Erwin: That’s me and Greg. Greg and I did most of the interviews, and Andy was busy editing I Can Only Imagine, so I directed that one and it was a wonderful film to be part of, and I co-directed it with a great young filmmaker, Ben Smallbone, who did a great job and took it into post and edited it and led a team of people. It was just a wonderful project to work on.

So you had already shot I Can Only Imagine before you shot the documentary, and the documentary came out first?

Erwin: Yeah. (laughs) I was at the crusade in Southern California with Greg, listening to this Steve McQueen story, and I’m like, “Oh, my goodness, I’m literally in pre-production for a movie right now, I don’t have time to get involved by another story,” but it was just such an amazing story. And so the whole time we went into pre-production, and even when we filmed Imagine, the whole time I was on the set of Imagine, I was thinking about McQueen and kind of bugging Andy. (laughs) “This is an amazing story!” And that led to finally, after all was said and done, we were able to circle back and work on that one as well, and it was a lot of fun.

And that was your first documentary?

Erwin: No, it was a return to our roots, really. We had done several documentaries, and one of the first ones was The Cross and the Towers. We were hired to do it. It was the story of the people that worked the site at 9/11 and discovered a cross. So it was kind of a return to form, and I’ve always thought documentaries are the most difficult but maybe the most rewarding form of storytelling, and so it was great to kind of come back to that.

Okay. You said the Steve McQueen thing was the first time you felt like an investigative journalist, so I guess it was a different kind of documentary, then.

Erwin: Oh, yeah, investigative journalist in the sense of breaking a story, telling a story that hadn’t been told before. It was almost like unearthing this thing and discovering it, and it felt like being an investigative journalist in the sense of discovering something that hadn’t been told, that needed to be told. In fact, in that last interview with McQueen, one of the things that he talked about was that he wanted his story told, that he wanted the world to know what God had done in his life. So it was just this incredible moment, to be able to fulfill the dying wish of an American icon. That’s incredible. So I felt like a journalist in that sense, although I have had the privilege of doing other documentaries where we’ve been able to take the time to interview people and bring their story to life, and that’s always been a real thrill and a real honour.

Why do you think it took over 30 years for that wish of McQueen’s to be fulfilled? If that recording was sitting around for so long, why do you think it took until now for that to finally come out?

Erwin: That is a great question, and I don’t know the answer to that question. How in the world has this story not been told, and how in the world do we get to tell it? I wish I knew the answer. I think maybe it just doesn’t match the brand, you know? It doesn’t match the “bad boy”, “king of cool” icon that McQueen has become. But this is a great part of his story, and a great part of his life, and I think it needs to be told.

I probably should ask some questions about I Can Only Imagine. It occurs to me that both of these films are about people who had abusive childhoods and sort of it escaped it through the arts in some way.

Erwin: Good point.

Had that occurred to you while you were making the films, that connection?

Erwin: You know, not on a conscious level. That’s interesting. They really are about two kids who had deep wounds. I think I just really identify with an underdog story, and that always means a lot to me. So to me, it was really about a deep identification with this underdog story, and sometimes you’ve got to find that wounded child, and both Bart and Steve McQueen had a rough go of it, as kids. One of the great themes of I Can Only Imagine is that your pain can become your inspiration, and I just really related to and identify with Bart’s childhood and his story, and I certainly didn’t have one like that, but it was amazing to see this “monster” — he described his father as a monster — that could turn around and become his best friend, and [to see how] a relationship that many would feel was irreconcilable could change. That brought me a lot of hope, when I heard the story, so I wanted to bring that hope to other people as well.

I understand you’ve done some music videos in the past. Had you ever worked with MercyMe in your previous career?

Erwin: You know what’s interesting about that? That’s a great question. What’s interesting about that is that, yeah, our music-video career started when basically Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith — two characters who are presented in the film — gave us a break to do a music video for them, and it was very cool that that was part of our story as well. And we worked in the music business for many years, doing a lot of different videos for other artists — won Video of the Year three years in a row at the Dove Awards, and had a dozen nominations — but we never worked with MercyMe, for whatever reason! We just never had the privilege of working with MercyMe, but we developed a strong friendship, and I think sometimes when you haven’t worked with somebody, you just a have very natural and organic friendship, so Andy and Bart were very good friends and we floated in a lot of the same circles, and all of a sudden, Bart came to Andy and said, “Hey, would you guys take a look at my story? One of the movie studios has been developing it, and they sent it to me this morning.” So we looked at the script, and then looked at the story and had our own very specific take on it, and then an incredibly natural collaboration started after that, and it was pretty cool. We submitted a script that we had written, and Bart sat in his driveway and read it cover-to-cover, and instead of going inside, he drove to his manager’s house and read it out loud to his manager, and then drove home and read it out loud to his wife. That was a pretty special moment, and he’s been part of the collaboration all the way through.

Given that you’ve worked with Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith, what was it like casting actors to play them in this dramatic film? Did you have to check with them to see who they wanted to play them?

Erwin: No! That’s a great question. Amy is just an angel, and not many people know that she made this incredibly selfless decision to launch this song, and that she had acquired the rights and was going to sing it herself, and yet she just knew it wasn’t her song to sing. It was an incredibly selfless decision by her, and to be able to bring that to the screen — she’d probably never tell it to anybody — it was pretty special. And Nicole [DuPort], who plays her, crushed it. I mean, she’s like a doppelganger, she looks so much like Amy. So that was pretty special. And Amy deserves it, y’know? She really is that generous a person.

But there’s always the burden of being able to cast people. The biggest one was Bart. How do you cast Bart? And we found John Michael [Finley] on Broadway. I went to see Les Miz on Broadway, randomly, and he was the understudy to Jean Valjean, and he played the lead 65 times because that vocal was so hard that the main actor could only do it a few times a week. And hearing him sing these iconic songs was just incredible, and instantly, I just knew. And then I come to find out he’s a preacher’s kid from Missouri, had seen MercyMe in high school three times, looked like Bart, and had just submitted an online audition. So talk about a needle in a haystack — it was amazing, an amazing find, and he’s an incredible actor, and he can go toe-to-toe with Dennis Quaid. It’s his first movie but it sure isn’t his last. It’s pretty exciting to see. We love launching talent, that’s a big core belief of who we are and why we do what we do.

On the subject of Dennis Quaid, I have to ask: Early on in the film, there’s a scene [set in 1985] where young Bart rides his bike past a movie theatre, and one of the movies showing there is Jaws 3D. Is that a Dennis Quaid nod?

Erwin: That is absolutely a Dennis Quaid nod! It absolutely is. We put The Goonies up there, having worked with Sean Astin [on Moms’ Night Out and Woodlawn] —

Right!

Erwin: — and then we put Jaws 3D as a nod to Dennis. What’s funny is we had not cast him yet, but we were just kind of hoping, and so we ended up casting him in the film, and that was a nod. And also, you know, it’s kind of a love letter to the ’80s, if that makes any sense. A big part of the film was. So it was fun to put some homages in there to U2 and to some of the movies we liked, and Star Wars, all kinds of stuff like that.

I grew up in the ’80s myself, and my recollection is that the Christian pop subculture of that time was very distinct from the quote-unquote secular mainstream culture, and one thing that strikes me about the two films you’ve done is how that line is blurred. With Steve McQueen, of course, you have all his Hollywood movies and things, and with I Can Only Imagine, you have these songs by ELO and U2 and so forth. Do you think it’s easier to blur that line now than it might have been even a decade or two ago? I don’t know if it would have been thinkable to have an ELO song in a Christian movie a couple decades ago.

Erwin: Yeah, that was a conscious choice, and I’m so grateful to Kevin Downes, our producer, for being able to bring such a great infrastructure around us where we were able to get ELO and U2 in a Christian film. But I just consider this kind of a music biopic, and an origin story, and Bart’s biggest musical influences were ELO and U2, and so we wanted to make sure to have those in the film — and we got ’em, which was amazing! So yeah, I’m grateful. And I just think that the soundtrack to the film is amazing, it’s music that I love and it’s not only Christian music, as we kind of journey with Bart and his rise to fame, but it’s also just some great music of the time that inspired him. And I love that song, ‘Into the Heart’ by U2, I just think it’s a fabulous song, and it’s a great song for this film. So, yeah, it was a conscious choice to try to mix the secular with the Christian and just a lot of the cultural influences of the time, on Bart.

In I Can Only Imagine, the portrayal of the Christian music industry is not the brightest, in the sense that when Bart is trying to get into the biz, there’s that scene with all the A&R people who are basically telling him, “No, you can’t do it, you haven’t got it,” and a part of me wonders how worship leaders are going to respond to the film because one of the A&R people says, “Well you could lead a worship band,” and Bart just kind of rejects that out of hand.

Erwin: Yeah, that’s funny. At the time, the worship music phenomenon had not struck, and so by saying you could be a worship leader, it was basically saying you don’t really have a shot at anything commercial, where now we’re in the day and age of worship music, which is very cool. But I think, if you’re going to pursue a dream — and this movie is somewhat of a love letter to dreamers out there — you’re going to face rejection. You’re going to face people telling you why you can’t do it, why you’re not good enough. And I think it was very easy to write that scene, where all these music executives are telling Bart why he can’t do it, because we just had to write the things movie executives told Andy and I over the years. And Bart faced as much rejection as we did, and yet he prevailed, and that’s a big theme in I Can Only Imagine, to just never give up on your dreams. Never give up on your calling. And that’s a big part of it.

Well that’s exactly where my question was going to go: parallels between his experience with the music industry and your experience as filmmakers, people telling you, “Your films should be more like this,” or whatever, in order to get your movie made.

Erwin: If I had a nickel for every time someone told me, “Well, you guys have a little talent, but you’re never going to succeed because of this or that,” I could fund my own movies, you know? Whenever you do something new and put yourself out there, you’re going to face rejection, and you’re going to face the naysayers. You’re going to face people telling you why it won’t work, and it’s going to be scary. But the point is just to keep going and never give up. The same was true for Bart, and the same is true for Andy and I. That’s the key.

What does it feel like in the Christian movie industry right now? I get the feeling that there’s a kind of camaraderie, is maybe the best word that comes to mind. You’ve worked with people from the Pure Flix team, DeVon Franklin played a pastor in Woodlawn, and you’re working with the Downes brothers and so forth. What does it feel like right now in terms of the Christian filmmaking community?

Erwin: That’s a great question. I think it’s an amazing time to be in Christian film. We’ve only just begun to discover what these things could become, and the influence they could have. I think we’ve just scratched the surface. And I hope the same thing happens to Christian film that happened to Christian music, which is I hope that the genre, the quality can go up and the diversity can go up. There are so many different kinds of Christian music now, and I think Christian music is really good right now, and I hope that the same can be said of Christian film as we go forward, that we can list this category of film so that multiple genres can be represented within it and different kinds of film. And I think that we can be a part of that. There’s great documentary on Spielberg. There was this group of filmmakers — Coppola, Scorsese, De Palma, Lucas and Spielberg — and they were fiercely competitive and they were constantly trying to one-up each other, but they were also really supportive and would encourage each other and help each other, and they gave us the modern blockbuster. They gave us the industry as we know it today. And there’s this small group of us doing the same thing in Christian film — DeVon Franklin, the Kendricks, Andy and I, and the gang over at Pure Flix — and there’s only a few of us doing it, and we’re trying to figure this out as we go, and we’re trying to blaze a trail. We’re doing it together, and so it’s a lot of fun, and I think the films will get better and better and better. That’s our goal, anyway, so that they can be seen by more people, and hopefully ten years from now, we can look back and realize that we were just on the surface of the potential that could hit the space. So that’s our prayer.

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