Interview: Andrew Erwin on Filmmaking, Faith, and Being in Alabama

The players of Mom’s Night Out

Andrew Erwin
“Our first goal is to tell a good story”
Alex Kendrick
We want to present stories that would draw people to a relationship with the Lord.
Patricia Heaton
I don’t think of movies as Christian or non-Christian. I don’t think God categorizes us like that.
Sean Astin
My Christian faith takes a lot of time to unpack.
Sarah Drew
So much beauty and truth can be found in every show.
Mom’s Night Out
A day on the set of a “Christian” movie

Andrew Erwin is taking on Hollywood at its own game and in his own terms.

He makes movies from an unapologetically religious point of view.

He films – and lives – in Alabama, almost as far spatially and methaphoically as one can get from Hollywood.

And yet, as far as he is from Hollywood in philosophy, he is equally as far from his mentor and friend Alex Kendrick as well.

While Kendrick speaks language of ministry, theme and message, Erwin speaks about story, character, and even making money.

“I think our first goal – I mean… Jon and I are unapologetically Christian – and our first goal when we take on a story is to tell a good story. To make sure it’s an entertaining movie because we are in the business of entertainment. And if we don’t entertain people, there’s no reason to put our message in there. But I think when we find a story that is entertaining,  nine times out of ten, we are attracted to stories that have our values just, you know, intrinsically in it.”

Jon (left) and Andrew (right) Erwin
Photo: Facebook

Rather than come to filmmaking, as Kendrick did, out of a sense of using the  medium to reach people as a ministry, Jon and Andrew fell in love with moviemaking at a young age. After making growing up in the studio of their politician/TV minister father and attending a summer camp in which they made movies for the campers, “We fell in love. It was like…it was just…we got just hypnotized by it. [We realized] this is something we’d love to do for the rest of our lives.”

Like many aspiring directors in Hollywood and out, they found ways to make money doing what they loved, making music videos, working on documentaries, and for many years, working for ESPN. Then a film to which they were attached – Mom’s Night Out – was given the greenlight.

Erwin speaks the language of the younger generation of Evangelicals, using terms like “engage,” “honesty,” and “humility.”

I think that the first thing you gotta do, is you can’t go to make a movie trying to make everybody happy because I think those are the movies that end up offending more people because you’re trying to..it’s not honest.

Andrew Erwin and Jon Erwin are both married, both with young children. Their filmmaking is a family affair and their children grow up near extended family. The day of the press visit, their father, Hank Erwin is on set, shaking hands and slapping backs like the Southern politician he is. After a career as a radio and TV preacher, he went on to serve in Alabama’s State Senate. Mom Shelia is on set too, beaming with pride and on the two boys she raised and homeschooled.

Andrew Erwin enjoys visiting Los Angeles, but he’ll stay right on Alabama soil, he says:

I like being close to home. For some reason, this is where I feel most creative. I like the pace of life. I like being in a state where people really don’t know a whole lot about what I do so I can just be a regular person and just be creative and it’s the story, not all the chaos that goes around The Industry. So as long as I can, as long as it fits the narrative and it enhances the story, I’ll keep making movies here as long as I can.

Read the entire transcript of the interview with Andrew Erwin here. 

Interview Transcript: Andrew Erwin on Filmmaking, October Baby, and Mom’s Night Out

The players of Mom’s Night Out

Andrew Erwin
“Our first goal is to tell a good story”
Alex Kendrick
We want to present stories that would draw people to a relationship with the Lord.
Patricia Heaton
I don’t think of movies as Christian or non-Christian. I don’t think God categorizes us like that.
Sean Astin
My Christian faith takes a lot of time to unpack.
Sarah Drew
So much beauty and truth can be found in every show.
Mom’s Night Out
A day on the set of a “Christian” movie

Andrew Erwin, May 29 2013, On set of Mom’s Night Out in Huntsville Alabama

Could you describe the movie and why you did it?

Yeah, absolutely. Moms Night Out..Jon and I, we directed and created October Baby, was our first full length feature. And we were trying to look for what our follow up project was going to be. Our good friend Kevin Downs, who’s an actor, producer, had stumbled onto a script that was for moms, just celebrating the beauty of being a mom, of parenting. But the thing that attracted it to us was this was a comedy. And this was something that was very relatable but something that we could kind of take a breath and laugh. And sometimes, including October Baby, there’s so many, you know, really intense serious films, that I think the Christian audience wants to laugh just as much as any other audience. They like to find things that are just lighthearted. But then I think that allows you to look at some really neat issues and messages that are important. But in a way that is a little bit more approachable and humorous, and so we fell in love with the idea and decided to sign on and take on the project and it has become much bigger than we ever anticipated.

What about this movie makes it a Christian movie?

I think our first goal, I mean Jon and I are unapologetically Christian, and our first goal when we take on a story is to tell a good story. To make sure it’s an entertaining movie because we are in the business of entertainment. And if we don’t entertain people, there’s no reason to put our message in there. But I think when we find a story that is entertaining,  nine times out of ten, we are attracted to stories that have our values just, you know, intrinsically in it. I think Mom’s Night Out number one, allows us to portray Christians in a positive light. You know, I think comedy allows us to be a little bit more approachable as Christians, especially to a secular audience. If we are able to laugh and kind of let our hair down a little bit, I think that takes a lot of the fear away of the unknown from an audience that doesn’t totally understand us. So it allows us to put good Christian role models out there. So Patricia Heaton plays the pastor’s wife and she does it in an amazing way. Alex Kendrick from Courageous is the pastor. Sarah Drew plays our lead character, the mom, and Sean Astin, her husband, portray a real Christian marriage, where they’re kind of struggling through tings and trying to figure out how to handle all these kids. So that’s first of all. Secondly, I think there’s a really sweet message in this movie, just about the beauty of motherhood, what God sees so special in this amazing position in the family. And then allows us to celebrate that. And also look at just maybe some of the pressures that our society puts on moms versus what God really expects.  and then just what it means to be a good parent. So it’s TI’s all in there and I think that really is something Christian audience will resonate with. And also this idea of parenting is something that’s very broad and hopefully will allow us to engage culture in a new way.

Is directing something you’ve always wanted to do or how did you get your start?

[Laughs] Jon and I kind of joined the circus when we were kids. So we’re kind of I guess maybe you’d call us homeschooler carnies. We..my dad was in the industry growing up and we were kind of studio rats and hung around and there was a small Christian camp up in upstate new york called word of life and we went up there and we had a little experience and they asked us to do a little short film for the kids. The best test audience you will ever have is 500 teenagers locked in a room because they will tell you if it’s good and they will tell you real quickly if it’s bad. So that allowed us to do these little films. We started like,  Knights of the Round Table and Star Wars and all these things. We watched how it engaged the kids. We fell in love. It was like…it was just…we got just hypnotized by it. This is something we’d love to do for the rest of our lives. We didn’t have a ton of experience beyond just hobby. There wasn’t really a film industry here in Alabama to speak of. So we just tried to figure out by trial and error. We moved on to doing music videos. Then documentaries. And then ultimately decided to just go ahead and make the jump to feature films. It’s been about…from when we were kids starting…it’s been about an 18 or 19 year process, but it’s something we’ve always wanted to do.

What was your first film that you did?

It was October Baby. And that was, you know, Jon and I had kind of taken a break on directing stuff together just for the summer. He really wanted to go do Courageous so he went and directed second unit for the Kendricks in Courageous and I stayed in music videos and did one for Casting Crowns and Montgomery Gentry. Jon while he was there, Alex and Steven pulled him aside and said, what’s your purpose for what you do? And Jon said, Well to get a paycheck. And they challenged him and said it’s time for you to step off the sidelines. So he’d been dabbling for this script for October Baby and he came home and put it in front of me and just said I think this is our first feature. I read it and fell in love with the story. It was risky. We decided to do it. Did it on a shoestring budget and the next thing you know it was on the front page of the New York Times. It found its audience and that led to this. So…(inaudible)

On Casting….

We’re a SAG film, so we cast some locals, but we did a lot of our casting out of LA and found some amazing actors, so pretty much every part that we went to cast, we got our first choice.

Can you talk a little bit about being a hybrid, working with LA and also doing your own thing? How does that work for you?

I love it. As a Christian, I really love engaging Hollywood. I don’t think…I think as I’ve seen it, you know, Hollywood is not necessarily intrinsically bad or evil. It’s a business. There’s people that use that for bad things and there’s people that use it for good things. I think as Christians sometimes we’ve been afraid to engage. While I was getting started with film ministry, I worked at ESPN for years, so I worked the secular side of things for a long time. So As a Christian, I really like engaging people that don’t necessary agree with me. I like having healthy conversations and I guess debunking some of the stereotype. Instead of interacting with them in fear, I like interacting with them with confidence and humility. So as we engage Hollywood, we’ve found there’s a lot of…I don’t require my actors to be Christians, I want the best person for the part, but I’ve been amazed at how many Christians there are in Hollywood and have the same values that work on big things. So the people who came around this project, surprised me, a lot of us have similar values. And on top of that, you get the best person for the role and you get somebody that brings it to life in a whole new way.

Talk a little bit about Soul Surfer. My secular colleagues were, you know, ok with it, some of them really liked it and some of them were ok with it, but they had a level of respect that I haven’t actually seen honestly for any other faith based movie. How does that make you feel? Were you happy with the acceptance that Soul Surfer had? How do you make movies that cross over that boundary?

I think that the first thing you gotta do, is you can’t go to make a movie trying to make everybody happy because I think those are the movies that end up offending more people because you’re trying to..it’s not honest. And I think a lot of times a film audience they can smell a fake a mile away….A filmmaker that’s asking the audience to go on an emotional journey that they haven’t taken themselves. So I think the first thing you’ve got to do is find a story that resonates with you. And is your goal to be not to get a message across but to go just tell a good story. And if you tell it in a way that is honest… I think the other thing that is a philosophy that I have is that um my job is not, I’m not a preacher, I’m not a politician, I’m a filmmaker. I’m a storyteller. So I don’t really need to tell people what to think. I need to challenge people to think. A filmmaker that I really respect, Paul Haggis, said the best films don’t give answers, they ask the most penetrating questions. So I think you know, I think the ones that like Soul Surfer, and some of those movies that have had that crossover appeal, I think that they told a good story that was genuine and that’s not necessarily offensive. Your message is never going to resonate with everybody. There are going to be people that really don’t like it. But I think if you tell a good story and cause people to want to go on this vicarious emotional story that is a film, I think eventually the audience will buy in and they’ll will go wherever you want to go. You just gotta make sure that it’s worth the entertainment and they find it a genuine story.

You film a lot of your movies away from Hollywood, which Hollywood does too, they film all over. So coming to the south, is that an unusual thing? In LA, I talked to…what’s his name….anyway. the director of The Help.

Yes. Tate

Tate. That’s right. Tate Taylor.

I love his work.

Yeah. And he was saying, he wanted to film in Mississippi. He’s native and the story’s set in Mississippi. And that people in LA literally asked, can we get copy paper in Mississippi?

[Laughter.]

And he had to fight that. Have you run into that?

Yeah. Definitely. We’ll have meetings out in LA and the first question will be like, SO Alabama… let’s talk about that.

And I’ll be like [adopts hick accent], guys I swear I only wear my straw hat on Tuesday and my overalls are still in the car, so…

Especially, Alabama with the fledglings film industry are similar to what Tate experienced in Mississippi, still a work in progress. But I think because of people like Tyler Perry in Atlanta and everything that’s going on in New Orleans, Louisiana, I think it’s becoming more popular because of how economical it is to make a movie, how enthusiastic people are here to do the film industry, they’re not as jaded, by the… it still feels new, and then you’re able to make a movie for a lot cheaper than you can somewhere like LA. On a lot of fronts. I think there’s’ a lot of benefit to it. The other reason why we do it is just because I like being close to home. For some reason, this is where I feel most creative. I like the pace of life. I like being in a state where people really don’t know a whole lot about what I do so I can just be a regular person and just be creative and it’s the story, not all the chaos that goes around The Industry. So as long as I can, as long as it fits the narrative and it enhances the story, I’ll keep making movies here as long as I can.

Is the ‘Christian Fatwa’ over? Makers of ‘Blue Like Jazz’ and ‘October Baby’ talk it out

We reported previously on a “Christian fatwa” allegedly imposed on Steve Taylor’s Blue Like Jazz by the Kendrick brothers. Their company, Sherwood Pictures, makes Christian market movies like Fireproof and Courageous and distributes them with Provident Pictures. The most recent distributed through Provident was October Baby. The “fatwa” involved a refusal to promote Blue Like Jazz via trailers at October Baby screenings and a threat that people who worked with Blue Like Jazz would no longer be able to work with Sherwood and Provident.

In a blog post just published, Taylor describes a phone call Saturday night in which he hashed out the issue with Alex Kendrick, whom he describes as “warm, humble, and generous” and “a Christian brother who wanted to make things right.” Taylor writes:

He explained how he and his brother/filmmaking partner Stephen had no prior knowledge that their church’s Executive Pastor (who is also an Executive Producer on their movies) had issued the edict last year that I described in a previous blog, wherein he let it be known that anybody who worked on Blue Like Jazz would not be working on future Sherwood Baptist movies. Alex told me that, while he and his brother are members of the church and have worked closely with this pastor in the past, they disagreed with his decision, and he further confirmed that none of them, including the pastor, have seen Blue Like Jazz.

It seems the two also found a way to bridge the gap between Kendrick’s sweet faith-based films and Taylor’s more edgy style.

As I’ve stated before, I have great respect for what Alex and his brother have accomplished as filmmakers. Making movies is hard. They’ve had extraordinary success using very limited resources, and each time they do it they get better. We’ve had a number of their fans tell us how much they liked Blue Like Jazz, and Alex and I agreed that there are a variety of ways for Christians to approach storytelling. We’re humbled and grateful that he reached out to us in such a direct and personal way.

Sounds like a good ending to the story. Maybe it would make a good movie.

More on this story:

Read our original post about the “Christian fatwa.

Read our review of Blue Like Jazz

Read our interview with Steve Taylor

Read our interview with John Schneider for October Baby

Update: October Baby is not made by Sherwood Pictures, but is distributed by Provident Films, which has co-distributed the Kendrick Brothers’ films for years and is closely tied to them. A previous version of this story identified October Baby as a Sherwood production, which it is not. Thanks to reader Matt Smith for the catch.

October Baby Star John Schneider Asks You to Keep an Open Mind

Some movies make it big because their cast is packed with A-list celebrities. Others films boast an eager fan base willing to wait in line to catch a midnight screening of ‘the next big thing.’ And then other movies come out of nowhere and find success by simply telling a strong story.

October Baby is one of those films.

It won’t receive the publicity of a Mirror Mirror and it doesn’t have the diehard fans like The Hunger Games , but Baby has been very successful in its first two weekends of release. In fact, when it was released against Games, it had the second-highest-per-screen average and despite its limited number of screens, was one of the top ten highest-grossing movies of the weekend.

I talked to Dukes of Hazard star John Schneider about the film on its release date and even then, he realized the power of the film. “I’ve actually never been involved in something that is…it’s hard to say ‘taking off’ cause it’s only opening today but it seems like it’s gonna take off,” he said.

Not only was he pleased with the film’s momentum but he was also delighted with the film itself. “I’ve never been so impressed with a final product as I have been when I first sat down and saw October Baby,” he said.

A college student named Hannah (Rachel Hendrix) learns two hard truths as the story begins. First, she was adopted by the couple she’d always believed were her birth parents. Secondly, she learns that her life-long health problems stem from the failed abortion performed on her.

Schneider plays her loving but flawed father Jacob, who has hidden that harsh truth from his daughter. Jacob’s flaws were something that appealed to the Smallville actor. When I asked him about what he looks for in a role, he said that his characters “have to be flawed, they have to have some sort of a gripe, and they have to be honestly, truthfully who they are.”

And Baby focuses a lot on honesty and integrity but this isn’t simply the message movie that some make it out to be, according to Schneider. While many see Baby as strictly a pro-life film, Schneider disagrees. He doesn’t see the movie as being either for or against abortion. “I see it as a forgiveness and healing film,” he said.

But he says that the movie offers up “a different perspective.” “I’d never heard of abortion survivors” before reading the script, he said. And he was so surprised by the concept that he had to reread the page where the concept was introduced.

Schneider didn’t discuss the politics of the movie with me but he told me that those who would automatically reject the concept because of its focus on an abortion survivor should keep an open mind about seeing the film. Schneider—who said that he doesn’t believe that “there’s anything such thing as a Republican or a Democrat anymore”—was quick to note how much he enjoyed debating politics with Bill Maher on the show Politically Incorrect and hopes that people continue to engage in thoughtful discussions, even about controversial subjects and he hopes that Baby can lead to such a conversation.

“I would love to be privy to the conversations in the car on the way home” after seeing the movie, he said.

In terms of how well the film fares as a creative achievement, I enjoyed the movie despite a few of its blatant flaws. The production value isn’t great and some of the characters are more superficial than satisfying but overall, I enjoyed Baby and would recommend it to others, especially those willing to keep an open mind about such a controversial topic.

John Schneider on Hollywood, Christianity, and Pro-Life Films

The Hollywood Reporter has a fascinating interview with John Schneider, forever Bo Duke from “The Dukes of Hazard.” In it, he talks about his pro-life movies “October Baby” and “Doonby” as well as what it’s like to stand for controversial issues and Christian faith in Hollywood. He also shares about his relationship with legend Johnny Cash:

THR: Rumor has it Johnny Cash encouraged you to become a born-again Christian?

Schneider: I was a Christian when I lived with Johnny and June, and he solidified my belief system. He was a manly person who believed in Jesus. He was not an emasculated Christian. He was a rough guy held together by his belief in God and his love for his wife. There’s never a bad time to see that example.

I spoke John on the set of “Doonby” in 2010. He was opinionated, friendly, and eager to talk about a project about which he obviously cared a great deal. You can read about it here.


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