Filmmakers Jon and Andy Erwin grew up in Birmingham, Alabama with a dream to create movies one day. God opened the door for them to live their dreams in 2011 when they debuted their first major feature film October Baby, a beautiful coming-of-age story about a college freshman, who discovers the power of forgiveness after realizing the heart-breaking circumstances surrounding her birth. In 2014, the Erwin Brothers collaborated with actress Patricia Heaton to produce the family comedy Mom’s Night Out.
The Erwin’s latest work, Woodlawn, is the inspirational story about how love and unity, fueled by a spiritual awakening, overcame hate and violence in early 1970s Birmingham, Ala. This exhilarating high school football drama stars Academy Award winner Jon Voight, Sean Astin. Nic Bishop and newcomer Caleb Castille.
Woodlawn, is a film that grew out of a true story the Erwin brothers’ dad, Hank Erwin recounted to them many a night at bedtime. He told about a period in history, 1973, in their own hometown when there was a destructive amount of racial tension and unrest – but a miracle in the midst of it all.
Their father, Hank Erwin became a sports chaplain after being led to Christ during The Jesus Revolution at a crusade preached by Dr. Billy Graham. Hank went on to lead a racially charged football team at Woodlawn High School to faith in Jesus Christ – in a single meeting. Soon the opposing sides of the racial war could be seen fellowshipping together at home meetings through the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
This incredible moment of reconciliation went on to inspire a whole city, and now can inspire a whole new generation through the film Woodlawn, opening in theaters this week. The movie caught the attention of two of Hollywood’s biggest names, Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, who signed on as executive producers. Burnett claims: “Jon and Andy Erwin have made a special film, one that will not only entertain and inspire audiences, but which could very well spark another great spiritual awakening.”
Sonoma Christian Home had the privilege of learning the inside story from Director Jon Erwin. SCH Editor at Large, Suzanne Niles reports.
SCH: Woodlawn is based on a true story. How did you come to know about this story?
JE: It’s one of those stories that if it didn’t really happen you wouldn’t believe it. My connection to the story is very deep and very personal. It happened in Birmingham, Alabama, the city where I was born and raised, and where I still live.
My dad was the chaplain of the Woodlawn football team in 1973, so Sean Astin’s character is based on him. It’s incredible to have this family connection. I remember being at the University of Alabama with my dad as he shared with their FCA. I was just this little kid looking at all these Titan football players, in awe. It was this special story, growing up, that we always knew and one that, as we became filmmakers, we always hoped we could tell.
Last summer, Pastor Michael Catt of Sherwood Baptist church said we needed to go make the film. None of us could have foreknown that Ferguson would be happening when we were shooting the movie. Scenes that we were shooting were playing themselves out on television. Who could have known that? It was amazing to see the timing of all this.
Recently, I was in Dallas and we screened the film for several hundred kids at Prestonwood and hundreds of high school kids rushed the stage after the film to make a decision for Christ. Fellowship of Christian Athletes held several pre-screening’s for us and we have many reports of where half of the room stands up at the end of the film to accept Christ.
SCH: What was it like directing an actor to portray your own father?
JE: A little strange. Sean Astin was portraying my dad and we had many conversations on set and it was actually a wonderful way to bond with my dad. We just did a keynote at a convention with him and have been out on the road. It was such an honor to make this film and see my dad’s story shine. It’s amazing that it was such a personal family story. We knew we had to make the film for the nation, for everyone. At some point you have to distance yourself from it a bit, see it objectively, but it was a beautiful thing to be able to do this story. This account is true. It’s incredible and it has far exceeded our expectations. We are so grateful to be the stewards of this story.
SCH: You actually started out your film career working with ESPN, correct?
JE: Yes, I started out with ESPN when I was 15 years old. Someone got sick at a football game and I got to take their place as a camera man. I had the time of my life. I was like a southern Baptist, conservative, homeschool kid who went and joined the circus! We spent a lot of time working for ESPN and because of our experience with college football we really wanted to give people the game, as they had never seen it before with Woodlawn.
SCH: This story encompasses racial tension, evangelism, and the game of football. If you were asked to extract one point from each of those areas to highlight from the film, what would they be?
JE: What unifies those elements together is that this is a story about hope, on and off the field. It is a story about hope and the gospel, of tearing down racial barriers and racial tension. It is about the love of Christ overcoming hatred. We need hope: we are in this time of desperation.
I remember speaking with Governor Mike Huckabee about his experience as it pertains to the Sean Astin scene with the candles, the One Way. That is Huckabee’s personal testimony, he was 16, I believe, and was saved at a Jesus Movement as my dad was. I asked Mike, “how much did desperation have to do with this, with what became known as the Jesus Movement?” And he said, “it was everything, that generation — we were desperate, we needed answers. You know, free love, rock and roll, drugs; it didn’t work and the world was scary. It was out of the desperation that the Jesus Movement was born.”
I told him I feel like the desperation is back for the first time in my lifetime, my generation is seeing that sense of unrest and cultural desperation. What an opportunity for the gospel to have another Jesus revolution. In fact the cover of Time magazine a few issues ago was of Baltimore, and it had 1968 scratched out and replaced with 2015, so we are in one of those same moments.
It amazing to see a film of a true story from forty years ago be so relevant today. It is my hope that God can use it at this time to say this is a true story that points to the true answer for the things we are wrestling with in today’s culture.
SCH: The young actor, Caleb Castille, was not your original choice for the lead. How did he land the part?
JE: The story of Caleb becoming the lead is so cool, and he is so good as a Christian example for kids. He was not our first choice. It is his first movie, he is from Alabama and played football for Alabama, won a couple of national championships, but he quit football to become an actor. He wanted to be a voice in his generation. He got the script and literally signed it and prayed over it.
He auditioned and we actually never saw it, it never came through our casting director. He was crushed. He humbled himself and became the stunt double, and believed that God would give him this part. About a week before the movie starting filming, the actor we had cast was from London and his passport didn’t come through, didn’t clear.
All of a sudden the movie had no lead, it had no star, this multi-million dollar freight train that can’t be stopped and so we found Caleb’s audition and were blown away by it. We were even more blown away by him and we gave him the part on the spot. I think he drove around the city of Birmingham crying about the fact that God had given him the part. He is a special kid. In fact John Voight, academy-award winner, says this kid is really special and I agree with him. It is so exciting to see what God is up to in Caleb’s life.
SCH: Did your dad really carry a baseball bat around or was that just for dramatic effect?
JE: He did, he really carried the bat around. It was a great laugh in the film where he uses it to get the teams attention in the gym. That is actually what my dad did; how about that?
SCH: When Sean Astin, as Hank, is sharing his faith with the team was there a sense of the Holy Spirit on the set?
JE: There was multiple moments when we sensed the Holy Spirit on the set, just miracle after miracle. One of the things we actually prayed for was that it wouldn’t rain because we were right backed up against Christmas and we really needed it to not rain. The only time it rained was the two Sunday’s we were not filming. There were so many of those moments.
I would say on set, God really did a work in Sean Astin’s life. Sean really brought it; he gave himself to the material in a very bold way and it was amazing to see that moment that happened so long ago and you could feel it in the room. Coach Gerald’s conversion scene where he says the line “I want whatever my players have” was in his real journal. That was the moment that changed that man’s life. And as we were recording that, Coach Gerald who died of cancer in 2002, his son Todd was in the back weeping and saying “I remember when this happened to my dad.” There were some really special moments where God’s presence was felt.
SCH: You have mentioned the possibility of another Jesus Revolution around the corner. Do you believe this film could be the catalyst for that?
JE: I do believe that Woodlawn could be a part of sparking another Jesus Revolution, and we are betting everything on that. I believe it is something that God is already doing and that he has called us to be a part of it. One of my favorite quotes is “Stop asking God to bless what you are doing, just find out what God is doing and get involved in it because it is already blessed.” It’s fairly simple, we believe God is moving and he is moving in a big way.
I spoke to the 14,000 students at Liberty University and I told them that I believe that God is going to show up in their generation and do something extraordinary. We believe in that and we believe in you and that is why we made Woodlawn. I was just talking to our good friend Alex Kendrick who directed War Room, a film that is on prayer and has recently shattered every record. Now our film is on revival and these films are perfectly distanced from each other yet in the same season.
Who could have planned that? We didn’t plan that. Every revival, every awakening in America has always been birthed in prayer, so the idea of prayer and revival in the theaters at the same season: that’s extraordinary. I think that this goes to show you that God is working, God is moving. We have always felt that we are the stewards of Woodlawn but we are not the captains of the ship.
There has been a supernatural will behind this project. I believe that I am just trying to hang on and do my job and show up. God has his hand on this project and God is guiding the ship. When you open Sports Illustrated of all things, and there is this article on Woodlawn that blatantly shares the gospel with the headline “Jesus is my quarterback”…that is extraordinary.
I can’t believe this is actually happening, when we are on ESPN and Fox NFL talking about Woodlawn. These are the venues where the gospel is being proclaimed. It’s exciting to see what God is doing and to be a small part of it. How big of a part of a Jesus Revolution is Woodlawn going to be? I’m not sure, but time will tell. I do believe that God is going to revive a generation and I hope to have played a role in that in some way.
SCH: What is next for the Erwin Brothers?
JE: I think I’m taking my family to Disneyworld, and forgetting that I’m a film director for a while. It is toddlerville in the Erwin household, and my wife has been incredibly generous. I think I am going to take a break, recharge, be with my family.
Then we have several films in development that we are passionate about. I pray the next one is bigger than Woodlawn. That is what I love about what is happening in Christian entertainment. Each of our films keep getting bigger in scale than our last film. We are working towards a Christian blockbuster that overtly shares the gospel that can complete with Hollywood blockbusters. We are marching towards that goal, to put the gospel on that bigger stage.
SCH: Can you give us your most heartfelt, personal invitation to opening weekend?
JE: I believe that we have a real opportunity with Woodlawn to share the gospel in a culturally relevant way, because of all that has happened in America in the past year. My most heartfelt invitation would be to please help support this film, because I’ve seen with my own eyes groups of teens giving their lives to Christ together through this movie.
We are supposed to make personal decisions for Christ, but there is great power when a group decides to follow Christ together. This is what is happening with Woodlawn. There are people reading this that have the capacity to help make this happen. Whether it is someone taking their sports team, their youth group, their FCA huddle, or their school or classroom.
The vast window is opening weekend, and now especially Thursday night, October 15th. This is great because football teams can go prior to their Friday night games. This is the first chance to create something called FOMO, which is the “fear of missing out.” The fear of missing out dominates this generation and if we can make enough noise together then we can reach the 70% of millennials that are leaving the church.
That 70% is a dead-on statistic for the number that is showing up at the theaters in that demographic. This is best way to get their attention. There are people across the country planning to take their sports teams. This is a level of evangelism I did not expect on the back of this movie, Woodlawn, and I pray that people all over the country will use this as an opportunity.
We can make a statement for another Jesus Revolution in America if we act, and we act right now.