The Wow Factor, something they learned from their dad, describes the work of the Erwin Brothers, who are wonderful writers, directors and producers of redemptive movies. Their work is especially marked by excellence, authenticity, hard work, and emotion. Sonoma Christian Home caught up with Christian movie director Jon Erwin to talk about their rise to the top.
Andrew and Jon Erwin began their careers when they were teenagers, working as camera operators for ESPN in their hometown of Birmingham, Alabama. They soon embarked on full-time careers as sports cameramen covering University of Alabama games all over the country. The brothers had the opportunity to work with ESPN College Football Primetime, FOX NFL, and the NBA covering events like the XGames and the Superbowl.
Set in Birmingham, Alabama and based on their father’s own true story as a high school football chaplain, the Erwin Brothers released their third feature film, Woodlawn, in 2015. This true story is also based on the life of NFL great, Tony Nathan, and the highest attended game ever played in Alabama High School Football. The film features Jon Voight, Sean Astin, Caleb Castille, and many other fine actors.
Sonoma Christian Home spoke with Jon Erwin about two of the latest Erwin Brothers projects.
The first is Steve McQueen: American Icon, an amazing documentary on the life of superstar Steve McQueen. The actor remains an intriguing movie star, as “the King of Cool” and was also a believer in Jesus Christ. As an avid fan of the actor (and owner of a replica of McQueen’s car in the classic film Bullitt), Senior Pastor of Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, California, Greg Laurie, takes to the road in his mint Mustang, traveling the country in search of the true, untold story of McQueen’s redemption-filled final chapters.
The second, I Can Only Imagine, is due in theaters March 16. In this gripping movie, Dennis Quaid displays a powerful range as an actor portraying Bart Millard’s father who undergoes a startling transformation. The inspiring and unknown true story behind MercyMe’s beloved, chart-topping song that brings ultimate hope to many is a gripping reminder of the power of true forgiveness.
Sonoma Christian Home had a profound discussion and interview with Jon Erwin that spans reflections on the spiritual revivals (including the Jesus Movement of his father’s era), the art of storytelling, the power of role models, and insights about how God works. SCH Editor at Large Dr. Diane Howard reports.
SCH: What new insights have you learned since the making of Woodlawn to the present?
JE: I have learned the unique power of the true story that no one can refute. True stories of lives changed have power and are emotionally relatable. Stories of changed lives, redemption, and reconciliation provide hope. I have also learned that it is okay to be original as a filmmaker. There are different kinds of ministries and film-making projects. Our films are outreach projects as we partner with churches.
SCH: What have you learned recently about the importance of relevant themes?
JE: We need relevant and relatable themes. Our work should be personal. We must be moved personally by what we are working on. We must personally relate to it. We all live under the lie, as Steve McQueen did, that we must have more of this or that. Steve had it all but had nothing. He had a God-shaped vacuum in his heart and life that nothing but God could fill. I have also learned as Bart Millard did that out of our pain can come our greatest inspiration.
SCH: How do these two projects show how Christ meets the needs of the abandoned and those from troubled homes?
JE: Steve McQueen did not know his dad. He was a street kid. Bart Millard had no mother and had an abusive father. Christ met their needs and gave purpose to their pain. I have also discovered purpose in pain.
SCH: What revelations did you learn about God through these projects?
JE: God is a storyteller. He writes our stories. What He creates is for Good. We need to let Him write our stories and to give us a voice.
SCH: What has surprised you recently about how God works?
JE: God is Good. He gives value to our pain. He gives us voices. We learn more in failures.
SCH: How is God working through faith-based films today?
JE: We are the first generation to be able to fulfill the Great Commission to take the Gospel to the whole world. We recently had a screening of our movie I Can Only Imagine for Vice President Mike Pence and congressmen and congresswomen in Washington D.C. The second best export next to agriculture for the U.S., is movies. In history, revivals have followed technological shifts. We now have a new digital highway to reach the world. Movies can get into closed societies with the Gospel.
SCH: How do your two new films offer the message of hope?
JE: I Can Only Imagine as a top song has provided a rush of hope. We learn that we can’t mess up life beyond redemption. Beauty can come out of ashes.
SCH: How do these projects demonstrate redemption?
JE: Redemption means to buy something back. No matter what you have done or experienced it can be bought back. Steve McQueen was redeemed in the end and died clutching Billy Graham’s personal Bible with Graham’s own notes that Dr. Graham had given him.
SCH: What have you learned about the art of filmmaking?
JE: It is a powerful form of communication. It wins hearts first and provides then a logical catch bucket. Stories must be emotionally relatable and then they can be explained, just as Jesus role modeled. They can make us crave on emotional level then prepare us to learn. Stories need to appeal emotionally first then can be logical. The appeal needs to be to the heart first then the head. Movies are a new way to do an old form of storytelling and teaching.
Both Steve McQueen: American Icon and I Can Only Imagine are not-to-be-missed, amazing, redemptive movies. Gary Sinise narrates the film documentary of Steve McQueen’s amazing, true faith. Steve McQueen: American Icon features in-depth interviews with McQueen’s wife, model Barbara Minty McQueen, and debuts her candid photographs from McQueen’s last years. Additional interviews include those of Academy Award-winning actor Mel Gibson, renowned stuntman Stan Barrett, celebrated McQueen biographer Marshall Terrill, actors Barbara Leigh and Mel Novak, and the pilots who taught McQueen to fly. In addition to the 110-minute documentary, the Steve McQueen: American Icon DVD provides digital bonus features that includes a special message from Pastor Greg Laurie and an exclusive look at Steve McQueen’s famous 1968 Mustang GT from the movie Bullitt.
I Can Only Imagine is the song that has brought ultimate hope to many, often in life’s most challenging moments. Amazingly, the song was written in mere minutes by MercyMe lead singer Bart Millard, after the lyrics took a lifetime to experience. I Can Only Imagine is directed by the Erwin Brothers and features J. Michael Finley, Madeline Carroll, Trace Adkins, Priscilla Shirer, with Cloris Leachman and Dennis Quaid.
Although Bart Millard found faith at a young age, life wasn’t easy for him. He experienced an active imagination and love of music as escapes from a troubled home life. As he grew older, Bart turned to football in hope of connecting with his abusive father. But a career-ending injury and the vision of a teacher who saw unlimited potential set Bart on a musical pathway.
In the movie, while chasing a dream and running away from broken relationships with his father and Shannon, his childhood sweetheart, Bart hits the road in an old, decrepit tour bus with his new band MercyMe, which was named for his grandmother’s favorite expression. With the guidance of a grizzled music-industry insider, the band begins a journey which none of them could ever have imagined.
Today we are increasingly seeing better and better redemptive movies produced. A film is “redemptive” when it makes something or someone positive and worthy, despite their former negative states. Redemptive movies present realistic, naturalistic, and honest stories in which the characters go on ultimately edifying journeys that lead them towards positive results from that which was originally negative, toward reconciliation, and toward Truth.
Redemptive films have edifying stories that reveal universal ideas and lift viewers from negativism, cynicism, and/or pessimism to what is positive, renewing, and hopeful. Although, they present honest, difficult struggles, they turn what is paralyzing, degrading, and debilitating into what is freeing, beautiful, and eternal.
Redemptive movies are authentic, honest, and believable. They entertain with stories that are also uplifting, enlightening, and/or educational that reinforce universal ideas of unconditional love and absolute moral values. Best practice redemptive movies also include the best of artistry cinematography, directing, acting, and more.
The ultimate Redemption is that which our Lord Jesus Christ has provided for us and redemptive movies are those that line up with this Truth.
The film is available on Digital and DVD.
To learn more about this author, please visit Dr. Diane Howard