TCB Exclusive: 'I Can Only Imagine' Director Talks Film's Musical Basis

Recently, we had the privilege of talking with Jon Erwin, the director of I Can Only Imagine, out March 16th. Jon, and his brother Andy, are a directing team that focuses on creating faith-based and inspirational feature films, such as their well-known previous release Woodlawn.   A gripping reminder of the power of forgiveness, I Can Only Imagine beautifully illustrates that no one is ever too far from God’s love—or from an eternal home in Heaven. The movie is based on the song that brings ultimate hope to so many … often in the midst of life’s most challenging moments. Amazingly, the song was written in mere minutes by MercyMe lead singer Bart Millard. In reality, those lyrics took a lifetime to craft.

Also recently released by the Erwin Brothers is Steve McQueen: American Idol. Steve McQueen is one of America's most endearing and intriguing movie stars. On the surface, McQueen had everything he could want – fame, cars, homes, and more money than he could spend in a lifetime. Follow an avid fan of the actor, Pastor Greg Laurie, as he hits the road in his mint Mustang (a replica of McQueen’s car in the classic film Bullitt), traveling the country in search of the true, untold story of McQueen's redemption-filled final chapters. Discover this amazing, true faith journey narrated by Gary Sinise.

When was the first time that you remember hearing the song “I Can Only Imagine”, which the movie is based on?
icoi posterThat’s a great question! Of course, “I Can Only Imagine” is the best selling and most played Christian song of all time, and also popular on many of the pop and country charts as well. It was the most requested song on the top 40 stations. Really, it’s a phenomenon. And so it’s a big part of my life, as well as millions of others. I don’t know when I first heard the song, but I do remember when the song first became more of an anchor for me. I remember listening to it over and over and over again when we were dealing with the loss of a family member, our nephew actually. And I probably listened to “I Can Only Imagine” hundreds of times. And it really just become this emotional anchor for me. It was a great help at that time in my life. And it isn’t just me, but millions of people, that have that same story with this song. It goes way beyond just knowing this song, but what it means to you at a certain season in your life. I had no idea that there was such an incredible story behind the song. And I had no idea that someday I would be able to tell the world that story. But the song was an incredible part of my journey. So when you know the story behind the song, it just takes the song to the next level.
It’s amazing because it’s a song about Heaven, but the writer of the song, Bart, is singing for his dad because God restored their relationship from a place of total brokenness to where they were best friends. Bart even says that his dad was the man he wants to become. What a story! I remember when I learned that redemption story, Bart shared that he would always believe in God because of the change he saw in his dad – he saw a monster transform into his best friend. So it was the reconciliation of that relationship that inspired the song that has brought hope to millions of people. It’s just amazing that that story hasn’t been told, and we are the ones that get the good fortune to tell it.

The film stars Dennis Quaid, Cloris Leachman, Trace Adkins, Priscilla Shirer, Madeline Carroll and Broadway’s J. Michael Finley. What was it like working with this cast?
Well, as a director, one of the great joys is working with some amazing actors. And to discover someone like John Michael on Broadway and to empower him with his first feature film role, is amazing! Not only as a singer, since he sings all the songs, but also as an actor. He has the best natural ability of any actor I’ve ever worked with. And then to pair him with someone like Dennis Quaid, who is just an icon in his own right. When Dennis took the role, he even said he had never played a transformation on film like this before. So this is just a unique performance for him as well, and yet he gives such an authentic and honest portrayal.

Now that you’ve seen the finished product, what is your favorite moment or scene of the movie?
There is a scene between John Michael and Dennis – where the table has turned in the kitchen of Bart’s dad’s house, where his father is trying to apologize, trying to humble himself, and trying to reconcile. And Bart has also this anger, and doesn’t know if he can forgive his dad. And the whole movie just stops – there is no music and there are no camera tricks. It’s just these two actors in this brilliant moment. And their performances in that moment are just incredible. I run the camera, so I just remember looking in the lens and feeling like we were capturing something magical and special. For me, that has become a special scene in a special movie. And they just crushed it! It’s amazing to watch that in a theater with an audience and just hear them cry and cheer and laugh throughout the movie. It’s just a very special moment in the film – and one that I think would be my favorite.

You just mentioned watching it with an audience, what is the one message or take-way you want people to experience as they walk out of the theater?
ICOI PRStill 08There’s this huge audience that loves this song. And so I asked Bart very early, "what is the phenomenon of 'I Can Only Imagine'? How did an independent Christian band from Texas write the best-selling, most played Christian song of all time that went far beyond the Christian audience?" And he was very quick to say that the song is a rush of hope that people feel when they hear the song. And it’s certainly what I felt when I listened to it over and over again. And so I realized we were going to have to match that because people were going to walk into the theater wanting the same thing. And if we don’t give it to them, they are going to be disappointed. So that was the goal – to give people this rush of hope on screen. So that all know no matter what they are facing in life, there is always hope and always redemption and forgiveness, which gives just a glimpse into eternity. So that’s what I want to give them. And by far, this is my favorite thing to watch with an audience, of any film that Andy and I have ever done. It’s just an incredible experience with a group of people in a theater. And I think it comes back to the power in the song, and the power in the story. Andy and I and our team do the best we can to make the best movie possible, but at the end of the day, the story has to carry the way. And this story is unbelievable! You just couldn’t write it if it weren’t true! It’s just an honor to bring this story to life, and I think if you love the song, you’re going to love it in a whole new way after you understand the story behind it.

Talking about the story carrying the film brings me to my next question, you also have another project out, Steve McQueen: American Icon. What prompted you to pick this story? And do you find a common thread in all of the stories that you pick or do they all fill a unique space?
stevemcqueenThere is a common thread to each story, but there is also a uniqueness to each as well. I think I heard it said that filmmakers find their story and just tell it over and over again. And I think with Woodlawn, Andy and I found our story. We found the power of a true story. And we’ve heard of many stories of people giving their lives to Christ around the world because they want what was in that movie. And I think there is a unique power to true stories. So we really are drawn to true stories, not that it’s all we do, but we really are drawn to them. And they have to be three things – entertaining, emotionally relatable no matter what you believe, and showcase the transformational power of the Gospel. This Christianity is something that can radically change your life for the better. And the Gospel literally means good news, and I think the good news is that it can transform you from inside out. And that’s the message that we care about sharing – one of hope and redemption and grace that no person is beyond. And these stories, whether it’s a story of a dreamer kid from Dallas, Texas trying to find his way in the music business and discovering the song that he was meant to sing and share with the world, or whether it’s the story of an American icon, like McQueen, who was a high stakes movie actor in his day who had everything and yet had nothing - he had all the things that the world would say would make you happy, and yet he was empty and alone and on a spiritual quest to find answers - the common thread is a true story that’s entertaining and fun to watch, emotional, but showcases the truth that the Gospel can transform your life if you let it.

You’ve mentioned your brother, Andy, a few times as we talked. What is it like getting to work with him on these projects?
First of all, if you want to do anything big in life, it’s not how great you can become, but how great of a team you can assemble. It’s a team that changes the world much more so than individuals. And we just have this incredible team that began when I was 12 and he was 15. We’ve been making films longer than we haven’t, let’s put it that way. [Laughs.] We just love working together, and we have complementary skill sets. Andy is a wonderful actor’s director, and I’m more of a technician and a writer. And he’s an incredible editor. And then we have a great relationship with Kevin Downs, our producer, and the rest of the group of people. Plus the emerging crop of talent. Steve McQueen was a chance for us to empower young filmmakers. So I think when you collaborate with your brother, it allows you to collaborate really well with other people. It’s been twenty years working together and telling stories together, and we love it. We consider everyone that either promotes the films or watches the films our boss. One of our core values is that it’s not about us but everyone else who is sitting in the seats and experiences the movie – we work for them. And we’ve been given one of the greatest jobs ever! It’s amazing for us to know that we can wake up each morning and make films that matter – what a cool job! And we’re honored we get to steward some of these stories, especially the true stories.