CROSS ROAD: Writer-Director Jon Erwin On Turning I Can Only Imagine From Hit Song to Film

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Script Magazine's Dan Goforth talked with one half of The Erwin Brothers, writer-director Jon Erwin, about making the movie "I Can Only Imagine" from a Billboard hit song.

When the music group MercyMe released their song, “I Can Only Imagine,” no one could have anticipated its impact. The song became the #1 Christian radio played song of all time. It reached the top 5 on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart, as well as making Billboard’s Adult Top 40. And it evoked a tidal wave of responses from its listeners, who flooded MercyMe with letters describing family loss and healing.

But what many did not know was that there was a deeply personal, real account of family loss and healing that was the song itself..

On March 16, 2018, Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions’ I Can Only Imagine opens in theaters across the country. Starring J. Michael Finley, Dennis Quaid, Trace Adkins, Cloris Leachman, Priscilla C. Shirer, and Madeline Carroll, it tells the incredible and inspiring true tale of the story behind the hit song.

Script Magazine's Dan Goforth talked with one half of The Erwin Brothers, writer-director Jon Erwin, about making the movie "I Can Only Imagine" from a Billboard hit song.

J. Michael Finley as Mercy Me’s Bart Millard – Photo courtesy of Icon Media

With multiple awards for their work in music videos with such artists as Casting Crowns, Jon and Andy Erwin are no strangers to the music scene. And with acclaimed films such as October Baby, Moms’ Night Out, and Woodlawn, they are no strangers to making feature films.

Script Magazine’s Dan Goforth talked with one half of The Erwin Brothers, writer-director Jon Erwin, about making the movie.

Dan: I know you and Andy have a huge portfolio of music videos with so many great artists. Was that a factor in making this film?

The Erwin Brothers: Jon and Andy – Photo courtesy of Icon Media

Jon: We started working as cameramen first for ESPN. But then we started making music videos in our twenties. Christian artists like Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant gave us a break and we spent ten years in that world, had a lot of fun, met a lot of people and won video of the year a few times. Then a filmmaker friend of mine asked me a very profound question, “What is your purpose and the purpose of your work?” I think a lot of us know what we do, but a lot of us don’t really know why we do what we do. It’s kind of an important detail there. That makes for a deeply fulfilling life when you’re working towards a higher calling and purpose beyond the paycheck. We just fell in love with telling stories that are entertaining, that are emotionally relatable no matter what we believe. But to showcase what we believe is true and call people to the higher ideals. I like entertainment that pulls me up to the person I aspire to be, not pulls me down to the person I want to be. We’re in this age of the anti-hero, and instead of right versus wrong, it’s just kind of winners versus losers. There’s some wonderful shows and the content in that realm, but I just think it leaves a gap for values-based entertainment that can change you for the better.

“I Can Only Imagine,” is a song that I’d loved and it made a huge impact in my life, especially at times of pain and loss – I’ve clung to it almost like an anchor, and I think others have, as well. To find out there was this incredible true story behind that song blew me away. This is the story behind the best-selling, most played Christian song ever – a song that’s been streamed nearly a hundred million times and and charted not only on Christian charts, but on pop and country charts as well, It really became a national phenomenon. Come to find out it was written by this kid from Texas and his independent band, so it’s just a complete underdog story. And a story of reconciliation between father and son and all the things that I love about movies. So it was  a great privilege to get to tell the story.

Dan:  The film features an all-star cast. Your lead actor is J. Michael Finley in his first  film, and it’s an incredibly powerful role at that. With his background being in live theater, were there any worries about how he would handle the intimacies of the camera?

J. Michael Finley as Bart Millard – Photo courtesy of Icon Media

Jon: First of all, I love discovering new talent. One of my big concerns with this movie was finding Bart [Millard – the singer/songwriter of MercyMe]. I went and saw Les Mis on Broadway and John Michael was the understudy to [the role of] Jean Valjean. The main actor could only take four or five performance of the week and so J. Michael took the rest. Hearing him sing these classic and iconic Broadway songs – there was just something about him. There was just this X-factor: a Chris Pratt quality meets kind of a Seth Rogen kind of inner rage, and it was very interesting to me. Come to find out his dad is a pastor, and he had seen MercyMe in concert three times, as a teenager. He looked like Bart, he sounded like Bart, it was just incredible.

And so, the only question was the acting. Film is an intimate medium and it catches every detail. With John Michael, he had the best natural instincts of any actor I’ve ever worked with. It was unbelievable. Our only job was getting him to trust those instincts.

There’s this scene in the film where the film literally stops and the table is literally turned. The dad, Dennis Quaid’s character, has changed and is asking to reconcile, and for ten minutes they just go at it, and it’s like walking a tightrope without a net.

Photo courtesy of Icon Media

That whole thing is based off nothing but the quality of performances. The whole movie hinges on that scene. We filmed Quaid’s side first and he brought something really deep and intimate and raw.Then we turn the camera around to John Michael and he went toe to toe with Dennis Quaid! It was unbelievable, this kid’s performance and depth. We knew we had a great movie at that point.

Follow I Can Only Imagine on social media: Website, Facebook, and Twitter @onlyimaginefilm

More articles and interviews by Dan Goforth

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