In the last seven years, brother directors Andy and Jon Erwin have delivered hits like October Baby, Mom’s Night Out, Woodlawn, and I Can Only Imagine. While they started out as videographers for ESPN and later gained a background in documentaries, the brothers have proven that their feature films can handle the scrutiny of Hollywood and public opinion. To find out more about what drives them, and what made I Can Only Imagine such a success, Christian Cinema caught up with co-director Andy Erwin.
Erwin knows that he and his brother are inseparable when it comes to making films, but they always see films from their different individual perspectives. He calls that sensibility “friction with respect.” Ultimately, it’s about choosing the perspective that tells the story best.
“Who does what best?” Erwin asked. “We’re embracing the things that we love, being in the same camp with someone who loves the things we do. When it comes to edit or design of the film, Jon will have strong opinions but defer to me; when it comes to the story and the way the film feels, I defer to him. Jon loves to start things and I love to finish them. We’ve worked long enough to understand who does what best. Jon is passionately speaking but he speaks through me and I interpret what he says.”
The brothers’ ability to work together drove Woodlawn’s true story-turned-film into a success story that recounted a period of American life full of racism and brokenness, and hope. With I Can Only Imagine, the two have tackled a story originating in alcoholism and brokenness, and moving into forgiveness.
Andy and Jon believe every film preaches, sharing the perspective of its director(s). Finding the point where the vicarious experience of the emotional journey hooks the audience is the point where the Erwins know that they have crafted the story in the right way. Telling true stories frees them to tell the story, and let the story provide the hook.
“It’s hard to argue someone’s true story,” the director shared. “It’s the same thing that happened with Woodlawn. The gospel was just part of the story. With Imagine, we wanted to tell it in a way that was authentic and real, that showed what makes Bart tick. Below the surface, he has pain and depth and even some anger in the back of his story. We crafted it around his personality.”
“I called Bart and told him after Jon and Brent McCorkle finished the script, he drove across town and read it to his manager. He said it captured his life in two hours. When he goes home as an adult to confront his dad, the Christianese expectation is he’s going to forgive his dad. His dad says if God can forgive everyone else, why can’t God forgive him? Bart says that God can. Then Bart takes out his anger on the truck, showing that it’s hard, painful, real life.”
“Bart says at the end of the movie that he saw the change happen in his father, from the abusive monster of his childhood to the man he always wanted him to be,” Erwin said, reflecting on the film’s strength. “So, the good news of the gospel is that if it can change that guy, then it can change anyone. No person is beyond redemption, no relationship is beyond repair.”
I Can Only Imagine proved to have a bigger splash than the brothers could’ve ever expected. Millions of bigger splashes, actually. “We expected a third of what it’s done. My brother secretly prayed God would do the full run of Woodlawn in one weekend, which would’ve been $14 million. Instead, it broke $17 million. People had predicted $2 to $4 million but it made $83 million dollars.”
Now, the Erwin brothers are hearing from studios who are willing to throw big dollars at them, but they have their eyes set on a long-term partner deal. Andy vehemently proposed that the brothers would never forsake their audience, parlaying faith-based success into the next big thing. “We’re committed to faith-based films and their audience, long term, as our life goal. We want to build the quality and continue to grow the platform at a high level. The story of redemption and Christianity is the only thing worth giving up two years of my life!”
Telling good stories, real stories, faith-based stories, that resonate with people, matters to the Erwins. But there’s something more than just making films at the heart of an Erwin Brothers production. I’ve heard it in the way that other directors and actors speak about the Erwins, about the way they invested in the lives of those people while they worked together and afterward. Why does mentorship mean so much to these two men?
To answer the question, Andy recounts his early years at a Christian camp in New York, how at eighteen and nineteen he was put in charge of making short films for the camp.
“The films were epic to us then, but amateurish,” Erwin shared, wryly. “Different younger kids would come and work under us, like my brother. I had some fifteen-year-old kids who would help. They said it was my job to mentor them, and I’d say, ‘No, it’s my job to make films.’
Andy’s supervisor, John Armstrong, called Andy into his office and looked him in the eye. “In a hundred years, they won’t remember the films, but they’ll remember the impact you had on hundreds of people.”
“People are every bit or more important than the product,” Erwin continued. “Colleagues and people who’ve spoken into our lives have reminded us that the way we treat people is every bit as important. It’s an industry that eats young people alive. The filmmakers in me wants to tell young actors that they’re talented and going to go far but the father in me wants to say, ‘Run away and never look back.’ My job is to create a safe place, encourage them, and see where God takes it. There will come a point when we’re the old people and as Christians we need to turn it over to them.”
The Erwins are passing it on - but they’re not done yet.