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I Can Only Imagine Director Erwin: This Movie Brings a “Rush of Hope”

Chris Carpenter - Director of Internet Programming

If you stopped ten people on the street and asked them who Bart Millard was, three might recognize the name. 

“Yeah, I think I know him.  He went to school with my older sister.”

or;

“Nope.  Never heard of him.”

Best-case scenario?

“Isn’t he the guy from that band who had that really cool song?”

But if you rephrased the question by asking the same people if they knew the song, “I Can Only Imagine”, the recognition levels would go up exponentially.  Now, you might hear comments like:

“That song changed my life!”

“It gave me hope when I didn’t have any!”

“Mercy me, I can’t tell you how much I love that song!”

Movie director brothers Jon and Andy Erwin had always believed that the story behind MercyMe’s iconic hit single, “I Can Only Imagine,” would translate to the big screen but they had no idea how popular it might become. 

To say the movie I Can Only Imagine was a success is a just a wee bit of an understatement.  It was a massive success.  Earning more than $83 million dollars at the box office, the movie starring J. Michael Finley and Dennis Quaid, captivated audiences near and far with the simple yet powerful story of how a transformed relationship between father and son became the basis for the most played radio single in Christian music history.

Releasing on home video this week, I Can Only Imagine features more than three hours of extras including seven featurettes, seven deleted scenes, and audio commentary.

I recently spoke with Jon Erwin to discuss why the song “I Can Only Imagine” resonates with so many people, how the movie ministered to Hollywood heavyweight Dennis Quaid, and whether he believes this is the best movie he has directed to date.

I’ve always been somewhat mystified by the power of the lyrics for “I Can Only Imagine.” The song is so simple, but it’s so deep and all at the same time. From your perspective, what makes this song so impactful?

That was one of the questions that I asked Bart (Millard). I said what is the phenomenon of “I Can Only Imagine?” How does an independent band from Texas write a triple-platinum song that becomes the best-selling, most-played Christian song of all time? What do people feel? What’s the experience? At the simplest level, what is the experience of “I Can Only Imagine?” He was very quick to say, and every other member of the band and his manager to say it’s a “rush of hope.” That’s what you feel. It’s hope. I resonate with that, because “I Can Only Imagine” was sort of a beacon of hope in my own life when we were dealing with the loss of an extended family member. I probably listened to that 100 times in a row, and it’s something beyond the lyrics. It’s just this rush of hope. And we wanted people to feel that in the theater in a much more profound way, and I think that hope comes from Bart’s story, that this is very personal. It’s not just a guy singing the lyrics; it’s a son singing for his father. I remember when Bart said, “Yeah, I know God is real because of the change I saw in my dad. I watched a monster transformed into my best friend, into the man I wanted to become,” and there’s no other explanation for it, and that’s when we just sort of knew that we had a movie and that this was about the reconciliation between a father and son. It’s a song that touched the world; it’s a song that touched me. I think now it’s having this whole new life and new birth, and it’s pretty exciting to be a part of.

When you remove Passion of the Christ and the three Narnia movies from the conversation, I Can Only Imagine currently sits as the number two Christian movie of all time.  Did this movie exceed your expectations?

I Can Only Imagine is a fitting title. I mean the success has so blown us away.  There’s no explanation for the enormous success of I Can Only Imagine other than God choosing to pour out His blessings on it in a way that’s just shocked us all, and I’m so grateful to the audience.

It’s a wonderful feeling, and it was such a massive leap of faith in a film that many in the industry did not think would work, and many thought would fail. We felt like God was calling us to do it, and we just followed Him out into the unknown and to see their tune now completely change is wonderful. 

I was reading in the production notes that you said that you never had a movie that was easier to pitch than I Can Only Imagine.  Why is that?

I just think the song has touched so many millions of people, and something as meaningful and inspirational to you, you just have to have faith that it will be to other people. So as opposed to sort of explaining the story of an unknown subject matter, we were just able to say, “Hey, it’s the song millions know and love, but it’s the story you haven’t heard before, and it’s the origin story behind this song.” And the origin story really delivers. Andy (Erwin) and I are a story first team. So I love the song, but it was all about the story.

So it was a very easy concept to pitch, and we just believed that there were many, many more fans for the song than others anticipated. I loved it. It had been a kind of anthem to my faith for years. So if it was like that for me, it had to be liked that for other people and what we discovered is it was like that for millions and millions and millions of people.  I Can Only Imagine is currently the number-one independent film of the year. It’s a pretty staggering achievement. What I love is just what it says to the industry about the size of our audience and the fact that these films are viable and can outperform franchise movies like Tomb Raider, Pacific Rim and A Wrinkle in Time on its second weekend.

It seems that Dennis Quaid has had a rebirth of sorts from being a part of I Can Only Imagine.  That is really good to see.  Could you talk about the impact he had on the movie and the impact the movie seemingly has had on him?

That’s a great question. Dennis Quaid’s performance is award-worthy, unbelievably unique and authentic in his body of work. You haven’t seen this side of Dennis Quaid before.

Andy really had an intuition about Dennis, and we started chasing him. He just lifted the entire movie. It was like having Michael Jordan on your team. Everyone’s game just elevated, and the performance that he gave was just incredible!

It was sort of like a homecoming for him, as he describes it; and he’s become such a great friend and such a great guy. He was raised as a Texan, was raised Baptist in Houston, baptized when he was nine with his brother, Randy, on the same day. He is very knowledgeable (about faith). He had written a song for his mom called “On My Way To Heaven” about 20 years ago when he was coming out of rehab, and he had just really gone on this quest for God as a part of his recovery worldwide, and he said he had really come back to the red words of Jesus, these very, very overtly Christian, profound lyrics, but he never recorded it, never really sung it for anybody, and when he was working on Imagine he took it out, dusted it off, thought of the bridge, finished it, and we recorded it with his good friend and incredible music producer, T Bone Burnett.

I remember when he said to me, the day before the movie opened, “You know, Jon, I’m satisfied just because of the changes in my own heart from this movie.”

For what it’s worth I think this movie is your best one to date.  What sets it apart for me was you and Andy’s ability to bring life to these broken relationships and say, ‘Hey, God can use anything and anyone to serve his purposes.’  Do you feel that you are hitting your stride as filmmakers or is the best yet to come for the Erwin Brothers?

I think we’re storytellers serving the greatest Storyteller of all time, and Jesus was a craftsman. He was a carpenter, and I think that as Christians sometimes we rush into things without understanding that there are stories in the Bible of massive, long seasons of preparation for short seasons of influence. There’s this wonderful thing that Malcolm Gladwell calls the 10,000-hour rule of a great book called Outliers about success, and I just think that it’s time as Christians that we dedicate ourselves to our craft, and to try to learn our craft.

It’s such a group and team effort, and so much of it is outside of your control that the results sort of vary. But I hope that our movies are getting better and better, and I hope that we can adopt the mantra of sort of earning the message that we care about as Christians and not using it as a crutch for something that we have not learned to do well. I hope that we can train others to make the films better and better. I sort of have an optimistic view that we’ve only begun to see what a Christian film can be and can become.

Watch a trailer for I Can Only Imagine:

Watch a Music Video of the Song That Started It All:

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