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"I Can Only Imagine" Brings a 'Rush of Hope' to TV This Weekend

Chris Carpenter - Director of Internet Programming

In early 2018, various movie industry trade publications predicted that the faith-based film I Can Only Imagine would earn roughly $2 to $4 million dollars for its opening weekend. The independent movie that was based on the life story of MercyMe frontman Bart Millard, shocked Hollywood by racing to a $17 million dollar opening weekend.  All told, the Jon and Andy Erwin directed project finished its theatrical run with $86 million worldwide, making it the third biggest faith-based film of all time.

Audiences will get another chance to experience I Can Only Imagine this weekend as the movie will be making its cable televsion premiere on UPtv.  Starring Dennis Quaid, J. Michael Finley, Madeline Carroll, and Trace Adkins, it can be seen on Saturday, September 5th, and Sunday, September 6th.  See local listings for more details.

Watch a trailer for I Can Only Imagine.

Jon Erwin believes I Can Only Imagine’s continued popularity can be easily explained.  It is a “rush of hope” for so many people struggling with uncertainty and fear in their lives. Frankly, we all need hope.

I recently spoke with Jon about the power of forgiveness that can be so readily found in the film, the life-changing impact it had on Quaid, and the unique ability that movies have to reach the lost.

The movie industry has been affected greatly by the coronavirus pandemic, forcing most theaters to shut down indefinitely. How has COVID-19 affected how you and the Kingdom Story Company?

We're working hard. It's interesting to take what life gives you and just say, okay. We were in pre-production with a movie called Jesus Revolution in California, based off of a 1971 Time Magazine article. (My brother) Andy (Erwin) and I were in prep with a movie based off on Kurt Warner's Super Bowl story. It was very interesting to see that both of those went away. It seems like things change daily on whether we can make those movies this year or not? I thought I had an answer last week and it just changes. The industry is inventing all these protocols for how to make movies in a pandemic. I think Europe and other places are faster to be able to resume production than America, just because of the nature of the pandemic in America.

We're working with Lionsgate to find out when we can get going again. It will be a lot like film camp, due to quarantining everybody, which is going to be interesting. It's a totally different way to make a movie. And until I experience it, I'm not sure (how it will work). While we've been waiting, we've been working on some documentary projects that we are about to announce, one that's in the world of Christian music that's just incredible. We've been working on that for about three months. I'm really excited to sort of unveil that project. I'm very proud of it. It's really cool. And so, we're saying, okay, what can we make? At first it was we can make documentaries because we could make them so people could watch them with social distancing.

I Can Only Imagine is set to make its cable premiere on UPtv this weekend. What is it about this movie that captured people’s hearts during its theatrical run in 2018?

We took a chance on I Can Only Imagine because I knew that at a time of grief and loss in my own family, I listened to that song hundreds of times. It brought me hope. I remember talking to Bart (Millard) about it and asking what is the phenomenon?  Why does this song from an independent band in Texas go triple platinum? And he just said, ‘It's a rush of hope.” I think that millions of people had a relationship with the song. There was some moment that the song had been there in their life’s story, whether it was the loss of a loved one, a big decision, or a moment they needed to summon their faith, they had a relationship with the song.

We took a leap of faith because I felt like this song changed my life and everybody I know that's a person of faith knows the song. It was a song that Bart had written for his father and there had been a reconciliation of that relationship. We knew the song as being about heaven, but the idea that it's actually a son singing to his dad whose life was changed, that was such a cool idea. And no matter what you believe, you can resonate, appreciate and identify with the restoration of a relationship like that. I think it brought more meaning to people that love the song and I think it was a relatable story.

Dennis Quaid delivered perhaps one of the best performances ever in a Christian film for his portrayal of Bart’s father.  Could you talk about the impact he had on the movie and the impact the movie had on him?

I agree. It's not about how great they are (as an actor). It's how great they make the people around them. And I think Dennis is in that category where not only was he great, but just the fact that he was there made everyone up their game. I think he made everyone better. I had never seen a him in this type of role. Andy, my brother had the instinct on Dennis for this role. I was originally hesitant because I had always thought of him as this polished leading man. I didn’t know he had this broken side to him, but he really got there. He discovered the character and he channeled this brokenness that I didn't know he had in him. The film for Dennis became like a homecoming to his faith. 

In fact, he had written this song for his mother, a gospel song called “On My Way to Heaven” about 20 years ago, when he had some things (going on) in his own life and he'd never finished it. We had all these spiritual conversations on set. He’s musical, so he picked up a guitar and he finished that song for his mom. We all got together with a titan of the music industry, T-Bone Burnett, and finished it. Dennis gave it to his mom on her 92nd birthday. I remember the week the movie came out was around the same time that Billy Graham died. Dennis would call me at night and just talk about faith, Billy Graham, and Christianity. It was a return to faith for him in a pretty powerful way.

He bought in on such a profound level and went so deep with his performance. I have not seen anything like that in his body of work before. There's a scene between he and Bart (J. Michael Finley) right in the middle of the movie. It's just this defining scene in the movie where he's trying to apologize to his son. We were all blown away. I just remember the feeling of being on set and that magic. I thought this is unbelievable. I’m very proud of his performance on the film.

This movie is an important reminder of the power of forgiveness.   As you were making this movie, I’m sure this was a theme that was always strongly in the mix.  As the director and one of the writers what did you do to find balance between really bringing the power of forgiveness to the forefront but not to the point of the film becoming a sermon on that topic?

We like to make movies that empower people to preach, but don't necessarily preach themselves. I like a movie that creates a conversation for others to have. It’s sort of like setting a volleyball for someone else to spike. We just let the story do the work and I think we're drawn to true stories. There was something on Twitter that Priscilla Shirer re-posted. It was right as the movie came out. A woman went to see the movie with their child and as they were leaving the theater, someone behind her said, ‘Are you guys Christians?” A total stranger. And she said, “Yeah. Are you?’ And the woman said, ‘No, but whatever happened to Dennis Quaid in this movie, I need to happen in my life. I need some help. I need someone to explain it to me.’ That's what we love to do. Tell a story and tell it as authentically as possible, to make it as entertaining and relatable as possible, no matter what you believe. But we need to make it strategic, to set up conversations. We really do have the audacity to believe the right movie with the right story can change your life if you let it. I think that's why Jesus was such an amazing storyteller. And to me, it's just a way to set up something by telling the right story. By telling these stories we think can create conversations that happen long after the film has played. That's the goal for us. People have different opinions on an issue, but for us, that's what we love to do. We like to create stories that you can't stop thinking about, that's drawing you in to what's true.

And in this case, it's just that hope, that no matter who you are, and no matter what you've done, your life can be transformed. The power that there is when you forgive someone that has wronged you. That takes courage. That takes faith. That takes boldness. It's not easy, but boy, can it be powerful. That's what we try to communicate. That's what I Can Only Imagine was all about, how to forgive and the power of forgiveness.

How do you deal with pain? How deal with things you don't understand? I Can Only Imagine was about how do you forgive? We all have somebody that we need to forgive, or we all have somebody that we need to ask to be forgiven. It just became relatable on a pretty fundamental level.

After people have seen I Can Only Imagine this weekend what would you like to see people get out of the viewing experience?  What is your greatest hope for the film?

It's interesting. I just watched I Can Only Imagine for the first time since it came out. It was good to go back and watch it. I'm looking forward to seeing it on television and people watching it in a whole new way. My ultimate goal for the film is for that same rush of hope, which really has driven the song to just flood over people. I think we're in a time of uncertainty and fear, and we need hope. We need hope now more than ever. I hope people feel that sense of being uplifted and feel that sense of hope. Whether they need to forgive someone, ask for someone's forgiveness, or someone feels stuck in a place in life that they can't get out of, there's always hope. These days we all sort of need it. That's what I would love. And I love the stories that come out of it. Sons reaching out to fathers they haven't seen in decades or vice versa. I love seeing relationships that are reconciled and lives that are changed.

Watch a trailer for I Can Only Imagine:

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