‘I Can Only Imagine’: An Interview with Director Andrew Erwin

The Erwin Brothers are some of my favorite movie directors. They are the directors of the powerful pro-life movie October Baby, the hilarious comedy Mom’s Night Out, and the emotionally-stirring football drama Woodlawn. Coming soon to theaters is their latest project, a movie based on the story behind the song that impacted millions across the globe: I Can Only Imagine.

Recently I had the opportunity to chat with one of the directors, Andrew Erwin, about his latest film! You can read the interview below.

So who had the original idea for I Can Only Imagine? Was it MercyMe that initiated the whole film development process?

We didn’t really seek out I Can Only Imagine – it found us. I ran into Bart when he came to watch one of our movies and he talked to us about developing his life story as a movie. We fell in love with his story and said we’d love to direct it. The original producer for the film was Cindy Bond. She developed with Bart it for years and it was scheduled to be at a another studio… when they brought it to us we had a different take on the direction so we did a page one rewrite. We wanted the film to deliver what the song delivered, which was a rush of hope.  And we stepped in and said we’d love to do it. It was an amazing one to see come to life.

Was there more pressure knowing the song impacted so many people?

Absolutely! Absolutely. It’s the number one Christian song of all time. It’s the most recognizable piece of Christian music since Amazing Grace. The first thing we asked Bart was “what does this song deliver? What is it that makes this song tick?” He said a rush of hope, and so we felt like that’s our destination. The movie has to deliver the same emotion… we crafted it through that idea of a destination of hope. We definitely wanted to make sure it’s an accurate representation of Bart’s voice and experience – that it really does represent his life. Secondly, we wanted the core fans to complete their journey of what the song meant to them by seeing Bart’s side of the story. So we went into that with a lot of respect and healthy fear, and as it came to life is just got better and better. The real treat was having Bart watch the film for the first time. He was thrilled about how it accurately portrayed his life.

John Michael Finley and Dennis Quaid in I Can Only Imagine, courtesy of Lionsgate.

Did you have the Bart Millard and the band on set during filming?

Yah! Absolutely. Bart has become one of my best friends. We definitely wanted his voice represented. Especially when we were working with Dennis Quaid, Bart would be back by the monitors by me. In between takes, he would go over and Dennis would ask him questions, saying “what would dad do if you did this or that.” There’s a scene where his dad, an abusive man, smashes a plate over Bart’s head after dinner. That happened in real life after Bart and his dad had an argument. In the movie, after Bart storms out of the room, Dennis breaks down, has this moment of shame, and then reaches down and starts picking up the pieces of the plate. Bart came over to me after that take in tears and he said “thank you for that – that really completed a lot for me because I never considered how my dad felt after I left the room.”

Also, Bart spent time in the studio helping John Michael Finley (who plays Bart) learn how to sound like him, working on the music… he was very involved in this and has his fingerprints all over the movie.

In the movie, Bart’s life intersects with several well-known artists. How did you find look-alikes that happened to be great actors?

[laughs] Yeah, that was a challenge! We felt like we had to take either or. Either we had to use the real-life people, which would be difficult because we were doing a story that took place 25 years prior, or we had to really get the essence of each person. For example, each actress that came and auditioned for Amy Grant I said: “I’m sorry, you’re just not Amy.” Then this one actress (Nicole Duport) came in, and it was spooky. I felt like I had gone back in time to meet Amy Grant! She had practiced her mannerisms, her inflections, and everything, so much so that she just disappeared and wasn’t in the room… So with all the actors that play real-life people, we just try to get the essence of the person.

Tiffany Duport in I Can Only Imagine, courtesy of Lionsgate.

The same goes for John Michael Finley, who plays Bart. We wanted someone who looked a lot like Bart and had that blue-collar feel, and we found John Michael. He was on Broadway – never done a film before – played Jean Valjean in Les Mis. He just got Bart’s wild side and his heartfelt loveable side, and a little bit of an angry streak there, and it was such a great representation of who Bart is that he just disappeared and became Bart.

What were some of your favorite moments during filming?

There’s a big scene at the breakfast table when Bart comes home to confront his father. Dennis came in for that scene and was just really dialed in and we started shooting it. We both agreed early on that the most powerful emotion is suppressed emotion. It’s not crying, it’s trying not to cry. He really played that whole scene like a shook-up bottle of soda-pop. It was a special performance and it was powerful…. John Michael responded to it with a really powerful performance. So watching that scene come to life was really special.

The other cool moment was at the very end of the film when we filmed the big performance. The night of the performance was a huge ice storm, and so we weren’t sure how many people to expect. Then, all of a sudden, 3 thousand people showed up for that scene. None of that is digital, that’s all real. They stayed until midnight, and it was just a special, fun atmosphere where we all we all celebrated a song that we love. And the reason that they came in the middle of this ice storm to be extras in this film was because of how much love they had for the song.

At screenings, what reactions do you see to the movie?

Because of that rush of hope, it’s really exciting to see the response. Some people really break down and they’re crying. There are moments where I call it ugly crying, and it really resonates with a peaked emotional level there. For other people, there’s just this desire to stand up and cheer. And the fact that you get both of those emotions at once is really really cool, and I think it’s an opportunity to showcase the gospel, that what we believe is good news, and that there’s nobody that’s too far gone.


Are you excited for the new movie I Can Only Imagine? How have the Erwin Brothers’ previous movies impacted you? Let us know in the comments below!




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