Bart Millard, lead singer for the Christian band MercyMe, wrote a song in 1999 that went on to become the most downloaded Christian song of all time, according to industry sources.
J. Michael Finley, left, and Dennis Quaid act in a father-son scene for “I Can Only Imagine” due in theaters March 16. The film, produced by Erwin brothers, Andy and Jon, has gotten some attention on its theme of forgiveness.
Within a few years it crossed over into other music genres, and now movie producer Andy Erwin has turned the song’s touching story into a feature length film, which opens in theaters March 16.
The song and the movie bear the same title, “I Can Only Imagine.”
In a conversation with the Biblical Recorder, Erwin said he and his brother, Jon, are ecstatic about the early response to the movie. The first trailer has received more than 43 million views on the Internet. “If you combined our other movies, they would add up to about a fourth of that,” Erwin said.
The Erwin Brothers produced “October Baby” (2011), “Mom’s Night Out” (2014) and “Woodlawn” (2015). All are Christian films with strong box office ratings.
“I think people connect with something deeply personal in the song, ‘I Can Only Imagine,’” Erwin said. “When we did the movie, we asked Bart [Millard], ‘What does the song deliver?’ He said, ‘It’s a rush of hope – people wanting to imagine what heaven is like.’”
Erwin said the story behind the song, is “powerful,” as is the story surrounding the production of the movie.
“We had just finished the movie, Mom’s Night Out,” he explained. “I asked Bart Millard, singer for Mercy-Me, to come to a screening for the film. Afterwards he pulled me aside and said, ‘I don’t know if you know this Andy, but for the past five years someone has been developing the story behind my writing the song, I Can Only Imagine.’ I said, ‘I don’t know if you know this Bart, but they sent us the script this morning.’”
The company that developed the script decided not to use it and offered it to the Erwin Brothers.
Woodlawn was already in production, but Erwin read the script for I Can Only Imagine, talked to Millard about the full story and immediately decided, “After we finished Woodlawn, this is our next movie.”
As they discovered the full story of Millard’s troubled background, the Erwin Brothers knew a movie would require a level of transparency that could be painful. “We said, Bart, if we do this, we need to tell who you really are. We feel like the hope is in the true story behind what you went through.”
Millard lived with an abusive father who rejected the boy and his dream of being a musician. His mother had walked away from the family. Later the father faced certain death from cancer and reached out to the young Millard who was successfully following his love of music.
Erwin said, “Jesus redeemed his father as he was passing away with cancer, and Bart saw his father falling in love with Jesus. At the funeral, someone said to Bart, ‘I can only imagine what your dad’s doing in heaven right now.’ That became a way for Bart to reflect on his dad’s life and he wrote a song that is deeply personal and has connected with tens of millions of people. The song is the number one most downloaded Christian single of all time. It has crossed over to secular, country, gospel – so it’s really had life elsewhere.”
Choosing the cast
The Erwins prayed that God would put the right people in the movie. A nationwide casting call was conducted for Millard’s role. “We wanted someone to do their own singing. We wanted somebody who looked like Bart – a southern, blue collar kid that has an amazing voice,” said Erwin.
They found a young man who was working in the Broadway play, “Les Miserables” in New York. J. Michael Finley “has an amazing voice,” Erwin said. “When we talked to him, [Finley] said, ‘My dad is an associate pastor at a Baptist church in Missouri. I grew up going to hear MercyMe at camps. This is deeply familiar to me.’”
Finley gladly joined the cast. Erwin said it was a “special experience” to watch Finley and Millard working together, learning how to sing the songs.
Another big challenge was finding the right man to play the role of Arthur, the abusive father. The Erwins had a short list of actors they believed would fit the part.
“I was losing sleep wondering who God would have for us to play the dad,” Erwin explained. “I talked to movie producer Stephen Kendrick, and he really encouraged me. He said, ‘Andy, you want God to make it obvious who His choice is, so embrace closed doors and He won’t let you miss the right one.’
“A week before we were scheduled to start filming the dad’s role, Dennis Quaid called and said, ‘I love this role and I want to do it.’ I think it’s the best role he has ever had. It’s an amazing, transformative role. He plays this rough guy who comes to Christ at the end of his life. It’s a beautiful, beautiful picture of grace.”
The Erwins don’t require actors in their films to share their Christian beliefs but, the cast has to “agree on the role they play and the story we’re trying to tell,” he said. “We’re called to tell true stories that are a tool for the church to reach their communities for Christ – to be an introduction to Christianity. Our niche is evangelism.”
Another goal of Erwin’s films is to “influence the influencers.” He hopes to expose actors to real Christians and real Christianity. When a rough edit of the movie was ready, Erwin went to Quaid’s home to preview it with the actor and his twin nine-year-olds.
When the film ended, “I turned around and said, ‘What did you think Dennis?’ He was crying – couldn’t even speak. He hugged me two or three times and said, ‘Thank you. That was powerful.’
“He called Bart [Millard] that night and talked to him for hours. [Quaid] said his daughters were asking questions about God and about heaven. He said, ‘this is a film about how God does His miracles the hard way sometimes. I’m totally in.’”
Trace Adkins was invited to play the role of Scott Brickell, MercyMe’s manager. At first, he turned down the idea. According to Adkin’s manager, “He feels like he’s too rough around the edges and doesn’t want to be a hypocrite.”
Erwin responded, “That’s not a good enough reason. So, I went to Mississippi and played 18 holes of golf with him. I said, ‘Trace, this movie is about redemption, and redemption accepts you where you are. Redemption is found in Christ who loves you where you are.’”
Adkins later told a reporter, “I could use a little redemption in my life.” He accepted the movie role.
Erwin added, “Everybody loves Trace. He’s a big, gruff, lovable teddy bear. He’s great in the movie.”
Madeline Carroll, who plays Bart’s love interest, is “a strong believer – she really loves Jesus,” according to Erwin. “She does not compromise her values, and has landed some really big roles. We are very happy to have her in this film.”
Priscilla Shirer who starred in the Christian movie, “War Room,” plays the teacher who influenced Millard to develop his music interests. “She’s royalty in any circles,” said Erwin. “She was a popular speaker before God just blew the doors wide open with War Room. She is such a dignified lady. Having her on set was such a blessing.”
The Erwin Brothers’ fourth film is proving to be very different from the others.
“I’ve never experienced anything like this,” he said. “Woodlawn was a special film. It was deeply personal for us. But there’s this extra, rare ‘magic’ factor about this one – it’s supernatural. There’s something very simple to Bart’s story and to the song he wrote, but it is really deeply relatable, also. It’s an entry to the gospel, specifically the redemption of Arthur, Bart’s dad.
“Jon and I passionately believe in the local church. Our goal is not to get people from the church into the movie theater. Our goal is to allow the church to get a new vision to reach out to their community, to evangelize the lost in the movie theater, and get them back into the church.”
Erwin believes a whole generation is walking away from the church. Since the age demographic of many that are leaving the church is frequent movie-goers, he sees Christian films as an open opportunity to help the church with evangelism.
“We’re excited about the church being able to use this movie as an evangelistic event to engage their communities and hopefully funnel large numbers of people that make decisions for Christ into their churches,” he said. “Jesus pricked the hearts of people with His parables, then people asked, ‘What was that all about?’ We believe this movie will prick the hearts of your friends so they will say, ‘tell us more.’ Then, you can share the gospel with them.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Other movies with Christian themes releasing in February and March include “Samson,” “Tortured for Christ,” “Paul, an apostle of Christ,” and “God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness.”)