Sitting in his truck and sipping a cup of coffee from a Starbucks drive-thru on a recent Tuesday morning, filmmaker Andy Erwin is happy to just be out of the house during these unsettling times.
It seems surreal to think that less than two months ago, Andy and his brother Jon Erwin’s latest movie, I Still Believe was riding high as one of the top movies in the country. Sadly, within a matter of days, every movie theater in the nation had shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic. And with that development, what they thought could be the defining moment of their burgeoning career was put on hold.
But that didn’t cause the Alabama bred directors to give up hope. Quickly pivoting away from a traditional movie release, I Still Believe quickly found a home as a highly popular video on demand release. Now, the biopic based on the unlikely romance between contemporary Christian music superstar Jeremy Camp and his first wife Melissa is set to release on home video (today).
I recently social distanced myself from Andy via the safety of a phone conversation. In it, we discussed the disappointment he felt after working so hard to release I Still Believe, why Jeremy and Melissa’s story resonates even more during coronavirus pandemic, and his take on why God allows bad things to happen to good people.
So, I Still Believe comes out on Friday, March 13th, and the movie is a huge hit opening weekend, finishing at number three. And then movie theaters shut down everywhere. Fortunately, now the film is coming out on home video. But I’ve got to believe you may have been a little disappointed by this turn of events. Your thoughts?
I was obviously disappointed. I think the universal feeling across the board right now for people is they feel really out of control in their lives. We’re not immune to that. The frustrating part of what was going on is the film came out against crazy odds. The coronavirus (pandemic) just kicked into high gear as we were coming out that week. And things were really clicking for the film. To have our very first number one (movie) Friday, which on that day we beat the new Pixar film and then all of a sudden all the theaters just shut down. It was then that we realized that the coronavirus was going to be more serious than expected.
My brother (co-director Jon Erwin) said he felt like we spent a year climbing up to the top of the mountain and we get to plant the flag on the mountain. We made it and all of a sudden the mountain blows up into a volcano. It was definitely tough to wrap our head around it. But there were much more serious things going on than our film. A lot of people completely lost their livelihoods. We had to kind of strategize how do you cope in this new world and what do we do?
Thank goodness, Lionsgate (film distributor) figured out a strategy to do an early video on demand release. And now they have pushed up the home video release as well. We really believe in the story. To hear the stories come in, people responding, people are craving hope like never before. So hopefully, we’re meeting a core need of people. But it’s definitely been a crazy kind of sci-fi novel type of situation.
Were there any plans in place, a backup plan for this type of a situation? Or did you just sort of pivot on the fly into new plans?
A pandemic is not something that the entertainment industry as a whole was really prepared for. I think in the long run for people to do what we do, it can be used for good. The situation isn’t good, but I think that it can have a silver lining. I think it’s brought the family closer together again. People are really craving hope and it has become a little bit more attractive. I hope the messages of our stories will resonate with audiences right now. But the entertainment industry as a whole has been really reeling from this and trying to figure out where do we go from here? As a Christian, I believe that God’s going to use it for good in the long run. But it definitely been a wild 2020 so far.
Quite simply, the I Still Believe story is quite engaging. A young singer-songwriter with the whole world in front of him opts to marry someone who he knows who will probably never see their dreams come to fruition. What makes this love story so universal?
I think the love story itself, this kind of idea of selfless love is something that people really crave. It’s a core need to kind of be seen. And then to have somebody choose them in a sacrificial, unselfish way. I think a lot of the test audiences were amazing to watch it with. I heard one college age person in the test audience say, ‘I wish I could be loved like that.’ I think that part is universal. I also think that there’s a beautiful moment in the film with Gary Sinise’s character Tom, who is Jeremy Camp’s dad in the movie. In it, he’s talking about the disappointments of life. He says, ‘Yes, there have been disappointments, but my life is not full in spite of the disappointments. It’s full because of them.’ And I think that’s a message that really resonates right now. Yes. There is tragedy, heartbreak, and all sorts of hard things going on right now – physically, emotionally, and financially for people. But we believe in a God that turns those hard things into beautiful things. The idea is that the most fulfilling parts of life sometimes come out of the most tragic.
What drew you to Jeremy and Melissa’s story? What made you want to make this into a major motion picture?
Our previous film, I Can Only Imagine was also a music story. After we did that, we got pitched every music artist story you can think of. There was a lot of good stories, but I didn’t think that we’d go back into a music story right away. I wasn’t interested in doing that until somebody said, you’ve got to sit down and talk to Jeremy Camp. And Jeremy Camp, of course, is a long time Christian music artist who has had an incredible career. I sat down with him and his wife now, Adrienne. We got through all the churchy answers and then about an hour into the interview, he got the 1,000-yard stare. He started reliving it.
I’ve never heard such a compelling love story. The thing that really sold me is at the end of it, I pulled in his wife and said, “Adrienne, how can you listen to your husband talk about another woman for three hours and not flinch and not have any jealousy?” She said, ‘Let me be very clear. I’m very protective over Jeremy and Melissa’s story because it was a story I needed to hear. It changed my life.’ I sat there and looked at my brother (Jon Erwin) and said, “You’re going to think I’m crazy, but that’s our next movie.’ We just fell in love with it. For us, we can’t sell a story that doesn’t move us emotionally first. When it gives you that moment of moving you emotionally, those are the stories that we want to tell. There’s not really a logic to it. It’s just an instinct where it’s a story I’m interested in. And we were privileged to bring it to life.
As a filmmaker, how do you balance making a movie that is entertaining with making a movie that is delivering an important message – in this case a reckless faith in God no matter what the circumstances?
That’s always the biggest dilemma. I think for us and where we found our calling, is we’re a story first company. That’s why the name of our company is Kingdom Story Company. Instead of trying to go out and find a great message, we go out and try to find a great story. (We look for) something that is compelling, something that is entertaining, something that really is a movie I would want to watch. But as Christians, the things that move our hearts are stories of redemption. If we’re true to who we are, when we find a story that moves our hearts, nine times out of 10, the thing that really connects with me is the idea of redemption. Our hearts are kind of drawn more to true stories. When we find those true stories that move us … every filmmaker has a perspective. Every filmmaker preaches whether they’re a person of faith or not, it always has their world perspective in it. But I think as Christians, sometimes we go right at the message first instead of earning the right to be heard with a good story. We try to earn that right and hopefully with, I Still Believe we did that.
Jeremy and Melissa’s story could be seen as a tragic one in that non-believer audiences may say how can a good God allow this to happen to such good people? How does the film address that question?
The beauty about it is you can’t satisfy that question unless you have an eternal perspective. If this planet is all that we have, then we should all be freaking out right now. But the beauty about Melissa was this is a girl who saw eternity. She kind of explains it in the film through her love of the stars and understanding the beauty of a creator that has a painting that’s much bigger than just her. When she understood that and her place in that painting, she saw her fate and her struggle as something beautiful. Now, did she have moments of humanity where she really wrestled with that? Yes. But she said, ‘If one life is changed by what I go through, it’s totally worth it.’ Then you get to the end of the story, and this beautiful girl named Adrienne, looks at her story and says, ‘I’m the life that was changed. I needed to hear this.’ To see these two women that made a little dent in the universe together, that never met, that were separated by a fraction of eternity, but to seeing God’s beautiful story, how that plays out, I think there’s a hope there that this is not the end. And I think that’s the thing that people are craving right now. I think it’s what people resist the most. But this life does not make sense without an eternal perspective. That’s where our ultimate hope is.
After audiences have seen the movie what is your greatest hope for I Still Believe?
I think people are craving for something to believe in right now. I think there’s an opportunity for the Gospel that has not been there for a while, not on this level where people are receptive to it. My hope is that people look at this and it asks the right questions and touches that raw nerve that leaves people saying, ‘I want to know more.’ And so, at the end of the film, there’s a 1-800 number for people to reach out for help and to ask more questions about faith. When I Can Only Imagine came out, that help line got over 100,000 calls. My desire is to see people reach out, to find answers and to find there is a greater purpose for their life. That’s really what this is about for us. At the end of the day, that’s the only thing that really matters.
Watch a trailer for I Still Believe, now available on home video: