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About The Production
Director/co-writer Jon Erwin has never had a film easier to pitch.

"It's the song you know," says Jon, "but the story you don't."

The song is MercyMe's I Can Only Imagine, the most popular contemporary Christian song in history. The story is about how MercyMe front-man Bart Millard was inspired to write the song after overcoming an abusive childhood, holding to his faith, and seeing God's miracle of redemption.

"In every single one of our movies the DNA is that redemption thread," says Andy Erwin, Jon's brother and co-director of I CAN ONLY IMAGINE.

Both Erwin brothers, along with the film's cast and crew, gathered in Oklahoma City for a 26-day location shoot aimed at a spring 2018 release. It was the Erwins' third collaboration with producing partner Kevin Downes. "What I'm most excited about is people seeing this who have never heard the story." Downes said. "This is a powerful story that I believe is going to bring hope to people all over the world." Interestingly, the Erwins' opportunity to tell Bart's story actually came about because of one of their other films.

Jon and Andy's career behind the camera began by shooting sports for ESPN out of their hometown of Birmingham, Alabama. They then transitioned into shooting Christian music videos featuring top names in the industry such as Michael W. Smith, Amy Grant, Third Day and Casting Crowns, eventually winning music video of the year three years consecutively at the GMA Dove Awards.

Finally, the brothers moved into the world of feature films, having now released three full-length features: OCTOBER BABY, MOMS' NIGHT OUT and WOODLAWN. It was at a screening of WOODLAWN where the Erwin brothers met MercyMe's Bart Millard, and where the idea for I CAN ONLY IMAGINE was born.

"On a whim, we invited Bart to a screening of one of our films," recalls Andy. "Just kind of reached out to him and said, 'Hey, we travel in the same circles, but we've never really hung out.'"

Bart saw the show and gave the brothers some surprising news.

"He said, 'I don't know if you know this, but the studio's been developing my life story for several years now as a movie. I'd like you guys to consider directing it,'" says Andy. "I laughed and said, 'Well, the funny thing is they sent us the script this morning.'" A few years later, they found themselves in Oklahoma City making a movie about Bart Millard's amazing story.


In 2001, the song I Can Only Imagine debuted on MercyMe's first album for a major label and quickly became an unprecedented hit-crossing over to success in pop, country and adult contemporary. The only contemporary Christian song ever certified as double platinum, it also earned Dove Awards for Song of the Year and Songwriter of the Year. Millard had written the lyrics and composed the music with band mates in just a few minutes. But that inspired burst of creativity packed a lifetime of experience, much of it painful.


As a kid in Greenville, Texas, Bart suffered physical and emotional abuse at the hands of his father, Arthur. His mother abandoned the family and Bart was left alone with his father.

An exceptional athlete in his own youth, Arthur excelled at college football and dreamed of playing in the pros.

"But when he had kids, he dropped out of college to support the family," explains Andy. "He had a traumatic accident on the job, on a construction site, that left him with a brain injury and in a coma for a week. When he woke up he'd lost his ability to regulate his anger."

Toward young Bart, that anger manifested as abuse. In Bart's high school years, two things happened that changed everything. First, his father was stricken with terminal cancer, and second, over time, his father came to know Jesus Christ.

"Bart had to take care of his father every night from midnight until 2 a.m.," says Andy. "As we interviewed him for this project, we said, 'If we were to hold a gun to your head and ask, is there a God, what would you say?' and he said, 'Absolutely, there is.' When we asked why, he said, 'Because of the change I saw in my father. He went from being a monster to being my best friend, the man I wanted to be.' And so during the two years that Bart took care of his dad, their relationship was completely redeemed."

"I think when my dad died, he definitely still had some regrets," reflects Millard. "Until he couldn't talk to me anymore, he always said he was so sorry for the things he did, and that people would forget about him the second he was gone. And luckily, it didn't really matter what he thought, because Christ knew."

Millard didn't share the extent of the abuse, and therefore the degree of redemption he'd witnessed, until years later. His wife Shannon, who met Millard in junior high school, didn't know the full story until the couple entered counseling well into their marriage. The phrase "I Can Only Imagine" first occurred to Millard when leaving his father's gravesite, as he wondered what his dad might be seeing in heaven. "For me, the thought was very therapeutic because it was just too overwhelming to think of him being gone. And so I started thinking more about what he was seeing, more than him just not being in my life." This phrase consumed his thoughts, and he began doodling it everywhere-on all of the pages in his journal, notepads, and even on an old couch.

Years later, Millard wrote I Can Only Imagine after the band needed a final song to complete their first album. As he considered his earthly father in heaven, and pondered the great redemption he had witnessed in his life, the song flowed out of him quickly.

"We were making an independent record, and we needed one more song. And I was literally just trying to find a blank page [in my journal], and every page had 'I Can Only Imagine' written on it," shares Bart. "So it was kinda like, 'I get it.' I wrote the song on the bus one night. Even though it took about five or ten minutes to write, it had been in my heart for a really long time."


To fill the pivotal role of Bart Millard, producers headed to Broadway where they found John Michael Finley, the understudy for "Jean Valjean" in Les Miserables. Finley routinely filled in for the main star.

Finley's booming voice first drew the filmmakers and he had the right look so they cast him in what would be his first film role. Interestingly, his background proved to connect him even more to the role.

"I was born in Arkansas and grew up in southern Missouri, so I had that Midwest mentality," says Finley. "Bart and I both had early life events that made us grow up real fast. And I connect with the way Bart uses humor to deflect other people."

As a pastor's kid growing up, Finley had even seen MercyMe in concert three times. To play "Shannon," Bart's on-again-off-again girlfriend and eventual wife, the film team turned to a seasoned pro in 21-year-old Los Angeles-native Madeline Carroll, whose modeling career began when she was three years old. By age 10, she was a veteran of film, TV and commercials.

"[Madeline's] acting has so much depth and complexity," says Andy. "She was the ideal--able to give us both of those in one person."

While the story of forgiveness and redemption drew Carroll to the part of "Shannon," once on set, the bonus was being able to work with Dennis Quaid.

"Ever since I watched THE PARENT TRAP years ago, I've wanted to work with him," says Carroll. "So it was cool that came full circle, and God blessed me with that opportunity. He's really sweet, loves his kids, and is a great father."

Quaid plays "Arthur," Bart's father, who saw his dreams dashed, and strives to protect his son from similar disappointment . . . even if it means having no dreams at all.

"I just thought it was a compelling, universal story," says Quaid. "I've done a lot of father-son stories, and this was different in a way because it wasn't so, should I say... Hollywood? What attracted me to Arthur was that he was a guy who has redemption in the end. But he starts from a very low place."

Quaid was happy to work with Academy Award winner Cloris Leachman . . . again.

Leachman plays "Memaw," a consistent presence of love in Bart's life. Quaid and Leachman worked together on his very first Hollywood film in 1975.

"I'd been out there for two weeks, in 1975," recalls Quaid. "Jonathan Demme, a friend of my brother's, is a director. He was doing a little Roger Corman film and asked if I wanted to be an extra. I just needed a job. So I played a bellhop in his film with Donny Most from Happy Days, and Cloris Leachman. It was called CRAZY MAMA, and she was 'Crazy Mama.' That was my first movie, which is really cool, and then here it is 40 years later." Leachman was already a star from her role in The Mary Tyler Moore Show when she won her Oscar for THE LAST PICTURE SHOW. Now, even at age 90, she brought lots of laughter to the I CAN ONLY IMAGINE set.

On a day off from shooting, Cloris and her daughter went to an indoor skydiving facility in Oklahoma City. She returned to set the next day proudly showing the cast and crew photos of the adventure.

Country music superstar Trace Adkins plays music manager Scott Brickell, who helped MercyMe find its sound and achieve success. Adkins believes people will be touched by this story of overcoming and redemption.

"I hope audiences leave the theater inspired," says Adkins. "And I think they will." Adkins has previously worked with the Erwin brothers on their movie MOMS' NIGHT OUT. Executive producer of I CAN ONLY IMAGINE Cindy Bond, developed the story for seven years before partnering with Kevin Downes and the Erwin Brothers to get the film made. Bond believes the true story will connect with everyone who see the film - whether they are familiar with MercyMe's music or not. The theme is universal. "I think audiences will love this movie because there's so much more to the story than they know," says Bond.

"Behind I CAN ONLY IMAGINE is a powerful emotional journey. Bart had so many obstacles to overcome. This kid from Greenville, Texas, didn't have a chance in the world. And yet now he's the lead singer for MercyMe with the best-selling Christian song of all time."

"The movie is a powerful reminder that no one is ever too far from God's love," says Millard, "and that heaven is promised to those who find hope in Christ."


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