If you would have told the 15 year-old version of Jon Erwin that he’d end up creating a movie that would grace the cover of the New York Times – he probably never would have believed it. But that’s what his God does – the impossible. And he recruits people – like you, and the Erwins – to join that effort.
Family Christian: Could you give us a brief history of Jon and Andy Erwin?
Jon Erwin: (laughs) Well, we’re a couple of guys who had a hobby that went completely out of control. We were given an incredible opportunity in this business very early, as teenagers. When I was 15 years old, my dad was in Christian radio and I worked at a cable station and became a cameraman there. I was an apprentice under a guy that was a sports freelancer and worked for ESPN. So one day on a gig he was doing for a University of Alabama football game somebody got sick just a few hours before kickoff. They were scrambling, so Mike called me and said “hey get over here, I talked to the director and he knows you’re green, no one knows quite how old you are, but get over here and run this camera.” And so I did, this wide-eyed 15 year-old kid. I ran this huge camera and all I knew was that I could zoom into the moon (laughs). It was like a telescope. I think the first time that that red light came on my camera, I was just hooked. I knew that’s what I would do for the rest of my life. So I was freelancing for ESPN literally at the age of 15. When I was 16 my dad helped my brother and I get a $10,000 loan for our first video editing equipment and we started a video production company in our hometown of Birmingham, Alabama. We did commercials, weddings and church and ministry promotional videos.
FC: So you were 16 when you got the loan. How old was your brother?
Jon: My brother was 19. He was at Bible college in upstate New York, so he came home and we started working together. The more we did, the more people called us the Erwin Brothers. [So it] literally was a decade-long practice track where we could refine our skills. And it just grew.
FC: And so how did you transition into the Christian world?
Jon: Michael W. Smith actually gave us our break into Christian music videos, where we [ended up having] our greatest level of success. I don’t really know why he let us, it was very low budget and he kinda put his name on the line for these two kids from Alabama, but it turned out great. It was a very emotional video. Oddly enough it was Rachel Hendrix’s (who stars in October Baby) first time on the screen. It was How to Say Goodbye by Michael W. Smith. We’d found her at a community college and one of our crew members had put her in a short film he had done, so we cast her in that video about a father saying good bye to his daughter, which is very ironic. The video did very well and propelled us into doing a lot of videos in the Christian space. We won a lot of awards for that video. [Then] we did documentaries and dramatic television. Ya know, I’d say we were the Hans Solo of the Christian world. If you had money, we had a ship. We were a hired gun. I went on to direct second unit on Courageous for the Kendrick brothers… I was responsible for a lot of the action in the film and we had a blast. It was so much fun working for those guys, and they really challenged me. Alex [Kendrick] asked me “Jon, what’s your purpose? What’s the purpose of your work?” And I had a hard time answering that question because I was raised a Christian and my faith has always been important to me – but there’s a huge leap between doing something for somebody and getting a paycheck, to being passionate about an idea and raising money for that idea… following it all of the way through. It’s just a very, very scary transition and I think Stephen and Alex really came alongside us and helped us be brave enough to make that jump. About that time we were thinking about using our gifts and how we hadn’t really tried to get into entertainment and film, God had just put us in it.
FC: So tell us a little bit about October Baby. How did the concept come about?
Jon: [Making the film] was a period of two years. We had worked decades to kind of refine a style working for other people. So we thought our first movie would be a football movie or something with lots of explosions because we love doing that kind of work. So lo and behold I went and heard Gianna Jessen speak – she is an abortion survivor. I had no idea that those two words could go together. And ya know, she has a lot of physical problems because she survived a saline abortion, [including] cerebral palsy but she’s such a beautiful person with a beautiful spirit. There’s this wonderful quality about her. I was mesmerized by her story and her angle and a section of our culture that I honestly didn’t know existed. It moved me so much that I started researching it with Cecil Stokes (one of the producers of the film). I’d dare anybody to Google “abortion survivors” and try to read the stories for 20 minutes and not have to walk away from your computer because it’s so tragic that this has happened, is happening. I could not stop thinking about it. We felt like we need to expose this – we need to share this. I took it to my brother and we started thinking about it. We thought, you know if we do a documentary it would be very difficult, maybe impossible to watch, but what if we told the story of this beautiful, 19 year-old girl that discovers this about herself, that she was adopted because she was a survivor of a failed abortion? So she has to go on a journey of discovery, to find answers, to find herself and to find the power of forgiveness – which I think is universal. And that’s the film that we set out to make.
At every stage [of making the movie], there were a lot of people who didn’t understand what we were doing – like, why is this your first movie? Why isn’t it an action or sports movie? A Christian abortion movie from two unknown movie guys from Alabama is not the easiest thing in the world to market. But at the end of the day we had that still small voice that this was what we were supposed to do and that this was the story God wanted us to tell. It’s a scary subject for the church; for all of us, but it needs to be addressed. [James 1:27 says] “True religion is caring for orphans and widows in their distress…” and I think part of that is giving a voice to those who don’t have one. I think this represents a massive portion of our society that doesn’t have a voice and we thought we could give them one with this film.
October Baby trailer
FC: Give us some insight as to how you guys transitioned from sports TV into Christian music videos and then into cinematic releases.
Jon: A big part of it is that part of me (and my 3.5 year old daughter has inherited my DNA which makes me wife’s job so much more difficult) is I am so ADHD and hyperactive that I can’t stay in one place for very long (laughs), so I think there was a natural longing to… I’m telling you, beyond my relationship with God and my family (in the work world), there is nothing more gratifying than staring at a blank piece of paper and having a passion for an idea then seeing it come to life, in a collaborative way. Our team, our film crew is the best on earth. Our marketing team and our team at Provident are the best on earth. And when all these people work on this idea and then see it on a 40 foot screen with people enjoying and genuinely being moved by it… I can’t even describe what it feels like. I love sports but you don’t get that feeling. There’s no real higher purpose to what you’re doing. Moving to Christian music, I loved doing Christian music videos, and collaborating with all of those bands and being able to visualize their vision and build relationships – as fun as that is, there’s still an itch for something more. And I think that itch was to really use that skill for a higher purpose and calling. It’s like the first words in A Purpose Driven Life were “It’s not about you,” we’re all made for something more. It was that drive, that instinct that our skills could be used for something more, for some reason we just weren’t comfortable working for ESPN and understood it to be just a stepping stone, not a permanent place to stay. I think the permanent place is to stay in what we’ve found. There’s no going back to that after something like October Baby. It’s Peter Jackson who said “pain is temporary, film is forever.” It really is true in our culture. There’s no more effective way of communication today in our culture than entertainment and it’s very gratifying. It’s very nice to know that October Baby will outlive me. That’s what’s so exciting about movies like this. I think in 50 years Fireproof will still be changing marriages. I hope that October Baby will help people to value life more. So I think we finally found something that we can hang out in for a long time. What we did before was fun, but it wasn’t fulfilling.
FC: So when you boil it down, what do you hope people take away from this movie?
Jon: I hope that you get swept away in the love story and are entertained with October Baby, but I hope that it will really make you stop and think about how you value life. I hope it moves people like it moves me. I would consider myself like a “pro-life pacifist” before this film. My dad was a two-term Republican state senator so I was certainly a conservative but it was just not something that I thought much about. I think in a lot of our minds we think, well it’s a done deal. It’s not a done deal and there’s plenty we can do about it. You can stand up for them. It’s what we should be doing.
FC: So this topic is a weighty one. Not just politically, but also in the church. What have you told people when you’ve gotten some controversy over the film, or harsh critiques?
Jon: (laughs) Well, I guess I didn’t quite know what we were signing up for, so I guess on the front end, ignorance was bliss. We didn’t quite know the firestorm that we’d be entering. Having said that, the biggest thing was we didn’t want to necessarily make a movie that told you what to think as much as we wanted to encourage you to stop and think. To me, my interpretation of the parable of the Good Samaritan was – the three people that walked by the guy on the road weren’t necessarily bad people, they were just preoccupied people. We have never been more preoccupied, there’s never been so much noise in our culture before. Now we deal with Google and Facebook and bombarding entertainment it’s very difficult (if not impossible) for us to slow down and ask the big questions. But you get [people] into movie theaters, you can’t escape (laughs). So the idea was, can we make people stop and think about this issue? I’ve heard it said “films shouldn’t only give answers, they should ask very penetrating questions.” And so our goal with October Baby was to get people to stop, think and talk. I think no matter what your political or religious perspective is it’s a valuable conversation to have. So when the New York Times roasted the movie or when I’m on NPR Morning Edition and they ask me every possible controversial question (although the final piece was very positive), that means people are talking about it (laughs). It was great when we opened at number 8 and then a few days later we’re on the front page of the New York Times. That says that we had fulfilled our purposes and hopefully a lot of good was coming from it. And then when we started getting the stories back of the good, for every difficult review that was written on the film, or for every time we were roasted, there was 200 stories of someone’s life being changed from this movie. It became a lot easier to weather and a little bit easier to get over my own ego with the reviews when you heard of lives being changed. It was very interesting to see on RottenTomatoes.com where they aggregate the critics and also the audience, we have like the largest gap of any film we could find the site between the reviews and the people (laughs) our approval rating. I think Walk Disney said it best “I don’t make films for the critics, I make the films for the people.” It was cool to see our audience embrace the film and see lives changed.
FC: Tell us a little about the feedback that you are getting…
Jon: I remember these two moments that I’ll mention. I got an email from a Christian girl who had taken one of her friends to the film who had been to a clinic three times and was pretty set on having an abortion. After the movie she decided to keep her child and said the movie had given her the courage, faith and hope to have her baby. I was so blown away by that. Then I was in a screening and this little 12 year old boy said to me, your movie just changed my life and I thought he’d come out of another movie (laughs)… I think you’re mixed up buddy, my movie doesn’t have any pirates or explosions in it (laughs). But then I thought – oh maybe he’s adopted or something and he said my dad had an affair against my mom and I’ve been angry at my dad. But after seeing this movie I’m going home to forgive my father. And I’m just like (laughs) Thank you! I just didn’t know what to say. The biggest surprise is (if statistics are accurate) 4 out of 10 women have experienced an abortion. And that means that millions of men have experienced an abortion too, I mean, we all know someone who has. There were thousands of people who approached us that had had an abortion and had carried the weight. Something about the words “I forgive you” being written on the screen and being part of the story was very cathartic and healing to them and they would just come to us in droves.
Impact of October Baby the film:
FC: With the release of October Baby you also created another site called Every Life is Beautiful where you incorporated other peoples’ conversations. How has that been received? And is it helping to propel the message of the film?
Jon: That’s a great question. Ya know, what’s funny is some things you just kind of discover along the way, and the tagline to the movie took a little while (laughs). There were all kinds of taglines tossed out. We did a limited release of the film in October of 2011 with American Family Association to sort of test the movie. It was just 14 theaters and that’s really where we discovered that the movie had an audience. That was also where we discovered the tagline because when we would show the movie people would tell their stories, about abortion survivor or someone that “shouldn’t” have lived or an adoption and it was like the aggregate of all of these stories. Some that were better than the movie in some cases (laughs)! And it was simple to find it. That was the whole point. “Every life is beautiful.” We’re celebrating the value of every person’s life, no matter your disability, your race, no matter who you are. You have value to God and to us. That became the tag. So then we thought, can we do something more? So we created that other site to follow up with web vignettes with people that you’ve heard of (Christian celebrities) and others. We just did one about this girl in Texas who survived an abortion and her story – there’s no way on earth she should have been alive and yet here she is; it’s just the coolest story. Bobby Downs, the producer, shared his story of adoption and so it just became a place that we could celebrate life. I think the movie is not just about what we’re against. This movie is also about what we’re for. And what we’re for is life. We’re PRO-life that’s the whole point. In the marketing of the movie we wanted a communal celebration of the value of life. We also wanted to put 10% of the profits of the movie into a fund. So before I turn a check from the profits of this film, a check will go to a pregnancy resource center or an orphanage, or a frontline organization that’s helping orphans or young girls navigate the toughest decision she has to make. I’m anxious to see what kind of life the site takes on. My hope is that we could propel it to keep going.
FC: How much of the movie (if any) involves your own personal stories?
Jon: I’m a big fan of [Director] Christopher Nolan who said that he believes the audience can tell when a filmmaker is taking an emotional journey versus if the filmmaker is using his bag of tricks to make the audience feel something that he himself doesn’t feel. He believes that a film has to be real first to the filmmaker. JJ Abrams said that you have to have an overriding confidence that if something is inspirational and meaningful to you, it will be to your audience as well. So at the end of the day I think you have to make a movie for yourself; a movie about things you’re trying to process emotionally. So October Baby really covers a time in my life where I was saying, like James, faith without works is dead, and ya know, we’re kind of defined by what we do. When it comes to the area of the sanctity of life, I hadn’t really done anything. Sure I go to a great church and I vote Republican, but I haven’t really done anything. So it was me trying to process that. I wanted to make a very honest and raw piece that was a part of my journey and something that I was struggling with answering for myself, so that’s what we did. It was intensely personal all of the way through. From writing the script to producing the movie, we put ourselves in it. That’s one thing about working in the music business as long as I did, I really gravitate to people who write their own music because you just get so much more of a sense of who the artist is, as opposed to someone who records songs that were written. So we wrote it, produced it, I shot it, Andy edited it, it really is us. It’s deeply personal and I hope that when you see it you get an idea of who we are and what we appreciate and value. Then also it started with the title. A lot of people have asked me about that specifically. My wife and I were driving down the road (and she’s a total planner, I am not a planner, I’m a delinquent creative) and we were talking about our second child. She said, if we have a summer baby, we can buy this type of clothes, if we have a winter or December baby, we can buy these type of clothes, but if we have an October baby… and that’s kinda when I snapped back into the conversation from daydreaming and said, that would be a great title for a girl just trying to find herself or taking life’s journey to discover who she is. But I just sort of shelved that idea away for a long time until I learned about the issue of an abortion survivor and I married the two. And then (our son) Ethan ended up being born October 28th and then my brother’s daughter Amelia was born the next October, so there’s kind of three October babies. It started that way and I hope the people can get to know Andy and I – who we are and that this isn’t just some script we read and wanted to direct. It’s something that was two years of our lives and something we’re deeply passionate about. I think the body of Christ and the Christian community does a lot, but we can do so much more of caring for the orphan and the widow, the ‘least of these’ in our culture. I hope that this movie is an encouragement to everyone to say, what can I do? as they enjoy it.
FC: What is your favorite movie?
Jon: Asking me what my favorite movie is, is like asking a cook what his favorite meal is!
FC: Ok, one that would qualify in your top 5?
Jon: Ok, I’m going to get myself in trouble here so I’m going to say that I do not approve of all of the content in these movies, but like pastor’s all over America, they’re favorite secret movie is Braveheart. And I’d put myself in that category. I think the line “every man dies, but not every man really lives” has to be the greatest line ever written in the history of movies (laughs) and every time I see that it moves me emotionally, it encourages me to chase my passion and dreams. I’m an epic guy who likes epic movies. I like The Lord of the Rings. I dream of a day when we can interpret the Bible in that way. We have the greatest book of all time and the rights are available. If we could translate the Bible into a movie like Lord of the Rings I think that would be my ultimate dream; goal in life. I was definitely in line for The Dark Night Rises, I also like Pixar. I love the experience of going to the movies. It’s one of my favorite things to do. In fact, my 3.5 year old daughter and I go to the movies together, we call them “daddy dates.” We just saw Madagascar, I love that experience and that we can use it for a greater purpose. I have a running list of my favorites and I go to the movies a lot. Great films stick to you like glue, you can’t get them out of your mind. And every movie has a world view, a message, a set of morals. Don’t tell me you can’t make a movie that’s overtly toward your view that doesn’t do great numbers, I mean, look at Avatar. That’s one of the more overt movies that I’ve seen, but it’s the number one movie of all time. It’s a great business we work in. We have a lot of work to do, a long way to go, but I think we have just scratched the iceberg of what can happen. We have the largest core audience in America and I hope we realize how powerful we are in rallying around a movie – it’s our nation’s largest export. I think it’s upstream to politics now, entertainment is, it’s something we say – we’re buying back our culture one movie ticket at a time. You have no idea how much good you’re doing when you buy a ticket to a Christian movie – it’s like a vote. Exciting times, I’m looking forward to seeing where this goes.
Bonus - The Afters video for Life is Beautiful