In its first weekend at the box office, “I Can Only Imagine,” the new film that tells the story behind Christian band MercyMe’s hit song by the same name, surprised the industry by netting $17.1 million. The film’s main theme of forgiveness has so resonated with audiences that many early viewers told the directors — brothers Jon and Andrew Erwin (“October Baby,” “Mom’s Night Out” and “Woodlawn”) — that it prompted them to seek reconciliation in their own relationships. One viewer, Jon Erwin said, told him that the film “gave me the courage to make a call I wanted to make for 18 years.”
A powerful story
Starring J. Michael Finley, Madeline Carroll and Dennis Quaid, the film features Finley as MercyMe vocalist Bart Millard, who, growing up in Greenville, Texas, suffered physical and emotional abuse at the hands of his father, Arthur. Bart’s mother had abandoned the family, leaving him alone with his dad. Though Arthur aspired to a career in sports, an accident on the job at a construction site 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, which led to abusing Bart.
When Bart was in high school, however, Arthur was diagnosed with terminal cancer and turned to Jesus Christ. Bart became his caregiver and, as the real-life Bart Millard would relate, “[My father] went from being a monster to being my best friend, the man I wanted to be.”
Bart went on to launch a successful music career and penned “I Can Only Imagine” after the band needed a final song to complete their first album. Bart recalled that it took barely 10 minutes to write, but “it had been in my heart for a really long time.”
In order to make the film, the Erwins had to overcome many challenges, including finding the perfect cast that would be able to communicate the deep themes.
“Casting is 75 percent of making a movie,” said Jon Erwin. “We needed an Arthur (Dennis Quaid) who could convey someone who wanted to apologize, and a Bart, someone who wanted to forgive.”
For the character of Bart, they also needed vocal ability. “We needed someone who could do their own singing, but in a blue collar way,” Andrew Erwin said.
For Madeline Carroll, who plays Bart’s on-again-off-again girlfriend and eventual wife, Shannon, the role was a dream come true for an actress who struggles with Hollywood’s loose morality. After a modeling and acting career that dated back to early childhood, 21-year-old Carroll said that she was considering leaving acting as it was difficult to find roles in Hollywood that did not conflict with her Christian beliefs.
“I can’t believe God gave me this part,” she said. “I was going to give up acting; I was turning down role after role.”
Dennis Quaid said he had not previously heard of the song “I Can Only Imagine,” but when he read the script and heard the song “I was profoundly moved by the story.”
Different for Hollywood
Jon Erwin said they made the movie “first and foremost” for MercyMe fans who love the song “I Can Only Imagine,” but as it is “entertaining and relatable,” it has “a far broader appeal” than the MercyMe fan base. They also hope that it has an evangelizing quality.
“We’re reaching out to middle America to share our faith in a non-divisive way,” Jon Erwin said.
Like the Erwins, Carroll said, “I was trying to do something different in Hollywood.”
During a screening at his home, Quaid, whose twins were cast as extras in the film, found himself getting emotional.
“Although there are some disturbing things to see, both my kids and I were moved by it,” he said. “It’s a film about the power of love.”
Jim Graves writes from California.