How a Silly Comedy Led to the Tear-Jerker ‘I Still Believe’
Interview with Andy and Jon Irwin
Perhaps one of the biggest roadblocks keeping some faith-based films from going mainstream is the preconceived notion of what they are. Some Christian films are created solely for a Christian audience, but brothers Andy and Jon Irwin have a mission to change that.
“We feel that a faith film is not a genre, it’s an audience to serve,” says Andy.
You may not be familiar with the Irwin Brothers by name and chances are good that you might confuse them with the Kendrick brothers who also work hard on putting out quality faith-based fare. That’s understandable. They are all on the same team and have even worked together. But just to be clear, it was the Irwin Brothers who put out 2018’s surprise hit film, I Can Only Imagine.
The Irwin Brothers have a focus on outreach rather than just preaching to the choir, something that I appreciate and told them so during my recent interview with the pair.
“There have been a lot of films that have been made specifically for the church choir. It’s there to encourage them and be something like Sunday school lessons about ideas and things that are taught within church culture,” says Andy. “The focus of our films and why we resonate with true stories is an outward focus, a focus of being able to reach out past the church walls and to tell these stories that plant the idea of redemption. When that’s done correctly, it can be wildly entertaining.”
From Silly to Serious
Most of those who go to the movies do so to be entertained, not sit through a sermon. For the Irwin’s, the main point of Christian filmmaking is to make a product that is quality and entertaining while sharing truth. On Mother’s Day in 2014, they put out a little fun comedy called Mom’s Night Out. Compared to other faith-based films, this one stood out as something completely different. They say it was a love letter to their wives and that little film helped to pave the way for their latest project, I Still Believe.
“I was screening [Mom’s Night Out] in Nashville for an influencer screening and I invited Bart Millard of Mercy Me on a whim through Facebook,” says Andy. “I said, ‘Hey, you want to see a movie tonight we’re showing to kind of get awareness?’ and he said, ‘I just moved here from Texas. I’d love to.’ Then at the end of that screening he came to the front and said, ‘I don’t know if you know this, but there’s a movie studio developing my life’s story…I’d love for you guys to consider directing it.’ and I said, ‘I don’t know if you know this, but you they sent us the script this morning to see if we were a fit!’ And so that was when he and I became movie friends. We went that night to a midnight screening of Captain America and that’s been our tradition since.”
I Can Only Imagine starred J. Michael Finley and Dennis Quaid and became a huge hit and because of that, the brothers were pitched all kinds of stories in hopes that they would become the Irwin’s next picture.
“After I Can Only Imagine came out and it being kind of the phenomenon that it was, we got pitched a lot of stories and specifically a lot of music stories, says Andy. “We wanted to make sure that we selected correctly and so I was not thinking that direction at all, but somebody said you need to hear Jeremy Camp’s true story, it’s an amazing love story.”
Born to Be Filmmakers
The Irwin brothers grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. I asked them how they got involved with filmmaking. Jon tells me that they got their start in an unconventional way and one that he isn’t sure he can recommend, but then qualifies it by saying that sometimes God intervenes in your story.
“When I was 15, a cameraman got sick at the University of Alabama football game about three hours before the kickoff. One of the other cameramen on the game (I had met him at church) said, ‘Get over here right now. Don’t tell anybody how old you are or that you have never done this before. Just don’t say anything,’” says Jon.
“I went over there, ran camera for ESPN and had the absolute time of my life. I just got hooked, like I had just joined the circus. Andy quickly followed and so we worked for ESPN as cameramen as teenagers. The next year my dad, with money he didn’t have frankly, bought us a camera and helped us get a loan for $10,000 (which I don’t know if you should do that for a 16-year-old either) but basically he just said to dream big, dream bold, dream the impossible and we’ve been following his advice ever since.”
Jon says that was the beginning and they just sort of emerged as filmmakers.
“I’ve heard it said that success is long obedience in the same direction and it’s just lap after lap around the practice track.”
From football games, Jon and Andy worked on some music videos for Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant and maybe a few car commercials as well. That led to some work on the Kendrick brother’s film, Courageous. It was there that Alex Kendrick asked Jon “What’s your purpose and what is the purpose of your work?”
“Not only could I not stop thinking about the question, I couldn’t answer it,” says Jon. “I think it’s a question everybody should ask themselves. That was the moment where we ventured from the territory of a career into the territory of a calling and trying to use the skills that we had hoped for a purpose beyond ourselves.”
Loving True Stories
The Irwin’s first movie on their own was 2011’s October Baby which dealt with the unpopular topic of abortion. So, out of all of different topics to write a story, how did they come to settle on this one I asked.
“If you watch one of our films, you know that we’ve experienced something that has profoundly moved us and that we’re trying to translate that to the audience,” says Jon. “So with all of our films, that’s sort of the common thread. It’s just something that we find to be interesting, moving and inspirational and potentially life-changing.”
From there, they went on to create Mom’s Night Out (2014), Woodlawn (2015), I Can Only Imagine (2018) and now I Still Believe.
“They say a filmmaker finds their voice when they find a story and basically tell it over and over again. That’s not to say that we won’t do more than that as a company but Andy and I specifically love true stories.”
I Still Believe
Like Mom’s Night Out, I Still Believe is a little different than what some Christians would expect from a faith-based film. It’s a romance story and one of sacrifice. It is based on the life of singer Jeremy Camp and his first wife, Melissa who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer a short season before they got married and the title comes from Camp’s song of the same name. The movie stars KJ Apa, Britt Robertson, Shania Twain, Melissa Roxburgh, and Gary Sinise. It has all of the makings of becoming the next big Christian movie.
Jon and Andy set up a time to meet with Jeremy Camp and his wife Adrian to hear their stories firsthand.
“The way [Jeremy] described his first wife Melissa and who she was and what she went through and her saying ‘If I go through this and one person’s life is changed, it’s totally worth it’… You know, we were just captivated by it.”
At the end of that conversation Andy leaned over to Adrian and said, “How can you listen to your husband talk about another woman for three hours and not flinch?” And she said, “Let me be very clear, I’m very protective over Jeremy and Melissa’s story because it changed my life.” That’s when Andy turned to Jon and said, “You’re going to think I’m crazy, but we’re doing that movie.”
“Yeah, I really remember the way I felt in the room listening to Jeremy’s and Adrian’s story and how similar it felt to the first time we heard Bart’s story which led to the movie I Can Only Imagine,” adds Jon. “We weren’t looking for this movie and yet it was so powerful in the room. We thought it was a story that we need to tell. I want the audience to feel what we just felt here today and it’s so great to then complete the journey and have that happen on such a large scale.”
Finding the Right Cast and Chemistry
Andy describes Jeremy Camp’s story as a “gorgeous, gorgeous love story” that was elevated to another level when they were able to cast KJ Apa and Britt Robertson for the roles of Jeremy and Melissa.
“They have great chemistry and they make it a love story that’s this really relatable regardless of what you believe, but just really points this beautiful, redemptive picture of sacrificial love and so we’re excited to see that come out.”
The role of Jeremy was a very difficult one to cast because they needed to find an actor who could not only sing and play the guitar, but do it all while being very emotional.
“We looked at a lot of different actors to just consider them and there was an intern in the casting office that said ‘I am a huge fan of the show Riverdale. Have you thought about KJ Apa?’ and we’re like oh my gosh, it’s brilliant,” says Andy.
But when they offered Apa the role, he first turned it down saying he had such an emotional experience reading the script. He felt that it was so powerful that he wasn’t sure if he could do it justice. Jon and Andy looked at each other knowing that this this guy was the right one for the job, a role that Apa has said he is most proud of.
After Apa agreed to the role he said that he didn’t feel that it was really Jeremy’s story, but Melissa’s and he said that whoever the Irwin’s cast as Melissa, they would need to have great chemistry. When they ask who KJ had worked with in the past who he thought would be good for the part, he didn’t hesitate to say Robertson. The first project that KJ booked after moving to the United States was the film A Dog’s Purpose. In it, he played a young Dennis Quaid whose love interest was Robertson.
“I’ve never seen such well-matched dance partners in anything I’ve been a part of and so it was it was exciting but K. J. he’s a he’s a movie star. Bright future for that guy,” says Andy.
Even People Outside of the Church are Noticing
Last December, Seventeen magazine listed I Still Believe in the top spot of “7 Most Romantic Movies Premiering in 2020.” That might have a lot to do with the fact that Seventeen loves Apa and Riverdale. But this movie is a far cry from the CW show. You won’t get any squeakier or cleaner than this. But audiences don’t seem to mind.
“It’s interesting that when they watch the movie, they don’t say that this love story is unrealistic or it’s too innocent, they actually say “I want to be loved like this. This is what I want,” says Jon. “It’s because it’s such selfless love story and who doesn’t want to be loved like that? It really is completely opposite of the sort of narcissism that we see so much of today. Gary Sinise says in the film that there is no greater love the one that would lay down his life for his friend and I think that the idea of self-sacrifice and sacrificial love and selfless love is a powerful thing that a generation needs to be reminded of.”
After the success of I Can Only Imagine, the Irwin’s have begun dreaming about projects bigger than themselves.
“Wouldn’t be cool to create a place where storytellers could be recruited and incubated into a collaborative environment and we could do more [with them] than just what Andy and I can do?” asks Jon. “You know, if you really want to reach the next generation with this message of hope, it has to be bigger than one content creator.”
I Still Believe is the first film with the new Kingdom Story Company logo. The brother dream of new place where many different people can bring their talents and stories under the new banner. Their hope is that this new banner will become a symbol of quality and service.
“We want people to know when they see that logo and they see that word “kingdom” that it is something that they can trust,” says Andy “It’s something that they can take their families to. It’s something that will represent values that we think are good and true and life-changing. But it’s also something that’s going to be really entertaining and the films are going to be good. We’re going to try to do everything we can to make them more and more entertaining so they can reach more people.”
Main Image: Jon and Andy Irwin (Kingdom Story Company)