This is the movie that got me and Jon into telling stories.
In Woodlawn, the faith of a chaplain and a star football player sparks a spiritual awakening and eases the racial tensions plaguing a high school team in Birmingham, Alabama in 1973.
When Hollywood director Jon Erwin and his brother Andy decided to make a film featuring the true story of the Woodlawn High School football team giving their lives to Christ during desegregation in the 1970s, they never could have imagined the kind of impact it would have on the world.
The Erwin brothers first heard the story of Woodlawn as a bedtime story. Their father, depicted in the movie by Sean Astin of “Lord of the Rings” fame, was the chaplain for Woodlawn’s football team, and he would often tell them the story as they got ready for bed.
“Other stories have come and found us along the way, but ‘Woodlawn’ is a movie we’ve wanted to do since we were kids,” Erwin said. “This is the movie that got me and Jon into telling stories.”
Based on the true story of Tony Nathan, it tells of Nathan and other black students who desegregate Woodlawn High School in Birmingham, Alabama in 1973. As cross burnings and riots erupt in the city, Tandy Gerelds, the Woodlawn Colonels football coach, struggles to ease racial tensions between his players.
It’s only when Gerelds allows Hank, an outsider, to speak to his team that real change begins. Hank, who has been radically affected by the message of hope and love he experienced at a Christian revival meeting, tells the players a “better way” is possible through following Jesus. More than 40 players, nearly the entire team, black and white, give their lives over to Jesus Christ and the spiritual change has a profound effect on the coach, the school and the community.
The Erwin Brothers are American Christian film directors, screenwriters and film producers who dreamed of moving to Los Angles to start a career in movies, but with the success of their first feature film, October Baby, filmed mainly in Mobile, the Birmingham-based brothers realized they did not have to move west. They could successfully film movies right here in Alabama.
This is the Erwin brothers’ third movie to be filmed in Alabama. October Baby garnered them national attention in 2011, and Mom’s Night Out was released in 2014.
At $25 million, Woodlawn has the largest production budget for a Christian-themed film since Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ.”
Jon and Andy spent three years developing the script for “Woodlawn,” interviewing eye- witnesses and key characters like Tony Nathan, the story’s protagonist and Woodlawn’s star running back who went on to play for the University of Alabama and the Miami Dolphins. (Nathan is played by newcomer Caleb Castille, whose father and brothers played for Alabama.)
Erwin believes that the massive success of “Woodlawn” is proof that it is possible to make a film that both boldly presents the Gospel and is also well received by the entertainment industry.
The Erwin brothers talk about Woodlawn at a press conference
You and your brother have made a number of faith-based films, including October Baby and Mom’s Night Out. Woodlawn is a bit different than your other films.
AE: This is a very special movie because it’s a true story that happened in my hometown of Birmingham, AL. My dad, Hank Erwin (played by Sean Astin) was the chaplain of the Woodlawn High School football team at that time. I heard this story as a child; I remember hearing my dad share it with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes at the University of Alabama. It’s one you have to see to believe. If it weren’t true, it wouldn’t be right to try to manufacture this narrative. It’s just that good. It’s a very personal story and an incredible true story, and Andy and I have found our voice with this film. It’s amazing to tell a story of Christians that do amazing things because you can’t argue with the truth.
So, your father is one of the key components in the film – he’s the sports chaplain that preaches a message that the team needed to hear. Do you think chaplains are needed today in the same way?
EW: I think chaplains are essential. Sean Astin said at Liberty University – and I was proud of him for being so bold about his faith – he said, “I’m a proud Christian because of Christ’s teachings on forgiveness, peace and love. Those three things will change the world.” I think anytime someone is willing to take time and work with younger people – it’s essential and has great results.
We should be asking in America, ‘What works?’ We’re struggling with the same things that they struggled with back in the 70’s. Here we are again – shouldn’t we be asking what works? In the Civil Rights movement, it wasn’t politicians that championed the movement – it was pastors like Martin Luther King Jr. Yet there’s this crazy notion that in today’s social climate, we should eliminate chaplains – that’s a terrible idea. The core tenets of Christianity are forgiveness, love and peace. We need more of these things in the public square and schools. Eliminating them would be a huge mistake in America today.
The themes of racial reconciliation and unity in Woodlawn are so timely right now for the United States. Was that intentional?
AE: Not at all. It was amazing the timing of this film. Pastor Mike Skor of New Hope Wesleyan Church told me, “You guys need to go and make Woodlawn right now, America is ready for it.”
Who would have known how relevant that statement was. Ferguson was happening while we were shooting the movie, and then all the things that happened afterward. We need this today; we need stories of hope. We need to understand that this worked in Birmingham, Alabama – Christ did what police and politics could not. If it worked in 1973, maybe it can work again today.
“Woodlawn” is a story about one team making a decision to love God and love each other. What if what we see now began to multiply and what if everyone made the decision to love God and love each other – what difference would that make in America today? If we lived out the sentence that Jesus said 2, 000 years ago – “Love God with all your heart, soul and mind, and love each other as yourself.”
It’s relevant today because we’re facing so many of the same challenges. This is a story of hope, a story of how to live differently and make changes to your community. These changes were real because it is a true story.
Woodlawn has already made such a huge impact within a very short amount of time. In the future, from a national perspective, what do you hope will come from the film?
AE: I hope that it will continue to grow in theaters; entertainment is America’s second largest export, the more popular films are in America, the more they’re seen. So, you were going to see the movie ensures that five others will because that’s how the business works. My dream, and I think we’ll see it in 5-7 years, is a day when there are Christian blockbusters – films competing with things like “Jurassic World,” not other Christian movies.
I hope people will discover “Woodlawn,” I hope that anyone with the influence over the life of a young person will use this opportunity and seize this moment. Change requires action; we’re losing a generation – we want to get them back, and this opens the door for Christ. If you change the way someone feels, about seventy percent of the time they are very open to changing the way they think. “Woodlawn” can change the way young people feel about a decision, for Christ. Pastors, parents, and coaches can come on the heels of this movie and encourage them to make that decision. We see it working all over America, we hope people seize this opportunity while it’s still possible.
On that note, what was it like working with Roma Downey and Mark Burnett who are also pioneers in the faith-based film industry?
AE: It’s amazing to work with Mark and Roma, they are such incredible people. For them to come on board with “Woodlawn” and give their voice to push this movie has just been phenomenal, and we’re so grateful. Roma saw the film and was so moved by it and loved it, and Mark was as well – they had to be part of it. They are incredibly successful people that are putting it all on the line for the Gospel as well. We should support their work, and we’re s glad they’re supporting ours. We want to do a lot together in the future.
Do you have examples of answered prayers during the making of Woodlawn?
AE: Oh, there were so many answered prayers, in fact, “Woodlawn” is a miracle, there wouldn’t have been a movie if it weren’t for the prayers answered. From the weather to the financing of the film, that came through right at the very end.
The greatest answered prayer is to hear these stories of young people receiving Christ, that it is being used as a tool to bring kids to Christ. That is the ultimate answered prayer. We’re just so excited to see them responding. I never thought the numbers would be this high regarding a number of people in the room that respond to the Gospel. We’re so grateful it’s happening.
During the 2015 Dove Awards, you made the comment that there is a “revival happening in the movie theater.” What did you mean by that?
AE: I got a note from one of our marketing teams: “I’ve never seen an altar call during movie credits – and that’s happening all over America.” “Woodlawn” is a story that took place during the Jesus Movement, which was the last great revival in our country. We hope and pray that that will happen again, and that we will see a sweeping movement of God in a generation of young people. That’s why we do what we do. We believe that God can work in hearts and lives today in a way that He hasn’t in a long time, and we’ll see something happen all across America that will be spectacular and unprecedented. That’s my hope and my prayer. “Woodlawn” opens up people’s hearts to hear the Gospel, and you can see that across America.
Do you think the success of your movie and other faith-based films shows a thirst among both secular and Christian audiences for positive and uplifting films?
AE: Yes, absolutely. The success of the faith-based films that we’re seeing shows an enormous market and opportunity. We want to help Hollywood understand this opportunity; this is not a niche audience, this is over 100 million people. We say that when the core values of Christianity are properly presented, they are immensely appealing. You just can’t argue with love, hope, forgiveness, faith, and peace. This generation is craving these things on an incredible level, and I hope to be a small part of that.
Sean Astin told me the other day he sees me frontiersman. I said, “Thank you! I want to lead the trail for others to follow.” He said, “Trouble is Jon, most frontiersmen die on the trail!” (laughs).
I don’t know what role God has for us in the future, but this is a way to get the Gospel to the world through the infrastructure of the movie theaters. We’re trying to create a place where there is a legitimate industry for the next wave of talent.
What’s next for the Erwin brothers?
AE: In terms of what’s next for us – I think “Woodlawn” has its power and I think it’s being praised and legitimized by our critics is because it’s true. You can’t argue with the truth. Andy and I have fallen in love with true stories of Christians doing real and heroic and amazing things. You could spend ten lifetimes telling these stories and not even scratch the surface of Christians doing amazing things because of their faith and conviction. I think that’s where we’ll stay for a little while. It’s fun to say, “We’re just the messenger here, but this really happened, and it’s really cool.” I think that’s the value of “Woodlawn”.
Can you talk a little bit about being a hybrid, working with LA and also doing your own thing? How does that work for you?
I love it. As a Christian, I really love engaging Hollywood. I don’t think…I think as I’ve seen it, you know, Hollywood is not necessarily intrinsically bad or evil. It’s a business. There’s people that use that for bad things and there’s people that use it for good things. I think as Christians sometimes we’ve been afraid to engage. While I was getting started with film ministry, I worked at ESPN for years, so I worked the secular side of things for a long time. So As a Christian, I really like engaging people that don’t necessary agree with me. I like having healthy conversations and I guess debunking some of the stereotype. Instead of interacting with them in fear, I like interacting with them with confidence and humility. So as we engage Hollywood, we’ve found there’s a lot of…I don’t require my actors to be Christians, I want the best person for the part, but I’ve been amazed at how many Christians there are in Hollywood and have the same values that work on big things. So the people who came around this project, surprised me, a lot of us have similar values. And on top of that, you get the best person for the role and you get somebody that brings it to life in a whole new way.