Woodlawn: Making the Movie
About the Guest
Director Jon Erwin talks with Dennis Rainey about the making of the inspirational feature film, Woodlawn. Set in Birmingham, Alabama, in the 1970s, "Woodlawn" is a true story based on the life of NFL great, Tony Nathan, and the highest attended football game ever played in Alabama high school history. "Woodlawn" releases nationwide October 16.
Director Jon Erwin talks about the making of the feature film, “Woodlawn.” Set in Birmingham, Alabama in the 1970s, Woodlawn is a true story based on the life of NFL great, Tony Nathan.
Woodlawn: Making the Movie
Bob: This weekend, and every weekend, in churches all across the country, the gospel will be proclaimed. This weekend in movie theaters, all across the country, the gospel will also be proclaimed as a movie called Woodlawn comes to town. Here’s co-producer and director Jon Erwin.
Jon: If you look at the history of Christianity, we hold the message as sacred, not the mechanism of delivery. One is absolutely unchanging—God is the same today, yesterday and forever. The other changes—as it changes, you have to take whatever the microphone of the day is. To me, mass entertainment—big movies, blockbusters, television shows—this is the new way to get the attention of a generation. What it would take is enough Christians in America, unifying culturally at the movie theater, and making enough noise to get the attention of a generation.
This is FamilyLife Today for Thursday, October 15th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine. There’s a pretty clear understanding in our culture today of our need for revival and repentance. This weekend that theme will be at the movies. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. I’m having the popcorn delivered a little later because we are going to talk about movies today.
Dennis: We are.
Bob: I love movies and popcorn together.
Dennis: I want to use this opportunity just to talk, not only about the movie, but I want to begin by just saying a “Thank you,” and a shout-out to the donors who make this radio show possible. I love it that we have Legacy Partners who give on a monthly basis—thank you.
I also want to say, “Thank you,” because we get to bring a broadcast like today’s broadcast—some great news to you. There are really some terrific young men and women, especially young men like Jon Erwin, who joins us here on the broadcast, who are using their talent for the purposes and glory of God. They’re difference-makers. You need to cheer them on. I’m going to give you an opportunity to make a difference, where you are, because you can help do something about the theme of what we’re talking about.
Bob: We’re all going to get a chance to cheer on Jon, and his brother Andy, and the team that has been at work because this weekend is the release of a brand-new film that’s going to be in theaters. It’s going to be in your neighborhood. We’re hoping a lot of our listeners will go out this weekend and see Woodlawn.
Dennis: That’s right. Woodlawn is a true story. Jon Erwin has made other movies—October Baby, some of you have seen that / Mom’s Night Out.
Jon, you said this is a pretty expensive movie. You’re going for it on this movie; aren’t you?
Jon: Yes, Woodlawn is one of the more expensive independent Christian films since The Passion of the Christ. Yes, the 25 million dollars that it took is a lot of money to both make and market the film. But you know, the way I look at it—it’s only about a third of what Fifty Shades of Grey spent to get the attention of a generation. So we really have to ask the question now: “How much do we care? How much do we want a generation [who is] leaving the church?” I believe that if the answer to that question is: “We want our generation,” then we have to put the gospel on the biggest stage possible, not the smallest stage possible.
Jon: We have to really reach and really dream. I believe that it’s sustainable, and it can work. It could lead to one of the greatest innovations in Christian film. So Woodlawn— true story from the 1970’s / football film—but it’s also a film about the power of revival, and spiritual awakening, and racial reconciliation through Christ. It’s a great opportunity.
Dennis: Yes, and that’s what I wanted to talk about it. I forget—when did we talk about this? You kind of ran this by us when it was more of a concept and you really hadn’t—I don’t think you had doubled down on it, at that point—but we talked about this movie some time back. The reason I had an interest in it was because, it not only occurred in a time when I was coming spiritually-alive and a part of the Jesus movement and an awakening, but I was actually at an event that you feature in the film called Explo ’72. We’ll talk about that in a minute, but go back to the beginning—just unpack what the movie is all about—and what’s the genesis of the movie?
Jon: Well, the amazing thing about Woodlawn is that a dear friend and mentor, Pastor Michael Catt, said to me, over a year ago last summer—he said, “You need to go make this film,” to Andy and me. He said, “I think America is going to be ready for this film.” Those words could not have been more prophetic because Woodlawn is a story about a school in Birmingham, Alabama—
—public school in 1973 / my hometown—that was going to close because of violence due to integration—nothing could fix it. As you know, Birmingham had been kind of ripped in half during [the] Civil Rights [Movement]. So many of those emotions were so present and nothing could fix it. It was a true story—it really happened.
One night, the entire football team, 44-48 players, committed their lives to Christ and committed to love each other in a school and a city that didn’t know what that meant. It literally saved their school and shook the city of Birmingham. Led to—out of that—this quiet kid named Tony becoming the first African-American superstar in Birmingham—recruited heavily by Bear Bryant, who is played by Academy-award winner, Jon Voight, in the film—does a magnificent job. Somehow, he became a beacon of hope in a way that the city could kind of heal. It led to the largest high school football game ever played, to this day, in Alabama.
It just, to me, shows the power of the gospel to deal with things we’re dealing with today. I don’t think hatred, prejudice, racism—these are not things that you can just stop doing—they are in our nature, as human beings. As a good friend, Benjamin Watson / plays for New Orleans, said: “This is not a skin problem. It’s a sin problem.”
I think that through the lens of a true story—I love that it is a true story because it’s undeniable / you can’t argue with the truth—the thing that fixed it at Woodlawn High School was Jesus Christ and the power of the gospel.
Dennis: One of the images in the movie that just arrested my attention—you have a scene, as the school day starts, in that Woodlawn High School, where the African-American students are behind a—it looks like a jail cell—bars that are locked up with a chain. They were not allowed into the school but were locked up behind that.
Jon: It was a dark time. Reading Tandy Gerelds’ diary—the real coach—which is really why we wanted to make the movie / it was powerful that he was a cynic—he didn’t want to believe what was happening on his team. Finally, it was so undeniable that he made a decision for Christ, which is powerful in the movie. The prayer that changed his life was literally, “God I don’t know if You’re real but I want whatever my players have.” Just reading his journals—it was just—they had tried everything and nothing worked. They had tried separating the students / they tried a lot of things. He described it as a war zone. It was the gospel that fixed the problem and began to spread to the entire school.
It’s cool because Birmingham is my hometown. I remember seeing Freedom Riders, and some other documentaries, and some things—just dumbstruck/horrified, thinking: “This happened in my city. How could this have happened in my city?” because, growing up in Birmingham, I didn’t feel those things.
I would say, having traveled all over the country frequently, there’s just something different about Birmingham. There’s healing that took place in Birmingham on this issue, and you can feel it in the city. I say that as someone that has grown up in the city. It’s traceable to this event and others like it in the Jesus movement. God just did a work of healing in the city of Birmingham around a kind of a slow-burn revival in the city of Birmingham. It’s fascinating to go back to a true story and to see what works.
I think we are all asking the question, as Americans: “What is the answer? What works?” Again, this is such a great opportunity for Christians to step up. I remember talking to Mike Huckabee, who was at Explo ’72 with you—probably didn’t see you there—and whose life was changed there. Just talking about the Jesus movement and that great movement of God, unlike anything I’ve experienced in my lifetime, and I just said, “How much did desperation have to play in what happened in this generation?” He said: “We were desperate. We were desperate. Nothing was working. Nothing would make us happy. The world was a scary place.”
I told him—I said, “I feel like that desperation’s returning.” I think that there is a generation begging for answers. I think there is a generation confused. I think that they want Christ—they just don’t know it yet. Sometimes you have to take the method of the day or the mechanism of the day—and I think there’s no greater tool than movies and mass entertainment to reach a generation.
Dennis: Having lived in those days, there was desperation back then. I think the same bent of bewilderment, and confusion, and fear that grips the church today was evident back then. They did not know what to do. But in the midst of that, there emerged a movement of young people, who—yes it was a lot of zeal, without knowledge—and did they go off into extremes and push the edges?—no doubt about it—but Jesus Christ got proclaimed.
Jon: He did.
Dennis: I mean, the gospel became the issue.
Bob: Your movie is really a flashback to what was the last great American revival. You show it in a microcosm how that reviving work of God in one city had a transforming effect on individuals, on a group of people, on a high school—ultimately, the rival team.
Jon: That’s right. All that really happened—absolutely.
Bob: You [Jon] weren’t alive when that happened—we [Dennis and Bob] remember. My son said to me—we were talking about Woodlawn—he said, “So, do you and Mom, as you look back, would you say you were converted during that revival?” I thought and I said, “I guess we were. We’re a product of that.”
Bob: I don’t know that we thought of it in the terms of like a great American awakening, back in the late ‘60s and the ‘70s; but from this vantage point, we can look back and say, “It was.” Your movie is saying, “The problems that we’re experiencing today / the only hope is that that happen again.”
Jon: Absolutely; absolutely right.
Dennis: I just want to ask you to just confirm that this is a true story—one aspect of it. There was a point where the team was going to be led by a person on the field with a prayer, right before the game?—is that right?
Jon: Before the game, yes.
Dennis: And the principal is up in the stadium—
Bob: —the press box.
Dennis: —yes; and he walks over and unplugs the sound system because he doesn’t want a prayer to occur on the playing field in the stadium with all these people there.
Jon: It’s a powerful moment in the movie.
Dennis: Is that true?
Jon: I would say—if you talk about Woodlawn as a story—of what’s the typical film translation we have based on a true story, inspired by a true story and inspired by actual events / you get further away from the truth—Woodlawn adheres strictly to the truth because what happened was so profound. The only thing that we do, in terms of to make it a movie, is liberties that involve compression because we have to tell the story in a small form—and then composite characters / sometimes, you’ve got to make two or three people and make them into one.
In that instance, there was a prayer at Legion Field—42,000 people / largest to ever see—and the bureaucracy did not want to see it happen. There was controversy around it / there was debate over it—and it happened. That happened over the course of a couple of weeks. We compressed that moment into one singular scene in the film, but the conflict was very real.
Dennis: What happens in the movie is—the principal pulls the plug on the sound system and so the guy praying can’t repeat the Lord’s Prayer. But I’ll tell you what—what happened—the people in the stands—they begin to recite the prayer from memory, the Lord’s Prayer.
Jon: You know what’s going to be cool when you see that in the theater is—we do visual effects so the mass crowds in the film—the most people we ever had was about 1,000 extras in the cold in Birmingham. Forty-two thousand people were at the game—so we use these incredible artists to create these computer-generated crowds. They are unbelievable / they are so photo real. The problem is—digital people don’t talk:
So we thought about: “How do we get this sound of 42,000 people saying the Lord’s Prayer?” We also thought about: “What are our core beliefs? So our core—one of our real core beliefs is that the local church is the real hope for the world”; but it would take a unified church to change the world. I pray that that happens / we’re so divided.
We thought about, “What if we asked churches, from all over the country, to record themselves, saying the Lord’s Prayer?” so that the sound you hear in that scene of 42,000 people saying the Lord’s Prayer together—and you’re going to hear it in surround sound—is the church, all around America / churches from all over the country, saying the Lord’s Prayer together, as one. I can’t tell you what a unified church looks like; but if you go see Woodlawn, you can hear what a unified church sounds like. It’s going to be a really cool thing.
The video has had—that we put out—has had a quarter million hits—all these uploads of people—they are getting into it; and they record themselves, saying the Lord’s Prayer. It’s a great moment in the film.
I think it does—it is kind of a microcosm of what needs to happen.
It’s time for unity / it’s time for boldness in the church—at least, my Bible says, “…on this rock I’ll build my church; and the gates of hell will not prevail against it
[Matthew 16:18].” Okay—a gate is not an offensive weapon—nobody’s going to attack you with a gate / nobody is going to throw a gate at you. A gate is a defensive mechanism, meaning—for a gate to not be able to prevail, we have to storm it. We were built for offense / we’re not built for defense. As Christians, we’re not built for cultural defense—it’s not what we’re designed for. We’re designed for offense.
It’s time, culturally, to get bold; and it’s time, culturally, to unify. I think that that’s what we’re built for. I don’t think this defensive strategy, culturally—where we kind of cower into submission—is working. I think it’s time to change. That’s why I love that Woodlawn is—again, we’re really trying to go compete on a generation’s turf, played by their rules, and beat them at their own game. We want to earn their attention by putting the gospel on a grand stage.
One of the coolest things we’ve discovered in two years of research is that the generation leaving the church—this grand problem we face / some people would say
70 percent of a spiritually-engaged teen leaves the church when they graduate high school—they haven’t come back yet / they might never come back. If you study frequent movie goers, that is this group of people buying the vast majority of movie tickets—40 million people buying 800 million movie tickets / 20 each—it’s almost a dead match / there they are. Do you know where they’re going when they leave the church? Do you want to know where this new—what people would call the “un-reached people group” in America—
Dennis: You’re saying the young people, who are leaving the church, are the ones who are buying the movie tickets.
Jon: That’s right. It’s almost a statistical dead match. We’ve done a huge study on what motivates their behavior. This little thing called FoMO motivates almost all their decisions—it’s the Fear of Missing Out. What’s happened is—the average teenager has about 250 friends on Facebook®, but the number of people that you can count on in the event of a life crisis has been steadily declining since the 1950s.
So, we’ve gotten more “connected”—I say that in [quotations]—but we’ve gotten much lonelier. In that loneliness has become this insatiable desire to belong to something and an incredible fear of missing out.
So the thesis is this: “If enough Christians could unify together, culturally, and make enough noise, like a Joshua strategy—at the battle of Jericho they all had to yell at the same time—then we could get a generation back, by sheer curiosity, not of the church, but at the movie theater. Maybe then we could drive them from the movie theater back to church.
This is become our vision. I feel just like, if you look at the history of Christianity, we hold the message as sacred, not the mechanism of delivery. One is absolutely unchanging—God is the same today, yesterday, and forever. The other changes—
—as it changes, you have to take whatever the microphone of the day is—like radio, like the printing press / like Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible—all the way back to the Roman Road. The Roman Road was for military expansion for commerce. We didn’t build them, but they were there—we use them. To me, mass entertainment—big movies, blockbusters, television shows—America’s largest or second-largest export—this is the new Roman Road.
This is the new way to get the attention of a generation. What it would take is enough Christians in America unifying, culturally at the movie theater, and making enough noise to get the attention of a generation.
Bob: Like sometime in the next 72 hours is what you have in mind?—right? [Laughter]
Jon: I would say we are pursuing this with everything we have. [Laughter] It is all on the line with Woodlawn—so I offer that as an example.
Dennis: Bob, when you say “next 72 hours,” explain what you mean.
Bob: I’m talking about opening weekend for Woodlawn because that’s what this is. The movie’s going to be in hundreds of theaters—it’s a wide roll-out movie, and it launches this weekend. We’ve told our listeners this before—but you can no longer think, “Well, I’ll see it next weekend.”
The decision about whether a movie even shows up next weekend is based on how many people show up this weekend. The most important thing people can do—first of all, to have a great movie experience / but also to make a statement in the culture— is to show up Friday night, Saturday, [or] Sunday—say, “We’re here to see Woodlawn,”—pay your money, and go see the movie.
Dennis: And bring a crowd.
Jon: That’s the thing—and that is what I’m asking for—sometimes, you just have to be bold and ask. People ask me, all the time, as Christians: “Why do I have to go see the movie in theaters. Why should I?” The answer is simple—is that, again—
Dennis: Let me just answer the first part of it, and you can fill the rest in. The first reason is you’re going to love the movie. It is entertaining, off the charts; and it is a powerful emotional movie that I promise you—you will weep during it, and you will pound the table during it—it has a great message.
Jon: Good to know. Thank you!
Bob: It feels a little like a one- / two-punch because I’m still talking to people, who are still processing and still reeling from War Room when it came out. It’s kind of like, “Okay, now go get a second injection,” if you will, because these two really do—there’s some connection between them.
Jon: Hey, you couldn’t have written this. I love Stephen and Alex [Kendrick]. It was my time on the movie, Courageous, when Alex asked me, “Jon what’s your purpose and the purpose of your work?” that really moved me from a career as an award-winning music video director with my brother to a calling which was to use my gifts for a higher purpose. So with War Room—it’s incredible to see that their movie is on prayer and ours is on revival and spiritual awakening because one always leads to the other.
Dennis: Yes, it does.
Jon: So, we’re really excited—they are perfectly / it’s so cool to see their positioning—
Bob: —synced up; yes.
Jon: We didn’t plan this—it’s just unbelievable. I just really believe that—everywhere I go, around to Christian leaders, this sentence keeps coming up, independently, which is that: “This is our time.”
We can’t do anything about the past—it’s over / it’s done—but we can change the future if we work together, and we work together right now. It would take us all unified.
One of the things that people don’t understand—there’s these little things called “output deals” in film—I’ll give you an example. Netflix® paid us several hundred thousand dollars to put October Baby in their library—not because they wanted to / because they had to—because we distribute through Samuel Goldwyn Films. I didn’t have to have an ideological debate about a pro-life movie in their library. Not only did they have to take it, they had to give it the same terms / they had to give it the same platform. Okay; foreign distribution works the same way.
If we could learn to compete—not with other Christian films—but if we can learn to compete with Jurassic World, and Star Wars, and Fifty Shades of Grey—which we can—there’s enough of us / we have enough resources. We have just not had a unified strategy, and we have not had the will; but if we could learn to compete, there is a way to Trojan horse and force the gospel to the world.
There are countries that are locking up Christians in the open streets, but they couldn’t stop the films because we’re tying them to Star Wars and Jurassic World. It’s a fundamental opportunity for the gospel; but it would take us all, and it would take us all rallying at the box office.
Dennis: Okay I’m going to stop you there. We’re out of time. But I want folks to plan on going to the movie this weekend—you will not be sorry / you will not say, “Dennis and Bob sure have low—their tastes are really bottom of the bucket.” No, our tastes are pretty high. If you’ve seen The Art of Marriage® / Stepping Up®—the video series—you know we believe in high-quality production. We’re not talking about promoting cheesy Christian films. This is not cheese—this is golden. I want to encourage you to go.
Bob: Yes, if you would like to see what the movie’s all about and get a picture of what it looks like, you can go to our website, FamilyLifeToday.com. Click the link in the upper left-hand corner of the screen that says, “GO DEEPER,” and watch the trailer for the Woodlawn movie.
Then make plans for tonight, tomorrow, Sunday to head out to your local theater. Take some friends and go see this movie about a great work that God did in the city of Birmingham, back in the 1970s.
I don’t know that we’ve even talked about this—but if any of our listeners have been through the Stepping Up video series for men, the guy who got the phosphorus grenade and threw it out of the plane at the opening of Stepping Up—that’s Jon Erwin’s grandfather. If you’ve not been through that series yet with a group of guys, go to FamilyLifeToday.com. Again, click the link that says, “GO DEEPER,” and order the DVD set and take some guys through it. I think you will find it to be very encouraging and challenging—I think it’s helpful. Again, the website: FamilyLifeToday.com.
You know, one of the reasons we have conversations like this about movies and about popular culture is because moms and dads, who are raising the next generation, / all of us have to engage with the culture we live in and still live distinctively Christian lives.
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We hope you can join us back tomorrow when we’re going to continue to talk about the movies, and popular culture, and about the movie, Woodlawn, opening in theaters across the country this weekend. Our guest, Jon Erwin, will be back with us. Hope you can be back as well.
Thanks to our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We’ll see you next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.
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