Andy Erwin premiered his latest faith-kissed film, “American Underdog,” at what he calls “sacred ground” for a filmmaker – Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles.
Walking in, he spotted an homage to the Biblical classic “The 10 Commandments.” The lobby display recalled an era when Hollywood embraced Christian values with open arms.
That’s no longer the case.
“People of [Christian] values used to be represented in Hollywood quite well,” Erwin says. “We lost our seat at the table.”
The industry eschews overtly Christian tales today, focusing on pop culture brands like Marvel, DC and all things “Star Wars.” When studios deliver faith-based movies now they often reduce, or remove, the spirituality components, witness 2014’s “Noah” or the 2005 biopic “Walk the Line.”
Christian films now flow primarily from the independent realm, with notable titles from the Kendrick brothers (“War Room,” “Courageous”) and Erwin, alongside his filmmaking sibling Jon Erwin (“I Can Only Imagine,” “Woodlawn”).
The duo’s “American Underdog,” depicting Kurt Warner’s rise from grocery store clerk to Super Bowl MVP, brings God back to the big screen. Only the Erwins did so with a delicate touch.
Warner’s remarkable story is prime material for the big screen, and the Hall of Famer never hid how faith made that journey possible. Zachary Levi of “Shazam” fame plays the gridiron great, but his saga’s spiritual component isn’t as overt as, say, a “God’s Not Dead” sequel.
The Erwins knew they had to tell Warner’s story in the most authentic way possible. The quarterback’s story should focus on his courtship of future wife Brenda (Anna Paquin) and how their families came together as a result as much as throwing TD passes and prayer.
“We leaned into those things. It just so happened to be about a Christian … we didn’t shy away from that faith,” Erwin says, adding the film’s themes pack a universal appeal. “It’s relatable regardless of what your beliefs are, redemption and hope, second chances.”
That said, the Kurt Warner story is about family most of all.
“We didn’t want to do a color by numbers sports biopic … what is he really fighting for?” he adds.
Erwin admits some Christian films have lacked the sizzle of mainstream Hollywood fare.
“As Christians we’ve had a lot of catching up to do,” he says, adding Christians’ ability to tell stories have “atrophied” over time.
That’s changing, witness the serialized tale of Jesus told via “The Chosen,” which earned solid reviews from secular critics. Plus, Sony has an entire sub-studio dedicated to movies of faith, Affirm Films, and Lionsgate brought “American Underdog” to the masses.
And while film critics aren’t typically kind to spiritual stories, “American Underdog” is earning the best reviews of the Erwin brothers’ career.
Andy Erwin is “pleasantly surprised” by those results.
“Maybe they’re something about true stories that really register … optimism is making a comeback,” he says.
The Erwins worked extensively with Warner in shaping “American Underdog,” a process that showed the duo the commitment the NFL great brings to everything he touches. Warner would send the brothers texts at 3 a.m. with feedback and tips.
“That Kurt drive you see in the movie exists in real life, whether it’s winning the Super Bowl or ‘Dancing with the Stars,’” Erwin says. “Here’s there to win.”
Warner impressed upon the Erwins how vital Brenda was to his comeback saga.
“She’s tough as nails, a former Marine who is an aggressive Mama bear,” Erwin notes. She’s also “amazingly loyal and emotional,” facets Paquin delivers in her raw performance.
“I want the audience to see a part of Brenda that I only get the privilege to see,” Warner told the brothers.
The Erwins took a curious path to Hollywood. The pair worked at ESPN while still teenagers, contributing to ESPN College Football Primetime and, later, with FOX NFL and the NBA.
They formed their own production company in 2002, focusing on commercials, documentaries and music videos for superstars like Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith.
They later turned to movies, directing the 2011 film “October Baby” as their big screen debut. Follow-up features failed to light up the box office until 2018’s “I Can Only Imagine.” That fact-based story, co-starring Dennis Quaid, scored $83 million from a reported $7 million budget.
Erwin has spent most of his career working alongside brother Jon, although the two are pursuing projects independently as well. He credits their divergent approaches to his artistic growth
“We’re dysfunctional at best half the time,” Andy Erwin says. “Jon sees the world and film from a much different perspective than I do…. he makes my ideas better.”
That creative tension, he says, brings out the best in both of them. He calls it “friction with respect, and the best ideas win.”
It’s not hard to spot the life lessons lurking in “American Underdog,” from the power of family to how adversity often makes us stronger.
“It’s a love letter to dreamers and the idea of hope,” he says. “That breakout moment is right on the opposite side of your hardest struggle … God has a plan.”’
And the film’s timing, released on Christmas day during a pandemic with no end in sight, couldn’t be more appropriate.
“There’s a lot of struggle right now, especially in Middle America. It feels like the decks are stacked against us. Stay true to who you are, fight for what you believe in,” he says.
The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.