Alabama brothers heed call to make films of faith
By Scott Johnson
Brothers Jon and Andy Erwin are making their mark in Hollywood, but their roots are firmly planted in Alabama.
“We have an absolute loyalty to the state of Alabama. All of our movies are developed and finished right here,” Jon Erwin said. “I love Alabama, and I’m very grateful for all the support that the state has given us.”
Their new movie “Woodlawn” represents a step forward for the Birmingham natives. It will have a wider release than either of their previous movies, and it also tells a story that is close to their hearts. Erwin said it meant a lot to him to bring it to the big screen.
“It’s the story of my city and the story of hope in my city, and that’s an honor,” he said.
In the film, there is talk of closing Woodlawn, a troubled Birmingham high school where forced integration has led to racial tensions and violence in the early 1970s. The school’s football coach eventually allows a counselor named Hank Erwin to give a speech to the players. They are so captivated that all but a few commit themselves to live by faith. The team experiences a transformation so profound that it spreads to the entire school and the community at large.
The film stars Sean Astin as Hank Erwin and Nic Bishop as Woodlawn football coach Tandy Geralds. Former University of Alabama football player Caleb Castille portrays Tony Nathan, Woodlawn’s star running back, and Jon Voight appears as legendary Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, who recruited Nathan.
It is based on a true story that unfolded while the Erwin brothers’ father served as the school’s chaplain, Jon Erwin said. The character of Hank Erwin is actually a composite of the man who delivered that first speech and their father, who Jon Erwin said continued to guide the team spiritually.
He first heard the story when he was about 10 years old, and it remained in the back of Erwin’s mind as he started working in film. But he said the moment he knew that the story would absolutely become a feature was when he read the journal of former Woodlawn coach Tandy Geralds.
“His writings were so powerful on what this moment of love and reconciliation did to him and the team, I was sitting there weeping,” Erwin said.
Erwin was just 15 when he started his career behind the camera. He was working as an intern for a cameraman when his big break arrived. Someone who was supposed to help film the Alabama game for ESPN had become sick about three hours before kickoff. Erwin’s mentor called and told him to get to the stadium right away — and not to tell anyone his age. Erwin did just that and was hooked immediately. “I went over there and just fell in love. I can’t describe it,” he said.
He and his brother went on to film Alabama games both at home and on the road and eventually began shooting other sporting events as well. In 2002, they started a production company and began making music videos for artists such as Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith, all of which were shot in Birmingham. Erwin said it was a laid-back environment that the musical acts seemed to enjoy. “Artists began to love coming down to Birmingham and working with us,” he said.
As his career progressed, Erwin said he began to develop his vision for making movies. He wanted to make movies that celebrated things like self-sacrifice, honor, redemption and courage. Film is the most powerful medium in the world, Erwin said, and the perfect way to illustrate those ideals.
They made the leap into feature films with “October Baby,” which was released in 2011. It was a surprise hit despite only being screened in 390 theaters. They followed up with the comedy “Mom’s Night Out” in 2014, which also did well at the box office despite a limited screening. “Woodlawn” is scheduled to be released Oct. 16 to about twice as many screens as their previous movie and more than five times that of their debut.
It is an exciting time for the brothers, but Erwin said remaining in Alabama has helped keep them grounded. “We use Hollywood but we work outside of the system,” is how Erwin describes it.
That arrangement works for Hollywood as well as it strives to tap into an audience of moviegoers yearning for stories of spiritual renewal, he said.
“They want to understand how better to reach Middle America,” Erwin said. “We intentionally live in Alabama because that’s the audience we serve.”
Besides, they enjoy living here.
“I’ve been traveling 70 percent of the time, but there is nowhere I would rather live,” he said.