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Faith, Media & Culture

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

October Baby arrives in theaters today. The highly-anticipated film about a teen abortion survivor (Rachel Hendrix) who sets out on an emotional journey to find her birth mother is the passion project of the Jon and Andrew Erwin who produced it together. Andrew and Jon co-directed based on a script co-written by Jon (along with Theresa  Preston).

I previewed the film and I can tell you I highly recommend it.  The brothers have managed to take an extremely dark subject and shed light on it with a deft mix of human drama and, remarkably even humor. You can rest assured there are no scenes depicting an actual abortion. Instead, the script (which, though more faith-based, is similar in tone to 2008 Oscar nominee Juno) remains focused of one young woman’s search the truth about her past. And, in the end, what the movie is really about is forgiveness.

I recently had the opportunity to talk with the Jon and Andrew Erwin about their film.  They certainly bring a refreshingly positive (i.e. non-demonizing) attitude to the whole abortion discussion. You can read the interview below the trailer. (BTW, this was a phone interview. Though I believe I attributed each quote to the correct brother, I apologize in advance for any misidentification.)

JWK: How did this particular story fall into your hands?

Jon Erwin: You know, sometimes you go out and find a film and sometimes the film finds you.  I had heard someone named Gianna Jessen speak…She survived a saline abortion and is a national speaker, a beautiful person, just a beautiful spirit.  I really didn’t know that (abortion survival) was a reality. I studied it for myself and it was very moving for me to research the material. I just felt like we need to do something about it. But it’s a heavy subject.

JWK: One I wasn’t aware of. It sounds almost impossible — that someone survives an abortion. How does that happen?

Jon Erwin: Yeah, you’re in the same place that I was at.  Like with Gianna, she survived a saline abortion. She has cerebral palsy and a lot of physical problems as a result of that. Every day she bears the marks of someone else’s decision. You know, it’s really tragic. If you Google “abortion survivors” and study up on it…it’s just tragic.

JWK:  How many abortion survivors are there? How common is it?

Jon Erwin: Nobody knows, that’s the thing. Gianna would says “We’re rare.” There has never been a study of how many of them there are but there’s all kinds of stories. There’s a child born in the Bronx — just probably 12 or 13 years ago –without an arm because  of a botched abortion — but born alive and perfectly viable. It’s just a reality people don’t really know exists.  It’s a very interesting reality. I think it’s something that we need to look at and yet it’s very painful to look at.

We knew we could do a documentary but we thought what if we told this entertaining, fun, beautiful story of this 19-year-old girl that’s just gorgeous and naive and you fall in love with her but she discovers this reality about herself — that she was adopted and never told…that she survived an abortion.

JWK: So this is a fictionalized version of what happened to a real person.

Andrew Erwin: Correct. This is inspired by Gianna’s true story but it’s a fictionalized story.

JWK: So, you wrote it together?

Jon Erwin: I co-wrote it with Theresa Preston who is a great friend of mine and a great writer. Andy definitely helped us develop the story as we wrote it and then Andy and I directed it. And the idea is we tell an entertaining film that will make you laugh, make you cry, sweep you away emotionally…But it will (also) make you stop and think about this issue. Maybe not tell you what to think but just encourage you to think for yourself. I think out favorite quote is “Great films don’t give answers — or they don’t force feed answers — they just ask very penetrating questions.” So that’s what our story is about and that’s what we try to do.

JWK: Did you have trouble finding distribution for this movie?

Jon Erwin: Oh, yeah. That’s a sore spot, yeah.

JWK: Can you tell me a little about that — and what it’s like to try and get a movie about abortion made in Hollywood?

Andy Erwin: Like Jon said…this is a story that found us and were compelled to tell. But we didn’t realize that this was “the untouchable issue” in Hollywood. When we first started screening it for potential distributors, people loved the dramatic values. They said “This is a quality film. It’s entertaining.” But Jon had a conversation with a studio executive that laid out the picture of the land.

Jon Erwin: Yeah, basically, you would hope that, if you got rejected by a studio, you would just get rejected on your film’s merit. If it’s a bad film, it doesn’t get distributed but I remember a conversation I had with a certain executive. “He said ‘Jon…it’s a very great film.And he said ‘I’m sure if controversy hits this, it will be blockbuster” or whatever. What I was looking for from him and other studios was the funds to release the films in theaters. It’s about three times as expensive to release the film in theaters as it is to make the movie. I was looking, basically, for a studio that would help. And he said “Great film. It’ll do really well..but I can’t take this subject matter to my boss. And so it’s a ‘no’ — kind of a permanent ‘no’– from our studio.”

JWK: He sounds like he was actually sort of sympathetic to the issue. It’s just that, in Hollywood, you can’t really touch this subject.

Andy Erwin: I don’t think it’s sinister or an agenda. It’s just that they’re driven by fear. This subject scares them to death. It really terrifies them so they just don’t want to get near it. It was a challenge to us. If we’re called to tell this story what do we do now?

Jon Erwin: Yeah, we did find that this is a subject that you just can’t touch.  We were a bit devastated by that. Everybody said “No.”

JWK: So how many theaters will be showing the film?

Andy Erwin: We’re gonna open in between 350 and 400 theaters and then expand from there. We’ll see what happens. The film is  getting amazing responses.

Jon Erwin: What happened was we had been told “no” by everyone and so we decided to, basically, do a 14 theater limited release. The American Family Association came along to help in Mississippi and give us some cash and we sort of self funded and did a limited release just to test the movie in 14 theaters, basically, throughout the southeast.

Andy Erwin: It blew our minds. I mean it literally blew our minds. We opened with about an $8000 per screen average — which, by contrast, was higher than the Johnny Depp movie that (I believe was released ) that weekend.  It was higher than every other movie except the animated film Puss in Boots by Dreamworks and higher than, basically, 99% of every faith-based films that’s been released.  So that was an incredible number and then we actually had to pull the movie after the third weekend. We weren’t expecting to play more than two weeks but the theaters kept wanting to book it. So, we finally had to actually yank it.

JWK: Because you wanted to give it a big national release?

Jon Erwin: Yeah. It was just more success than we were prepared for and it was like “Woe!”  What we learned was that there are a lot of people that are passionate about life and the sanctity of life and life’s issues.  They will come out and support the movie.  And so that made everybody take notice.

What happened was that within a month we had some believers — some Christians that were pro-life — step up and actually fund the several million dollars that it takes to release the film. The money just flew together. It wasn’t studio money. This was money from people that are passionate about life.

And, because of the numbers we did, Samuel Goldwyn — thank God for them. They’re willing to be a little more controversial.  They booked Fireproof, Facing the Giants and Amazing Grace. They came to the table and said “You know what, we’re gonna take this on” and Provident Films said the same thing…And so now, finally, we’re getting ready to release the film nationally…It’s been amazing, this little dark horse, this little movie that won’t quit.  It’s been pretty cool.

JWK: How’s the marketing going?

Jon Erwin: What I love about Provident and Samuel Goldwyn is that they have such a deep history. You know, Courageous (was) the number-one movie in the country…and that’s a Provident movie, Provident marketing…Everybody at Provident, they’re brilliant and…and they hit it out of the park with Courageous, Fireproof and Facing the Giants…I feel humbled. I feel that we have the best marketing team in the country working on this movie and I’m grateful that they’re willing to step up on what Hollywood would call a “polarizing film.”

Andy Erwin: It’s been awesome to assemble the dream team. We kinds bucked the system by doing that…We really feel that there’s a hunger and an audience for this film and so we just stuck to our guns and said, you know, gonna test it out.  People respond to the film on an entertainment level as well as on an issues level. As a result, everyone kinda rallied to that cry and the dream team was kind of a symbol of that…And in addition to that, all of the ministry partners that have come to the table and just rallied around this cause. It’s been phenomenal to see people buying in and like Jon said, it’s just that little film that wouldn’t quit. 

JWK: Do you think that there’s more sympathy for the pro-life side of the discussion in Hollywood than there appears to be? Is it largely fear that keeps the issue from being presented in a positive way?

Jon Erwin: I think that you’re right…I’m 33 years old. My generation and generations younger than me are typically more pro-life than their parents. But the problem is we prefer to approach issues from a real positive light rather than a negative light. Apparently the fear’s there because it’s been done in maybe and angry or hurtful way…There’s a line in our film that says “To be human is to be beautifully flawed.” We thought that instead of villainizing people, we looked at the issue — which is a very hard issue — through the eyes of flawed and broken people…with humility.”

JWK: It’s a nice approach. Tell me a bit out the cast. How did you find Rachel Hendrix to play the lead?

Andy Erwin: Yeah, Rachel is a fresh talent. I think America’s gonna fall in love with her.  Really, this whole movie hinged on finding the right character, the right actor to play Hannah because you had to love her in order to go on this journey with her…Rachel went to art school with my wife. A friend of ours discovered her for a short film…and we just saw on the screen and said “Wow!  She’s got something special!” There’s just a spark there.  And so we cast her in a music video for Michael W. Smith  called How to Say Goodbye.  That video was on the top of the charts for five or six months. She did a great job in that…So, when we got to October Baby we said we feel like casting her but the role of Hannah was such a big role because there’s laughter, there’s this awkward quality to her, there’s a lot of heavier moments too, of crying and deep heartfelt emotion.

JWK: So, it required acting.

Andy Erwin: It was a broad range. If if was a song, for a singer to sing it, it would be a Whitney Houston song, because there’s such a big range.  And…we said “Rachel, we think you can do it. We’re not positive but we think you can do it. Swing for the fence. We won’t let you look stupid.” …Seeing her come alive on the screen and how special that was, she had to hit these notes as it were, was pretty special.

Jon Erwin: We direct together but Andy with works with the actors. I was reading an article about October Baby in World Magazine, There were really praising it. And they said when one actor gives a good performance you credit the actor but when the  entire cast gives a good performance you credit the director.  And I do credit Andy for that. I think he did an amazing job with the cast. There’s just something very special about this group of actors. New faces like Rachel and Jason (Burkey) and then seasoned talent like John Schneider and Jasmine Guy. John Schneider just gives a level of vulnerability and imperfection that I’ve never really seen him in his work before — and he’s done great work. It was just a new side.

JWK: He’s come quite a way from The Dukes of Hazzard. He’s also in another pro-life movie getting a lot of buzz called Doonby. I would guess he’s pro-life.

Andy Erwin: John’s a good friend and his faith is definitely very, very important to him. We’ve had discussions and he really does support the value of life. But the thing that attracted us to John more than anything was just that the character — the adoptive father of the story — needed to have this sort of inner conflict by be this kind of big, gruff man’s man but on the inside have this kind of a soft, tender heart. He kind of wears his heart on his sleeve. That’s who John is. It’s the way he brought the character to life…I really am proud of him for taking this role. It’s a risky role. He’s not the macho guy in the story. He’s a guy that’s really wrestling with a lot of questions and answers. So, I feel like he shows a vulnerability in this film that is unique to his body of work. I think people are going to see a side of John Schneider that they didn’t really appreciate him. It is risky for a lot the actors.

JWK: What was Jasmine Guy like to work with?

Andy Erwin: Jasmine was a treat. When we cast Jasmine for this role of an abortion nurse, it was really important that she not portray that role as a villain. The subject of abortion is the villain but the people aren’t.  We were looking for the right person to play that part and when we asked her what does she see in this character she said “I she a tired and weary soul that has a lot of regret.”  And I said “That’s her.” She read for the role. She said about three sentences, and Jon was in that session with us, and…it was just pretty magical.

Jon Erwin: I think Jasmine was amazing.  She’s mesmerizing in the movie and I’m proud of her for taking on this role. It was a controversial role. She plays a character that gives Hannah the lead answers (as to) exactly what happened. And it’s not a popular role in Hollywood. 

JWK: So, there was a bit of a risk for her in playing the part.

Jon Erwin: Yeah, there was a bit of a risk for her but she’s mesmerizing in the film, absolutely mesmerizing. And she delivers the monologue with such honesty, and such compassion, and such brokenness. It was tear-jerking…To see her level of commitment to the role, it was fabulous. I’m forever grateful she was willing to take it on.

Andy Erwin: When we did her big scene, I learned from her…This was one time as a director where you just sit back and it was a sight to watch.  It’s a special scene. She and Rachel are on the screen together. It was magic. It speaks in a heartbreaking way to the abortion issue and (offers) a fresh perspective that I don’t think has been seen before.

JWK: In the cases of John Schneider and Jasmine Guy, did you seek them out or did they come to you? Was there an audition process?

Andy Erwin: Our casting director Beverly Holloway out in Los Angeles was very instrumental in that. We had a core group of young actors that worked with us before — Like Rachel and Jason…So we had the kind of core group of young, fresh faces that we wanted to fill in with veteran talent that would bring a level of experience to the project…Beverly Holloway was very instrumental in helping us to find those. I give the credit for Jasmine Guy to her. That was her idea. We were going through a list of actors and she said “Would you consider Jasmine?” And I said I hadn’t really thought of her and she said “I think she’d be perfect for this part.”  And there’s nobody else that could have played that role other than Jasmine…She had a busy schedule and said the only way she’d be willing to play the part is if she loves the script and loved the character. And she read the script and said “I’ll rearrange my whole schedule to be in this.” So, yeah, it was really a neat process how the right people came to the table.

JWK:  What would you like people to take from this movie?

Jon Erwin: The reason Andy and I have worked on it — and what carried us through the process– was that I hope that it makes young people really stop and think about life. I don’t want to tell them what to think. I want them to think about the issue for themselves and come to a conclusion and determine what they believe and…how should that effect their behavior, the way they act, the causes they’re involved in, the way they talk to their friends. That’s what I was hoping for the film…

….Having said that, when we started screening the film, something that we didn’t expect was the healing that it would bring to post-abortive women. We had no idea. And I think that’s the huge surprise of October Baby.  There’s a woman that literally came up and hugged us after a screening…One of the actors in the film, Shari Rigby, who plays the birth mother, without ruining the story for you, called me after reading the script, and was crying, saying how did you know my story?  She’s post-abortive and…You can go to OctoberBaby.net and there’s a clip called Shari’s Story. It’s really, really emotional. It’s really very good.  So it kind of started there and then from there every time we showed the film women and men would come up to us and say “I had an abortion (or) “I paid for an abortion” (or) “I drove my girlfriend to an abortion clinic (and) have never been able to forgive myself.” There was an older guy, a mover and a shaker in the city where he was from, and you’d never expect it but he went and saw the movie and…40 years earlier he and his now-wife had had an abortion. They never talked about it. It had always been a sore spot and there was just unresolved guilt and shame there. He cried all the way through the movie. He said he never felt God in a movie theater like that and forgiveness like that. He went home and shared it with his wife.  40 years of just regret and not talking all of a sudden came out and they cried for two hours, just holding each other and there was healing.

There are two lies with abortion. Number one is that this isn’t not a child. We now know that that’s not true with technology and science. But the other thing is that abortion is good for women.  That’s a lie. There’s a lot of hurt and regret and, basically, deep depression and lack of self esteem results. If you don’t believe that there was a couple that came up to one of our screenings and said “Thank you so much for making this movie. We literally just had a lady in our church commit suicide”…and she left a not that said “When I was 15 I had an abortion.” And that’s all that was there. I mean she literally carried that for like 35 years and finally ended her own life over the shame. So, it’s time for healing.

I think on both sides this issue has been approached incorrectly in a lot of ways. I think it’s time to face the issue, the sanctity of life and abortion, but face it through a lens of forgiveness and grace, healing and moving on. It’s been amazing to see the film bring that to so many people. And I’m really proud of that. I did not expect it but its great to see people find the healing they need.

Andy Erwin:  I think ultimately our job as filmmakers is to make entertainment. In order to engage the audience, it’s got to be an entertaining story first. I think people will appreciate in October Baby that you’ll laugh as hard as you cry. Because it’s important in a story like this to catch your breath  and to have moments where you can kind of reflect. So , there’s plenty of that…So, if the entertainment value is there, I feel like we’ve earned the right to be heard by entertaining the audience, first making it worth their $10 ticket then I think it will challenge them to think.  Our goal is really just to engage people’s hearts first and then maybe as they leave the theater they’ll have a lot to think about….Maybe it’ll cause the two different sides to come to the table and talk in a way that doesn’t just polarize people into what they already believe.

An atheist lady approached me at one of the screenings…and she said “I’m atheist and I don’t agree with a lot of the premise of the movie and I’m very pro choice” but she said “I can’t deny the character in your story is a victim and it really makes me think.  I have to rethink what I believe on this issue.” I think that’s the point of it. To trust the audience.  People can think for themselves.

JWK: Would you say there’s a little bit of Juno in it?

Andy Erwin: Yeah. Juno was very popular with the pro-life crowd bacause, you know, (it) had a lot of charm to it. It’s an equation that works real well. I think the more serious your subject, the more moments you need to have to be able to catch your breath and have that love story be a part of it…I think the most honest crowd your film can screen for is teenagers…because they’re honest.  They give you honest feedback…We knew we could probably get the older high school crowd through college age and into young adult but 12, 13 year-old girls listed this as their favorite movie. When we did the limited screening some of the girls said said they had gone to see it four or five times.

JWK: Of course, this isn’t a graphic movie. You don’t see an abortion.

Jon Erwin: Not at all.

Andy Erwin: We were shocked that we got a PG-13 rating.

JWK: We’re you expecting lower or higher?

Andy Erwin: We were expecting lower.

Jon Erwin: Obviously, I don’t want Christians in particular to think that there’s anything offensive in this movie because there’s not.

JWK: So, was it just the subject matter that got the rating?

Jon Erwin: The subject matter alone. It’s PG-13 for thematic elements. Basically, when I got the phone call from the MPAA…(they said) it’s nothing because of the content. It’s just the subject matter of abortion itself.

JWK: You also made the documentary film The Cross and the Towers about 9/11. That film, obviously, dealt with faith. How big a role does faith play in the movies you choose to make?

Jon Erwin: I think it’s absolutely key and I think it’s part of who we are.  I think it’s time that believers stand up and say “This is who we are” and not be afraid of that. Having said that, that doesn’t mean that you have to make a cliche movie or a movie that isn’t accessible to the mainstream. But, I think everybody — no matter what you believe — I think we all respect people who stand up for their beliefs.  I think its time to not be afraid of what we believe. I was raised a believer. Our faith is incredibly important to us and it finds it way into our work. Do I consider myself a “Christian” filmmaker? Our passion is to make films that communicate truth– we believe God’s truth — and what we believe about life to our culture.  Having said that, whether the films are considered Christian or not, I’ll leave that to the audience, the marketing people and stuff like that. I want to make a movie I believe in — about something we believe in deeply, in this case, the sanctity of life. I’ll leave the rest to the audience.

Andy Erwin: The point of us making a film is not to preach. The point of us making a film is to tell a story. We’re storytellers.  But I think, within that, the audience can smell a fake a mile away. You have to be genuine to who you are.  And who are are people of faith. My Christianity, my relationship with Jesus Christ, are very important to me and, because of that, I think it should reflect in what I do.

So, we want it to feel organic — not forced.  And we feel like our first obligation to the audience is to tell an entertaining story.  But, within that, the stories that attract me and that I appreciate…have a deep (value of) redemption in them, of inspiration and of faith…Christ, in the Bible, he was a storyteller himself. Jesus told stories to get his points across. So, I think that’s what we do.  I don’t think the audience will feel beat over the head by our movies.

JWK: What movies have inspired the two of you?

Andy Erwin: That’s always a penetrating question for a filmmaker. My all-time favorite is Casablanca. As far as recent movies, I love movies about World War II — Saving Private Ryan is certainly tops on that list — to see what that generation did for usI loved The King’s Speech.  The movie this year that I loved the best was The Help because I saw such a beautiful look at a painful reality.  That was another one that had moments to catch your breath.  I loved how that story was told.  I think it’s awesome to see what’s going on on the faith film level too, to see what’s happening with the Kendricks and Sherwood (Pictures) and Courageous.

Jon Erwin: For me, I mean I’m a movie junkie. I love movies. I get giddy over movies. I love going to see them I love talking about them.  I love going with my wife and my friends. To me there are movies that stick with me and really change my outlook on life. I think a movie has that power. To me a movie like Braveheart has that power. It just changed my outlook on life and encouraged me to live from my heart, live for my passion and live unencumbered. A movie like The King’s Speech or Slumdog Millionaire or these type movies are just so deeply moving and inspiring to me. Or a movie like Crash. I’m not saying I approve the content of these movies but I’m just saying they get me emotionally and move me. I think a movie has that power.  I think it’s time that people of faith use it.  It’s a tool. I think it’s the finest tool of communicating to our culture.

JWK: What’s in the future for you guys?

Andy Erwin: That will depend on how the audience treats (October Baby).  We’ve kinda gone all in on this one. This all that counts for us right now. God willing, if October Baby’s successful — if we have a good open, if it does well theatrically — then we want to be here for the audience more often. We want them to know that if the Erwin brothers are involved they can trust it and it’s gonna be a great film — hopefully, with a great message — and something the audience will enjoy and resonate with. And you’ll have a great time in the movie theater.

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For more on the movie, checkout the website here.

No blogs next week. I’m going to be in Texas on the set of the upcoming faith-based film Unlimited. I tell you all about that when I get back.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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