One Hope. One Truth. One Way.
About the Guest
A young Jon Erwin first heard the story about Woodlawn High School from his father. Now, decades later, Jon is a film director and shares this true story with a whole new generation. "Woodlawn," a faith-based film releasing today, is the remarkable story about a gifted high school football player, Tony Nathan, who embraces his talent and faith as he battles racial tensions at desegregated Woodlawn High.
A young Jon Erwin first heard the story about Woodlawn High School from his father. Now a film director, decades later, Jon shares this true story with a whole new generation.
One Hope. One Truth. One Way.
Bob: Which is having a bigger impact in shaping the thinking and the hearts of the next generation today?—is it the church or the movie theater? Here is movie producer and director, Jon Erwin.
Jon: Ben Affleck said it best: “Films are our children’s education.” So, again, I feel like Nehemiah, going before kings, and saying: “I am broken-hearted for my generation. The walls of my generation are torn down. They are like sheep with no shepherd. Please help me take the most relevant, most powerful mechanism of delivery and share the gospel with them.”
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Friday, October 16th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. There is a movie opening today in theaters across the country that could point the next generation in the right direction. It’s the movie, Woodlawn. We’ll talk about it today. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us on the Friday edition. There’s a particular movie theater in town that I’ve started going to—kind of as my exclusive theater.
Dennis: The one with the recliners.
Bob: The recliners! I will not go see a movie any—
Dennis: Lazy Boy® recliners!
Jon: Where is it? Let’s go see a movie tonight! [Laughter]
Dennis: Jon Erwin joins us—he’s a movie producer. Have you heard about this?
Jon: I don’t have one in my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama.
Dennis: They come with a bucket of Coke®.
Bob: Oh, buddy! [Laughter]
Dennis: Bob has an industrial-sized container that he drinks Diet Coke out of; and he has to take it to a carwash—
Bob: Yes, I do.
Dennis: —to clean it out with those wands. [Laughter]
Bob: But I am ready for tonight! I’ve got my recliner picked out / I’ve got the ticket ready. I’m going to be leaning back, watching Woodlawn at the theater tonight.
Dennis: Well, Jon Erwin is back with us again here. He is the producer, along with his brother, of Woodlawn.
How long has this idea been baking? How long does it go back?
Jon: Oh, Woodlawn—this is an amazing story. Sean Astin’s character in the movie—the chaplain in the film—is in part based on my own father, who was the chaplain of Woodlawn High School. He was saved in the Jesus movement / had his honeymoon at Explo ’72. You [Dennis] were also there in Dallas, as well as the majority of the leadership of the church—it’s unbelievable!
I remember hearing Woodlawn first—I was probably ten years old. My dad shared the story to the FCA [Fellowship of Christian Athletes] at the University of Alabama. I’ve just been born and raised, as I should be, both an evangelical Christian/Southern Baptist. I love Jesus and “Roll Tide”-Alabama fan. [Laughter]
When Jon Voight, who plays Bear Bryant in the film—he just does an incredible job—put the hat on at Legion Field, where all of this happened, and just naturally leaned against the goalpost, the whole set just stopped. We all just stared at him.
In fact, Jeremiah Castille—who’s the father of Caleb Castille, who plays the role—he played for Alabama / for Bear Bryant—he started almost crying because Jon looks so much like him.
Bob: It is—I mean, I was stunned by how Bear Bryant—
Jon: Yes, it’s unbelievable.
Bob: —you lose Jon Voight.
Jon: Oh, he does so good! And he’s so good in the film. He’s an Academy award-winning actor and just a joy to work with—had such a respect for the character and a love for the character.
So, hearing this story, when I was probably ten—it was like a bedtime story for my dad. So I guess it was gestating. Then, my story is that I started working for ESPN when I was 15 because a cameraman got sick at a University of Alabama football game. Andy and I worked for ESPN for ten years as cameramen, doing mostly college football.
Dennis: Andy’s your brother.
Jon: Yes, and we direct together. So Woodlawn has been one of those stories that we’ve always just thought about. Then, last summer, Pastor Michael Catt said: “You need to go make this movie now. I think America’s going to be ready for it.” That was prophetic in many ways because Woodlawn is a story, again, of a high school that was going to close because of violence due to integration—true story—Birmingham, Alabama.
It was the power of the gospel / it was Christ who saved the school. It was the love of Christ that overcame hatred and racism.
What a relevant theme for today, and what an opportunity for the gospel. So you have this big, entertaining movie—and we hope you love it and enjoy it, just as a movie—but it’s also a bit of a Trojan horse for the gospel. I hope that people can use it as a tool. I remember when we showed the film to high school football students for the first time with FCA, a wonderful partner. We showed it to 200 students just to see, you know, how they would like it. Fifty of them prayed to receive Christ!—a fourth of the kids that were there. So this is a huge opportunity for the gospel!
We’ve tried to put the gospel on as big a stage as possible. We spent more on this movie than we ever have before—almost more than any other independent Christian film, except The Passion of the Christ. We’re passionate about that because the gospel deserves our very best. We’ve got to begin to compete with Jurassic World, and Star Wars,and all of these big films. This is our swing at bat—we would love for you to join us at the theater.
Bob: You said that Jon Voight’s in the movie / Sean Astin is in the movie.
Jon: “Rudy” is in the movie.
Bob: Yes, so he’s coming back to a football film.
Jon: First time back to football since Rudy. Of course, we did Mom’s Night Out together. He’s such a dear friend, and it’s been a great collaboration with him. He’s become a dear friend.
Bob: Any other name actors in the film?
Jon: I’ll tell you what’s cool—Nic Bishop plays Tandy Gerelds. The real Tandy Gerelds’ son was on set, weeping, saying, “You’ve captured my father.”
Jon: It was so cool, as he portrayed the line. The reason we wanted to do the film is that the coach was a cynic—he didn’t want to believe what was happening to his team. He was a tough guy who cared so much more about winning than about his players. What happened on the team became so undeniable that he finally got down on his knees. The prayer that changed his life—a powerful scene in the movie—was when he said, “God, I don’t know if You’re real; but I want whatever my players have.”
Jon: And that was so powerful. He does such a good job. The cool thing was that the lead in the film, Caleb Castille—we had cast an actor from London.
A week before the film, his passport was revoked—never happened to him before.
Jon: So we got down on our knees and starting praying because there is a multi-million dollar freight train that we can’t stop. Little did we know—a guy named Caleb Castille / he played on two Saban championship teams—had gotten the script / had gotten down on his knees and prayed over it, and claimed it because he wanted to be a voice to his generation. We had not ever seen his audition. He’s from Birmingham—Birmingham native. His dad, Jeremiah Castille, played for Bear Bryant in the game we dramatized in the film—it’s unbelievable!
He had been crushed and broken-hearted when he found out he didn’t get the role, but he decided to try out for the football team. Mark Ellis, who’s the Stunt Coordinator—he has done every Hollywood film you could imagine in terms of football. We had 600 people try out—he [Caleb] became Tony Nathan’s stunt double. I started hearing about him—Andy and I both—from multiple people, saying, “This kid is really special.”
We dug up his audition—never seen it / it got lost in the shuffle—and it blew us away. Two days before the film, we came in and just had a meeting with him, prayed about it, and said, “You’re our Tony Nathan.” He literally drove around the city of Birmingham, crying that whole night. He brings it in the film—he delivers an incredible performance.
Dennis: Yes, he does.
Jon: As you know, we are just massively under-represented in entertainment today. I’m so grateful to give a kid like Caleb a platform and to put some really powerful actors around him. Boy, does he bring it! He delivers a great performance.
Dennis: He does.
Jon: He’s awesome in the film!—first feature film.
Dennis: This all occurred in another era, but it was an era when I was alive.
Dennis: And a scene that you show—I’m not sure how many times in the movie—but it is about Explo ’72.
Dennis: Explain kind of what Explo was and how that fits into what took place in the movie.
Bob: No, no, no! You explain what Explo was—Jon wasn’t even born when Explo happened.
Jon: Yes, but I’ve become a bit of an archaeologist—that’s a terrible thing to say—you’re sitting right here. [Laughter]
Dennis: It really is!
Jon: I’m sorry! I’m a detective—
Bob: One of your dinosaurs is right here.
Jon: —that’s a better word.
Dennis: A fossil?! [Laughter]
Jon: I’m sorry. I’ll never be invited back!
Dennis: You won’t—I guarantee you, you won’t! [Laughter]
Jon: But I’ll tell you this—God has—I pray daily that God does something in my generation like He did in your generation. The stories of the Jesus movement—nothing in my experience as a Christian compares with what happened in the Jesus movement—and most baptisms ever in the Southern Baptist denomination in 1972.
Jon: Four hundred thousand baptisms!
Jon: The stories are unbelievable. I remember talking to Mike Huckabee, and almost saying, “Why has this story not been told?” My whole generation is searching for answers, and there’s a generation leaving the church—we need God!
Dennis: We do.
Jon: We need something like the Jesus movement—we need it now!
I would say that Jonathan Edwards, in his Old English way, said, “Father, revival—stories of revival for one place spark revival in another.” That’s what we’re trying to do with Woodlawn. I love the Jesus movement and would love to hear more about it.
Bob: You [Dennis] had been on staff with Campus Crusade for two years when it was announced that Campus Crusade was going to be hosting this event in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas in the summer of 1972; right?
Dennis: That’s right. To speak of the Jesus movement—when I came on staff with Campus Crusade for Christ® and raised my own support—as I still do today, some 45 years later—there were about 600 of us that came on [staff], off the college campus, in one year.
Dennis: The next year, there were like 700 of us.
Dennis: The next year, it was like 800. So, in the early ‘70s, there were these young people, who said: “We’re going to come help change the world. We’re going to go help change the world.”
A part of what happened was what Bob said.
Bill Bright had a vision for getting 100,000 people in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Texas—40,000 high school kids and 50-60,000 college students—and a few adults, sprinkled in. That event took place, along with a rally that occurred after it, that I think a quarter of a million people—
Dennis: —I forget the exact number.
Bob: Billy Graham spoke. Jonny Cash sang; right? I mean, it was a series of four or five nights in a row; right?
Dennis: Yes, right. So what you don’t know, Jon, is Barbara had moved to Dallas, where I was living, and helping with Explo ’72.
Dennis: I was in charge of all the transportation for 40,000 high school kids all over North Texas.
Dennis: Yes, and that’s another story in and of itself.
Bob: Angels delivered busses! [Laughter]
Dennis: We’re going to get to heaven and find that there were angels driving Dallas transit busses all over, from Denton, to South Dallas, to Fort Worth. I don’t have any idea how they all got back where they were supposed to go; but in the midst of this, Barbara and I went out 52 days out of 55.
Jon: How about that?
Dennis: We developed our relationship—friendship—I would say “an intense friendship.”
Bob: Yes! [Laughter]
Dennis: And, a few weeks after Explo was over, we were engaged. Six weeks later, we were married.
Dennis: We started our marriage and our lives, really, out of the Jesus movement and out of Explo ’72. I have to tell you—[Emotion in voice] when I watched the scene of Dr. Graham speaking, it took us back because I was walking on the field of the Cotton Bowl.
Dennis: It was incredibly powerful because there really hadn’t been a gathering like that, I think, in the history of the church in North America, where that many people came together to, not only hear about Christ and celebrate Him, but to take the gospel out to the four corners of the nation and beyond to the world.
Jon: You could literally do a documentary on Explo in terms of the generation of leadership in the church today that can be traced back to that event—again, most baptisms ever in the Southern Baptist—400,000 / 1972. My parents had their honeymoon at Explo ’72—how about that?—and were saved in the Jesus movement. Ronnie Floyd, President of the Southern Baptist Convention, was there. Mike Huckabee was there—his story / Sean Astin’s “One Way” story in the film—comes from Mike Huckabee’s testimony when I interviewed him.
I just felt like: “It is time! It’s time for another Jesus movement. It’s time for another Great Awakening.” I feel like we are ready—it’s time to unify around that concept. I’m privileged to be a small voice in bringing a story that has not been told loudly enough, or often enough, or really at all—and bringing it to the forefront to say, “Look what God did!”
I mean, all the stories that I heard from the Jesus movement—I remember Michael Catt telling me one of a prayer meeting with teenagers that went all night at his school in their gym—
—a young girl coming in—just out of curiosity because of the cars. She couldn’t get five feet into the room before she dropped to her knees and said, “Will someone tell me how to be saved?” Things like this were happening. And I remember—when I started doing the research for Woodlawn, I found on eBay®—there is a Time magazine/1971 and also a Life magazine/1972—it’s “The Great Jesus Rally in Dallas.” Time magazine was labeled, “The Jesus Revolution.” It was like a ten-page spread on something happening, so undeniable, in a generation that Jesus was on the cover of Time magazine.
So what we’re saying with Woodlawn—the reason that we’re doing it / the reason we want you to be involved—is we’re not done until something happens, so undeniable again, in our generation, that Jesus makes the cover of Time magazine for all the right reasons. I just feel like it’s time. Nothing like that—when you read that article, you just realize how much our “Happy Meal”-Christianity has atrophied and what we’ve lost.
I just think it almost makes me angry that I haven’t experienced something like that in my time and in my generation. One of the major reasons we’re doing Woodlawn is that film is a way that you can taste something that maybe you haven’t experienced before in your own experience and your own life. It’s a way for a generation to taste just a little bit of what revival / spiritual awakening—whatever you want to call it—feels like. My prayer is that by going to a football movie / an epic football movie, they get a taste of revival and awakening—and they go through, maybe, a little bit of the journey that I’ve gone through—that I’ve begun to crave it for myself.
I feel it is coming. We have two fundamental beliefs in making the film—our team. We believe that the local church is the hope of the world / we believe that God can and will revive a generation. We feel like it is coming. I think God is going to do something in a generation of young people and in a generation of people today that we have not seen in 50 years.
Dennis: It is a great rally cry. Going back to Explo ’72, the guy who was in charge of it—his name is Paul Eshleman—was 28 years old.
I mean, if we’re looking at revival today, those of us who are a bit older in the church today are going to have to make room for a younger generation, and empower them, and cheer them on, as well as being a part of it. There were parents there [at Explo] / there were grandparents there; but I was 24. I didn’t know what I was doing /I know why I was there; but it gave an opportunity for us, as a group of young people, to unite around the cause of Jesus Christ and make Him the issue.
I’ll tell you—all of the things we’re facing today / that we see on the evening news—all the racism, and the hatred, and the hopelessness of our nation—desperately needing a moral and spiritual center. This movie captures what the answer is—the hole in the heart of human beings is the need to know Jesus Christ.
This movie champions that and will give people, I think, boldness as they watch it—to think of some fresh ways they can proclaim Christ to their generation.
Bob: You want me to see if the recliner next to me is open at the theater for this evening?
Dennis: Would you?! [Laughter] Will you buy the Coke? We need a large container of popcorn! [Laughter]
Explain, Bob—you did a good job, on an earlier broadcast, of explaining to our listeners why the opening week is so important, not just to go see an entertaining movie and to take others with you, but why it’s so important for the future of this movie.
Bob: Well, every movie company in America is watching what happens at the box office this weekend for a number of reasons. They’re watching to see what movies are going to show again next weekend. The ones that sell a lot of tickets this weekend will still be in theaters next weekend. If they sell a lot the next weekend, it stays like that. The ones—if they have a soft opening: “Well, we start to push those aside and make room for what we hope might be the better next film coming along.”
But not only is it about this movie and this weekend, but when a movie like Woodlawn surprises Hollywood executives—
Dennis: It sends a clear message.
Bob: —they all push back and go, “Okay, what do we need to learn from this little movie that just exploded out here?”
Dennis: “Maybe people have a hunger for something other than the food we’re feeding them.”
Bob: That’s right. They start to commission scripts and green light projects that have emphases like this because they really have less of an ideological core about the themes of their movies—their core is really about the profit.
Jon: —the money.
Bob: Yes, that’s really what’s driving this. And if Christians are saying, and others are saying, “I like movies that have this kind of a message to them,” Hollywood will say, “We’ll make those for you.”
Jon: Well, it’s like I shared with you guys—the thing driving a generation’s decisions—talk about sheep with no shepherd—it’s cultural anarchy. They’re driven by this thing—the Fear of Missing Out—called FoMO. It’s unfortunate because they’ll consume anything that’s popular.
Jon: So we’ve got to play on that playing field. So, the thesis is: “If enough Christians unify together and make enough noise together, we can get a generation back,”—
—using this curiosity / this insatiable need they have to belong. That’s the idea—it’s a Jericho strategy of everyone having to yell at the same time—in my business, it’s the opening weekend of the movie.
Not only that—foreign distribution is deemed by the U.S. box office—that’s how far it goes—to the world. Our top 30 films—we call them “blockbusters” of the year in America—they are doing over 40 percent of all the box office, not in America, but in the entire world. This is the most fundamental opportunity for the gospel ever—but we have to start thinking small—and we have to start thinking, “How do we put the gospel on a grand stage?” Woodlawn is that experiment.
Bob: So here’s what I’ll say—because there are some listeners, who are going: “Man, I wish it was coming out next weekend because this weekend we’re busy. We’re going here—can’t do that,” “…We’re going to see Alabama play; so we can’t go to the movie.” [Laughter]
Jon: Roll Tide!
Bob: Here’s what I would say—if you can’t get to the movie, go online to Fandango and buy two tickets for the 11:00 am showing on Saturday morning at your local Cineplex. You don’t have to go—just go buy two tickets.
Jon: I’ll take it!
Bob: Right?—because you’re voting that way, whether you go see the movie now or not.
Jon: You know, the other way—this is interesting—no one has ever done this before—but we’re working—you can go to WoodlawnMovie.com—we’re working with our good friends and partners at Fellowship of Christian Athletes and also our good friends and partners at the National Christian Foundation. FCA is lining up thousands of teams that can go see this movie. So FCA is ready. You can actually go onto our website, if you want, and actually sponsor student athletes to go see the movie for free.
Bob: There you go!
Jon: And FCA is ready—not only to get those kids into the theater—but to get them to hear the gospel afterwards and to disciple them. I mean, film is a one-way communication; but this is a way that we’re facilitating discipleship. So, if you want to do sponsor a team or athletes, you can do it at WoodlawnMovie.com.
Dennis: So the movie has a piece that was done by Campus Crusade for Christ, back then. So is Cru®—that’s the present name—
Jon: Yes, yes.
Dennis: —has Cru come alongside this with college students?
Jon: Cru is so involved—and everyone at Cru. I was texting with Paul Eshleman—who is just a hero of mine, obviously—the Jesus film and Explo ’72 —they’ve become such great partners and such great friends—in working with their campus ministries / their city strategies. It’s just amazing to see people—again, I feel like Nehemiah, going before kings, and saying: “I am broken-hearted for my generation. The walls of my generation are torn down. They are like sheep with no shepherd. Please help me take the most relevant, most powerful mechanism of delivery and share the gospel with them.” Ben Affleck said it best: “Films are our children’s education.”
So Cru has come to the table in such a huge way—we’re so grateful! My dad—a part of his story of becoming a Christian was Campus Crusade for Christ / he and my mom’s honeymoon was at Explo ’72 —so I wouldn’t be here without the ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ.
Dennis: I think your dad may need some help if he came to Explo ’72 on his honeymoon. [Laughter]
Jon: He was like you!! He was like you, in his early 20s, and he didn’t know any better! —you know?
Bob: Fired up for Jesus!
Jon: But I would say this—I have the deepest respect for Campus Crusade. I would not be here and Woodlawn would not have been made if it were not for the ministry.
Dennis: Well, I appreciate that. Jon, I just want to thank you for using your gifts for God’s purposes and His glory. Keep on keeping on. Any way we can help—we want to do that and fan the flames. I’d encourage our listeners—those of you who are prayer warriors—pray for this movie—that, at the end, as the credits roll, they’ll get it. You’ll have to wait and go to the movie to understand what I just said.
Bob: Honestly, I’m sitting here, rethinking the recliner strategy for the movie theater because I’m thinking, “It’s going to be hard to get up from the recliner and cheer at the end, like I’m going to want to do.” [Laughter]
Jon: I would still do the recliner! [Laughter] If I had a recliner in my town—
Bob: You’d be there next to me?!
Jon: —I would be there next to you!
Bob: Alright, so here’s the assignment: “We’re going to rendezvous at the movie theater this weekend for the movie, Woodlawn. It opens tonight in theaters all across the country.”
But, as we’ve said—this is a key weekend to get out and see the film. If you’d like to see the trailer—you want to see what the movie looks like—go to FamilyLifeToday.com and click the link in the upper left-hand corner of the screen that says, “GO DEEPER.” You’ll see information right there about the movie, Woodlawn. You can watch the trailer online.
I’ll just mention that there’s also information there about our Stepping Up® video series. I’d just encourage guys that: “If you’ve not gone through the Stepping Up series with a group of guys in your church—in your small group, a group of dads and teenage sons going through it together, whatever works for you—get the Stepping Up video series and some workbooks and go through it.” Find out more about Stepping Up while you’re, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com.
You know, our goal, here at FamilyLife, is to help provide you with practical biblical help and hope every day on this radio program. All of that is possible because there are folks, like you, who donate to make FamilyLife Today possible—
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If you’ve never made a donation in support of FamilyLife Today, we’d love to hear from you today. You can make a donation, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com. Click the link in the upper right-hand corner of the screen that says, “I Care,”—make an online donation. Or call 1-800-FL-TODAY to make your donation over the phone. By the way, we have a thank-you gift when you make a donation today. Barbara Rainey has created a new tool to help promote lively conversation around the dinner table. It’s called “Untie Your Story.” It’s a spool full of napkin ties, and each one has a question on it that will allow for some provocative discussions at your dinner table. It’s our thank-you gift when you make a donation today. We really do appreciate your support of this ministry.
With that, we are done for this week. Thanks for being with us. I hope you and your family are able to worship together in church this weekend, and I hope you can join us back on Monday when we’re going to talk to a mom who—she describes herself as a “mean mom.” Joanne Kraft has written a book called The Mean Mom’s Guide to Raising Great Kids. We’ll talk to her about all the stuff that mean moms do. I hope you can tune in for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I’m Bob Lepine. Have a great weekend. We will see you back Monday for another edition of FamilyLife Today
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