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American Underdog Movie Brings Erwin Bros. Full Circle on Kurt Warner Story


Image courtesy Lionsgate Studios

For brothers Andy and Jon Erwin, the chance to make a movie about football icon Kurt Warner was the culmination of a 20 year dream for them both.  

Long before directing American Underdog, set to release on home video, February 22nd, the Erwins were two Alabama teenagers with a dream of one day directing movies that could change the world.  But first, they needed to figure out how to get their foot in the door … even if it was just a crack.

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Truly underdogs in their own right, a breakthrough came from an unlikely source, a friend from church.  A cameraman for ESPN, he called 15-year-old Jon one Saturday, explained someone was sick, and asked him if he wanted to work on the crew for a college football game.  There would be only two restrictions: he needed to be there in 15 minutes and could tell no one his age. Needless to say, Jon took him up on his offer.

His good job led to more work and eventually the opportunity to bring in his brother Andy to work some games.  The pair eventually became good enough at their burgeoning craft to work the 2002 Super Bowl, pitting the New England Patriots against Kurt Warner and the St. Louis Rams.  Little did the brothers know that they would be making a movie about the football legend’s life 20 years later. 

I recently sat down with Andy Erwin to discuss why everyone seems to love an underdog story, how Brenda Warner entered her future husband’s life at just the right time, and the role that faith played in Kurt’s rags to riches rise to fame.

I know this has been a passion project for you folks, especially your producing partner Kevin Downes for a long time. What is it about Kurt Warner that made you want to make a movie about him?

When we did Woodlawn, about eight years ago, we fell in love with underdog stories. That was a place where you really saw redemption play out in somebody’s story where you weren’t supposed to win. Then they found redemption and found their purpose. And that led to, I Can Only Imagine, a movie with very similar DNA. And then you look at American Underdog. In the dictionary, it has to feature Kurt Warner’s name by the definition because the guy is the ultimate underdog sports story. So, we didn’t really seek it out. It sought us out. Somebody alerted us that they had been developing Kurt’s story as a movie and that he wanted to meet with us. So, we went to his house in Phoenix, Arizona, and sat down with him and (his wife) Brenda. We just asked what do you see your story as? As he said, “A lot of people know what happened on the football field, but not many people know what I went through off the field.  My life story is really about my relationship with Brenda, our son, Zach, and his special needs.” And I heard that story. I was like, that’s a movie. And so we jumped on board and it just came to life.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, especially in recent days, knowing the Rams are going back to the Super Bowl. Do you think Kurt could have made it with any other team at the time, other than the Rams, or was that team just a custom fit for him?

I think it was a custom fit. And the reason why is Dick Vermeil.  When we sat down with him, I asked what did you see in Kurt? And he said, “I saw myself. Kurt was out of college football for five years before he finally kind of got his break. I had been out of coaching for almost 15 years. I was burned out and had gotten into broadcasting. And when I came back, they were making fun of me that I was a has been. I remember pulling Kurt aside in the hallway and saying, there’s something special about you, son. I can’t wait to find out what it is”. I asked him if we could use that in the movie? He was like, “Absolutely.” So I called up my buddy Dennis Quiad and told him I thought he was mint for this role. When an icon plays an icon, it’s special. And I think that relationship of that underdog spirit, what Dick Vermeil saw in Kurt Warner, I think that they needed each other. It was amazing to kind of see that play out on the field, that an underdog recognizes another underdog.

A central part of Kurt and Brenda’s story is their faith. Their faith in God and their faith in each other. One thing I really liked about the movie is that the faith in God element was certainly there, but it wasn’t in your face and wasn’t preachy. Was that by design?

For us, we try to maintain the same way that you as a journalist have a certain integrity in trying to figure out what the story really is. As filmmakers telling true stories, we have a similar creed, and that it has to feel honest and authentic. What does this movie want to be? And with Kurt’s story, because it played out on such a big stage, we felt like it just needed to be a really great sports movie without apologizing for who he was and what his faith is. We felt like it was a broader opportunity to kind of Trojan Horse the Gospel and the Christian message in a way that felt palatable because it was such a big, well known sports story. And I think we found that blend where Christians that watch it will feel very validated that they’re represented well, but for the secular audience, they just see a really good sports story. It was a really neat opportunity and it was just ultimately what the story wanted to be and that was the best way to tell it.

From your perspective, how critical is Brenda in the Kurt Warner success story? Many guys would have run in the other direction from her when they realized she was a single mom with a special needs child. But if anything, Kurt ran toward her. 

Without Brenda Warner, you don’t have Super Bowl winning, Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner. The two are seamlessly intertwined. Kurt had the arm of a champion, had the passion and the ambition, but he lacked the heart of a champion. Where he got that heart of a champion was from this single mom who was a former Marine, and a special needs son that was fighting for her family. And he saw in her something that was really valuable, having been raised by a single mom himself. He really fell in love with his family and ultimately fell in love with Zachary, this little kid that had this underdog spirit himself, from overcoming his disabilities.

Staying with the topic of faith; it’s often been said that people can see the light of God shining in believers by the way they live their lives. And I think Kurt saw that in Brenda too. Could you comment on that a bit? 

I think there was something that Kurt saw that was authentic, particularly when she lost her parents. That part of the story really happened. He just watched how she wrestled with God and how she had a relationship. Anna Paquin (who plays Brenda) really picked up on that. She came back after watching every one of Brenda’s Women of Faith speeches and reading all of her books. She came back and said, “I understand that for Brenda, it’s more of a relationship than it is a religion. How do we make that come across?” It’s in those little nuances of everyday life that Kurt watched her and just said, “I want what she’s got.” There comes a moment in the movie where he said, “I need you in my life and I need your faith. I need who you are. I need that. It makes me a better man.” He really embraced that. He saw her live it out in a very human, flawed, textured way. And for us to bring that kind of faith through on the screen was exciting, because it just plants that seed of redemption in a way that the audience doesn’t have their guard up. I think Brenda was that perfect opportunity.

Watch a Trailer for American Underdog available on digital video now and on home video February 22nd:

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