Divine Connections: The Making of “Woodlawn”

On the heels of the very successful faith-based film “War Room”, produced by the Kendrick Brothers (“Courageous”, “Fireproof”), another duo of filmmaking siblings is bringing the story of “Woodlawn” * to theaters in two weeks.

Jon and Andrew Erwin wrote, directed and produced the story of Woodlawn High School in Birmingham, Alabama during the tumultuous early 70’s when the school was becoming integrated. In a city torn apart by racial strife, the high school becomes the focal point of tension in a time of major change. Based on a true story, Woodlawn High School was on the verge of closing until a different kind of movement began. Against the backdrop of competition, racism and violence, a spiritual revival took place… and it started with the football team.

Jon Erwin was on hand recently when a very-nearly-done version of the film premiered at Legacy Arena in Birmingham at the conclusion of the Restoring Unity event (which was also produced by the Erwins). Prior to the showing, radio and TV host Glenn Beck interviewed Jon Erwin, producer and actor Kevin Downes, and cast members Jon Voight, Nic Bishop, Kevin Sizemore and Caleb Castille.

To say that the release of “Woodlawn” at this time is a miracle in itself would be an understatement. According to Downes, just a year prior to the Birmingham premiere, there wasn’t much to work with, given the length of time it normally takes for a film to go from an idea to the big screen. He said, “Twelve months ago, Jon and I were sitting in a parking lot going, should we shoot this movie this fall so that it could be out for our culture to witness it next fall?… we didn’t have a script, we didn’t have a story, we didn’t have money, we didn’t have a cast. I mean how all these gentlemen came into our cast is nothing short of miraculous and to me, God gets all the credit.”

That may explain how a little independent film of the Christian genre managed to attract the attention of an Academy Award-winning actor to play an iconic football coach. Jon Voight, who plays famed University of Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, was drawn to the character and work ethic of the Erwins. As he told the crowd in Birmingham, “I looked them up and they had a little video of their work together, and I looked at these guys, and I saw the way that they worked, the kindness to the people that they worked with, they joy they took in their work and Jon said, he said, “here’s how we make film…the best idea wins. So that meant he was collaborative and he was going to engage everyone in the process, which is what you have to have for the very best kind of film.”

It was more Divine Intervention that brought Caleb Castille into the cast. Castille plays Tony Nathan, a young African-American man who is integrated into Woodlawn High School. He goes on to become a star athlete who is recruited by Bear Bryant to play for Alabama. In an odd case of art imitating life, Castille was a football player at the University of Alabama. In fact, it could be said that playing for the Crimson Tide is sort of the Castille family business since both of his older brothers and his father played there. But in early 2013, in spite of his success on the field, Castille said he felt God was leading him away from football towards acting. As he put it, ‘Football was so comfortable to me, right, and through just being sick and tired of being sick and tired, I took the time to grow closer to the Lord, which in essence brought .. a better knowledge of why He put me on the earth.” Castille said he wants to reach people, and believes there’s no better way to do that than to work in films. For this film, Castille was hired to be the stunt double for the original actor, until a last-minute casting decision placed the young athlete-turned-actor into his first starring role.

Jon Erwin and his brother Andrew direct and produce “Woodlawn”, and Jon co-wrote the script with Quinton Peeples. Another of the main characters, Hank Erwin, played by Sean Astin, was inspired by the patriarch of the Erwin family. Hank Erwin was an evangelist, broadcaster and later, an Alabama state senator. The elder Erwin was in attendance at the premiere and later closed with a prayer. His son Jon praised him as a “great dad” and told the audience he’s had a great opportunity to honor him in this film and bring such a compelling story as “Woodlawn” to film-goers. He believes it has a relevant message for today. “It’s a story of an impossible situation…love, the love of Christ conquering hatred and if it happened then, it can happen now.”

“Woodlawn” opens in theaters around the country on October 16th. A review of the movie will be posted here next week.

***For behind-the-scenes geeks only: Check out the new Liberty Belle Blog TV channel on Vimeo for more audio from these on-stage interviews at the Birmingham premiere. There are 2: an un-edited one with a little more audio from Kevin Downes & Jon Erwin who both comment on the “War Room” /“Woodlawn” connection; The edited audio has sound bites from Erwin, Downes, Castille & Voight, who talks about playing Bear Bryant.   Both include my own pics from the premiere, as well as photos from various websites, including www.woodlawnmovie.com.

Cast & Crew of

Cast & Crew of “Woodlawn” at Birmingham, AL premiere in August.

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