As young filmmakers, Jon and Andy Erwin dreamed of moving to Los Angles to start a career in movies, but with the success of their first feature film, “October Baby,” filmed mainly in Mobile, the Birmingham-based brothers realized they did not have to move west. They could successfully film movies right here in Alabama.
“We still can’t believe that we get to stay at home and do stories that are intrinsically Alabama in Alabama,” Andy Erwin said. “Our experience with ‘October Baby’ was so great that we decided, let’s keep as many of these projects here as possible.”
Their latest film, “Woodlawn,” opening in theaters Oct. 16, tells the true story of the 1973 Woodlawn High School football team in Birmingham and how a spiritual revival that starts within the team — despite the turbulent times around them — spreads throughout the school and into the community. A special screening is scheduled for Oct. 15 at the Carmike Patton Creek in Hoover.
At $25 million, the movie has the largest production budget for a Christian-themed film since Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ.”
This is the Erwin brothers’ third movie to be filmed in Alabama. “October Baby” garnered them national attention in 2011, opening No. 8 at the box office and earning $2.8 million during its opening weekend, four times its production budget. “Mom’s Night Out,” filmed in Birmingham, opened in 2014.
Jon and Andy spent three years developing the script for “Woodlawn,” interviewing eye- witnesses and key characters like Tony Nathan, the story’s protagonist and Woodlawn’s star running back who went on to play for the University of Alabama and the Miami Dolphins. (Nathan is played by newcomer Caleb Castille, whose father and brothers played for Alabama.)
Going into production, the main challenge the team faced was creating a world set in the 1970s, so the filmmakers relied heavily on finding the right locations.
“As a filmmaker, beyond the film incentives, there are so many locations that are fresh here. I go out to Los Angeles a lot, and you see locations there that you’ve seen before. In Alabama, there are so many beautiful locations that haven’t been seen. It’s a blank slate,” Andy said.
“I like a textured world that is lived in and something that feels like there is a story that can be told by the location—where there is a history you can see.”
For Andy, Woodlawn High School provided this type of location. Though the building is still a working high school, they were able to film around the exterior of the building. And for the interiors, they worked with the Alabama Film Office, which helped them find an empty middle school built around the same time as Woodlawn. “We were able to camp out there and really own the space for the amount of time we needed to film the movie. That’s rare in this business,” he said.
At the movie’s climax, the film depicts the 1974 rivalry football game between Woodlawn and Banks High School, the largest high school football game in Alabama’s history. The scenes were filmed at Legions Field, where the original game took place. And to recreate the 42,000 people in attendance, the filmmakers used more than 2,000 extras and animation technology to fill in the stadium.
“It was surreal to film at Legions Field,” Erwin said. “Once you see it in full, you will see the place come back to life, reliving the history there. It was amazing to film in that environment.”
TELLING A TRUE STORY
The Erwin brothers first heard the story of Woodlawn as a bedtime story. Their father, depicted in the movie by Sean Astin of “Lord of the Rings” fame, was the chaplain for Woodlawn’s football team, and he would often tell them the story as they got ready for bed.
“Other stories have come and found us along the way, but ‘Woodlawn’ is a movie we’ve wanted to do since we were kids,” Erwin said. “This is the movie that got me and Jon into telling stories.”
Essentially, the story follows Tony Nathan and the relationships he forms during his high school football career — relationships with his father, a young woman named Johnnie who would later become his wife, Woodlawn’s Head Football Coach Tandy Geralds, and Alabama Head Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, played by Academy Award-winner Jon Voight.
“Our desire is to tell a story authentically, in a way that represents what happened. We’re really excited for the state to embrace this story, the nation as well,” Andy said. “The more people who support our films by voting for us with their movie tickets, the more we’re going to be allowed to tell Alabama stories.”