Jesus Revolution is a box office surprise, and a different kind of Christian film: It is unabashedly evangelistic, but aims first to entertain — and one of its unlikely inspirations is the Blumhouse horror empire.
“I’ve talked a lot about this with Jason Blum,” says Jon Erwin, who co-wrote and co-directed Jesus Revolution. “He’s one of the great minds in our business and we bonded over this word disdain.
“He felt that horror was being disdained by the studios a couple of decades ago: ‘They don’t need real movies.’ That’s sort of the same thing that’s happening with the faith, or the middle American audience right now.”
The film recounts the “Jesus Revolution” of the 1970s in which a Christian revival spread from Southern California to hundreds of churches nationwide, and is based on the book by Greg Laurie and Ellen Santilli Vaughn. Laurie joined the movement as a teen and saw it become a global phenomenon.
The film is told from his perspective, and follows a hippie street preacher Lonnie Frisbee (The Chosen’s Jonathan Roumie) who teams up with Pastor Chuck Smith (Kelsey Grammer), a traditionalist struggling to gather a flock. At first they flourish, until their egos clash.
Christian movies tend to go in a few directions: You have epics like Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 movie The Ten Commandments and Mel Gibson’s 2004 movie The Passion of the Christ. Tyler Perry became one of the most powerful people in the industry by telling stories in and around Black churches. Christian evangelical films like the God’s Not Dead series are made outside of Hollywood, with B-movie quality.
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Jesus Revolution takes a different approach from all of them, striving for high production values and a storyline that works even if you don’t care about Christianity. We talked with Erwin and co-director Brent McCorckle after it debuted at No. 3 at the box office, and since then it has crossed the $30 million mark and held on to the top 5.
They told us why they believe focusing on one audience is a better strategy than seeking mainstream success, why they didn’t want their film to pander, and how Jesus Revolution was influenced by Paul Thomas Anderson.
Joshua Encinias: You call yourselves entertainers first, and I assume that means your message is second. But a lot of movies and TV made by Hollywood focus on their message first and entertainment comes second.
Brent McCorkle: Our target is entertainment. If you want to leave a little love for someone to open up and consider afterwards, you better entertain the fool out of them. You have to earn that ability. I think Hollywood’s kind of mirroring culture right now, where we’d rather scream at each other about our values and our political constructs than actually have a civil conversation.
So I think Hollywood has succumbed to the malaise of where we’re at societally in America right now. I think you can bring forth really strong themes, or lessons, as Spielberg calls them. He has very strong lessons, but you would never say Spielberg’s preaching at you. He always goes out of his way just to make a killer film whether you get his themes or not.
Jon Erwin: The goal of what we do is to entertain audiences and serve audiences, and that should be the goal of every filmmaker. It’s about the people sitting in the seats and the experience they’re having with the film. When I go to the movies, I want to have an emotional experience, you know?
So we are serving an underserved audience and we’re a part of that audience. But we want to do it with effort and we want to do it as great as we can do it. I believe that the themes we champion, when correctly presented, have universal appeal. We need hope. We need optimism. We need stories about redemption and forgiveness.
Jesus Revolution and Cocaine Bear Can Coexist
Joshua Encinias: What’s going on in American moviegoing where the audience makes Cocaine Bear the No. 2 movie in the country and Jesus Revolution No. 3? I think when it’s all said and done, Jesus Revolution is going to make more money than most of the Oscar nominated movies.
Jon Erwin: Every audience was served last weekend. [Laughs.]
Brent McCorkle: I’m excited for Cocaine Bear. I can’t wait to see it.
Jon Erwin: There’s a mindset that I would encourage other filmmakers to adopt: Unless you’re making a Marvel movie or Avatar, there is no more mainstream. The concept of mainstream is only for these huge movies. For everything else, I feel the way to succeed is to really serve a niche audience.
Find some audience that is being under-seen and underserved. It’s super helpful if you’re a part of that audience, and the narrower the focus, the wider the appeal. If you can find something specific and do it better than anyone else can, it’s actually a better way to the masses.
Because whether it’s Crunchyroll or faith-based films or the TV show The Chosen, if you can get an audience so loud that they trigger FOMO, that’s actually the way to tip over into a more mainstream experience.
Joshua Encinias: Jesus Revolution is different from, say, the God’s Not Dead series. Where that series wants to defend Christianity, Jesus Revolution is more concerned with love for outcasts. You can make $50+ million dollars by making religious audiences angry, but that’s not what your movie does.
Brent McCorkle: Jon, tell me what has to get redacted out of this. [Laughs.] I’ll try to pull some punches. Man, we don’t need hostile politics in this country. We don’t need political idolatry. What we need is love and we need a lot more of it. You can immediately stoke rage with films and the concepts you put forth.
You know, people are going to choose to espouse their views in whatever way they want. But let me put it this way: there are certain people in this space I would not work with. And it warms my heart to see Jon and his brother Andy choose, I think, the higher calling of love.
Love is above all of this. Love, acceptance, forgiveness, compassion, empathy, belonging: those are core tenets of Christianity. In the holy text of Christianity, love is mentioned more times in the text than any other world religion.
So why don’t we feel like that in the West about Christianity? The scripture says, they’ll know you’re Christians by how you love each other, not by your political affiliations or how you scream at somebody in all caps on Facebook, you know? We gotta find a better way, and I think this callback to love can recenter this entire culture, honestly.
Jesus Revolution Just Wants Everyone to Win
Jon Erwin: I don’t care where you are politically, or where you go to church, or if you don’t go to church. I think we’re all in agreement that viscerally hating each other is not working. This idea of “I need to win and you need to lose” and berating and beating each other up in the public square… It’s not working.
One of my takeaways is that winning an argument was not what led to the Jesus Revolution. It was actually groups of people loving each other, and it was a return to the essence of something. I think that we’ve drifted far from the true essence of Christianity in American society and the essence is loving each other. That’s a huge theme of Jesus Revolution.
Brent McCorkle: Bro, you got us preaching, man. I don’t know how you did it.
Joshua Encinias: Was Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice a visual influence on the movie? Also, the way Lonnie moves through the world and even the way he speaks reminds me of Owen Wilson from that movie.
Jon Erwin: The two real influences on the material were the films of Cameron Crowe, especially Almost Famous, then also Licorice Pizza, which I thought had a great tone. So it wasn’t Inherent Vice, but PTA did influence us. I love both of those films and they deal with all kinds of issues, but through this lens of being fun. They’re buoyant and fun, and I love that tone.
Brent McCorkle: To your point with the PTA reference, Jonathan Roumie, who played Lonnie, got a dialect coach and he really tried to bend his voice to sound like Lonnie. Every once in a while he does sound like Owen Wilson to me, so I get where you would pick that up.
Joshua Encinias: Actor Shaun Weiss, who played the goalie Goldberg in The Mighty Ducks trilogy, has a part in the movie. He’s had a very public battle with addiction and he plays a character similar to himself in the movie. Will you talk about working with him?
Brent McCorkle: It’s a beautiful story. I get choked up sometimes talking about it, but an executive at Lionsgate also followed Shaun and loved him very much. And when the executive read the script, he knew Shaun was just coming out of recovery, trying to get back on his feet, trying to start acting again.
He called the production team and said, “Shaun’s getting back on his feet. Is there any role for him? Even if it’s just a line or two. Lionsgate will cover his expenses and it won’t even come out of your budget.” And man, that moved us. We had a meeting about it and I said, “I’m going to go on this weekend and write in a part for Shaun.”
It was so cool because he already had the part, but he got on a Zoom with me and read it because he wanted to show me that he could do it. It was moving to have him on set, but I will tell you, I was moved more by a major studio campaigning for this guy and wanting him in our movie. They also said, “Us working to get Shaun in this movie is in keeping with the spirit of your film.”
Jon Erwin: Shaun struck up a conversation with the real Greg Laurie while we were dramatizing baptisms at Pirates Cove, and Greg actually ended up baptizing him. We were a few hundred feet away and none of us even knew.
Joshua Encinias: A lot of faith-based movies think they have to be good PR for Christianity, but your movie doesn’t shy away from Lonnie breaking away from the movement when Chuck questions his ego.
Jon Erwin: I wanted to explore the flawed aspect of the characters. I think so many of us think we can’t contribute, in a substantive way, because we either feel unqualified or disqualified, and that’s just not true. There’s not a perfect character in this story, it’s just flawed, normal people caught up in an extraordinary moment in time together. And there is tragedy in the story that’s true to history.
There was tension in his relationship with Chuck. There were flaws and philosophies on both sides of that tension. So the tragedy is that the band didn’t stay together, but while they were together, Greg Laurie said it best, it was like “nitro meeting glycerin” and the spark that ignited the Jesus Revolution.
Brent McCorkle: One of the biggest bill of goods that you get sold on a spiritual quest is that of religiosity and moralism. You’re told you need to present as perfect on the outside when you’re really dying on the inside and not feeling safe. So it was great to show these Christian leaders’ flaws and failings, because that’s humanity. It would be propaganda if we didn’t show it.
Jesus Revolution is now in theaters.
Main image: Jonathan Roumie and Kelsey Grammer in Jesus Revolution.