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I Can Only Imagine Interview

“The key to the frittata is how hot you make the pan.”

He was learning new skills, taking on new projects, and reading his Bible for the first time. Arthur Millard had found something new.


Terrifying, brutal, he showed no lethargy in dispiriting his son, but redemption lies close to each one of us, and Arthur said Yes to his.

The song I Can Only Imagine was forged in fire, polished in redemption, a work set apart and revealed in the fulfillment of its passions. The movie shares the remarkable story.

Mercy, MercyMe.

(Note- If you’re planning on seeing the movie but haven’t yet, you’re going to want to skip the next 3 paragraphs)

The film begins with Bart (J. Michael Finley) as a child, growing up in rural North Texas, where relations with his dad Arthur (Dennis Quaid) are anything but relaxed. Arthur’s an abusive terror and a real dream-squasher. The mom can’t take it and gets the heck outta dodge, but not before getting Bart involved in a local youth camp, where he finds faith and Shannon (Madeline Carroll)—the young girl who steals his heart. They remain an item even throughout Bart’s high school days, but eventually, he leaves her and his father behind to pursue a career in music. MercyMe is formed.

Out on the road, Bart meets record industry insider Scott Brickell (Trace Adkins), in whom he finds a voice of sound guidance for his career. In a heart to heart exchange, Brickell encourages Bart to stop running from his painful past, prompting him to head home and deal with unresolved issues.

Upon arriving, Dad’s different, he’s a changed man, and it stretches Bart to extend forgiveness. But when he does, the two of them become best friends. He becomes the dad Bart’s always wanted, but the newfound joy is short-lived as Arthur soon succumbs to cancer. The emotions of it all—the pain, the healing, the settling—move Bart to write the best song of his life. The movie climaxes as he reveals I Can Only Imagine to the world for the first time. Shannon, out in the audience, witnesses the dramatic unveiling, an event that brings the two of them back into their destined love, completing the journey of redemption.


There can’t be enough said about Dennis Quaid, who absolutely nails, nails, nails it. His shifty mouth and aiming blue eyes will take you into another realm. When he’s a hard-nose, his portrayal is so raw that it’s painful to watch. When he softens up it’s still painful, a pitied pain though, a compassionate pain. Next time you see him on Kathie Lee and Hoda you’re going to have a hard time separating him from Arthur Millard.

And there’s J. Michael Finley, who gives a stellar debut performance. His relaxed style and brimming confidence give off the feel of a more seasoned actor than he actually is. He’s down to earth and endearing, confident, humorous without trying, and when it comes time for letting loose some serious emotions, the boy pours it out. From the dramatic to the playful to the passionate, the viewer truly feels Bart. Trace Adkins is also an unquestionable standout in the film.

Bold City Voice recently got the privilege to speak with producer Kevin Downes to get the inside scoop on I Can Only Imagine.

Bold City Voice: Who decided to write I Can Only Imagine, and why did you write the movie about this song.

Kevin Downes: I Can Only Imagine is the third film in partnership with myself and the Erwin Brothers, who are the directors of the film. Our previous two films were Mom’s Night Out and Woodlawn. And the script for I Can Only Imagine was co-written by John Erwin and Brent McCorkle. They did a fantastic job in adapting Bart Millard’s story—the lead singer of MercyMe—into a screenplay, and it’s just a story that’s really engaging.

But it wasn’t totally difficult because his story is just that—it’s quite extraordinary. Audiences will get to see it, it’s in theaters starting this weekend, March 15th. And obviously we’ve got a great cast—Dennis Quaid, Trace Adkins…even Cloris Leachman makes an appearance, and Priscilla Shirer, who was the lead in the movie War Room. It’s a great cast all around and a great story about the history of this iconic song, I Can Only Imagine.

BCV: As far as the cast members, what was that like working with some of these big names? Any instances off-camera that stuck out to you…say, with Trace or Dennis?

KD: First of all, with Trace, it’s our second time working with him. We worked with him on Mom’s Night Out, and he’s just such a sweetheart and a really nice guy—we love working with him. And Dennis is great, such a talent…really big fan of his previous films, I think Frequency and The Rookie are two of my all-time favorites. Soul Surfer, which I think a lot of our audience might know him from, it’s really a great film. So, I’m a big fan of Dennis Quaid’s work. Really all of our cast was just a real joy to be able to work with.

BCV: What is it about this song that has been captivating audiences for decades? What about this song has been so moving to people?

KD: I think the song is moving to people because it’s created a personal story for people that have been really touched by it. You see it played at funerals, a lot of weddings, and people just have a personal connection to the story and to the song itself, and so now you get to see how the backstory of the song was created and how that might tie in with everyone’s personal story.

BCV: What are the messages, or themes of the movie?

KD: The main themes are redemption and forgiveness, and hope. And our hope for creating this film is that audiences that see it, if they have a connection to the song—that the same rush of joy that they had when they first heard the song—they would experience that, and witness that when they see this movie in theaters.

BCV: How much involvement did Bart have in the filming process, and was he around during the shooting?

KD: Bart had a lot of involvement. It was very important for us to be able to maintain the integrity of his story and get it right, so we had him approve scripts, we had him on set, kind of advising actors in certain moments and what not, and of course, we showed him the cuts of the film.

BCV: Were any of the locations the actual ones where the events took place?

KD: We shot the film in Oklahoma…Bart was born and raised in Northeast Texas, but the band did a lot of early concerts in rural Oklahoma, so we decided to shoot in Oklahoma to really capture the landscapes and vistas of that area.

BCV: I noticed that you are in the film (the Nashville music exec with the curly dark hair). What were your favorite moments in the making of this film?

KD: Obviously, some of my favorite moments, working with Dennis Quaid and some of the talent that’s in the film…I think it’s just a real privilege when you’re producing a movie and get to see this kind of talent come together. I’m really proud of a lot of the moments and really happy for audiences to take a look at the movie.

BCV: J. Michael Finley captured the tone of Bart’s voice really well. Was that an easy process for him to achieve that tone? And was he a fan of MercyMe before the filming?

KD: It’s his first movie that he’s ever played in and does such a great job. We found him on Broadway doing the role of Jean Valjean in Les Mis, and the guy’s got such an amazing voice and he really captures the nuances of Bart really extraordinarily and does a great job. So when people see it, and they wonder whether or not it’s his voice, it’s this young man’s voice singing all the music and he really does a great job.

BCV: It took 10 minutes to write the lyrics to the song, and 10 minutes to write the music. I know that it was said that it took a lifetime, but in all practicality, how do you think it came so effortlessly to Bart in those short moments?

KD: Well, because it is a lifetime. The story is over a lifetime. Bart was a big journaler, and many times he would be journaling down little snippets of the word “imagine” or “I can only imagine”. And one day they were on a tour bus and he had some of his journals nearby and I believe he picked up a journal and saw “imagine” written on every page and all of a sudden God just gave him that moment where he decided, you know what—this has gotta be the song, so he just started writing it.

BCV: Did Bart have any hesitations about making this movie that revealed such a raw part of his Dad’s past, and even that of his own, you know, going through that with his Dad?

KD: You know I don’t think so, I mean at least not that he revealed to us. He was really encouraging as we went through this whole process. Bart’s a very selfless individual, and at the end of the day, he’s really proud of the film so we’re happy.

BCV: I was thinking that too. Even though it did reveal that part of his Dad, the message was that God’s grace is sufficient for anybody, no matter what the deal is, so I think his Dad would’ve been proud and happy too.

To purchase tickets or read more about I Can Only Imagine, visit the website icanonlyimagine.com.


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