ComingSoon had the opportunity to sit down with Andrew Erwin, who co-directed the hit sports drama American Underdog alongside his brother Jon. Andrew discussed his work on the film, his time working at ESPN, and what it was like working alongside the ever-energetic Super Bowl champ Kurt Warner, on which the film is based.
American Underdog tells “the story of NFL MVP and Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner, who went from stocking shelves at a supermarket to becoming an American football star.” It is now available on 4K, Blu-ray, and DVD.
The film stars Zachary Levi (Shazam!), Anna Paquin (True Blood), Hayden Zaller, Ser’Darius Blain (Fortress), Dennis Quaid (Midway), and Adam Baldwin (The Kid).
Jeff Ames: I read in your bio that you began your career as a camera operator for ESPN. As someone who always aspired for a position like that, I gotta ask if it lived up to the hype?
Andrew Erwin: That was the hardest job I ever walked away from. It paid the bills on the weekends, you know, by working Friday, Saturday and Sunday I could use the rest of the week to pay for this hobby that was going out of control and getting really expensive. I worked for ESPN and FOX for eight years.
How did you come to find out about Kurt Warner and his amazing story?
For me, it was very much just intrigue. That’s a story I always loved. I never thought I’d be the one to tell it. We’re not smart enough to go out and target these stories, they just find us. So, we were working on a music biopic called I Can Only Imagine in 2018 and while we were in the middle of that somebody was like, “You should meet with Kurt Warner and sit down and hear his story.” I was like, “I know his story.” And they were like, “No, you need to hear the rest of the story.”
So, I was like, “Okay,” and it was actually in Phoenix, Arizona. We went over to Kurt and Brenda’s house and sat down with them and we said, “What do you see your story as?” And he said, “Everybody knows what happened with me on the football field, but they don’t know what my family did to inspire me off the field. They don’t know about my relationship with my wife, Brenda, or Zachery, her son who has special needs and is blind. His story inspired me to fight for this family.” I was like, “Oh, I would really love to do this movie!” So, we started developing it in 2018. Fast forward from that and seeing it on the big screen has been a dream come true.
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This is one of those stories that seems so outlandish to be true. Were there moments where you thought the audience wouldn’t buy some of the events in the film or bits that you scaled back?
We had to walk that line really carefully. Especially with what happened with Brenda’s parents and the scenario that plays out. When I heard that I was like, “No way,” and then we researched it and it really happened that way and created this dark night in the soul of the characters.
When we were promoting the film initially, Kurt and Zachary Levi were on Good Morning America and Robin Roberts pulled out a clip from the archives from an interview Kurt had done twenty years prior where Kurt said, “If anybody tried to do this movie, they would throw it out and say it was too unbelievable.” So, we had to walk that line and we had to make sure everything was earned because there were so many set pieces that were larger than life, but that’s how they happened. It was a matter of condensing the story not enhancing it.
With the film you’ve assembled an all-star cast. Since they are playing real people, how do you walk that line of allowing the actors to do their thing while also conveying the personality of the real person they are playing? What ultimately led you to these actors?
I’m thrilled with the cast. It really came together well. I really believe in casting essence, not imitation. I don’t want someone going out there and doing a Saturday Night Live skit of Kurt and Brenda Warner. It’s got to feel authentic. But I like finding people that have the soul of the character. Zachary Levi and I have been friends for ten-plus years but had never worked together, but we have the same agent.
So, we were in the middle of preproduction and talked about our wish list and I put up a picture of Zachary Levi next to Kurt Warner and I’m like, “I mean, guys, really.” We were laughing about it, and laughing about how similar they looked, and I was doing a Facetime call with Zachary about something else and he was like, “What’s this Kurt Warner movie everybody keeps talking about me in?” And I was like, “Zachary, I know your schedule and you’re not available. You’re about to do Shazam! 2 — you’re not available for the next few years. So, I wasn’t even going to pitch you.” And he was like, “Let me read the script and see what I think.” So, I sent him the script and he fell in love with it, freaked out, and texted me at midnight and said, “Let’s do a football movie.” Once he signed on, the movie came to life. He wanted to make a note that he’s not exactly like Kurt because he’s one inch taller, so they were already super competitive with each other to see who was taller and who runs faster. But he runs with the same frenetic speed and in terms of how he thinks he’s just like Kurt. He’s got that all-American quality to him and he just disappeared in the role.
Anna Paquin, when we met with her — we did a Zoom call — she was nervous because she had never done anything like this in the family inspirational category, but she loved the script. So, when we did the call with her, she had the same fire and warmth that Brenda had — that protective momma bear with a soft heart. She was so opinionated and feisty on the call, I was like, “This is the girl. She is Brenda.”
Dennis Quaid and I have worked together before on I Can Only Imagine, so when I reached out to him I sent him a highlight reel of Dick Vermeil and I said, “I’ll let you play any character you want in this film, but I think it’s really special when an icon plays an icon.” He watched the highlight reel and was like, “I want to be Vermeil.” So, it’s a who’s who cast. Chance Kelly, Adam Baldwin, Ser’Darius Blain, but everyone played their role well. It was a great team.
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How much did Kurt Warner impact the production? Was there a scene he influenced that ended up going differently than you were intending?
Yeah, I didn’t have a choice as to whether Kurt was involved. He was there. He was going to be involved. That same fighter spirit, whether it’s winning a Super Bowl or winning Dancing with the Stars or making a movie, he has one speed. John and I would get notes from Kurt at three in the morning where he’d be like, “I’ve got a bunch of ideas,” and he’d have like seven pages of ideas and be like, “Let’s discuss it at six.” I’m like, “When do you sleep, bro?”
The biggest thing we had to fight with him was he wanted to be Zach’s stunt double. I’m like, “Kurt, you can’t. The insurance isn’t going to let you.” He’s like, “No, I can still throw. I can still do it.”
The cool thing with Kurt is that, and I told him, “I’m making two commitments to you. One, I want you to have significant input in making sure this is an honest version of your story and you and Brenda are heard.” The second thing I said was, “I’m not going to let you make a bad movie. We’re going to find the friction between those two points of view and find the best way that works.” There was a couple of scenes where I was like, “It was actually more like this,” and he pushed it a certain direction and I was like, “You know what, that’s better. We’re going to go with that.”
One of the biggest ways he influenced was how Brenda was crafted. He said, “Listen, my wife can be polarizing at times in the way people see her because they only see one version. They see the feisty, spiky-haired marine that’s tough. But I want this film to show a part of her, a warmth, that only I’ve gotten to see over the years.” So, we fought really hard with him and Brenda and Anna in finding that duality and that tone of her being tough and soft. And I think Anna pulled it off, I think she steals the show.
So, I’ve got to ask about the football scenes. I imagine your work as a camera operator had a hand in making them so realistic.
I wanted to capture that same feeling we had as camera operators of being in the action of feeling like it’s coming right into your living room. So, we actually fought not to shoot in the traditional sports movie way which is usually the camera TV angles, long lens, from a distance shooting down at the action. Viewers can have that experience any Sunday watching really great football at home. That doesn’t add anything. We wanted to put viewers in the action and to really shoot with wide-angle lenses and all the technology available to make it feel like you were on the team. So, we fought really hard for that.
The challenge with that was we had to cut our schedule down by a third in order to deal with the COVID rules and all that stuff and to make it through on budget. So, we realized we didn’t have time to shoot all the football we wanted. We said, “What are our options?” Orson Welles once said, “The absence of limitations is the death of creativity.” We were like, what are the creative alternatives? And we thought, “Let’s Argo this. Let’s do to a sports film what Argo did for a political thriller and let’s utilize the archival footage to make it feel like it’s happening in real-time.”
So, we choreographed with the stunt team every play that happened exactly as it happened in the actual footage so that we start seeing it on TVs, and then all of a sudden by the end of the game we’re cutting to full screen and it’s fully integrated. That gives us this immersive experience. We’re not watching something that did happen, we’re watching something that’s happening now. That gave it this nice visceral immediacy that even if I had all the resources to do it differently, I’d shoot it exactly the same way. The team did an incredible job of choreographing that just right.
What do you ultimately want people to take away from American Underdog?
We love underdog stories. They’re just kind of our stories to tell. It’s what we relate to the most. I think what I want people to walk away with after watching the movie is a surge of hope. It’s that old-school dose of Frank Capra. You know, to be able to believe in something again. In the wake of a very pessimistic outlook in society right now where everyone almost feels like they’re losing hope, to have a story that really indulges in it and says, “It’s okay to hope again.” For the underdog in a similar situation to say, “Hey, if Kurt can do that, maybe I can too.”