This past February, filmmaker brothers Jon and Andrew Erwin faced the most intense crunch time of their careers. Both former ESPN cameramen, they had parlayed a love of inspiring true-life events into several hit films — and a partnership with Hollywood studio Lionsgate.
“We tell stories of redemption,” Andy Erwin told me in an interview. “And this is the ultimate underdog story.” The brothers recounted covering Super Bowl XXXVI in New Orleans for ESPN, where Kurt Warner’s St. Louis Rams faced off against the Patriots. Seeing Warner interact with his “spiky-haired blond wife” in the stands, they wondered how the couple really got there.
Now they’re getting to tell that story in the sports biopic “American Underdog,” out on Christmas Day in theaters. It wasn’t without challenges along the way. Entrusted with a production budget four times larger than any of their past movies, they were thrilled when Zachary Levi (“Shazam”) and Oscar winner Anna Paquin (“The Piano”) signed on to play Warner and his wife, Brenda.
But COVID protocols meant more prep time and cost before production. With Levi committed to the “Shazam” sequel, they feared losing their star. “This movie is not nearly as good with a different cast,” Andy told me in a joint interview with Levi. “So we pushed really hard to make it now and had to crunch the schedule down.”
Levi chimed in on the co-director’s comments, noting their fast-paced filming recalled his years starring in “Chuck,” as TV shows typically move at a much faster pace than big-budget films. “I’m sorry, we’re shooting eight pages a day?” Levi recalled thinking. “OK, let’s go.”
During February, when their cast and crew of dozens were filming key scenes in Oklahoma, a massive blizzard beared down on movie sets. The winter storm would become one of the most costly in U.S. history. As executive producer on the film, Kurt Warner was scheduled to fly in, but Jon Erwin told the NFL star’s assistant to hold off due to hazardous conditions.
“I thought that message got through until I woke up the next morning,” recalled Jon. “At the crew hotel, the person at the front desk said, ‘There’s a guy who showed up and he’s out shoveling snow in the parking lot and getting cars out.’” Erwin found Warner knee-deep in snow, determined to help actors and crew members make it to their next scene.
Warner, who I also interviewed with the group, demurred. “We had a movie to make. I’m from Iowa, I can do this.”
One Boy’s Calamity — and Can-Do Spirit
“Is this guy a Boy Scout or what?” asked “Shazam” star Levi, with the sharp wit audiences have come to love. He recalled another detail of that post-blizzard scene, leaning over to his real-life counterpart. “I believe you were actually shoveling snow and helping get cars out — while simultaneously building a snowman with Hayden,” Levi said.
He referred to co-star Hayden Zaller, a blind child actor who was only 11 years old during production. Zaller portrays Warner’s adopted son, Zack, whose relationship with the aspiring quarterback proves critical in the film narrative. At the time, Brenda was a single mom in Iowa, following years of service in the U.S. Marine Corps.
The movie briefly recounts how a bathtub accident at three years old caused serious brain injury to Zack, who went completely blind. “He didn’t deserve that,” recalls his mom today, then Brenda Carney Meoni. “It was so unfair. But my little boy, his spirit was just like: ‘I can do it, I can do it.’ Nobody had to teach him that.”
It provides an unexpected emotional core in a film that’s mostly about Kurt Warner’s rise from working in a supermarket, to playing arena football, to finally going pro. Co-director Andy Erwin said this personal angle came up when he and Jon first met with the Warners about how to tell their story.
“They said football is part of it, but it’s really about us fighting to stay a family and our relationship with our disabled son, Zack,” said Erwin. “So the five years that Kurt was out of football, he was trying to make ends meet and doing it for this family that gradually became his own.”
Today, Zack Warner is 32 years old. His challenges inspired the Warners to launch Treasure House, a nonprofit facility in Glendale, Arizona for developmentally challenged persons. “He’s completely blind, but the way he sees people and loves people, it’s shown in this movie,” said Brenda. “I think it’s going to touch a lot of lives.”
Up-Close NFL Action
Anyone who has seen “I Can Only Imagine” or “I Still Believe” knows the Erwin Brothers excel at interpersonal drama. As a recent CBS Sports feature attests, viewers seeking high-octane gridiron gameplay in “American Underdog” will also not be disappointed.
Sports film producer Mark Ciardi (“Miracle,” “Invincible”) came on board to enhance on-field action, particularly evident in Warner’s first NFL post-season performance. In a confluence of unprecedented access from the Pro Football Hall of Fame, filmmakers’ ESPN experience, and cutting-edge techniques, it intercuts dramatized on-field scenes with actual game footage.
“Our stunt coordinator choreographed that everything we shot is exactly down to the frame of what actually happened in the real game,” said Andy Erwin. “It blends the line between archival footage and how we reenacted those plays. Viewers tell us they feel as if it’s happening live.”
For Warner’s part, allowing these faith-driven brothers to tell his life story, he struggled not to let small notes derail the ambitious production. “It’s so personal,” said Warner. “Early on, I [could get] hung up on how he didn’t throw exactly like I did or say something how I recalled it. I don’t know how many times they had to tell us, ‘We’re not making a documentary, Kurt.’”
Clearly, the soul of his best-selling book “All Things Possible: My Story of Faith, Football, and the First Miracle Season” shines through on the big screen. With its unconventional approach — fusing a slow-burn love story and a would-be star’s parade of team rejections, with dynamic football action throughout—it’s a sports biopic that audiences haven’t seen before.
Warner’s journey progresses from self-centered ambitions to sacrificial leadership, says Erwin. “He has the spirit of a champion at first. But he didn’t have the heart of a champion. This kid inspires greatness in him. Our film allows the scale to grow, so audiences are cheering when he steps out onto the field in an NFL game. By then, you care so much about these people.”
Rated PG for some language and thematic elements, “American Underdog” opens in theaters on Christmas Day.