In minutes Bart Millard, lead vocalist for MercyMe, wrote the most-played radio single in Christian music history. The lyrics for “I Can Only Imagine” flowed because they had been growing in Bart since he was little.
Like a lot of good art, the song, written in 1999, came out of real suffering. In Bart’s case, it was the physical and emotional abuse inflicted by his father, Arthur.
But that’s not the end of the story. A miraculous change came over Arthur when he became a Christian. Bart says, “My dad went from a monster to the guy I wanted to be like when I grew up.”
Arthur’s transformation and his son’s song are the subjects of a new movie, I Can Only Imagine. The film hits theaters nationwide March 16.
I Can Only Imagine tells the redemption story of Arthur, played by Golden Globe nominee Dennis Quaid, and the backstory of how Bart, played by J. Michael Finley, came to write the hit single.
Bart spoke with Catholic Digest about the movie, his dad, and how he bonded with Dennis Quaid.
Q: Were you on set during the filming?
A: I was for about 75 percent of the filming. It was surreal.
I don’t know if there’s a way to prepare for what you’re about to see. They shoot out of sequence, and my first day on the set was when they’re telling that my daddy has cancer.
Dennis Quaid is wearing a work shirt with my dad’s name, Arthur, on it. Hearing them call Dennis by my dad’s name rattled me. The film was showing parts of my life that I had spent most of my life trying to forget.
Q: How faithful is the script to your life story?
A: It’s about as faithful as you can get cramming my entire life into an hour-and-55-minute film. All of the major moments in the movie happened. People ask, “Did your dad really break a plate over your head?” Sadly, that actually happened.
The time frame of events changed though. When I first read the script, I was like, “Wait a minute, that didn’t happen then!” My dad was diagnosed with cancer my freshman year of high school, and he passed away my senior year in college. The movie made it look like it all happened in my junior and senior year of high school.
The directors and Dennis Quaid said, “You got to look at this as a canvas. It’s not a photograph; it’s a more of a painting. If you see the paint close up, it makes no sense, but if you back out, the picture starts to become clear — you understand what it is.”
Q: Do you have any memorable stories from the filming?
A: The one that I didn’t see coming was the scene portraying my father breaking a plate over my head. In real life, that happened, and I grabbed a bat and yelled, “I’m too big to be treated like that! You’re crazy!” I said that and left the house.
This scene was in the script, but in the film, the camera stays on Dennis who is kind of bent over. It looks like he’s angry at himself. He starts picking up the pieces of the plate and doesn’t know what to do.
I’m around the corner watching this, and for whatever reason, they kept the film rolling. For the first time in my life, I started to think about what my dad could have gone through once I left the house. Seeing the anguish that I saw Dennis in, I was trying to keep it together so as not to interrupt the scene. I remember them saying “Cut!,” and I am just frozen and in tears. It had never dawned on me what my dad could have gone through once I left the house.
Dennis ran over to me and hugged me and asked, “Are you OK? Was that good?” He would ask me that often.
Q: What do you hope the audience takes away from your story?
A: My greatest desire is that people remember that their stories are not finished. If you would have asked me, “Who’s the one person that God cannot reach?” I would say my dad 100 times out of 100. He was the scariest man I’d ever known in my entire life and to see the Gospel transform him. …
If there’s somebody out there saying there’s no hope for a person in their life or maybe you’re that person, and you think that there’s no hope for you, just remember as long as your heart is beating, it’s not over. No one is out of the reach of grace.
Q: After meeting the cast, did you have a favorite actor?
A: I don’t have a favorite. I got along great with everybody. I still talk to Dennis about once a week. He loves music, and there was something about the film [that bonded us]. I’ve also become close with the actor, J. Michael Finley, who played me. He’s like the other brother I never had. Also, Trace Atkins; we’ve formed a bond, which I never saw coming.
Q: I read that your dad was in a serious accident. Did this cause his issues with rage?
A: My dad was an All-America SMU [Southern Methodist University] football star in a small town. Around his sophomore year, he hurt his knee and couldn’t play much. In that process, he got homesick, ended up going home, and married my mom. He left school and got a job as the guy who waves traffic through construction sites. On the job, he got hit by a diesel [truck], which launched him 50 feet in the air. He was so big and strong there wasn’t a broken bone in his body, but he was in a coma for about eight weeks. This happened before I was born.
Everybody who knew my dad said that he was the biggest teddy bear. But when he woke up, he had the foulest mouth and the worst temper. It took 12 people to hold him down.
My family doctor always thought he suffered a frontal lobe injury — not only from the accident that took place — but getting hit hard because he’d played football since he was 5.
Q: After your dad found Christ, he could control his anger. Do you think he had a healing?
A: It never dawned on me until Dennis Quaid said, “You know what’s strange is that the movie talks about this spiritual transformation, but there had to be a physical healing. It shouldn’t be possible that he would go back to the amazing man that he was before the accident changed him.”
This is something I missed all these years.
Q: Do you see your dad’s cancer as a blessing in disguise?
A: I’d say that God was glorified through it. I don’t think it’s what had to take place for my dad to change.
I think my dad, other than having more time, would choose to be what he was when he passed away at 48 years old rather than live until 90 and be the same bitter old man.
Q: I enjoyed the film, but I kept thinking that J. Michael Finley — the actor that played you during your high school and college years — looked too old for the part. What’s your opinion?
A: That was kind of me growing up. I tried to grow a beard all through high school, though it wasn’t as good as J. Michael’s. My best friend Ken always made fun of me that I was like a 40-year-old man. J. Michael’s build and everything about him was accurate. I used to be a big kid. J. Michael would say only a hobbit could play you in high school because I was kind of a frumpy guy.
Q: What did your family think of the movie?
A: They loved it. I made a point to sit down alone with my mom to watch it because I was afraid how she would take it. She was in tears, and she said, “That’s pretty much how it happened. I was scared for my life. I wish I could have changed it.”
Mom was married to someone else, but she and my dad were reconciled in the end; she was there when he passed away.
You can watch a trailer for the film here: