I’ve been given 15 minutes to talk to Bart Millard, frontman from the multi-platinum selling band, MercyMe. That’s five minutes longer than it took for him to write the band’s breakthrough song, “I Could Only Imagine,” which became the bestselling Christian single of all time, and the basis for the film of the same name. But as early champion Amy Grant (Natalie DuPort) notes in the film, it didn’t take 10 minutes for Millard to write the song; it took a lifetime.
The bio-pic (now available on Digital, Blu-ray and DVD!) tells the inspirational story behind the creation of the song, which Millard wrote in tribute to his late father (portrayed by Dennis Quaid). Arthur Millard was “a monster,” Bart says, a verbally and physically abusive father, but before he died, he found a hard-earned redemption through faith and the two reconciled. Now, Bart calls him “a hero.” He spoke with us about this miraculous transformation, finding the strength to trust others with his life story and the impact of teachers and music on his life. (At the end of the 15 minutes, Millard graciously offered more time. “They give me breaks between interviews,” he said, “but I never take them”).
Redbox: No one sets out to write the best-selling Christian single ever. Do you remember your feelings when you finished writing it?
Bart Millard: I was on (the band) bus. It was two or three in the morning. Everybody was asleep. I remember finishing it and I just kept proofreading it over and over and over. I wasn’t freaking out, like, ’We’ve got a hit on our hands.’ But there’s a big difference between finishing a song and getting a song right. I think I was more freaked out that there weren’t any mistakes (on the page); no cross-outs like I would normally have. The page was clean. It was a special moment for me. I felt like I nailed it, like, ‘This is probably the best thing I’ve written.’ I showed it to the guys the next day and they said, ‘This is pretty good.’ (laughs). Pretty good?
Redbox: It’s one thing to hear someone cover one of your songs; it’s another to see your life re-enacted onscreen. What was that experience like?
Bart Millard: I underestimated what it would do to me emotionally. When I first visited the set, the first scene I saw them film was when my dad was diagnosed with cancer. Dennis Quaid doesn’t look anything like my dad, but he was wearing my dad’s work shirt with his name on it and they kept calling him Arthur. It really did a number on me. And the next scene I saw them film was when he breaks a plate over my head. It was surreal. Nothing can prepare you.
Redbox: You’ve told your story onstage. Was it a difficult decision for you to turn your story over to others?
Bart Millard: I don’t think I believed it was actually going to happen. Making an album is hard enough; movies are way harder. It took about eight years (to bring it to the screen). The last five years I would get a phone call once-or-twice a year and they’d say, ‘We haven’t forgotten.’ When the script started taking shape about three years ago, I realized this might actually happen. I was a little nervous about whether I was spiritually and emotionally healthy enough to get behind this; to dig up things I’d tried to bury most of my life and put them on the big screen. During that same period my wife and I were going through grief counseling over a loved one we lost, so I was getting to a place where I felt healthy and could champion people hearing my story. Eight years sounds like forever, but it took every second to get to the place where I am now.
Redbox: How involved were you in the making of the film?
Bart Millard: More than they probably wanted. They didn’t have to include me but they were very respectful and really took my advice into consideration. I was star- struck when I met Dennis Quaid, and the first thing he said was, ‘I want to make sure I get it right. I want to treat your dad with dignity.’
Redbox: That’s an incredible journey.
Bart Millard: My dad was literally my hero by the time he passed away and the scariest man I ever lived with before that. I’m sharing the gospel that changed him.
Redbox: What do your children think of the film?
Bart Millard: I have five kids. Sophie, my 10-year-old, saw the film when I was out on the road. When I got home, she ran up to me and hugged me and kept asking if I was okay. I’ve always been open (with them) about my dad. I lean toward the amazing man he became. My biggest trouble as a parent is I don’t discipline enough because there’s this weird thing inside me that thinks there’s some button I will hit and become like my dad was. Which is not true, but you live with that fear. I tend to never discipline my kids. I don’t want to cross that line. My wife is like, ‘Help me out a little bit.’
Redbox: Your mother left home when you were young. I’ve read that you’ve reconciled with her. What does she think of the movie?
Bart Millard: My mom’s been in my life for years. I showed her the first edit last August. She watched it with tears in her eyes. She said, ‘That’s pretty much how it was; I hate that it was, but I’m proud of where we are now.”
Redbox: Sounds like you have a sequel in that story.
Bart Millard: We haven’t talked about the next step. We’ve been (promoting) this movie hard and MercyMe is hitting the road again. But someone mentioned at an early screening, ‘What a redemption story you’re missing with your mom.’ That’s why we put in the picture of her at the end.
Redbox: Where were you when you first heard “I Can Only Imagine” on the radio?
Bart Millar: I was in my pickup truck in Oklahoma City. We were still an independent band; we hadn’t signed a record deal. I was at a red light. I wasn’t listening to the radio, I looked over and this woman in the car next to me was singing at the top of her lungs. Her windows were up. I was trying to read her lips and I swear she was singing, ‘I Can Only Imagine.’ I turned the radio on, and it was playing. It was totally a That Thing You Do moment. I called the guys: ‘We’re on the radio!’ I didn’t know what it meant; we were still unsigned. But it was a good feeling.
Redbox: Your song and redemption story have inspired millions around the world, but there is another message in the film that I don’t want to get lost, and that’s the role of teachers and arts education in your life.
Bart Millard: My teachers had a hand in raising me. I would get involved in everything I could because it kept me from going home. Mrs. Fincher (his music teacher played by Priscilla Shirer) had such an impact on my life. She got me into the Broadway stuff in high school. It was such a big deal for me that they cast J. Michael Finley to play me. He was Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. When we got him in the studio to start working on trying to get him to sound like me, Mrs. Fincher was the first person I called. I said, ‘You’re not going to believe this.’ She said, ‘I know; I read that you’re making a movie,’ and I said, ‘Forget the movie, I’m in the studio with Jean Valjean.’ I’m 45 and she’s still part of my life. She is one of my dearest friends. She will always be one of the first people I call.