"I Can Only Imagine" charted on Christian, mainstream and country charts and has more than 1 million downloads. It is quite possibly the most popular Christian song of all time.
But, as with every great piece of work, there's a backstory. And this song's backstory has been made into a movie starring Dennis Quaid.
The movie, which is named after the song, is based on MercyMe's frontman and Greenville native Bart Millard, played by J. Michael Finley, and his relationship with his father, Arthur Millard, played by Dennis Quaid. This relationship and Arthur Millard's journey with his faith were the inspiration for the song.
This isn't Quaid's first faith-based film, however. In 2011, Quaid played the father to Bethany Hamilton in Soul Surfer. It told the true story of a young woman who was attacked by a shark, and the movie had an overlying Christian tone.
"The phrase 'Christian film' or the phrase 'faith-based film,' it's the same thing as saying, 'Every Arnold Schwarzenegger movie was a 13-year-old teenager film,'" Quaid explains. "If it's a good story, everybody will go to see it. I think it's just fine that it's called faith-based. Just fine with me."
Bart Millard didn't want to follow in the footsteps of other faith-based movies. He says he was emotional while watching the movie, but it was important to him not to sugarcoat anything.
"If you don't show how bad [my dad] was, then the redemption story's kind of diluted,'" Bart Millard says. "And the directors were really cool about it and said they were on the same page. At some point, there was a discussion of, 'We have to be careful that it's not an R-rated movie,' and I was like, 'OK, we're on the right track,' just because I didn't want them to back off.
"I wanted people to know this dude was not good, and so the first time I saw it, I was like, I think we nailed it because there's just an ache that I felt in certain scenes. But that was what I wanted. I wanted people to understand how rough it was."
"There's just an ache that I felt in certain scenes. But that was what I wanted. I wanted people to understand how rough it was." — Bart Millard
Arthur Millard was physically, verbally and emotionally abusive to his son. To put it lightly, Quaid played a bad guy, but not the kind you're in any way rooting for.
"It's fun to play the bad guy in comic book movie," Quaid says. "This is a true story, and ... I don't see Arthur as a bad guy. I see him as a person who was a product of his own circumstances growing up. To play an abusive father, a monster, as he was described by — rightly so — by his son Bart, was what he was for most of their relationship, it made it very difficult."
Quaid says although he is a Christian who grew up in the Baptist church, he had never heard the song. He waited until after he finished reading the script to listen.
"I put the CD aside, and I read the story," he says. "When I read a script, that's how I choose the movies that I'm gonna do. When I read the script for the first time — because that's the only time that I'm going to be an audience member with the first-time experience of it — I experienced the story, and that's why I applied. It was such a powerful story, being as true as it was, and a very difficult role."
Nevertheless, Quaid says, after shooting scenes, he was able to leave the character on set. "Believe it, it's not my life," he says. "I leave it right there at the set, and I go out and I have a great time."
But Quaid embodied the role of Arthur Millard, Bart Millard says. While Bart Millard was on set during the first day of filming, he says, it was hard to keep it together while watching Quaid play his dad.
"The first scene they filmed was when my dad was told he had cancer," Bart Millard says. "It was weird because I'm thinking it's pretend or whatever, but when he walked out with the work shirt with my dad's name on the shirt, and they kept calling him Mr. Millard, man, it punched me in the gut.
"The next scene they film is when he breaks a plate over my head, and so we're really batting a thousand here, and I'm sitting there and we're watching that scene, and literally by the time they got done with that, I was like, 'I'm going to go for a drive,' and decided I would come back when there a lot of hugging and nice things said. But I never saw it coming."
I Can Only Imagine is in theaters March 16.