CEDAR FALLS – Kurt Warner’s story was too good not to be made into a movie, but for him and his family, the hard part was finding the right team to do it. American Underdog: The Kurt Warner Story
hits theaters Christmas Day and tells the story of Warner’s rise from UNI backup and Hy-Vee shelf stocker to Superbowl MVP.
On Jan. 15, 2000, more than two weeks before Kurt Warner would lead “The Greatest Show on Turf” to a 23-16 win over the Titans in the Super Bowl, the Des Moines Register’s Marc Hansen penned an article about the rise of Kurt Warner. The lead of the article stated it pretty clearly, “It’s time to start thinking movie rights.”
Over two decades later and nearly a decade of work by Warner and his wife, Brenda, the movie “American Underdog: the Kurt Warner Story” is finally about to hit the big screen.
If you are reading this article, chances are you know the story about the second string UNI QB, turned starter, turned Gateway League MVP who stocked shelves at Hy-Vee before becoming an Arena League legend and getting a shot in the NFL to become a two-time Super Bowl MVP and a Hall of Famer. It is also a story about Brenda, a former Marine and a single mother with a daughter and a disabled son, before marrying Warner and their journey together from Iowa to the top of the NFL. The movie that tells his incredible story will hit theaters Christmas Day.
While the movie talk started during that first breakout NFL year, the first thing that came about was the book “All Things Possible.”
“When we were in the midst of that first season, one of the first national reporters to come and talk with us was Sports Illustrated’s Mike Sliver,” Warner said. “He came out and spent a few days with us, and we got to know him personally. He had a unique approach to telling our story. After we won the Super Bowl, he approached us and said, ‘Let’s write your book.” It was a natural fit for us after the relationship we built.”
The book was published in August 2000. An important factor in the book, which would carry over to the creation of the movie, is that it is more than just football. Warner was adamant that his story was one of overcoming adversity through faith and family, and he didn’t settle when it came to finding a team that would match his vision.
“We started talks pretty early after I retired, and what you kind of find out is that stories take time to write and get into production,” Warner said. “We went through several different writers, but I never felt like we got it right. If we are going to make this movie, this will be the story that we want to tell. Not just the glamorous parts, not just the football, but our story.”
After years of false starts and behind-the-scenes work, the Warners met Jon and Andrew Erwin and the team at Lionsgate.
“When we met the guys at Lionsgate, we felt it was the right fit,” Warner said. “We felt comfortable that they were going to tell our story, our way, and then we really got to work.”
The scriptwriting and production got into high gear, but there are a thousand details in movie making. The team at Lionsgate reached out to UNI Athletics to get helmets, jerseys, game film, photos, posters, logo designs and more.
They did everything possible to make it as accurate as possible. While jersey details and shooting locations focus on being accurate, casting comes down to finding the essence of the character. In the movie, Chuck and Shazaam star Zachary Levi plays Warner. Oscar-winner Anna Pacquin plays Brenda. Patriot and Independence Day star Adam Baldwin portrays former Panther coach Terry Allen.
“In your mind, you have a distinct view of what everyone is like, and you see the casting and think, ‘Seriously, you are going to have that person play them?’ But when you get around the actors or you see them on screen, the important thing is that they carry the essence of the person,” Warner said. “You also can’t have 700 people in a movie, so sometimes you have to combine characters. When we went with the guys at Lionsgate, we did so because we trusted them. We had to step back and let them do their jobs, and I think they did a phenomenal job.”
For Levi, the chance to play someone who is a real person and that was there for much of the production was an opportunity to explore the character in a new way. He went to Phoenix to spend a
few days with the Warners and watched games and interviews to help with his portrayal.
“It was incredible to be able to get more knowledge and wisdom about who he is, who Brenda is and who their kids are, but mostly just feeling his energy,” Levi said. “I definitely watched his old interviews
and game highlights, but to actually be in a room with someone for extended periods of time and feel what their cadence is like, sense of humor, all of that stuff was key. Kurt and Brenda were on set quite a bit as well, which was awesome because there were moments when I could go to him to ask little tidbits that I felt were important to his overall essence.”
The prep work took months and just as shooting was getting set to commence in the spring of 2020 the COVID-19 pandemic put a halt to production. The planned shooting was paused, but that didn’t mean that work stopped. The team went back and continued to fine-tune the script and work on every detail.
“Without a doubt, COVID-19 made the movie better,” Warner said. “They are never done until they are done. You never feel like you get it totally right, but any time you have to work on it, you have a chance to make it better, and I think we took those months to make positive changes.”
As production ramped up, it went at a breakneck speed. Years of work culminate in just a few weeks of shooting. Principal photography took place in Oklahoma with some scenes shot in Dallas. For Warner, it was an unbelievable experience but one that is almost hard to fathom as it happens.
“It is a long time in the making, and then all of sudden you are shooting, and everything is happening so fast,” Warner said. “Because it goes so fast, it is tough to take it all in. Not many people get movies made about them, so you have to step back and take it in. You have to do it fast, but you still want to make sure it is right to really have an impact on people.”
When it comes down to it, the impact that this film makes is the most important thing to Warner. It is the reason he went through a handful of writers. It is the reason that he had to find the right team to make it, and it is the reason that he has been very hands-on from the beginning.
“It is very surreal to step back to see and feel those moments,” Warner said. “You hope that everyone else feels those moments, because they are personal to you. It is your story. There is a lot of nervousness, excitement and anxiety, and you want to make sure it is done the right way.”
With the delays in everything from writing to the pandemic, Warner feels like the time for the movie release couldn’t be more perfect. He feels like the story will resonate, and hopefully make an impact on people’s lives. While football is a key part of this story, he doesn’t believe it is the most important part.
“We called it ‘American Underdog,’ because it is not just my story,” Warner said. “This is my wife’s underdog story, my son’s underdog story. It is a story we need in our country right now. We feel like the timing is right, and it feels like everything is coming together to make something special.”