Along with his interview with Gerard Butler, Nick Allen interviewed Machine Gun Preacher's title subject, Sam Childers, and the screenwriter who brought his life story to the medium, Jason Keller. You can read his interview with Butler, who plays Childers in the film, here. Check out the true side of Machine Gun Preacher below.
I think one of the things that the movie does really well is show that one person with a great goal can accomplish great things, like Erin Brockovich. I don’t think a lot of us do that. Let’s talk a little bit how you went through this conversion, and found this sort of purpose.
Sam Childers: It started for me in Florida. I was out drinking one night in the barroom and doing drugs and got into a really bad bar fight, and almost got killed. I came home that night, and I knew that night I was going to change my life. I told my wife, “We’re moving from here. We’re going back to Pennsylvania.” We moved from Florida to Pennsylvania because I knew I had to get out of the lifestyle that I was living. But when I got back to Pennsylvania, she started going to church with my mom. I started running with the wild guys again. Finally, tow years after I moved back to PA, I said, “You know hat, I want to change.”
How did you know when you hit that bottom?
Childers: For me, it was exactly the way it showed in the movie, just a little bit different. I went to church with my wife, she was really pushing on me to go. Sitting in church, God just started moving on me. It was time to just walk away. I never had a problem with dying, but I had a problem with what I was going to die for. The lifestyle I had in Florida, I was going to die for no reason.
Along those same lines, now you’ve in Africa with those children. Can you tell us the moment the transformation came that you decided to be a crusader for the children?
Childers: It was back in 1998, 1999. I was on my first mission trip to Africa, and as it showed in the movie, it showed a child running and stepping on a landmine. That’s nt exactly how it happened, but that’s what moved me – I come across a body of a child that stepped on a landmine that was out in the middle of the bush, and when I stood over that body, from the waist down was gone. I couldn’t tell if it was a boy or girl. But I said, “God, I’ll do whatever I need to do to help these people.”
Making and having this film available is sort of a miraculous outreach for you, to get your story out there. What kind of truth do you hope an audience member will come away with after he or she hears your story?
Childers: This might be weird for you to understand, but my thing is that I don’t want people to think this movie is about Sam Childers, or about the children of Africa. I want this movie to be about you – everyone in this room, is who this movie is about. It’s about one person, one man, one woman, taking a stand for what they believe in. It’s about saving children from around the world – it’s not just Africa. Our world right now, the movie is about Africa, it’s about everything that’s going on in South Sudan, but we work in more than just south Sudan. I work at rescuing children around the world. We’ve got a serious drug problem in the U.S that we need to address. Sometimes we don’t want to admit something until it’s too late. When you start speaking to schools and find out that children as young as eight years old have been using drugs, or offered drugs, that’s a serious problem.
Jason Keller: I think that people will see this movie and might think that this is an old story. We see that we have a brand new state in south Sudan. They might think what we show in the movie is no longer a problem. But central Africa certainly, and south Sudan, is still a tender box. I would hope that in addition to that, that people come out of the movie and they do better understand central Africa. And they do understand the atrocities thatare happening today. Yesterday, there’s fighting in the Blue Nile State, there’s fighting in south Khourtofam, there are absolutely horrific things happening in Africa. And I hope that people get on the internet, read a book, ask questions, and get involved.
There’s this juxtaposition between you saving the children of Africa, and you saving your own child. Talk about her needs versus their needs.
Childers: At the time that I was raising my daughter, I knew that my wife had everything under control. I wasn’t there as a father should have been, at least I say that to this day, but if my daughter was here with me now, she’d say, “No way.” My daughter runs my non-profit now. She said to me when she was seventeen, “We got to talk.” I thought she wanted to go to college or something. I said, “Anywhere you want to go to college, I’ll work on it and get the money for you.” And she said, “No dad, I want to run your non-profit.” And I said “What?” Here’s a girl that a few years earlier wsa saying, “I hate you dad.” But, she said to me, “Do you remember when we would go to the warehouse to get our own clothing, because we didn’t have our own clothing? I was with you getting my clothing too. Do you remember when we didn’t have money for food on the table? I ate from that same table. And if anyone knows how to sacrifice for this non-profit, I do.” My daughter is twenty-two years old, and she runs the non-profit, right now. Plus she runs my motorcycle shop.
How do you maintain your outlook to continue hoping, etc?
Childers: I got to ask you one question, and I think if you can answer that … have you ever rescued one child before? Just rescued one child, from drugs and alcohol, or from being on the street. If you have done that for one child, it’s almost like an addiction that you want to start helping people. That’s what happened to me. But maybe I had to hurt so many people, or because it’s because I hurt so many people in my past, that I’m on a crusade to help people. We have literally helped I don’t know how many people. I have pulled prostitutes off the street and given them a second chance in life. Homeless people, guys from crackhouses, a second chance in life. I am willing todo whatever the cost is to give someone that second chance. I do that in my church in Pennsylvania. If you had done interviews in my church, you’d walk out and say, “This guy is for real.” Over half of our church would say, “I was an alcoholic. Sam pulled me in. I was a drug addict. Sam pulled me in.” It’s about giving people a second chance in life.
Jason, would you talk a little about the particular challenges of the screenplay? Dealing with the dualities of the character? How do you make it work?
Keller: I didn’t start writing this screenplay for a long time, and I wasn’t sure that I wanted to get involved in this movie frankly. I had met Sam, and it was an electrifying story. I continued to talk to him, I continued to read about him and Sudan. But I didn’t know that I watned to jump in on this movie for a lot of different reasons. One of the reasons was that I didn’t know how to tell the story. Yes, Sam’s story is full of action and all these sort of things that make us go, “Wow, what a great story.” But I didn’t know how to get into the guy. He was very difficult for me. It took me half a year of talking to him and living with his family stuff, and what I discovered was the price that this guy pays for what he does. Spiritually, psychically. Financially. Once I was able to understand that, and see these two sides, this guy was helping children, and yet was taking from his family, and in some cases, they were sacrificing beyond what they should sacrifice, it was that very duality that made me want to write this movie. I’m trying to understand this guy. That’s the real guy in this movie. It’s not a particularly flattering portrayal of Sam Childers. He’s a violent, aggressive, intimidating, and intense guy. He does something exceptional on this planet, what other people don’t do.
How much coaching did you have to give Jason when it came to dialogue?
Childers: I don’t really believe that I had to give him a lot of coaching. We spent a lot of time together. I’m not the easiest person to spend time with. I’m sure everyone can remember when we’d get report cards. Mine would always say, “Doesn’t work well with others,” and I still don’t. I mean, I don’t believe it was easy for him. Even going to Africa. Jason actually went to Africa. And you can hear a story from my mouth, but it makes it an all-different story when you hear it directyly from the children – directly from people, directly from soldiers on the grounds in Africa. He was there a week-and-a-half, two weeks during all of this research. It wasn’t just hearing it from me, he went there.
Keller: But I would call him. When I finally agreed to write this movie …
Childers: He was like a bad rash. You ever have a bad rash? You put everything on it, you just couldn’t get rid of it.
Keller: I would call him every single day.
Childers: And there was a three hours difference.
Keller: And I’d just say, “Hey man, what are you doing?” We wouldn’t talk about the movie, necessarily. But just to hear that cadence, it’s such an amazing voice, and sort of roll, the way he talks. He didn’t know I was doing that.
Could you speak a little bit about your wife?
Yeah. I’ve always said that I don’t deserve the wife that I have. She’s put up with a lot of crap from me. She’s been amazing. She was a stripper – she’s still a stripper, but just for me now. I used to go to a lot strip bars, and I got the best. The first time that I spoke out at a church that she was a stripper, she almost slid under the pew. Now she’s okay with it. She stands up and tells people. She looks hot, man. But when she gives her testimony, it gives every stripper, every prostitute, every person walking the same life that she walked, hope. Hope that all they got to do is say I’ve got to stop what I’m doing. And in the movie, when she said she was stopping stripping, I was mad. Absolutely. I was gonna lose my free ticket to the strip joint.
Keller: I just wanted to say something about Lynn. When I lived with the Childers for a while, I fell in love with Lynn, and I fell in love with Paige. And what I found there was two very strong women who enable women to do what he does. He couldn’t do what he does without them. They are loving, kind, absolute bedrocks. It was really important for me for her character to come across that way. And I worked hard on that, and I think Michelle Monaghan really delivered on that.
When does condensing real life events become truly difficult for you?
Keller: When the real guy is sitting next to you. It’s hard. This is a thirty-five year story that we had to compress into two hours or so. That’s structurally very difficult. It was a learning curve, for both of us. I brought Sam into the process in a big way. I wanted to get it right. As I would go visit him, or he would come to L.A, I would pitch him parts of the movie. I’d say, “I’m taking this real life scene and attaching it to this,” and he’d say, “That didn’t happen like that.” We had some knockdown drag-outs about it. It was about Sam learning the language of how to make a movie and tell a narrative on-screen, and of me trying to tell this story in a truthful way in movie form. It was a mash-up.
Childers: I was thinking there should be like ten different movies made. They ended up bunching a lot of time together. I had a problem with that until he sat down and explained to me that, the guy in the movie, Donnie, was actually made up of six different characters. And he said, “Look, we can’t have six different people playing the roles of your best friends.” And after it was explained, I started understanding that.
Keller: And I think the spirit of Sam’s life and what he does, is absolutely captured in the movie. And that was important to us. “Did every scene support the spirit of Sam’s true life?” And after the movie, we can say, “Yes, it did.”