Even today, Sam Childers is a formidable, somewhat intimidating man. He has passed through his own personal hellfire to get to a place in his life where God is the guiding force in his life, but that doesn't mean that he won't take man out if he threatens the lives of innocents. Sam's life is the subject of the new film MACHINE GUN PREACHER, starring Gerard Butler as Childers, an explosive new film that combines one man's personal struggles to overcome a downright evil past with a type of action movie based on Childers' experiences building an orphanage in the Sudan.
I got the very unique opportunity to interview Childers, along with the film's screenwriter Jason Keller, who also wrote the screenplay for the upcoming, untitled Snow White film to be directed by Tarsem Singh (THE CELL; IMMORTALS), starring Lily Collins, Armie Hammer, Sean Bean, and Julia Roberts as the Evil Queen. The three of us got to chat about how they met, how they decided what made it in the movie and what didn't, and how Keller got the rare opportunity (for writers) of being on set for the entire shoot.
And for those of you who find this story as fascinating as I did, Childers' book, "Another Man's War," is being reissued in paperback and as an eBook on October 4. Please enjoy my conversation with the Rev. Sam Childers and Jason Keller…
Capone: How did you two find each other? Was the movie was already happening when Jason was brought on board?
Sam Childers: No.
Jason Keller: No.
Capone: No, it was not? Okay.
SC: No, the movie was not. I heard rumors… You know, there’s always a lot of bad press rumor, and I heard rumor that somebody said that, and that’s totally a lie.
SC: Yeah, now I had my book written at the time, but I didn’t realize it didn’t come out when I first met Jason.
JK: No, you were writing it.
SC: I believe it was probably done.
JK: Maybe it was done, yeah.
SC: It was in to the ghost writer where he was putting it in chapters and everything, but as far as what Jason did, he wrote his script off of the true life story of my book.
JK: I was introduced to Sam through one of the producers of the movie, Robbie Brenner.
Capone: How lone ago was this?
JK: This was in the middle of ’08? Maybe at the end of ’08, something like that. And as I said last night, she called me and said, “I heard the most amazing true story; you have got to hear this. Do you want to meet the guy?” I said, “Yeah, I would love to meet the guy.” So I went and met Sam down in Santa Monica for coffee and I sat down and I was with two of the producers and me, and this was our first meeting, and they were saying, “Tell Sam what it is to be a screenwriter and sort of what you're thinking about his story,” and I hadn’t agreed to write the movie yet. So I was talking and the producers were talking, and about 20 minutes into the thing Sam hadn’t said a word right, and then he was just glaring at me across the table, and it was very intimidating, you know?
Finally, there was a silence, and none of us had anything else to say and one of the producers said, “Well Sam, what do you think about what Jason just said?” He sort of leaned across the table and he said, “Listen, I don’t know you, I ain’t never seen any of your movies, and I sure as heck ain’t gonna trust you with my story. I don’t want to waste my time with a guy like you.” I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder and a bit of a flash temper and I said, “Hey let me tell you how it works out here. You’re lucky that I’m sitting down here.” I was sort of pissed off and blustery and I got up to leave, and Sam reached over and he grabbed my arm and he pulled me closer, smiled at me, and he looked up and he said, “I was just testing you. I wanted to see if you’d piss your pants. You didn’t. Sit down and let’s start talking about my story.”
JK: So it was this incredible sort of test to see…
SC: He did cry.
JK: No, I didn’t. And that started a relationship that has lasted three or four years. That’s how we met.
Capone: You also said that in addition to the book, just talking to Sam informed some of the things that you put in the screenplay. Were there things that weren’t necessarily emphasized in the book that you wanted to pull out of his story?
SC: One thing that I liked about Jason, what he did, was he literally kind of moved into my life. He came to Pennsylvania a few times and he literally stayed at our house and he stayed at our campground, stayed at our church. I mean he literally kind of moved in to the life and not only into my life, but into my wife’s life, into my daughter’s life, and even friends that were around us, and then he even went into Africa. For him to make sure that he was going to get it right, he wanted to do all of the research that he could, which meant go to Africa and talk to the children that were rescued and talk to people that have worked with me in Africa, and he actually went in and spent over a week just on the orphanage, about a week and a half on the orphanage, and he went into the bush to a couple places. How many years ago were you there? 2009?
JK: Yeah, something like that.
SC: 2009. South Sudan now is not near what it was a few years ago, but in 2009 there was still some hairy stuff going on.
Capone: Yeah, so your idea was immersion? You just immersed yourself in his world?
JK: I embedded. I had to, because I respect this guy and I fell in love with his family, and the story was too raw and too powerful to “Hollywood-ize” any more that we sort of had to. This isn’t a documentary; this is a Hollywood movie where you have to do something. But, I wanted it to be authentic to this man and his life, and that required getting as close to him as I could to get it right.
Capone: And you said last night you were actually on the set the whole time?
JK: I was. Which is rare.
Capone: I was thinking that too. I didn’t want to say that last night, but I’m like “Wow, that almost never happens.” So what were you contributing while they were shooting?
JK: When Marc Forster read the script and said, “Look, I have to direct this movie. We have to make this movie,” one of the first things I asked him is, “This screenplay and this story are very important to me and I’m very passionate about it and I worked very hard on this script for free when no one was around, we didn’t have financing.” We developed this outside the studio system. Studios didn’t come in until far late in the process; this was all out of our own pocket.
I said, “Marc, I know this doesn’t happen, but I want to be there for every step of this thing, because it’s just too important to me,” and he was a little hesitant at first, because I think he had some… Writers have a bad reputation on the set. We have this reputation of storming around saying, “You’ve changed my words!” And I said, “I promise you I won’t do that. I want to be there to support you. I want to be there to make sure the story is told correctly,” and to his credit, he did that. He made sure I was there whenever I wanted to be there and I was there the whole time. It was a great experience.
Capone: Yeah, so how often did you get to go to the set, Sam?
SC: I got on the set in Detroit twice just a few days each time, and then I was in South Africa a few days. I think bottom line, it’s probably a little harder having me on the set than anybody else.
Capone: I can imagine.
JK: For everybody.
SC: Yeah, for everybody.
JK: I think it was a real learning curve, certainly for Gerard [Butler] and Sam. “Somebody is doing my life story,” and here’s Gerard trying to portray this man in some way that’s authentic, but it’s also a learning curve for Marc Forster. It was also certainly a learning curve for me, but for everybody to have a guy that’s this charismatic, that is this powerful and has this strong point of view, to have that guy on the set, it was intense, and we wanted to do right by him, so it made it very intense.
Capone: Did you inject yourself at all into the process on the days you were on the set?
SC: No, I kind of stayed a little bit quiet. I mean the only problem that I had at first was them taking so many years and bunching them together. The whole first part of the movie is right on, everything happened almost exactly like that, except the time line was wrong. There are a few things in the fighting stuff in Sudan that’s not quite the way it had happened, but you know it’s all based on the truth, and if anything, if people can say, “Well, this was fabricated,” it might have been tweaked, but it gets your attention.
SC: Yeah, and it gets people’s attention, and there were people there last night from Sudan that literally stood up. They liked it, because it got their attention, and it got out the struggle that they had been going through for all of these years, you know? So there are always going to be some people that are going to be against something and there are always going to be people that are for it, and let’s just hope that most of the people are going to be for it, but like I said last night, “Let’s not make the movie about Sam Childers; let’s not make it about children in Africa; let’s make it about you. What are you going to do now? And lets make it about children around the world.”
Capone: Did you know who Gerard Butler was before he came on board?
SC: I’m going to be honest with you, I don’t know too many actors, because I’m not a person that sits around and watches TV. I watch the news a lot. I know George “Cloney” and recognize him right away.
JK: George “Clooney.”
SC: Clooney, George Clooney. I know him.
Capone: Was he the guy you pictured playing you when you were writing the book?
SC: No, no. But I think that Gerard Butler did a very good job. I was really worried about him when I first met him, because of his Scottish accent, but in the movie, I don’t know what happened to the accent, but he turned into a hillbilly, so he had done a good job and you could see it.
JK: He worked hard.
SC: You could see it in his eyes. The one scene that literally brought back a lot to me was with the banker. When he was in the bank, you could see it in his eyes. I saw myself. It was like looking at myself when I just looked into his eyes, and I said to myself, “He got it.”
Capone: That’s an intense scene, with all of the photos and.
JK: I remember the day that we shot that, and that was early on actually in the production, and everyone working on the movie was there and everyone was moved to tears behind the camera, I mean, the grips, the gaffers, the production group, everyone was silent and moved to tears in that scene, because it was electric.
Capone: Gerard has said in some interviews that he has done for this film already that he had some demons when he was a younger guy that he had to kind of overcome the same way you did. Were you surprised that you had that in common with him, and that he could identify with you on that level?
SC: You know, I heard about it early on when I first met him, I heard that he had some struggles in his life, but you know what? Anyone that says they don’t is a liar, because I believe every one of us struggles with something and I believe that it’s almost like everyone of us has a little demon somewhere in our life, and it all goes back to, “Okay, what are you going to do about it?”
Capone: Seeing the film for the first time…
SC: The first time I saw it--now I could stand up and talk to thousands of people about it--but the first time I saw it when I went into the theater, and it was all with friends and family, people that I personally knew. Deborah [Giarratana, producer] asked me if I wanted to say something. I couldn’t say anything. I couldn’t talk, because I knew if I were to have started talking, I was just so nervous, I would have started crying and then even afterwards I couldn’t talk. I watched it once in the afternoon and then that evening I watched it again with more friends and family, I was able to say something, but the first time I couldn’t and I mean I cried, and even last evening watching it again, there are certain parts that still bother me a lot.
Capone: What does your wife think about Michelle Monaghan's performacne?
SC: She thinks she’s done a wonderful job and she even said, “She makes me look good in blue panties, or whatever color they were.” [Laughs] But no, my wife thought that she had done an unbelievable job. She even told me that she can’t wait to see her in order to tell her that, because she did a really good job.
Capone: You’ve said that “it’s a Hollywood movie,” you have to do certain things to keep things moving. But were there certain moments or certain aspects of Sam that you wanted to keep as close to exactly how it happened as possible?
JK: Other than the action sequences, I wanted everything in between those action sequences to be as close to reality as Sam shared with me.
SC: And it was. I’ve got to really say, like even down to the scene of the guy that had the party at his house, that was not based on one party, that was based on a lot of different times that that has happened. The bank thing, that was all the truth. So as far as him showing the struggle, and also when the Sudanese leader, John Garang, was killed, that was devastating day to me. I mean it was like somebody from my own family got killed. So as far as what he did writing that, he hit it head on. He literally… It was almost like he pulled my heart out and literally took it and put it in him to write that whole part.
JK: I think the goal always for all of us and not just me, Sam and Marc Forster and Gerard Butler and Michelle Monaghan and everybody, we all wanted to stay true to the spirit of Sam and his struggles and his family and the kids in Africa, and I really think that the movie is true to that spirit, absolutely. To answer your question, the action sequences, we amped them up no doubt, and you have to. This is a Hollywood movie. If you want to get your movie made, you have to in some way be aware of what they're looking for. I think we got out of the Hollywood system with an incredibly true movie, which never happens.
SC: The only thing they didn’t amp up were the atrocities that have happened in south Sudan.
JK: If anything we made them less…
SC: They literally held them back, because I’ve seen people that were skinned alive. I’ve seen people with their lips cut off, their ears cut off, their nose cut off, eyelids cut off, I mean unbelievable things. So if anything on that aspect, they held back. On the action scenes, they were amped up.
JK: But has this guy been in numerous firefights? Absolutely. Have there been sniper attacks to kill this man? Absolutely. So it all comes from real life.
SC: I’ve been in more gunfights in the U.S. than I had been in the Africa. [laughs]
Capone: You said last night, you've gotten more death threats from people in the U.S., as well. What were the nature of the death threats in the states?
SC: When you start talking against drug dealers and you start telling them, “I ain’t going to have you in my town,” you're going to have people as a last resort trying to come against you. How often do you hear a guy get on TV and saying, “Man, you need to stand up to drug dealers in your neighborhood. We need to take back our neighborhood. We need to stop the drug dealing in schools.” I speak in high schools, okay? You start talking like that and you're going to have some young snot-nosed kid get on the internet and try to give you a death threat, and I really don’t care. But I’m tired of young people dying of drugs. It’s time that we speak out. Why did we first smoke a cigarette? Did you ever smoke a cigarette before?
SC: Okay, why do we first do it? Because we think that we want to be cool. It’s going to make us cool to smoke that cigarette, to drink that drink, and then smoke that joint. I want to tell young people around the world, “If you want to be cool, you don’t use drugs, because every stupid person uses drugs. So be cool and not use them.” So when young people hear that, they want to grab onto it, but when drug dealers hear it, especially the ones that are preying on high school students, they don’t like it.
Capone: Do you still preach in your church that you built?
SC: Yeah, whenever I am home I automatically speak in the church, but usually it’s my wife that usually takes care of the church.
Capone: It’s been a couple of weeks since I have seen the movie, but what is the nature of your ministry? What makes it different than the church down the street or in the next town over?
SC: Our church was built to accept anyone. All churches and all pastors will say, “We accept anyone,” but you go into a normal church where they're dressed up very nice on Sundays. This is how I dress when I preach, okay? [Sam is dressed in worn blue jeans, a plain off-white shirt and a leather motorcycle vest and boots.] I’m a very simple person, and people that might have long hair that might dress the way I do or might be known as being a drug dealer in town or an alcoholic or something or a prostitute, they don’t feel comfortable in a normal church, and what I tell people all of the time is, “You want to go to church where you feel comfortable, because when you feel comfortable, you want to get involved.” I’ve got straight people that come to my church, and we’ve got people that are all messed up, but I tell people, “If you are not comfortable here, you need to find a church that you are.”
Capone: So how often do you actually preach?
SC: Usually I’m there every other month for at least one Sunday out of a month. I spend about seven months a year overseas somewhere and then five months a year here raising funds. So about five to ten times out of a year I probably speak at my own church.
Capone: And really quick, before they stop us. What is going on with the documentary version of your story, and why didn’t you take that approach initially?
SC: Well you know what? This is what I was advised. I’m not a real smart person, I always claim that, but I get mentored by people that really know what they're talking about, and people said that the best thing to do was to do the book first, do the movie, and then the doc last.
JK: Just to add to that, I think as important as documentaries are, especially when talking about issues like this, a theatrical motion picture can reach more people and deliver more information than mere facts alone.
SC: It’s free advertisement for a doc.
JK: Well that too, but if we're talking about the issue of mass atrocities and what’s going on in Sudan. If we are talking about these things that Sam has been talking about, you have an opportunity to reach more people and affect them more deeply with a dramatic telling of this guy’s life. Documentaries are great, the sad truth is people don’t go see documentaries, period. It doesn’t matter how brilliant they are, people don’t spend the time, but they'll go see a movie at a cineplex, and if you can deliver the message that way, you can affect more people. So, that’s what we are trying to do here.
SC: And not only that, if they are really moved by the movie--and people all over have been really moved on it--it’s going to make them want to know more, so I mean it’s good for the doc too. My thing is I want to bring in as much funds as I can. I actually have a trust set up, so the majority of the money that we bring in right now is all going into a trust that will be used for our work around the world, not just Sudan, but around the world. I’m working in Ethiopia, Somalia, and also a lot here in the U.S. we're starting to end up working on to.
Capone: That’s what counts. Alright gentlemen, thank you very much.
JK: Hey thanks for last night, by the way. That was great.
Capone: I was a lot of fun. Thanks. By the way, I am kind of curious about your SNOW WHITE script.
JK: Yeah, one of the two.
Capone: And how that’s going to be different than the other one?
JK: Oh, it'll be totally different.
Capone: Is it?
JK: Oh, totally different.
Capone: I haven’t heard anything about what your take on it is.
JK: You know, THE HUNSTMAN is a very dark brooding sort of thing. Ours is a comedic adventure. I mean it’s Julia Roberts. They are two totally different beasts.
Capone: Plus, you’re not going for the trilogy thing either.