Earlier this month preacher Sam Childers and screenwriter Jason Keller came to Washington, D.C. to meet with reporters (a panel that included BH’s own John Hanlon, who wrote about the interview here) in advance of the release of “Machine Gun Preacher,” a new film by Marc Forster based on the life of Sam Childers, a drug-dealing biker-turned-preacher who runs an orphanage in Sudan. But he does more than that: When the terrorizing Lord’s Resistance Army led by the villainous Joseph Kony attacks villages and kidnaps children in northern Uganda and southern Sudan, Sam and his troop of Sudanese soldiers fight back and rescue those children from the clutches of their captors.
Sam is a stocky man with an emphatic handlebar mustache. He’s shorter than you might expect – certainly shorter than Gerard Butler who plays him – but he has a presence about him compounded by his biker attire. Jason has the goatee, long hair and overall grunge look of a Hollywood writer.
My first question was about Jason’s introduction to the story. “One of the producers … called me. She said ‘I just heard the most amazing true story.’ She gave me a little thirty second [overview] and asked, ‘Do you wanna meet the guy?’ I said, ‘Yeah, gotta meet him.’ I met Sam the next week and that’s when it all sort of started.”
Keller researched the story for a year and a half before he began to really write. But it wasn’t until after he’d written a complete script that he made it to Sudan. “We were nervous about that,” Jason said of himself and director Marc Forster. “By that time we had a screenplay that we felt very confident about. … But we were scared that we were going to go over there and realize we hadn’t rendered the story in terms of the central Africa [part] accurately. We went over there and we had open eyes. I was prepared to do whatever I had to do to get it right.” Fortunately everything seemed to fit. “We really worked hard to get that screenplay right before we actually were able to go over there and see [the orphanage]. Not a lot changed. The only things that changed were some specific sort of character things for Deng (one of Sam’s soldiers), some specific things for some of the kids … but in terms of structural shifts not much at all.”
Of the story Sam said, “They’ve done an unbelievable job [of taking] thirty plus years and put[ting] it into a two-hour movie. Everything there is based on the truth.” Jason added, “I demanded [Sam’s] input.”
It shows. In his book, “Another Man’s War,” Sam delves deeper into his life and into the spiritual battles he’s fought over the years in his service in the U.S. and Africa. The movie is by no means the book made into film, but parallels exist – in Sam’s own words from “Another Man’s War” – with nearly every scene. “The timeline is messed up, but how else could you do it unless you wanted to do a two-part, three-part movie?” Sam said.
Sam emphasized during the interview that, while southern Sudan voted on its independence in July, the fighting continues. “You can drive six to eight hours from the orphanage and you can be into what you would call an active war area. … Some people would say Joseph Kony is not a threat anymore and he’s not doing much anymore. But since the first of the year he has abducted over one thousand people. So that is a threat. Since the first of the year he’s killed over two hundred people. So that is a threat. For me, if somebody is killing one child that is a problem.”
And Sam’s war with the LRA is where most discussions will start after people watch this film. “On Judgment Day I believe I’m gonna have a lot of things to answer for,” Sam said. “If you’re behind me in line you can think about what you’re going to say for a long time.” He added, “I don’t ever try to claim what I do is right. But I will use the defense that over a thousand children will say what I do is right.”
Jason’s own views were shaped through the course of the filmmaking process. “I’m against violence,” he said, but added, “When I traveled to Sudan and I met those kids and I saw the scars of war literally on their faces and I saw a land decimated by twenty-plus years of civil war, the answer to that question [of violence] becomes really complex, and there is no easy answer. … In my view the people who say violence is bad, and you’re not a Christian if you commit violence, I say [to them] that’s easy to say when you’re safely ensconced in your home in the United States and you have takeout pizza down the street. It’s a different thing to say when I’ve seen the places that Sam has been to on this planet. The answer to that question becomes very complex.”
Sam’s own answer is simple. He relies on James 4:17, not your typical verse for comfort and encouragement, but a driving force in his life nonetheless: “If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them” (NIV). For Sam, defending the children of Sudan is the good he must do.
“Machine Gun Preacher” hits theaters on Sept. 30.