Machine Gun Preacher inspiration Sam Childers and screenwriter Jason Keller
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In his autobiographical book, Another Man’s War: The True Story Of One Man’s Battle To Save Children In The Sudan, Sam Childers describes how he climbed out of a self-serving life of violence, alcoholism, and drug addiction to become a preacher, a church founder, and an advocate for victims of Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army in the Sudan. He also describes in brief the many floundering years of attempts to adapt his life into other media, as a documentary, a reality show, or a feature film. The final result, Machine Gun Preacher, stars 300’s Gerard Butler as Childers (The A.V. Club interviewed Butler about the film separately) and was helmed by Monster’s Ball and Quantum Of Solace director Marc Forster. Like the book, the film version follows Childers/Butler from his drug-addicted years through his religious conversion, his founding of an orphanage in Sudan, and his leading local militia members on hunting raids against the LRA, which itself raided local villages in the Sudan, mutilating villagers and stealing children to raise as soldiers and sex slaves. The A.V. Club recently sat down with Childers and Machine Gun Preacher screenwriter Jason Keller to talk about what’s happened in the Sudan since the time period depicted in the film, the compromises inherent in based-on-a-true-story cinema, and the hunt for LRA leader Joseph Kony.
The A.V. Club: Your book was written in 2009, and the film doesn’t cover all of it. What’s happened in the intervening two years?
Sam Childers: There hasn’t been anyone killed around the orphanage in over two years. Things are not near what they used to be in that whole area. Jason keeps up on all the news on South Sudan and what’s going on with Kony, and he’ll say, “Since the first of the year, Kony still abducted 1,000 children out of South Sudan along the border, and he’s killed over 200 people along the border of South Sudan and Congo.” So is there still a problem there? Absolutely. But in the direct area that I’m at, there isn’t no problem. But we’ve went in to other areas—I went up into the Darfur area. I’m actually in Ethiopia now. I’m getting ready to do some work in Somalia. We are doing a lot more in the U.S. than we used to. We’ve always done work here, but now we’re getting into a lot of the sex trafficking. We have more people coming on with our organization that is stepping out and saying, “Sam, I want to do this in sex trafficking, I want to do this.” A lot of that, we keep quiet because—our thing is about rescuing children out of it. A lot of organizations want to buy children out of it. I’m not gonna buy no one. I want to just bring them out of it.
AVC: When you say “we,” do you mean your Angels organization?
SC: Yeah, Angels In East Africa. We have more and more partners that have come on, not just as supporters, but have come on to be part of Angels In East Africa.
AVC: What are the long-term goals for the group at this point, now that you aren’t just reacting to raids in your immediate area?
SC: The orphanage in South Sudan, we’re going to keep working on it. We’ve got two bases in Uganda, one in Northern Uganda, one in the capital. We just started one project in Ethiopia. Right now, we have four projects going on with children. Along here in the States, I’ve got a campground in Pennsylvania we use for troubled youth. That work’s going to keep on expanding. They’re getting ready to start having me speak on drugs and alcohol. I’ve been doing that in high schools, but now they’re having me do some stuff in colleges. I believe that our work is expanding to rescue children around the world, because if we can save one child from doing drugs, that means we can save a child from having an overdose. We have a very serious drug problem here in the U.S. We even have a very serious sex-trafficking problem here in the U.S.
AVC: So… when does the sequel film come out?
Jason Keller: I don’t know about that.
SC: He’s waiting until I get shot.
JK: [Laughs.] Yeah, that’d be a good ending.
SC: Yeah, you’ve gotta have the ending.
JK: Sam is talking about all the stuff he’s doing around the world for children and sex trafficking in the United States, but I think it’s also important to remember that although South Sudan is now an independent state, the trouble in Sudan continues, and there are mass atrocities happening every day. Today. The Islamist dictatorship in Khartoum is perpetrating war crimes on a daily basis.
JK: I think although the media has made a big deal out of—and rightly so—that South Sudan is now a free state, we can’t forget that there’s a dictator living in Khartoum, the only sitting president in history to be indicted for genocide. We can’t forget that that part of the country, Central Africa, is a tinderbox, and at any moment, another civil war could break out, or a war between North and South, or genocide, as happened in Darfur. We have to be vigilant. I hope that this movie in some way tells people to be vigilant, and shows people you’ve got to stay involved.
AVC: Have you guys seen any particular effect out of the Obama administration’s declared hunt for Joseph Kony?
SC: He signed a bill to help to hunt him down, but you’ve got to remember, there’s been warrants for Kony’s arrest for many, many years. It’s kind of like us hunting for bin Laden. Our military is one of the greatest militaries in the world, and we have technology that we can read your newspaper from a satellite when you’re in your back yard, and we couldn’t find bin Laden—it took us 10 years. I believe it’s still going to be a while, but as I tell people, “As long as one child is being killed, there’s still a problem is South Sudan, Congo, and Darfur.” There’s still a problem.
AVC: Getting to the film itself, it must be odd to watch a film that’s meant to sum up your entire life in 90 minutes.
SC: The hardest thing for me is watching the first part, where it shows who I used to be, because it was so real. Jason done an unbelievable job in the whole entire movie. He’s said the scenes of Sudan and the fighting was amped up for Hollywood. But the first part, there was nothing amped up. To be honest with you, he left a lot out. My life was a very violent, drug-using life, and it bothers me to see it on the screen. Every time I’ve watched it, it’s made me cry.
JK: We didn’t go as far [as reality did] in terms of violence in that first part, and we had to pull back on the violence in Sudan.
SC: Yeah, showing the children, you know? Showing lips cut off, people skinned alive. Breasts cut off, ears cut off. They showed a couple scenes, but not really what goes on there. You wanna know something? Could America really handle the truth?
AVC: If viewers can’t handle what’s actually going on in Sudan, is that really your problem, or the film’s problem? Why protect people’s sensibilities by downplaying the issue?
JK: But in a way, there’s a balance there, because you want to introduce people to this problem. Unfortunately, we in the United States, we don’t know what’s going on in Africa, and certainly Central Africa. I hope that this movie introduces people who only know of Sudan as “Oh there’s a war over there, child soldiers, I kind of know what that is.” You have to introduce them to this problem, and hope you get them to do their own research. Were we to tell the Sudan side of the story as graphically as I found when I went there, or what Sam has seen in the last 15-plus years of his life, we couldn’t show this movie. It would frankly be an X-rating.
SC: Sometimes, America, when something’s too bad, we don’t want to look at it. We want to turn our head.
AVC: You say that the violence is jacked up to meet Hollywood standards. What’s it like, as somebody who’s actually been involved in firefights, to watch what a firefight looks like by Hollywood standards?
SC: I believe that any soldier that was out there, and even down to police officers, can relate to a lot of the firefights. I’ve been in several gunfights here in the U.S. because of the lifestyle that I led. I believe that there’s enough in it—from what I hear and from what I’ve seen, everything that’s in the movie is all based off of the truth. There’s only a few things that was really amped up, but it’s not amped up that much.
JK: Yeah, I just want to clarify, too. Those action sequences are certainly amped up, and there’s a reason we had to do that, but if you talked to many of the soldiers that I spoke to while I was in Sudan, and Sam worked with the last 15 years, you talk to any of those guys, you show them any of the sequences in the movie, they would say, “It’s that, and it gets worse.” These guys have been through a war, the intensity of which we can’t really imagine in the United States. [To Sam.] You show Deng [a soldier depicted in the film] those sequences, he’d say, “We didn’t amp anything up. What are you talking about?”
SC: Even last night [at a local screening], there was people there from Sudan who stood up after and said, “We’re happy to see that there’s a movie out now to show the world what we truly went through.”
AVC: How do you deal with going from a situation like that to coming back here to have your morality and motives questioned by the media and other religious groups and aid groups?
SC: You know, America can be just like a war zone itself. I don’t know how much you get involved with young people, but young people are going through something that we don’t even realize nowadays. I spoke in a school here not long ago, and I asked all the teachers, “Will you all please stand up, all the teachers of the school stand up and turn around and look at the back wall.” Some of the kids were as young as 8 years old inside this auditorium. And I went, “I want everyone here that has ever done drugs or been offered drugs to raise your hand.” Almost every 8-year-old raised their hand. If you don’t think that that’s a war, then there’s something wrong with us. It’s still a war. I just look at things a little bit different. When I see a serious problem, I try to figure out, my way, how to solve it, how to fix it. When I’m back here in the U.S., I’m speaking, raising funds, and everything for what I do overseas, but at the same time, I speak in schools, colleges, on drugs and alcohol. I come back here and I go into a different fight. But really, it’s all related.
AVC: You talk about trying to figure out what the solution is. Do you think killing Joseph Kony will fix things in the Sudan?
SC: No. A lot of people—I don’t know where reporters get it. One reporter said that I made a comment that I’d killed over 10 LRA men in a day. I have never said to anybody that I’ve ever killed anyone.
AVC: To be fair to that reporter, it wasn’t 10 in a day, it was 10 overall. At least if that’s the Vanity Fair article about going out on a hunt for the LRA with you and some soldiers.
SC: You’ve got to remember from the Vanity Fair article, I guess this is what my people say when—a lot of his article came from other people, not from me. When he’s talking of what I said, he’s supposed to put hyphens by it, or something. Not much of his story had hyphens. He was telling my story from the mouth of other people.
JK: But to answer your question, I think killing Kony, although we must kill this guy—
SC: But he needs to be brought to justice. I don’t want to just kill him.
JK: Kill him or bring him to justice, that will solve part of the problem, but the problems of Central Africa are deep and complex. That’s a great first step, and that’s an obvious first step.
SC: I believe it all goes back to [Omar al-] Bashir, the president of Northern Sudan. When people ask me about killing, I’m not out here to kill Joseph Kony. I will tell you one thing, if I ever meet him face-to-face, there’s gonna be a fight. There’s gonna be a fight, because I know he would definitely kill me. There’s definitely gonna be a fight. They asked me on Dateline, “Would you kill him?” and I said, “There’s gonna be a fight,” and he kept saying, “Would you kill him?” and I said, “There’s gonna be a fight, and I’m gonna win.” [Laughs.]
JK: I think your question is an important one to this movie. People could see this movie, they could think that this is an old story, but this is happening right now, and Joseph Kony does roam freely through Central Africa and the Congo. His forces are raping and killing people daily. This movie’s very relevant, and speaks to something that must be done: Pull this guy off the battlefield and bring him to justice. It’s something I hope that people who see this movie, they educate themselves about Joseph Kony, at the very least, and do something about raising awareness about taking this guy—
SC: Inspire them to stand up and do something.
JK: And speak.
AVC: Your book seems more direct about your desire to kill Kony, or your ability to kill people in the field. And that’s something—
SC: My book never talked anywhere in it directly of me killing anyone. Would I shoot Joseph Kony? Absolutely. If that’s what you want to hear? Absolutely. But I believe anybody in this room, right here, if they had a chance, would shoot him. Because if they don’t, he will kill you.
JK: Or he’ll kill innocent children or steal daughters. So, you know, yeah.
AVC: Jason, how did you originally get involved in this project?
JK: I met Sam in 2008. I was introduced to him by Robbie Brenner, one of the producers of the movie. We met and started talking. I actually didn’t start writing the movie until about seven, eight months after we met. I spent half a year talking to him and tracking him down and bothering him and showing up on his doorstep and saying, “Let’s talk about your life. I’m interested.”
SC: And he not only come to my house and stepped into my life, he actually went to Africa. A lot of his writing was inspired through hearing the stories of the children, were the children telling him, not me saying, “I did this, I did this.” He spoke to men that I worked with, he spoke to soldiers, he spoke to the children. He was on the grounds of the orphanage for a week and a half, lived there, slept there.
AVC: You also lived with Sam’s family for a while?
JK: I did, yeah, a few times. They brought me in and treated me like family.
AVC: How do you get that embedded in a situation, then maintain the perspective that you need to turn 40 years of life into a 90-minute movie?
JK: I think that was the first part, that I needed to hear the whole story. I didn’t meet him for a month and start writing. I honestly didn’t know how to tell the story, on a lot of different levels; structurally, I wasn’t sure how to jam 40 years into 120 pages. Also, personally, it took me a long time to find a way into telling this story. That was necessary, in a way. At the end of that process, I had more clarity into who Sam was, and what I felt was important about his story. It’s counterintuitive. What you’re saying is true, you get deeper and deeper and you lose all perspective. I actually had less perspective in the beginning, and at the end of the six months living with this guy, I had more perspective, I had more education about Sudan, I had more perspective of Sam, his family. Then I was able to figure out a way to put it together into a movie.
AVC: Sam, how involved were you in the process of making the movie?
SC: I was on set twice in Detroit for just a couple days each time. I actually built the motorcycles—I build bikes and stuff in Pennsylvania. I built the main motorcycles in the movie. I was in South Africa for three days on set. I didn’t have a lot of say-so, which is normal for anybody who sells their life rights.
JK: Well, you had a lot of say-so in development, and in the script.
SC: Absolutely, I take that back. I had all the say-so in the script. I worked with Jason. There was a couple things in the writing of the script that he even changed. But when it comes down to actually when they were filming, naturally I couldn’t be on set and tell Marc Forster “Stop! Stop!” [Laughs.] “Change that!” That’s just something that you give up. But I was satisfied with the end product.
AVC: Have you ever had any problems getting in and out of the Sudan? Particularly after your involvement in the peace talks, has the State Department or Sudan ever tried to interfere with your visa?
JK: [Laughs.] I don’t think you have a visa.
SC: No problems. No comment.
JK: I can say this: I can say I was there with Sam and you fly into Kampala, Uganda, and it’s a very long, couple-day drive over some very bad roads. The afternoon that we knew we were coming up to the border of Uganda and Sudan, it’s very imposing. In my head, you’re stepping into a war zone. The border’s coming up, and there’s armed SPLA soldiers all along this border, and we pulled up, and Sam jumped out of the car and shook a few hands. They welcomed him in, because, frankly, they see Sam—
SC: We drove on.
JK: And the reason for that is, they have known this guy has been living in their midst for the last 15-plus years, and they recognize him as helpful to their cause, to the children. They see him as a comrade and an ally.
AVC: I was mostly curious because your book describes a moment where people from the State Department are annoyed at your participation in the peace talks, saying, “Who’s this guy? What is he doing? Why does he have a voice here?”
SC: There was one journalist who wrote something recently that said I was never in the peace talks, but the day I was walking through the place in Kenya with [Sudan People’s Liberation Army leader] John Garang, he said, “Let’s get our picture over here.” It was literally like the Holy Spirit said to me, “No, get your picture over there.” Where I got my picture by, no one could ever deny that I was at the peace talks, because it was the peace rock [memorial]—I don’t know if you’ve seen the picture or not. So I was literally at the peace rock that Colin Powell’s people brought the plaque for and everything. I don’t have to defend myself, I was there. Just because some people say, “I don’t remember him,” I don’t care, because I was there for a whole day and evening and the next morning. Sat and ate right with John Garang, setting next to him. When I got there, the first day I got there, there was somebody else setting next to him. He made him get up and everybody slid down and I sat next to him. Did John Garang come to my compound [as he does in the film]? No. He called me a couple of times. We had a relationship. But it was kind of a part where, “Well, how do we blend this into the movie?” They’ve done a very good job of blending that in.
AVC: You’ve both said, “We had to change this,” or, “We couldn’t do this, we had to do this.” How do you feel about compromising the story of your life?
SC: It’s not about how we feel; it’s about how the outcome comes. And I believe that the point got across.
JK: I think if you’re doing a dramatization of somebody’s life, certain dramatic license has to be taken. Certainly if you’re making a movie in Hollywood, that’s part of the deal. You have to compromise. Having said that, we were able to make the movie that I think we all wanted to make in terms of truth, and that rarely happens. I think part of that was because we developed this script outside of the studio system. Gerard Butler, Marc Forster came on to this project before a studio came on to finance it. I was able to write the movie I wanted to write; Marc was able to put his stamp on the script that way he wanted to. We didn’t have that Hollywood thing of “We need you to make this compromise.” We did make some compromises later on, but very few in terms of the way the process works. We were very lucky.
SC: I think the big thing is, name one life story that never was—one that hit the Hollywood big screen. Name one life story that is right on, they didn’t change nothing. There has never been, to me. Like I tell someone, “If you go to Chicago for something, and take it out of Chicago, it was made in Chicago, it has a little bit of Chicago in it. If you go to Tennessee, it’s the same thing. You go to Nashville, it has a little bit of Nashville in it.” Well, Hollywood took this story, and it has a little bit of Hollywood in it.
AVC: Jason, this is your first produced screenplay, but you reportedly worked very closely with Marc Forster and Gerard Butler on developing it further during production. Isn’t that unusual, for a first-time screenwriter to have that kind of ongoing input into a movie?
JK: Early on, when Marc said, “I want to make this movie,” I said, “This is very close to my heart. I’m passionate about the script, and I worked very hard on getting it right.” I asked him if I could be along for every step of the way. To his credit, he was very reluctant at first, but he said, “Yeah, you can.” From that moment forward, he brought me in and made me a part of everything. It was a great honor for me, and a great education, and hopefully the project was a little bit better because of it.
SC: I believe God could be getting him ready for a second part of his life.
JK: [Laughs.] As a preacher?
SC: Yeah! As a preacher! I’m serious. I believe that you’re not only a good screenwriter, but getting involved and wanting to be a part of it and being on set could turn you into, one day, wanting to help to direct. I think it could be another second part of his life. Another passion.