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Interview: Jason Keller of ‘Machine Gun Preacher’

posted by Nell Minow

Jason Keller wrote the screenplay for “Machine Gun Preacher,” based on the true story of Sam Childers, whose book, Another Man’s War: The True Story of One Man’s Battle to Save Children in the Sudan, tells the story of his journey from biker to preacher to fighting to protect the children of Sudan and Uganda from genocide.

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How did you get involved in this project?

Almost four years ago one of the producers called me and said, “I just heard the most amazing story.”  Sam was coming to Los Angeles so we met.  I didn’t know if I wanted to do the movie at first, as electrifying as the story was.  What the story let me to was Central Africa and I wanted to drill down and understand what the LRA is and about the child soldiers, and I couldn’t not write the movie.

That is such a large, overwhelming topic — how do you create a movie script out of that?  How do you decide what to leave out?

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I didn’t want to write a political movie.  That wasn’t what touched me as I started to learn about Sam’s life and Central Africa.  I think of myself as fairly well-informed.  I read the newspaper, I’m constantly watching the news, I always challenge myself to learn about things that are not easy to learn about.  And here was a part of the world I thought I knew and as I got deeper into it there was an emotional response to what I was learning.  Innocent civilians being slaughtered and no one was doing anything about it.  I wanted to do a movie that would make people inspired, even angry, but not clutter it with politics.

What I’m proud of is that it isn’t so neat and tidy about Sam or about Central Africa.  There are no easy answers.  Sam’s not a great guy, even now.  It’s not a story of a bad guy turned good guy.  It’s about a human being who decided to make different choices, but he’s still flawed.  He’s still violent.  He’s still intimidating.  He’s still making mistakes.  It’s that messiness I responded to as a fellow human being.

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You had quite a challenge with making this a movie that will appeal to a mainstream audience.  You have a religious conversion and you have problems in Africa.  How do you make those accessible to a wide audience?

Both of those issues are scary for Hollywood and to some degree to audiences.  We didn’t avoid those issues but we told a story that didn’t try to tell you what was right or wrong.  I didn’t take this project on to defend the way Sam does things.  Do you agree with him?  Let’s talk about it.  You might disagree with the religious components of this movie but let’s talk about it.  Let’s spark a conversation.  That’s the only way that we’re going to stay vigilant about these issues that are so vital.

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Gerard Butler gives an extraordinary performance.

He has the physical presence for the role and like Sam he comes from a tough background, was going down a bad path early in his life.  He’s a perfect fit.

You lived with the family for a while in Pennsylvania.  What was that like?

It was crazy.  Every time he’d come to LA, we would meet.  As I was being pulled deeper and deeper into the story I realized I needed to go where this guy lives, see the church he built with his bare hands, meet his family.  I slept in their very modest house tucked out of nowhere in Pennsylvania.  I even slept in the church once, just to get the feeling of it.

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That was the thing that really hooked me when it came time to commit to writing Sam’s life.  There are far too many amazing tales and he could tell you stories that would make your head spin around.  I listened to those, eagerly, for months and months and they were interesting and important.  But it wasn’t until I grasped the price that that man pays and that his wife paid and continues to pay for what he does over there.  Once I got that, it punched through all the other stuff and I was able to see that raw truth, that’s when Sam and the family came into focus for me and I knew this was the story I had to tell.

 

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