Sam Childers will be the first person to tell you that he was never that much of a nice guy. When he walks into a press conference he makes an imposing impression. Fully looking the part of the motorcycle enthusiast that he is in an olive green and beige vest and a plain white T-shirt with cutoff sleeves, one can easily notice the tattoo on his upper right bicep. Inside of a triangle it reads “Machine Gun Preacher,” but one could very easily mistake the tattoo as a threat rather than a humanitarian message. In fact, given his past, Childers might have more experience with the “machine gun” part, than with the preaching part.
Sam speaks very clearly and succinctly about who he once was. “I know who I was a million years ago and I know that I wasn’t a good person.”
Childers isn’t exaggerating. Growing up in rural Pennsylvania, he was a teenage drug dealer with a propensity for violence. He rose to become what is known as a shotgunner, or an armed guard for high profile drug dealers.
After spending a considerable amount of time in prison for violent, drug related crime, Childers returned home to his wife Lynn (a former stripper) to begin anew. Over time, Childers made peace with his inner demons, quit drinking and taking drugs, got a nice construction gig, and eventually started his own Christian ministry. Through his ministry he made his way to Sudan where he proceeded to build an orphanage for children left homeless due to that country’s brutal civil war. While in Africa, Sam struggled under constant opposition from soldiers who didn’t want Sam’s ministry to succeed, where he earned his nickname by sitting outside the orphanage at night with an AK-47 to ward off anyone who wished to do the children harm. At home, Sam had to also struggle to keep his family together and to raise the money necessary to keep his humanitarian operations going.
Sam speaks with great reverence regarding what the children of Africa have done for him on a personal level.
“I never saved any children in the Sudan, they saved me. If it wasn’t for the children in the Sudan and in Uganda, I wouldn’t know where I would be today. They’re the ones that changed my life, enough that I could almost walk away right now and live a nice little life in the hills of Pennsylvania, but I just started in Ethiopia and I am getting ready to go into Somalia. I’m just beginning to rescue children around the world.”
In an effort to bring more light to his cause, Childers agreed to let his life become the basis for the upcoming film Machine Gun Preacher, starring Gerard Butler, who honestly looks nothing at all like the real Childers. While Sam’s story certainly has cinematic elements to it, Childers doesn’t really seem to be the type of person to readily lend his life to a big Hollywood production without some trepidation.
“I will say that I was a little bit concerned at first. You’re always concerned when you sell your life story to someone in Hollywood. If I wasn’t pleased with the final cut, I wouldn’t be talking about this here today. Are there a few things I would have changed? Absolutely, but I mean, I am not here because of the money or anything like that. I am here because I believe that this movie is going to do some good. I believe that it will put some insight on Darfur and that it’s going to save more children. That’s why I’m here today.”
The genesis from real life to the big screen started with writer Jason Keller, who for his first theatrical film visited with Sam and his family to better understand the man behind the legend. Despite Keller’s enthusiasm, Childers needed to see for himself if he was the right man to write his life story.
“I put Jason through a pretty hard test when I first met him and I wasn’t a very nice guy toward him, either.” Childers said. “I just wanted to see what kind of person he was and he passed the test. Jason wasn’t just a normal scriptwriter on this movie. He got involved with my family. He got involved with my friends. He went to my church. Then he went even further than that and he went to Africa. He didn’t just do his research from my lips. He heard it from the children who were rescued. He spoke to the soldiers. So he was on the ground where things are happening and I was really impressed with that because you don’t find a lot of screenwriters who would be willing to go there. And naturally the orphanage isn’t as bad now as it was years ago. There hasn’t been anyone killed there in about two years, but he walked on those grounds and spoke to those people.”
Keller was taken by Sam’s story, but he needed to know if it was all real.
“Meeting Sam is a little intimidating to say the least.” Keller said while seated directly next to the film’s inspiration. “I was intimidated not only because of the guy he was, but also in terms of developing this screenplay. As I got to know him better and I got to understand better the trouble in Central Africa and the mass atrocities that are still happening today, I realized that I had to do this right, and for me it became kind of obviously more than a screenplay. I started to feel more burdened to tell the story in an authentic way and to hopefully in some way move people the same way that Sam’s story moved me. As I educated myself on the issues in this movie I became moved. It was a very brutal process for me, and that was because I felt I had to do it right.”