Once Keller had finished his draft of the screenplay, the script made its way to renowned director Marc Forester (Monster’s Ball, Finding Neverland, Quantum of Solace), who also had to see for himself if Childers was the real deal before signing on to the project.
Forester recalls, “When I first heard the story of Sam Childers I thought that I needed to see how much of it was really true. I wasn’t sure about all of it and I went to see Sam in Pennsylvania. I met him, and then I went to Africa and I saw a lot of these atrocities and met a lot of the kids. Once you start talking to the kids it completely won me over and I thought that if I wasn’t doing this movie I would be letting them down and turning my back to them. There was one kid, Walter, who lost part of his face in one of the ambushes and Sam paid for reconstructive surgery for him. I think those kind of stories just tugged at my heart.”
“In the beginning, even I sort of thought, ‘Oh, there’s this white man saving the African children,’ but it really is like he says when he says that the kids saved him. You can agree or disagree with the mythologies and approaches, but at the same time, he is a very complex human being. Suddenly you are there and you see on the side of the road that families of kids can get massacred, and you just can’t turn your back on it, you have to try to stop it. It’s about breaking this circle of violence. It gets very complicated and Sam and I had these discussions about what would have happened if your son or daughter had been kidnapped, would you care how he brought them back, and that sort of gets into a very complicated situation and I don’t think there really is a right or wrong. The other reason I wanted to make the film is because there is this man with no education or any real means who was suddenly able to turn his life around and then changed the lives of hundreds and hundreds of kids. A lot of people think they are powerless and feel like they are stuck and they can’t contribute to change, and I think if Sam Childers can do it, we all can do it.”
The issue of the “white saviour film,” which critics have stated has become far too prevalent on screen in recent years, is something that Keller brings up not very defensively, but passionately. Having spent so much time with Childers, Keller is hurt by people who simply dismiss this true story as something superfluous.
“When I first heard Sam’s story and I started to understand the plight of the South Sudanese and more in Uganda I never once saw the colour of anyone’s skin. What I saw was one human being risking everything to save another human being. I get the questioning of the material itself, and I mean, fair enough, but it makes me angry. I went there for a few weeks and I visited the orphanage and talked with them, ate with them, played with them and I can tell you that they don’t care what colour his skin is. This guy saved their lives and he gives them and education and feeds them. His organization has given them hope.”
Forester knew that in order to properly tell Sam’s story, he would have to take the same active role in the production that Keller took and get to know Sam on a personal level.
“After I heard Jason Keller’s pitch I knew that before I committed to it that I needed to sit down and spend some time with Sam and do a bit more research. When I met him the first time I knew that what you see is what you get and he is not someone who is trying to pretend or act. He has lived this life. The more we spoke and the more I got to know him it just grew more and more intense, and it was an immense part of the experience to know that he lived that kind of life. There is something very raw about him and that’s what makes people want to listen to him. A lot of us have all these layers and these ways of masking ourselves for protection. We act differently towards our friends than we do towards strangers, but Sam is always the same. All of those layers are peeled off. He can be here with you or he can be out in the bush with his kids and he would be no different.”
Even Soundgarden and Audioslave frontman Chris Cornell, who wrote the film’s theme song and had never previously met before the film’s premiere, immediately picked up on Sam’s ability to make people listen.
“I met Sam for the first time yesterday.” Cornell said. “It was in a room like this and I came in and people were going to interview me and he was being interviewed by several people at a different table and everyone I was with decided we should just shut up and listen to him instead. He just seemed to have a tone in his voice when he entered the room and you just realize that this is true, and this guy is for real. He has a sense about him even though I couldn’t exactly make out what he was saying that what he was talking about was important.”
After being approached by Forester to create a song for the film, Cornell followed a similar path as the writer and director in needing to first know that the story was indeed for real.
“The story itself to me was a little bit difficult to believe that it was true and that this was a real person, and the enormity of what happened to this person. It would have been very difficult to include it all in one song with all of his experiences and his family and the children he’s helping. I felt like that was a challenge for me as a songwriter, to be able to create something that could help explain and co-exist with this story, and working with Marc was a privilege. Ultimately the focus on ‘The Keeper,’ was found by going on Sam’s website and looking at Sam’s photographs and reading about and learning about the place, and the concept came from wondering about if Sam was to write a song to the children what it would be like.”