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.”
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.”
Now that the film is completed and ready for release, Childers looks back on his life with equal parts hope for the future and unease about his rough past.
“I watched the movie four times and I cried every time. It’s hard for me to watch the first part of the movie because it’s all right on and it tells who I was, and I just thank God that I’m not that person today. I thank God I’m able to spend my life helping people.”
Childers doesn’t care about any sort of personal fame that the film might bring him. It simply isn’t the type of person he is. But he does hope that people walk away wanting to do more to help those in need.
“I had one purpose in doing this movie and so far I’ve had over a thousand people who have seen it at screenings that have been contacting our office and it seems like it is working and the process of making people aware is happening. I don’t want people walking out of the theatre thinking the film is about Sammy Childers. The movie’s about you. And mostly everyone who walks out of the theatre is thinking ‘I’m not doing enough. I want to do more.’ That’s what the movie’s all about.”
Childers has certainly found an ally in Jason Keller, who also asks that audiences look within themselves to do more to aid the children in Africa that Sam introduced him to.
“I know I wasn’t doing enough when I first took on this project. I think if you look at the movie right now, you’ll find that it’s extremely relevant to what is going on in Central Africa right now. Sudan might be the youngest state on our planet, but there are still mass atrocities still happening over there every single day. I think it’s imperative that we be vigilant and that we at least know what’s going on over there because if we don’t open our eyes, then another Darfur could happen. Another Rwanda could happen. These things are happening because we aren’t vigilant.”
Machine Gun Preacher opens in Toronto September 30, Montreal October 7, and Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, and Ottawa October 14.
Top image: Sam Childers with Gerard Butler on the set of Machine Gun Preacher. Courtesy Phil Bray/Alliance Films.