“Machine Gun Preacher” tells the inspirational true story of Sam Childers, a former drug-dealing criminal who undergoes an astonishing transformation and finds his unexpected calling as the savior of hundreds of kidnapped and orphaned children in war-torn Sudan.
Gerard Butler, who made a strong impression in “300,” delivers a searing performance as Childers, the impassioned founder of the Angels of East Africa rescue organization in director Marc Forster’s story of violence and redemption.
When ex-biker-gang member Sam Childers (Butler) makes the life-changing decision to go to East Africa to help repair homes destroyed by civil war, he is outraged by the unspeakable horrors faced by the region’s vulnerable populace, especially the children. Ignoring the warnings of more experienced aide workers, Sam breaks ground for an orphanage where it’s most needed—in the middle of territory controlled by the brutal Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a renegade militia that forces children to become soldiers before they even reach their teens.
But for Sam, it is not enough to shelter the LRA’s intended victims. Determined to save as many as possible, he leads armed missions deep into enemy territory to retrieve kidnapped children, restoring peace to their lives—and eventually his own. An explosive, real-life tale of a man who has rescued over a thousand orphans from starvation, disease and enslavement, Machine Gun Preacher also stars Michelle Monaghan (Source Code), Kathy Baker (Cold Mountain), Madeline Carroll (Mr. Popper’s Penguins), Academy Award® nominee Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road) and Souleymane Sy Savane (“Damages”).
The script is written by Jason Keller (Relativity’s Untitled Snow White Project). Producers are Marc Forster, Robbie Brenner (A Perfect Getaway), Gary Safady, Craig Chapman (Highland Park) and Deborah Giarratana (2012). Director of photography is Roberto Schaefer (Finding Neverland). Editor is Matt Chesse (Finding Neverland). Production designer is Philip Messina (The Last Airbender). Costume designer is Frank L. Fleming (The Kite Runner). Jillian Kugler (Quantum of Solace) is associate producer. Douglas Saylor Jr. (Main Street) is co-producer. Executive producers are Gerard Butler, Michael Corso (13), Kyle Dean Jackson (The Divide), Myles Nestel (Conviction), Louise Rosner (Fracture), Alan Siegel (Law Abiding Citizen), Adi Shankar (Main Street), Spencer Silna (Main Street) and Bradford Simpson (Diary of a Wimpy Kid).
When Sam Childers first visited the Republic of Sudan in 1998, he was galvanized by the suffering he saw around him, particularly that of the children. For most of the past half-century, ongoing civil conflict has disrupted and destroyed lives throughout the African nation, devastating generations of Sudanese. The country, particularly the southern region (now South Sudan), has been plunged into almost constant chaos by wars born out of religious conflicts, scarcity of natural resources, geopolitics and ethnic conflict.
“When I went into Sudan on my first trip, I saw the body of a very small child who had been blown up by a landmine,” says Childers. “And I said right there, I’ll do whatever it takes to help these children. I didn’t realize it was going to change my entire life. I didn’t realize I was going to have to walk away from everything I knew, but that’s what happened.”
An unlikely hero, Sam had reinvented himself only six years earlier after a lifetime of violence, crime and addiction. He kicked drugs and alcohol, and rededicated his life to his faith and his family. A trip to Uganda to help rebuild a war-ravaged village was meant to be a one-time event, but once Sam had seen the incredible need there and in neighboring Sudan firsthand, he became a man with a mission.
He founded his first orphanage using a simple mosquito net suspended from a tree. Now it is one of the largest in Sudan, feeding up to 1,200 injured, abandoned and traumatized children a day. “Thirty years ago, I couldn’t read or write,” says Childers, who is now in his late 40s. “If I can do it, anyone can do it.”
But hunger and displacement were not the worst of the problems Sam discovered. The Lord’s Rebel Army (LRA), a notorious guerilla group led by the charismatic mystic Joseph Kony, was kidnapping small children and forcing them to commit unthinkable atrocities. Kony quickly became Childers’ personal nemesis. “I found God in 1992, but I found Satan in 1998 in Sudan,” Childers says, referring to Kony.
Never one to run from a fight, Childers began to lead heavily armed “rescue missions” to find and retrieve children whose lives had been shattered by the conflict. He brings the children to the Angels of East Africa orphanage, where they are housed, educated and rehabilitated.
Childers offers no apologies for what some see as his unorthodox method of saving lives. “A lot of people ask if it’s right for a man of God to have a gun,” he notes. “If we look in the Old Testament, there were a lot of men of God that were warriors and soldiers. I’m not going to say that everything I do is right, but if somebody took your child and I said I could get your child back, what would you say then?”
When Sam Childers’ extraordinary story was featured on the news magazine show “Dateline,” it attracted the attention of two determined women who would become the first producers to sign on to the film. Deborah Giarratana, a long time visual effects artist, remembers watching transfixed as Childers talked about his work.
“I saw this man sitting with a shotgun next to him and a Bible in his hand,” says Giarratana. “They were interviewing him at his orphanage. He started to talk about why he was in Sudan. He was incredibly angry that nobody was fighting for the innocent children who were trapped in this political quagmire. He felt that somebody had to get in there and do something.”
Giarratana, whose father was a Pentecostal preacher, was deeply moved by Childers’ story and the role of faith in his transformation. “It spoke to me on a really personal level,” she says. “I was so taken with this character. Not only did I think I could help this guy, I also knew this would make a great movie.”
She tracked Childers down at his church in rural Pennsylvania and offered a proposal. “I told him I wanted to get a movie made that would tell the world about his work in Africa, and get him the money he needed to advance his work,” she recalls. “But he was still relatively unknown, so I suggested he start by writing a book.”
She worked closely with Childers as he wrote what became Another Man’s War: The True Story of One Man’s Battle to Save the Children of Sudan, a memoir published in 2009. But her goal was always to find a way to tell Sam’s story as a motion picture.
As it happened, veteran producer Robbie Brenner had also seen the “Dateline” interview. “I saw the story of this renegade biker-turned-preacher who was saving children in Africa,” says Brenner. “I said, I have to make that movie! It seemed to me like the world had turned its back on Africa, but here was a man who was doing something that counts. He was such an amazing, charismatic, magnetic, brilliant guy and I became obsessed with finding him.”
Brenner reached out Giarratana, who had by then become Childers’ manager. “Deborah explained to me that she had helped arrange his book and was trying to put a movie together,” says Brenner. “She introduced me to Sam. You don’t often meet people like him. He is very powerful, and unpredictable. He can be dangerous, and yet he’s very gentle. One moment he was telling stories and he was so angry, and the next moment he was crying. I told him I wanted to help bring awareness to what he’s doing, and he said okay, but I don’t think he really believed me.”
Brenner’s first order of business was to bring in screenwriter Jason Keller. “Robbie gave me a two-minute pitch about this guy’s life,” says Keller. “I was intrigued, but I didn’t believe it at first. The story was so incredible—building an orphanage, saving these kids, and who he is as a person.”
So Brenner arranged for Keller to meet Childers over coffee. “Sam basically said, who the hell are you?” she remembers. “Why should you write my story? Have I seen any movies you’ve written? He was testing Jason and Jason passed. Jason’s very strong himself, with a bit of a dark side, and they really connected.”
Keller listened rapt as Childers outlined his background. “As he told me the story, I knew I had to write this movie,” Keller says. “But Sam Childers is a handful. He’s an intimidating guy and I was going to need him right there while I was writing.”
Keller researched his script extensively, familiarizing himself with the history and politics of the region, as well as spending several weeks with the Childers family in their home in Central City, Pennsylvania. “I met his wife Lynn and his daughter Paige, who are so important to the story,” says the writer. “I slept in their house and cooked breakfast with them. When I went back to Los Angeles, I would call him and get him talking about his adventures. Getting to know him made things even more complicated for me as a storyteller. He is a very intense, still crazy guy doing really heroic things. I had to understand who he is before I could reconcile both sides of Sam.”
Keller spent most of a year and half learning about Childers before he began to write in earnest. In the meantime, Brenner needed to raise the money to get the project off the ground. “I knew I didn’t want to make this movie inside the studio system,” she says. “It is so topical and so urgent. With a studio, you can never guarantee that a movie will be made in a timely fashion—or ever. We needed to find somebody to finance the script who was equally passionate about it.”