Butler on 'emotional' 'Preacher' role
By KEVIN WILLIAMSON, QMI Agency
As the title suggests, Machine Gun Preacher is about a born-again hell-raiser who's as willing to thump heads as Bibles.
What's more, it's a true story: based on the life of Sam Childers, a drug-dealing "hillbilly from Pennsylvania" who reformed his life after finding religion -- then harnessed his predilection for violence as a force for good in the Sudan. There he fought the Lord's Resistance Army -- a Ugandan rebel militia notorious for its crimes against humanity -- while rescuing and sheltering orphaned victims. A good Samaritan with an RPG? Is he a hero? Or a vigilante? Should his methods be admired? Or condemned?
All questions the filmmakers grappled with as they spent more than a year shaping the screenplay and researching the drama, which opens Friday in limited release before expanding across Canada in the weeks ahead.
"I'm as fascinated as perturbed by him -- and awed by him," says Gerard Butler, who stars as Childers. "Whether you love this guy or hate this guy or agree with the morality or methods, or his use of God, you have to say, 'Look at what he's accomplished.' "
Indeed, even now, Swiss director Marc Forster (Monster's Ball, Quantum of Solace) admits he's ambivalent about his protagonist. The film, which also stars Michelle Monaghan and Michael Shannon, may trace Childers' transformation from criminal to saviour, but it also takes strides to not gloss over its hero's glaring flaws.
"One addiction leads to the next addiction," Forster says. "He still has his anger. And human beings really don't change. We all have the root of ourselves that stays the same "¦ I'm ambiguous about how I feel about him as a character "¦ I heard the story at first and thought, 'That can't be real.' Then I met Sam, went to Pennsylvania, spent time with him, and then went to Africa."
There, Forster learned first-hand of the atrocities committed by the LRA. And while the events portrayed in the film occurred years ago, Childers remains active in the region.
"He's still rescuing kids going places where no UN or NGO goes. And bringing them food and fighting. He puts his life on the line," he says. "It's almost a little bit like a death wish. By putting himself into these situations, they're extremely dangerous."
For Butler, the role understandably took him "to a very dark place," he remembers in a downtown Toronto hotel. "My homework everyday was to look at a book of photos taken from the Sudan (which showed) the mass graves, the mutilated kids. That's where I spent my time, trying to be a person dealing with that situation. Definitely by the end, it sucked me down deeper and deeper, which was perfect, because by the time I got to Africa, I felt like I was living Sam's life."
Even now months later, Butler admits discussing the film in interviews has proven unexpectedly emotional.
"When I made the movie, it was spread over months and it was an incredibly emotional experience. And it became more emotional as time went on. Then you go and do other things -- you make other movies and your head goes elsewhere. Then it hit me like a ton of bricks when I started talking about it again. All those feelings from all those months overpowered me a couple of times. I was surprised by the strength of feeling because it came out of nowhere."
For Butler, the role represents a departure from the commercial thrillers (Law Abiding Citizen), action epics (300) and comedies (The Ugly Truth) he's best known for.
"It was the chance to get involved with a more complex character."
But also a chance to participate in a project that he believes itself can play a role in bringing attention to Africa's war-torn strife.
"This puts a big spotlight on it and hopefully this movie will go around the world. You have different ways of being a messenger and this is my way. I made this movie for pennies, I've contributed to Sam's charity, I've done events with Sam. And tried to help him. And hopefully this movie will garner a huge amount more interest in what's going on there. There are many different ways to get involved."
Indeed, as Forster notes, "I don't want to inspire people to pick up a machine gun and save kids in Africa necessarily. But we do have the power to change people's lives in a positive way ... If Sam Childers can do it, we can all do it.
"What I found inspiring about him is that with no education and no financial means, he turns his life around and he does something incredibly good. But he isn't a good person necessarily. On one hand, he's doing something very noble. On the other hand, he abandons his family and has these very self-destructive, abusive qualities to him."
Forster ends the film with Childers himself -- over the closing credits -- defending his actions by driving home what's at stake. As Childers asks, if your child had been kidnapped and he could bring him or her back, would you care how he did it?
"I saw the suffering and pain," Forster says. "In the villages, there are women who have lost a breast or an arm -- who have been mutilated or set on fire alive "¦ If you are there and can do something, do you turn your back or do you interfere? That's the moral question. If you turn your back, are you guilty as well? Or do you become part of it? If you interfere, what does that make you if you kill people? I'm still morally not sure whether it's right or wrong. But he did save a lot of these kids and I haven't done that."
Butler thrilled with Childer reaction
Some critics are tougher to please than others. It's even worse if they have guns.
So Gerard Butler was naturally thrilled with the reaction he got from Sam Childers and his family after screenwriter Jason Keller screened Machine Gun Preacher for them. Butler remembers when Keller phoned him afterward.
"He called me up and said, 'Oh my god, they loved it. Sam's wife said, 'He really got Sam. He really did a great job.' Jason has spent more time with Sam than anyone and he knows Sam, so that was a great moment for me. We didn't paint him as this perfect hero. That's the cool thing about Sam -- he would tell you he's a jerk as well as a hero. In a lot of ways, he knows who he is. He's well aware of the wrongs he's committed and who he is as a person."
And while you might assume the rough, gruff Childers might be skeptical of Hollywood types making a movie about his life, Butler says in fact he was "pretty receptive "¦
"With Sam, there's always two levels going on. There's the level you get and then there's the level that he's thinking on. You know he's got a whole other level going on that he's not telling you which others closer to him are getting. Which is fine because it's none of my business. I just have to get what I needed from him. Of course I wanted him to like me and appreciate the performance, but he's a badass. I was never going to let his opinion get in the way."
In the end, he sought to portray a "well-rounded view" of Childers.
"There's also the side of Sam that wants to make a reality TV show and wants to produce it with you. That's not what the movie is about. It's about a guy who fought through his demons, but never banished them entirely."