Interview: Sam Childers - The Real Machine Gun Preacher
The missionary's extraordinary life portrayed by Gerard Butler.
In cinemas this week is Machine Gun Preacher, the true story of American gang biker-turned-missionary Sam Childers.
Star Gerard Butler gets his teeth into the former violent criminal, who found God and built orphanages in South Sudan. Set in the turmoil of the late '90s/early '00s, it shows Childers' fight against the Lord's Resistance Army, the militant group led by Joseph Kony, known for forcing children into war and slavery.
We met with the real Sam Childers [above right, with Butler] for a chat while he was in London this week. He tells about the Hollywood machine getting hold of his story, and reveals more about his work. Read our review of Marc Forster's film here.
When were you first approached about turning your life into a film?
In 2005 I was featured on NBC's Dateline, one of the biggest newspeople in the US. They actually went into Sudan with me for two weeks, and did a 30 minute story. Overnight we had over 300 emails about doing a book, doing a documentary, doing a movie.
How involved were you in the making of the film?
I wasn't really involved at all. Unfortunately, after you sell your life rights to Hollywood, you're out of it! I was on set a few times in Detroit, and I got to go to South Africa on set, but I never had any input.
Were you happy with the casting?
I wouldn't have picked Gerard Butler from the start - I didn't know who he was, to start with. But after seeing the finished product, I don't think anyone else could've done the role. I thought he did an excellent job.
You worked closely with Jason Keller, the screenwriter. How did you get on?
I didn't like Jason at all when I first met him! But after a year, he was like a rash - you just got used to him. He moved himself right into my house after a while. He did a really good job. But even though you've got a good screenwriter, once the screenplay leaves his hands, it's out of his hands to. If the director wants to change things or add thngs, he can.
Was there anything that dramatised, or left out?
The action scenes in Africa were amped up. There were a few little things that were added that were not true. If the good outweighs the bad, don't bitch!
Was it odd watching your life's work summed up in 90 minutes?
Very odd. The hardest thing for me was watching how everything went down. You got thirty years in a movie, so the timeline was really messed up, which was odd, but everything was based on truth.
What have been some of the more interesting reactions from Q&A screenings?
All of them have been good. I had one guy who said, "if you're going to use violence, I don't know if I would have you rescue my children." I plainly told him: "You don't love your children - I love them more than you do." I would rescue any child, no matter what the means are. I feel that way - doesn't matter if you've got to risk your life, or use violence, if you've got an innocent child that's about to die. Jesus didn't condone violence, but he said you're worse than an infidel if you don't take care of your family. He wanted you to stand up for yourself. I heard a minister say, for someone to contradict my way for being the wrong way, they need to have an answer for what the right way would be. Would I pick up a gun again to protect a child? Absolutely. A lot of people get hung up the machine gun, but this movie was pre-2008. It's not like I walk around with a machine gun! Would I pick up a gun again to protect a child? Absolutely. But things have really changed - there hasn't been anyone killed around our orphanage in two years.
There wasn't much context, regarding the politics - can you give us your version?
I wanted the truth to be in the film, about Sudan and the surrounding countries, but there was no way they would put it in the film, for whatever reason. The problem at the time was the president of North Sudan, Al-Bashir. He is the one who caused the genocide in Darfur and South Sudan. He's the only president to have war crimes pinned upon him and still be in office. He is the one who financed Joseph Kony (LRA leader). I've been speaking out to the media about the truth.
What's been your proudest moment?
I can't say that - no proud moments. If I get that big-headed it's time for God to take me out of here. I think the thing to ask me is what is my saddest moment: when you can't rescue all the children; when there are starving people to this day; when there's so much starvation in Africa, but there are millions of dollars running through NGOs' hands. It's a sad moment when CEOs of NGOs will make half a million dollars. The answer to the problem is non-profit groups need to focus on the CEOs of their companies, and how much they're getting paid. I know some who are making $280,000 a year. Totally ridiculous.
Have you stayed in contact with the children you've helped along the way?
Most orphanages, when a child is 15 or 16, they have to leave. Ours, you don't. I have some in university right now, and as long as a child does good in school, I will give them any education and stuff they need.
How do you balance your work in Africa with your family life?
I have to say I put Africa first. I spend about seven months a year out in Africa. My wife is okay with it, she always was. My daughter always had a problem with it, but when she graduated at 17, she came to me and said she wanted to run our non-profit. She's now 23 years old, and she runs our main office. Her husband works for us full-time. She has a one-year-old baby, and she's getting ready to take her over to the orphanage! The same passion, my daughter has. My wife has been there four times, but her passion is not the children of Africa. To go and visit is a waste of God's money.
The film portrayed quite a bit of friction between you and your family.
There was only one point where it caused friction between me and my wife, and that was dramatised. Otherwise, she was the one who kept me going all the time. My daughter literally hated me at one time, because she felt I loved the children of Africa more than her. But that's when she was a teenager. Now she's putting the children of Africa first. I have to give my daughter a lot of the credit for our business growing. I'm able to work on the sex trafficking problem in the US, and speak in colleges and schools because I have a good team.
Has the film affected your charity?
It was the book. I was speaking in small churches, and now I speak at bigger churches, which is where I raise the money. I haven't been paid for the movie - I deferred payment until the end to get more money. The last couple of years we've done well. I hope to go into Somalia this year. I've got a TV show coming this year.
Can you tell us more about the TV show?
It's a TV show on second chances. We've helped homeless people, down to a prostitute getting off the street. I build motorcycles, so it's based out of our shop. Every bike we sell, we build a well in Africa. I'm getting ready to do home makeovers in Uganda - I'll go into elderly people's homes and rebuild them.
Our friends at Filmbeat also caught up with Childers - watch their interview below.