Machine Gun Preacher stars Gerard Butler as real life hero Sam Childers, a resident of Central City, PA who has dedicated the past 15 years of his life to the rescue and support of orphans in eastern Africa. Sam’s story is one of faith and determination, two traits that he had to rely upon when he agreed to allow Hollywood to adapt his life into a feature film. Cinedelphia recently sat down with Sam to find out more about his efforts overseas, the opportunities that the film has provided him, and his general thoughts on showbiz.
CINEDELPHIA: What does it feel like to have your life adapted into a major Hollywood film?
SAM CHILDERS: Y’know, every day seems like a dream to me. I can hardly believe that it happened. I know now that when you look at who I was and what I do that it is a story, but there’s a lot of other people out there with stories. I feel that God just exalted mine.
C: Sounds like it’s been a positive experience for you. Were you initially hesitant to allow them to make the film?
SC: Absolutely. I wrote the book [Another Man’s War: The True Story of One Man’s Battle to Save Children in the Sudan] and the movie was supposed to be based off of the book. So the only thing I had in my mind was that if they mess up the movie, every bit of media I would do I could refer back to the book and say “Hey, look, they messed this movie up,” but I can’t say that. I have to say that there are a few small things that I wasn’t happy with in the movie, but they’re so small. I’m here to back it so I am satisfied [with the film]. So I sold my life rights, but I kept my TV rights, my book rights, reality show rights, I kept things separately.
C: Is selling your life rights different than selling your book rights?
SC: Yeah, see, when I wrote the book I sold the rights to another organization and then I turned around and sold my TV movie rights to somebody else. And I kept my documentary rights, there’s a documentary coming out in February or March. There’s a lot of questions that people have that I really can’t answer right now. I’ve been telling people “Be very patient, there’s a documentary coming out that will have the real life of the Machine Gun Preacher.”
C: And what will that encompass?
SC: It actually starts at the age of five-years-old and it’s not told from my voice. It’s told from people who went to school with me, it’s told from family members, from high school teachers, pastors, friends, people that I used to have a relationship with that I don’t anymore, the children in Africa.
C: To what degree did you participate in the fictional film’s production?
SC: It started with the screenwriter, Jason Keller, who spent about a year with me traveling around. He came to my house, moved in for weeks and weeks, he wanted to catch the character. I was finishing up the book and it was going to print when he got involved. When you read the book and you see the film you’ll see that the scenes are all in there. Jason basically moved in with me and he went to Africa too so he didn’t just hear the story from me, he heard it from the children and the soldiers, walked the same ground, all of that. Then Marc Forster got involved, first it takes a good screenwriter then it takes a director. Marc literally went to Africa, came to my home in Pennsylvania, so he did his research too.
C: So no wonder you support this film, everyone seems to have been very hands-on.
SC: Well, that doesn’t mean they’re going to tell the truth. That still doesn’t mean that they’re not going to add a Hollywood twist to it. I mean, I’m a preacher, I don’t look like a preacher, don’t wanna look like a normal preacher, I’m not a normal preacher, but I still serve Christ. So I couldn’t let them take the Christ out. I’m not a radical Christian that says “Christ is the only way.” I fight for the freedom that every man and every woman has the choice to serve who they want to serve or not believe at all, but me and my family serve Jesus Christ. I’m very proud of that faith.
SC: I was very concerned when I first met him because of his strong Scottish accent. And then I was concerned if he would “get it”. He’s a top actor, he has it upstairs, but I had to know for sure that he got it in his heart and many of the scenes you can see in his eyes that he truly got the message.
C: Did that come from spending time with you?
SC: I believe it comes from that and research. Also, just being on set and filming the actual movie. When they shot the movie they didn’t pull in actors, they pulled in children from local villages and paid them. They were poor children who were getting paid to do this movie.
C: Do you find that you have a newfound degree of respect for filmmaking after this whole experience?
SC: Y’know, I’m not too much into movies and stuff. There’s nothing wrong with them, but I don’t have too much time for TV and stuff. It looks like we have a TV show that’s going to be coming out in the spring or late next summer. It’s all about giving second chances to people, it’s a non-scripted reality show, there’s nothing scripted in it. I’m the owner of it. It’s all about the same work that I’ve been doing for many, many years, it’s about giving second chances to people from a homeless person to a guy in a crack house to a prostitute on the street. But, y’know, you can’t help everyone. Like the Bible says, “When you help the least of these…” because all people don’t want true help so you’ve gotta kinda judge which one you think is going to make it and then you’ve gotta be willing to relocate that person, find them a job, an apartment. That’s what our show is about, all the way down to going to Uganda to do home makeovers.
We’re hoping to create a show that the entire family will sit and watch, not just the teenagers, but young kids, adults, and even elderly people where everyone, when they’re finished watching it, will say “Man, let’s go out and help somebody” because that’s what the show is all about.
C: You have a unique approach towards the world of showbiz, it seems that you’re using these opportunities to benefit the greater good…
SC: Absolutely. I think the thing is if you look at reality TV that’s out there, it’s all crazy. At the end of the day, did it help anyone? Normally it puts people down, makes people feel like crap. So we just want to create something that will make people want to help someone else, create a little change in this world.
SC: Everything goes back into what I do. I’m probably one of the only nonprofit guys that doesn’t get paid through the nonprofit. I have a motorcycle shop and any money we bring in through it goes back into the nonprofit. We have a few businesses that all go right back into the nonprofit.
C: And you’re content to just live the life you’ve been living in Pennsylvania?
SC: I live a very conservative life. I like people to come see my home, to see how I live. I live in a country home up in Central City, PA. Last year I made less than $45,000, which in our area is actually pretty good money, it’s a low income area.
C: So what we saw in the film is a pretty good representation of the way you actually live?
SC: The home they showed me living in in the film is ten times nicer than my home. I live in a nice home, but it’s a small house.
C: What’s the current status of the L.R.A.?
SC: A lot of people want to say the Lord’s Resistance Army isn’t a threat anymore, but let’s follow what the news says. Since the first of the year, they’ve abducted over 1,000 people. They’ve killed over 200 people. They are still a threat. They are actually in the Congo now, they’re going in and out of Sudan causing terror, most of the people that were abducted and killed were around the Sudan border. We ought to realize that the Lord’s Resistance Army’s [leader] Joseph Kony is not a threat. The problem is the president of northern Sudan, [Omar al-]Bashir. Bashir is the one who is financing all of these little rebel leaders, he’s the one who’s financing the people in Darfur, he’s the one that caused genocide in Darfur. He’s the only president to ever have war crimes put on him and remain in office. My prayer is that the people will get tired of having a murderer in office and will stand up to put him out of office and the world will come alongside of them and help get this guy out of office.
SC: I think it’s just something you know you have to do and I’ve been doing it now going on 15 years so you just make yourself adapt. I would rather live in Africa, I would rather stay there and never come back. I love Ethiopia, I love Uganda, Sudan. I love Africa. I would love to be able to go there and never come back, but I have a family here, I have a motorcycle shop here, I have motorcycles to ride, I could live a nice life here compared to Africa, but I do love Africa.
C: I wonder if it’s beneficial to you to continue making that trip…
SC: Y’know, if you look at what I do in Africa alone, we serve from 3,000 to 3,500 meals a day. Three projects in Uganda, one in Sudan, one in Ethiopia, so if you look at all of the work and the workers and everything, the only way that I could run all of that is if I go back and forth to raise money. I don’t have people raising me funds to support the work in Africa so I have to do it here in the U.S.. So five or six times a year I make that trip, I don’t fly first class or anything so it doesn’t cost me much money to go back and forth. If you ever see me in first class I used my airline miles. Or someone bought me a ticket.
C: Do you continue to struggle to raise money as portrayed in the film?
SC: I’m gonna say yes because we keep expanding our work. I have a few expansions we want to do this year and I need to come to a point where I’ve gotta say “We’re not gonna expand anymore” because we get our infrastructure so high that we’re stuck with a high infrastructure and everything could die down in a year or two. So I don’t want everything to die down and have to cut everything back so I want to get to a point and say “this is where it’s gonna stay.”
C: And you’d hope that by then other will have followed your example.
SC: Absolutely. We’ve already had over a thousand people call or e-mail our office and say to us that they went to the movie because of Gerard Butler or because of my story and when they come out of the theater it wasn’t about Sam Childers anymore, it was about them and what are they gonna do so I believe the movie is inspiring a lot of people to get up and do something. And now I want them to realize that it’s not just about African kids, it’s about children around the world. We have a campground here in PA, I work with troubled youth, I speak about drugs and alcohol in high schools and colleges, we’re actually getting ready to do work in the sex trade here in the U.S. We have a very serious problem here with people selling children so we’re doing a lot of work in the U.S. as well as overseas.
SC: Yeah, absolutely. Like I said, there’re a few small things that I wasn’t satisfied with, one little thing where it showed me having a bad day and everything was falling apart and I went back to the barroom and started drinking. I’ve been totally free of drugs and alcohol for 20-some years, but I’m still satisfied with the film even with those little things that they felt they needed to do.
Machine Gun Preacher opens in Philly-area theaters on Friday.