Interview: Jason Keller Discusses the Violence, Themes, and Anti-Hero of ‘Machine Gun Preacher’

By  · Published on September 30th, 2011

Machine Gun Preacher is a biopic that does not sugarcoat its violent lead. Unlike most bio films, this is not about a common man rising to become a perfect hero, but instead, a true anti-hero. Sam Childers – biker turned preacher turned freedom fighter – is not the most likable man in the film. Not only would you never want to hang out with him on a weekend, but even after finding Jesus, he commits inexcusable acts.

The violence of Childers, at least when he is in Central Africa, is not part of those inexcusable acts. Many critics have said the film takes a very right-wing stance – and perhaps it does, at times – but the methods Sam uses are very black-and-white. He’s an eye for an eye guy. When Sam uses violence to save children, that’s when he becomes his true self. However, when he’s asked to be the father of his own family, that doesn’t come as easy. Again, not your average hero.

Recently I had the opportunity to speak with screenwriter Jason Keller about his dynamic lead’s acts, as well as the themes of the film, not making a lifetime movie, and the process of writing for a true visionary.

A lot of bio films are very episodic in telling you about events, while I think this story is kept very simple and straightforward. With covering so many years of Sam’s life, was that a difficult structure to find?

You know, the structure was very tricky. From a technical standpoint, it was a very hard movie to put together. Half of the movie takes place in Pennsylvania and the other half takes place in Sudan. It was a difficult thing just technically to kind of crack that.

I always wanted, whenever Sam was in Sudan, I wanted Pennsylvania to be haunting him. And I wanted to never lose Pennsylvania when he was over in Africa. Also, whenever he was in Pennsylvania, I wanted him to be haunted by what he had seen and what he had done in Sudan.

So trying to sort of pull that off was tricky to kind of make that work, and I think it kind of works in the movie. There’s a bit of an episodic nature to Sam’s life. He spends 7 months of the year over in Africa. The rest of the time he spends with his family in Central City, Pennsylvania. In a very real way, they are two very different lives. He leaves Pennsylvania and he steps into another world.

It’s interesting for real life. It could be detrimental for a movie to have such an episodic sort of structure. So I always wanted it to feel like each place was pulling on the other wherever he was. Yeah, so that was it.

It’s interesting how when Sam back home with his family, it feels very claustrophobic. And when he’s out in Africa, it feels like he’s more free and comfortable. Was that an idea Sam talked a lot about?

We did. I spent a long, long time with him before I ever started to try and write a page on this movie or agreed to try and write this movie. Almost a year I spent just traveling with the guy. One thing that I started to see, that just really started to emerge, was that he…stateside life for him, in many ways, was, and is, far more difficult for him to sort of move in and operate within versus Africa.

He’ll tell you this if you ever talk to him. This is very complicated for that guy. Over there it is very simple. He wanted to help and knew how to do that. When he’d come back stateside, he had to deal with, you know, financing problems and complex familial problems and all these sort of things. And over there he was saving lives.

So it’s interesting that you say his stateside self is claustrophobic. I hadn’t thought of it in those terms. But you’re right. It does feel claustrophobic. And it certainly was meant to feel very drained and burdensome for him in terms of narrative. I wanted it to be a place that was slowly strangling him at a certain level. So it’s a cool way that you phrase it, that it’s claustrophobic. That was always the hope at a narrative level, for sure.

I just finished talking to Marc Forster, actually, and the one thing I mentioned to him is that, I think the movie takes a very clear stance on the violence Sam uses. Do you think the movie does fully support his methods?

You know, I suppose it’s clear-cut in the movie because that is Sam, and Sam has a clear cut point of view about violence. I think to tell Sam’s story you have to clearly define his point of view about violence when it comes to saving innocent lives over there.

For me, the idea of violence and how it’s used in the movie and for talking about violence as a topic, I’m not sure how I come out on it. I just qualify that answer in this way: I’m not pro-violence. I’m a guy who believes in peace. I don’t believe in wars. I’m a guy who doesn’t support violence.

And it was really easy for me to have that point of view before I went to Sudan. I traveled there and I lived for a couple weeks on the orphanage, and I met the children, and I talked to soldiers. I got in a truck and I drove 50 miles along the Juba Road, which is one of the most dangerous roads on the planet.

And as I sort of spent a couple of weeks over there and I started to see women with their lips cut off and I started to talk to these children who had their parents butchered in front of them, and I started to hear the stories of these soldiers and they things they’ve seen and what they’ve witnessed in war over there, I started to change my point of view about violence. I started to understand, as I’m talking to a little boy who has no blood relatives left on the planet because they’ve been butchered by the LRA, I started to understand the idea of needing violence in order to somehow right the wrongs that were happening over there.

I’m answering this in a very personal way. It’s an issue for me that even right now as we’re talking about it, I’m not sure how I come down on the violence. It’s a complex question. I don’t think there’s any right or wrong answer. You can’t be a pacifist in this world. That might be my answer. I don’t think you can. I don’t think it’s possible.

I think the scene that supports that idea is when Sam saves the aid worker, who criticized his methods, with violence.

Right! Right? And that’s based on a true story that happened to Sam. If we could talk to that aid worker, the real woman that that basically happened to, I think that her conversation would be very different today because of what happened. Look, it’s a great question and I don’t have an easy answer for it. You know what I mean?

I understand, it’s a big question of movie. Even by the end of the film, you see Sam making some big mistakes. Was it essential early on to have the honest and flawed portrayal, instead of the sugarcoated one?

It’s not a flattering portrait of this guy. I mean you’ve seen the movie. It was very important to me early, early on… and really, this was before even Marc Forster came aboard, and certainly once he came aboard, he echoed my desire. We didn’t want this movie to wrap up nicely with a bow. We wanted to tell the true story of this guy. And, more importantly, we wanted to address what was happening in Central Africa.

And neither of those two things, as sort of incongruent as they seem in terms of global impact, neither of those two issues wrap up neatly in a bow. Sam’s life, this is not a story about a bad guy turned good. This is a flawed human being. This is a guy who makes mistakes. He’s aggressive. He’s intimidating. And he does something profoundly good on this planet.

And to this day that’s that guy. You know what I mean? It was important to us to maintain that sort of… you know, if we’re talking Hollywood terms, that anti-hero. Really, for me, he’s a human being that’s doing something extraordinary. And that means that he’s doing it in a flawed way most of the time. That was important to us.

In terms of Central Africa, talk about a complex problem with no easy answers. We didn’t want to wrap that up either. We didn’t want to have everybody sort of be OK in the end. We wanted to keep that question of future – you know, what’s going to happen over there? – open, because that’s the reality of the situation.

I think Forster is a very humanistic director, and that shows through in the film. When he came onboard, or even early on in the writing process, was there a constant balancing act of showing both the humanist and dark sides of the film?

I mean, that’s Marc. Marc is just a wildly talented director. I think much of his talent comes from the fact that he is an incredibly compassionate, intelligent, sensitive human being. And I think that translates into his work. I mean look at his movies. You look at the ones that move you deeply. You know, Monster’s Ball and these movies. It sort of taps into who Marc Forster is. And he was deeply moved. He was deeply moved by Sam’s story. He doesn’t defend…he won’t defend Sam…

Yeah, he didn’t.

He didn’t? Yeah, I’m sure he wouldn’t. None of us took this project on to defend Sam. But Marc, despite the fact that maybe he would disagree with Sam and his tactics, he always saw the humanity in this man. And he certainly saw the humanity in what he sort of discovered when he and I went to Sudan together, the humanity over there.

So that was constantly a driving force, I would say, for Marc Forster, that he wanted to tell a deeply human story because what he was being moved by were flawed, hurting, regular people trying to sort of navigate this life on this planet, and it touched him, and I think he wanted to put that on screen, and I think he did.

He’s not afraid to let a movie’s heart be on its sleeve. This material could be very lifetime-esque, so during the writing process, was that a constant tonal challenge finding a sense of subtlety?

You know, I think two things. Well, it’s actually one answer. I think the more you understand the story, the more sort of nuanced it becomes. From a technical standpoint, I would say that probably the more drafts that I did of this screenplay, the more subtle it became and the more nuanced it became.

But I think it’s about understanding your characters and understanding the story and realizing that you don’t have to sort of spell everything out; you don’t have to stamp everything with a, “This needs to be dramatic, and this needs to be a turning point,” and all those phrases you hear when you talk about how to craft a screenplay. You start to realize that it can sort of live on its own and you don’t have to help in those really heavy-handed ways. Maybe that’s just an esoteric answer, but…

No, that’s good. I know I’ve got to wrap up, but I’d love to ask about Snow White. I talked to Tarsem a few months ago, who has to be one of the most personable people you could talk to.

He’s so great, isn’t he? He’s just so great.

Yeah, he was very approachable. But the one thing I’m curious about, when you write for a guy like that who’s very much a visionary, do you write knowing his style, or do you still just write a story fairly basically and let him interpret it?

I think you have to do both with a guy like Tarsem. Tarsem is one of…he is a visionary. You used the word.

That word gets thrown around a lot, but he really earns it.

It gets thrown around a ton. And there are some visionaries out there. Tarsem is definitely a visionary. So working with him, it was an interesting balance. I am very driven by story. I am very driven by narrative. I am very driven by character. That’s what I understand. That’s what moves me. That’s my foundation for what I do.

A guy like Tarsem, when we started working together on Snow White, it opened my eyes to a whole ‘nother level of thinking about how to tell stories. The guy was so inspiring. I have to tell you, it was like we would have story sessions and, you know, we had a script at the time, and we’d be talking about a scene that we were working on and he would start to bring in books, and he’d start to bring in these pictures. And he had a laptop with him and he’d call up these amazing photographs, and then he’d try and draw things in.

And before I knew it, we weren’t just talking about all those things that are important to me – arc, character, structure – we were talking about this thing as a living piece of art. And it was the coolest thing as a writer to kind of be brought into his world and be sort of given the OK to think fancifully. And I think that’s what Tarsem does, is he thinks fancifully, and it’s wildly inspiring. Not just for me as a writer, but every single guy, person, that that guy would come in contact with on Snow White would become inspired by what his vision. And it was down to the draftsmen that were drawing the sets. I mean, you could just see it. It was a blast working with that guy, I have to say.

Machine Gun Preacher is now in theaters.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.