Interview: Machine Gun Preacher Director Marc Forster

Director Marc Forster has built a reputation on his eclectic choices in films that have taken him across the globe whether it’s the modern-day South of Monster’s Ball, 1900s England of Finding Neverland or war-torn Afghanistan in The Kite Runner. After directing five movies in five years, some may have wondered what Forster could possibly do to follow his James Bond movie Quantum of Solace, which continued his globe-trotting ways.

It’s been three years since then and the answer is Machine Gun Preacher, a real life action-drama starring Gerard Butler as Sam Childers, a Pennsylvania ex-con and drug addict whose faith drove him to Northern Uganda and the Sudan where he took on the local military warlords to save hundreds of children. It co-stars Michelle Monaghan as Sam’s supportive former stripper wife Lynn and Michael Shannon as his troubled friend Donnie. got on the phone with Forster a few weeks back while he was in the midst of shooting World War Z with Brad Pitt in Glasgow, which we briefly touched upon at the end of our interview. It’s been a couple of years since we last spoke, maybe three years. I feel like I’ve talked to you once a year before that.

Marc Forster:
Yes, that’s very true. I took a little bit of a pause after “Quantum.” That was sort of a big movie and I just wanted to take a moment to breathe.

CS: That’s good. You were doing a lot of back-to-back movies so I’m glad you got a vacation in there. What’s the story with this one? I haven’t read any notes so besides having seen the movie and knowing who’s in it, I know very little. Did you find the screenplay and develop it yourself? Did Gerard come to you with it? How did this all come together?

No, basically Jason Keller the writer pitched the story to me, and I thought at first the story wasn’t real. I thought, “What an interesting character,” and said, “Okay, let’s develop it together but I want to meet Sam.” So I met Sam in his town in Pennsylvania at his house and we sat down and we developed the story together, then Jason Keller spent about a year and a half, two years, with him writing the script. I felt it was such a fascinating story, especially in the time we live in, because on the one hand, I was just inspired by him, that a man with no financial means, no education and such a dark background, was really able to save and change the lives of so many kids. At the same time, I was taken aback of what kind of character he is and the means he sometimes uses to save these kids. I thought it was very controversial. As an outsider, I always believe it was the message back on “Monster’s Ball.” At the end when Halle Berry has to kill Billy Bob or not, I always thought that violence creates more violence, so basically she decides to break the circle of violence at that moment. Here, I’m meeting this character who through basically quote-unquote “violence” saves these kids. As an outsider, I sometimes feel like such a hypocrite, because you may support charities and say “How horrible what’s happening on the other side of the world.” But ultimately, we’re not really ourselves doing anything and it’s very easy to judge. Once I worked there and saw this, especially while making “The Kite Runner” and the whole situation that’s going on in Afghanistan, I began to feel much more critical about it. It’s a tricky thing to balance ultimately what kind of means do you want to use to do something about something. I just thought it’s a very controversial story. Obviously, I have the AIDS worker who is in effect the voice of reason who says again, “Violence creates more violence and that’s always how it starts.” And compares them to Kony at the beginning, so I thought it was a very explosive story and I thought that in the times we live in and what’s going on in the world and in the Middle East is that the path to freedom, is that through violence or is there another path? On the one hand, yes, there’s an educational part to understand what’s going on in another part of the world, but on the other hand, it’s also inspiring because there’s a man who does something, who is uneducated but has changed the life for the better for a lot of people. At the same time, the methods he uses are not necessarily the methods one can agree with. I thought it’s just a question that would create discussion and I thought it would be an interesting thing and a worthwhile story to tell.

CS: You mentioned “Monster’s Ball,” and you’ve done so many different types of movies since then, and I think most people would have trouble finding a throughline, but seems like looking at world issues through the lives of ordinary people is something that shows up in all your work.

Yeah, definitely. It’s always about the core of humanity and that’s what links them all together and ultimately it’s what interests me. I think it’s a similar thing with the movie I’m doing right now, with “World War Z,” which is a zombie movie but has a lot of the same themes in them.

CS: What was your impression of Sam when you first met him? I assume Sam is still going back and forth to the Sudan?

Yes, he still has his orphanage there and (Joseph) Kony is still one of the most wanted terrorists in the world and he’s still burning down villages and kidnapping kids and making them child soldiers or sex slaves, so that’s all still happening, so that’s all very current. He was just put onto the most wanted list I think about two years ago by Hilary Clinton, but he’s been doing it for a long time so it’s all happening, the situation hasn’t changed, and he’s moving around between Northern Uganda, the Congo and Sudan, but he’s very, very active. In a sense, that hasn’t changed. When I first met (Sam), the thing about Sam is that what you see is what you get. He’s not really hiding or pretending to be someone else. That’s why I put at the end of the movie, I put this little bit of documentary footage and even that sentence he says, because he threw that sentence at me, “If your own daughter or son would be kidnapped and I have the means to bring them back, do you care what kind of means do I use?” It’s an interesting argument and it’s an argument you can question. I thought it was definitely something to face himself with.

But he is very much like when I first arrived in Pennsylvania where he lives. I met him before once in L.A. before I got involved, and he’s very warm at the beginning but he didn’t say much. I just said to him, “Look, I found your story worth telling but I need to spend time with you and see it all and experience it all.” I spent time with him at his house and obviously, when you first walk into his house, he has guns and motorbikes pretty much everywhere, and you meet his wife, who is a former stripper. What’s in the movie is pretty much what you get from them personally. He can be very charming, he can be very abusive, he can be very loving, but what he does have which is interesting when I met him in Pennsylvania and then when I went to Africa, he has this amazing heart for these kids and he really does care for the kids and that also really won me over. I met some of these kids. It’s not in the movie, but for instance, there are some of these kids who’ve lost half their faces or eyes. Somehow with his own money, he gives them reconstructive surgery so they have parts of their faces back, and he has some of the most talented kids in Northern Uganda now. He rented a private house, one in Naguru and one in Kampala where he sends all these kids to private schools. He doesn’t give them away for adoption, he wants them to rebuild the country themselves. He has about 200 kids at the orphanage there–new ones come and old ones go–but as you see in the film, he basically uses all his own money. He does better in recent years to raise money, but it’s still a struggle for him, but it’s also a struggle for him because of his personality. As you see in the film, that is his personality when the guy gives him the check and he rips it up. In certain moments, he can be very abrasive, but it is his personality and one has to go back and see that he was a drug dealer and a drug addict, and that’s his background. He even once said to me, “People don’t change and I haven’t changed in 20 years but now I’m doing it for a good cause.” (laughs)

CS: What’s the timeframe of the film? I got the impression it takes place over 15 years or so, but about how far back does it go in his life, such as when he’s getting out of jail at the beginning?

His real story starts off in the early ’90s to now like maybe 13 or 14 years. We played around because it’s a two-hour timeframe and compressed everything a little bit or otherwise it would be too episodic and it’s already really hard if you’re dealing with different time periods not to make it too episodic as it is.

CS: How did Gerard originally get involved? This is a big role for him and he’s really dedicated to play this character.

I felt like today there are very few actors who are real men, and I needed to have an actor who has that late ’30/40s who was a real man, and Gerard I felt had that. He showed in “300” that he has this really strong masculinity and he was really passionate about the character, and I felt like he’s the guy who would just give everything to really dive into this role and portray this role as good as he could.

CS: When you did “Finding Neverland,” that was also a movie about a real person, but how easy or hard is it to bring artistic and cinematic license into a movie when that person’s still alive and around?

We worked with Sam on it. We said, “We can’t do three friends or it would have been too much,” so we combined them into one of the characters and made some of the events happen that he had with a specific character. He read the script before and he actually just saw the movie about two weeks ago, and he really embraced it and thought it captured his spirit. It’s always the same. Like when doing “Kite Runner” when it’s based on a book or even “Finding Neverland” on J.M. Barrie, you try always when you’re dealing with previously created material or a real person to capture the spirit or the essence of the person, especially if you have a two-hour movie that spans over several years. I was really glad that he felt we captured that and he felt it really reflected who he is and his wife and his daughter and everybody else. I was very pleased about that.

CS: Since you had Sam involved, did you actually shoot in his section of Pennsylvania? I don’t think you could shoot in the Sudan because it’s too dangerous.

No, we didn’t. We basically recreated it. We took the church he built himself and recreated it, but the production designer and all of us did varied research. I mean, the layout of the orphanage we rebuilt was pretty much the same layout and architecture of his real orphanage and the same with his houses and church and everything else.

CS: Was Michael Shannon’s character based on a specific person or was that an amalgam of different people in Sam’s life?

Yes, it’s a combination of two or three of his friends. The guy who was with him when he stabbed the Indian was a different guy then who finally died, so they’re a combination of two or three characters, which would have been too much.

CS: I realized while I was preparing for this interview that I don’t think you’ve worked with the same actor more than once despite having done so many movies. Is that true? Every movie with a repeat cast and not a single “repeat customer” so to speak?

Yeah, now, I worked with Dustin Hoffman twice–“Finding Neverland” and “Stranger Than Fiction”–I really loved working with him, but that’s pretty much it. Interesting enough, I’m working with an actor now on “World War Z,” I worked with on “Machine Gun Preacher” who plays this guy Fanna, but it’s a smaller part. But apart from that, no, I didn’t.

CS: Is that something very deliberate to keep things fresh or is that something you’ve been unconscious of while making these movies?

No, there are a couple of actors like Johnny Depp I wanted to work with again, Ryan Gosling and I want to work together again, Halle Berry and I want to work together again, and Will Ferrell and I want to work together. I do have a strong relationship with and wanted to work together again. We just haven’t found the right project yet.

CS: I’m not sure how on top of American politics you are, but one of the things about “Machine Gun Preacher” that makes it daring is that Sam is quite right wing in his beliefs in religion and guns. Liberal audiences who might be interested in the situation in Africa might not be into that aspect of the movie. Were you aware of that potential dichotomy while making the movie?

Oh, absolutely! And that for me is an interesting thing about Sam is that he’s not about politics. I had a conversation with him, asking if he was a Republican or a Democrat, and he said, “Look, for me it’s not about Republic anymore or Democrat, it’s about people doing the right thing and taking on responsibility.” He has some really interesting things to say with a lot of things I don’t agree with and some we agree with and that’s what I thought was interesting about the movie, because I felt to make a movie about a character you don’t necessarily always agree with, but at the same time, he’s very active and he has a change that’s really something I respect and I find really incredible. I can’t say that I literally saved hundreds of kids’ lives.

CS: In that sense, we’ve seen a lot of movies set in Africa, but none with this level of action in it. Can you talk about bringing into action into the story and how that makes this very different than other moves set in Africa?

Yeah, again, I think it’s part of him that he almost takes the law into his own hands, which has an action element to it. It’s interesting as you said, because there’s this emotional and dramatic story on one side and in a sense, I don’t see it as an action movie, but he has this action element to him. I also felt what was interesting to me was really pushing to make the action very real, because he is someone who took action and has been in battles and has killed people, and it’s just a part of the story and I needed to show it.

CS: “Machine Gun Preacher” is an entertaining movie but there’s also some potential messages involved in it, so what would you like people get out of seeing this movie?

In “Machine Gun Preacher,” I do think on one hand there’s an education element for people who maybe aren’t aware what’s going on in Sudan or the other side of the world, but on the other hand, it’s also at this time I think people feel powerless and don’t know what to do with situations and here’s a man who does not have financial resources, ho does not have education, and he really took it upon himself to make a change, make a difference, and I thought it’s entertaining but also an inspirational story.

CS: I understand you’re in Glasgow right now shooting “World War Z,” so how’s the weather been for you?

Yeah, still in Glasgow. It’s Scotland. It’s overcast and rainy but that’s sort of the weather we wanted.

CS: I understand you’re shooting Glasgow doubling for Philadelphia, so are you going to shoot in Philadelphia as well?

No, we’re not. We’re obviously shooting plates there (for special FX) and other things that you need for wider shots, to create Philadelphia for that sense.

CS: I kind of remember you being involved with “World War Z” for a while and been developing it for a number of years even back to “The Kite Runner.”

Yes, that’s correct.

CS: How is it compared to the book? Is it a pretty straight adaptation or is it just using those ideas and doing different things?

No, the book obviously has different stories and points of view so I expect this is a departure from that but still, we’re trying to include as many references as we can to the book in the screenplay and try to keep it in that sense authentic, but you’re dealing with a similar thing where you want to incorporate the spirit of the book into the movie.

CS: I seem to remember it including a humorous side to it and other than “Stranger Than Fiction,” you haven’t really done a ton of comedy. How’s it been working with Brad on this since neither of you have really done a lot of genre, which being a zombie movie, “World War Z” definitely is.

It’s been really great fun working with him, and I’ve really been enjoying it.

CS: There’s been a lot of pictures and video from the shoot, which seems like a very new thing this year where people with video cameras are filming stuff from the set, so how has it been making a movie in the public eye like that? You didn’t even have that for the Bond movie.

It doesn’t bother me so much to be honest, because I feel like it’s an exciting movie and a big movie, and I think it’s really fine, because you’re sharing it with the public and making it and I kind of think it’s an interesting, fun experience.

CS: How much longer do you have to shoot on that and do you already have other movies in development you might want to do next?

No, I’ve just been focusing on “World War Z” at this point, and we’re shooting this film until the end of October and then the release date is December 2012, so we have plenty of time in post to craft it and so I’m just focusing on this and making sure it can be as good as it can be.

Machine Gun Preacher opens in New York and L.A. on Friday, September 23 and will expand to other cities later. You can also watch our video interview with one of Forster’s stars, Michelle Monaghan, here.


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