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Two Sides of Sam
From small-town Pennsylvania to the sun-baked scrub forests of Sudan, Machine Gun Preacher follows Sam Childers' journey between two very disparate landscapes. For the filmmakers, it sometimes felt like they were shooting two separate movies: one in Detroit, which doubled for Childers' hometown, Central City Pennsylvania; another in South Africa, which stood in for Sudan.

"Sam's life is divided,” says Forster. "His family is in Pennsylvania and the orphanage is in Africa. In the movie, he essentially abandons his real family for a new family in Sudan. He has a purpose there that he never had in the U.S. I feel these two worlds represent his inner and outer lives and to juxtapose them against each other in the film is really interesting.”

Representing both worlds with equal authenticity was the most difficult part of writing the screenplay, says Jason Keller. "I always wanted them to feel interwoven. If Sam Childers is in Pennsylvania, I want Africa to be right over his shoulder. While he is in Africa, I want his family to have a presence. The two worlds are constantly intersecting. It was very difficult to keep them playing against one another and show the dance of two worlds that make up Sam Childers' life.”

Executive producer Louise Rosner accompanied Keller and Forster to Sudan and Uganda in January 2010 for preproduction research and scouting. "Going to Sudan was especially intimidating,” says Rosner. "Our government recommends that you don't even go there. We had to take out very expensive insurance against kidnapping and dismemberment and things that you would never think of. But it was very important to Marc to go to Sudan. He is unable to tell a story without actually having seen the place and the people.”

Stopping briefly at Childers' home in Kampala, Uganda, the filmmakers headed north into Sudan by car. After more than 11 hours on some of the roughest roads they had ever seen, they arrived at the orphanage in 125-degree heat. "There were children who had bullet wounds or had lost limbs,” says Rosner. "There was girl who was maybe eight, walking around with her baby sister on her hip. Her parents were gone. It was a constant barrage of pain and suffering, but at the same time you saw great joy in the faces of these people and it makes you realize what an incredible thing Sam has done.”

For Keller, the trip crystallized his ideas for the script. "It was very emotional to see people walk through the gates of this orphanage that I had been imagining for a year and a half,” he says. "Meeting the real Deng and some of the children that I had written about was very moving and very important for the process.”

With Childers by their sides, the filmmakers entered the reality of the preacher's world in Africa. Billeted in a small tukul, a traditional African hut with rounded walls and a cone-shaped thatched roof, Forster, Rosner and Keller lived the life their subject has chosen. "It was an essential part of the journey to visit Sudan,” says Forster. "Sam showed me places where he had been ambushed. There were signs warning of mines. The LRA had attacked and burnt down so many villages. Children had been abducted, and hundreds of civilians mutilated, raped and killed. He was always armed and accompanied by soldiers wherever we traveled. It was clear he is both respected and feared there.”

Forster's commitment to experiencing the truth made a big impression on Childers. "Marc went above and beyond what I expected,” says Childers. "We didn't just talk about it. He stayed at the orphanage for a week and spent time in the bush. He was there to live it for himself.”

Shooting in Sudan proved impossible, but the filmmakers were firmly committed to making their movie in Africa. "It is a quintessentially African story,” says Rosner. "South Africa has a very large infrastructure of crew and cast and equipment and everything you actually need to make a movie. We scouted all over the country to find somewhere that looked like Sudan. It's very brushy, incredibly hot and dry, which took us to an area north of Johannesburg.”

They selected Bassora Ranch for their South Africa locations. Close to the Haartbeespoort Dam and surrounded by the majestic Magaliesberg mountains range, the ranch is just a few miles from the "Cradle of Mankind”—named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO—just forty miles outside of Johannesburg. This site has produced some of the oldest, hominid fossils ever found, dating back as far as 3.5 million years. Bassora Ranch served as the main location for sets including two orphanages, an entire village, a mission, and a Church, all built by the film company.

But filming first took place in Detroit, where the filmmakers set the scene for Childers' spiritual awakening, tracing his life from troubled past to redemption, and introducing the audience to his family and friend Donnie. "We chose Detroit for a number of reasons,” says Rosner. "We wanted to convey a sense of claustrophobia that would contrast with the vast vistas of Africa and we were able to find a wealth of locations in Detroit that did that. We decided to shoot in Detroit first to give Gerry a chance get to know his character better.”

The company filmed among the boarded-up houses of downtown Detroit, as well as in the suburbs' luxurious mansions, at Wayne County Detention Center, in a vacant airport and the sprawling wood frame house that served as the Childers' home. As it turned out, the mercurial Midwestern weather posed more problems than producers had anticipated stateside. "We had a tornado warning, a flash flood warning and a heat advisory, all in the space of 45 minutes,” Rosner recalls. "So we had to find shelter for 400 people and stop shooting as the tornado passed by.”

Forster's devotion to details continued in Africa where the scope of his story, with battle scenes, sprawling refugee camps and undeveloped countryside called for a different approach. "All the footage that we shot in Detroit is very intimate and character driven,” says Brenner. "Once we got to Africa, it became epic. We built two orphanages, one that we also burned to the ground. We built an entire village that also gets burned down. We had thousands and thousands of extras, as well as people to help with the over 700 dialects spoken in Sudan.”

Forster's determination to tell Sam's story with complete authenticity affected every department of the production. "At the beginning of every movie I put together a book of images and present them to every department to set the color, look and texture of the film,” he explains. "It was Sam's world that I wanted to recreate, and we all agreed that it should not be obviously designed looking.”

He shared the book with production designer Phil Messina, costume designer Frank Fleming and director of photography Roberto Schaeffer. "Marc was adamant about getting the detail down and that influenced the aesthetic of the film,” says Messina. "He was passionate about telling Sam's story with complete veracity.”

With that in mind, Messina created an environment that Sam Childers could plausibly have built with limited resources. "Sam was a contractor in Pennsylvania, so he had some construction knowledge,” says Messina. "Everything we built for the orphanages is based on research and as close to reality as we could manage.”

Locally sourced architecture provided Messina with some surprises. "When I looked at the reference photos I knew the tukuls were made of thatch and mud, but I didn't know the secret ingredient was cow dung!” he says. "It was an unexpected building material. But it has a naturally beautiful, shiny patina


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