Marc Forster was fresh from directing a James Bond film when he first heard the story of "Machine Gun Preacher" Sam Childers. Here was a tale of a biker and drug dealer turned rescuer of African orphans, battling Sudanese guerrilla groups. Even a guy used to the over-the-top derring-do of James Bond found it unbelievable.
"I thought, 'This can't be real,'" Forster recalls. "'It's got to be fiction. He can't be like that.' Then I met Sam. He is a very complex character who is neither very good or very bad, but he's doing a very good thing. He puts his life at risk to save children he doesn't know. Not your typical hero.
"Ultimately, I felt, we didn't have a story about a white man saving black kids in Africa. It's about African kids saving him."
Forster, whose "Monster's Ball" won Halle Berry an Oscar, helped turned Childers' story — a violent man who found religion, found a cause and yet never turned his back on violence — into the feature film "Machine Gun Preacher."
It's an ambivalent movie, which Forster says is by design. Forster still has mixed feelings about Childers, 49, a North Dakota native who grew up in Winter Garden and who had years of hell-raising and arrests in Florida before finding religion, starting a church in Pennsylvania and finding purpose with his African mission.
"The first part of the movie, the rough parts, don't even show a fraction of the awful person I was," Childers says. "At least [the movie is] hard enough that it shows that even a messed-up guy like I was can change, if they want to."
"Machine Gun Preacher," which stars Gerard Butler as Childers, was inspired by Childers' book, "Another Man's War: The True Story of One Man's Battle to Save Children in the Sudan." It covers a 30-year journey from outlaw to defender of orphans. That time span is the only real gripe Childers has about the film, which has opened in some cities and comes to the rest of the country (Orlando included) on Friday.
"The movie shows this one big moment where I change my ways and find Christ," Childers says. "What started me on the road to change was a bad bar fight and shootout in Florida. I went home that night and I made up my mind that I was done. It was a few years later that I started serving God.
"The action scenes were amped up, somewhat. The timeline was messed up. But they had to get 30-plus years into a two-hour movie. So I understand why they did it."
"Machine Gun Preacher" is earning mixed reviews and renewed scrutiny of Childers and his Sudanese mission (Shekinah Fellowship Children's Village). Last month, Christianity Today investigated the orphanage, which has been criticized for being inadequately staffed and funded. The magazine found plenty of people critical of the Machine Gun Preacher and his efforts at self-promotion.
"I've been called everything from a nobody to a fraud to a gun dealer to a blood-diamond dealer," Childers says with a laugh. "I tell people, 'Bear with us,'" because a Childers-backed documentary about him and his work will be finished in six months, he says. "That will cover my whole life; that will include children that have been rescued, soldiers in Sudan who know me, people who don't like me, who have known me during my barrooms and drug dealing days. It'll tell the whole story."
Even Christianity Today's reporter, on visiting the orphanage depicted in the movie, admitted that "the children seemed happy and healthy and living conditions seemed generally good."
"I found Sam fascinating," Forster says. "There are so many sides to him. Caring, doing everything for those kids. And on the other hand, a man of violence, who came from violence.
"I said to him, 'Violence can only create more violence.' But he says, 'Look, suppose someone kidnapped your child and I had the means to bring him back. What would you do?' Me? I'd get Sam Childers.
"But you really do wonder if people can change. It's like he went from one addiction to the next, from drugs and gangs to church and saving these kids."
Childers bats down some of the criticism by going out of his way not to use the movie as a way of fundraising for his Pennsylvania church or his mission projects in Uganda, Ethiopia, Sudan and soon Somalia.
"It's not about Sam Childers," he says. "It makes you sit there and look at yourself and ask yourself, 'What am I doing?'" Childers hopes people "go home, find a charity, somebody you're comfortable working with, and support them the best you can."
Forster says he is "still conflicted, to this day," about Childers and his methods.
"I think for Sam, it's simple, saving the kids by going to these places where no U.N. [United Nations], no NGO [nongovernmental organization] will go.… The whole world sees the problem, and he is doing more than I am doing, more than you're doing, to try and solve it. It's very easy to judge Sam when you are living in the United States.… But once you're in a place where there are no morals, no ethics, where these terrible things are happening, your objectivity goes away. Once you have seen these kids it changes your point of view."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times