Judging by his filmography since his 2001 breakthrough “Monster’s Ball,” director Marc Forster seems unwilling, if not incapable, of repeating himself. That film’s soul-baring drama offered no hints at the delicate beauty of his follow-up, “Finding Neverland,” and neither film suggested he was capable of the melancholy whimsy of “Stranger Than Fiction,” or later, the visceral intensity of “Quantum of Solace.” In his latest film, “Machine Gun Preacher,” Forster tackles the life of Sam Childers (played by Gerard Butler), a former ne’er-do-well who finds God but who falls back into his violent ways after taking on the responsibility of protecting orphaned children in Sudan.
Again, it’s a story Forster hasn’t yet told, but it does bear the hallmarks of the filmmaker’s work, examining troubled humanity projected against the backdrop of larger events. The Playlist caught up with Forster via telephone a few weeks ago to talk about his work on the film. In addition to discussing the perils of portraying a ‘white man saves Africa’ story, he talked about tackling an ongoing variety of different projects and about finding common ground within so much disparate subject matter. Mild spoilers may be ahead.
What first attracted you to this story? And then what, for you, was the way into portraying it on film – was it meant to be a fully accurate chronicle of what happened, or were there themes you could explore via this story?
When I first heard this story, I almost thought "this can’t be true." I was very dubious, and it’s such an interesting story and he’s such a interesting character, so when I met him for the first time, I really was even more intrigued. What first attracted me to it was that it’s a man with no education, no financial needs, who has very self-destructive and abusive qualities to him, and he took the power upon himself to change the lives of lots and lots of kids and save their lives. In the times we live in, so many people feel powerless, and people who don’t feel powerless are very hypocritical– they give money to charity, and so forth, but there was a man who put his life on the line to help these kids, but at the same time had so many flaws to his character. Talking to him and questioning his methods, when I spent time with him in Sudan in this situation, there are always two sides to it, and it's a story worth telling because it creates discussion and questions what’s right or wrong.
How difficult is it to depict religious piety without descending into self-righteousness?
It’s a very thin line, especially coming from someone like me– I’m very open to anything in that sense. There's an important point at the end of the movie when he questions God – where was God? – which he did numerous times while he was in Africa, questioning why these atrocities are happening. So it’s a very thin line, and was very important that he asked Him that.
One of the conversations that has been going around culturally lately is the criticism of movies about a “white savior “ – a white person who rescues blacks or enables blacks to rescue themselves. Is this a criticism for this film you feel like you’re sensitive to, and why or why not, do you think that may be relevant to "Machine Gun Preacher"?
For a Western audience, to see the world or experience that story through the eyes of an outsider is often slightly, and I think in this particular case, more observant. To tell the story from an African’s perspective would be a different film, and I think would be much harder for a Western audience to connect with. To experience this as an outsider is, for a Western audience, probably easier to connect, because we’re entering a foreign land and we experience it from his point of view and through his eyes. If you are a Christian or not a Christian, a believer or a non-believer, that’s not so much the point... But on another path, there was the sort of delicate subject of a white man in Africa, and what does the white man do, right or wrong. I tried to make that as balanced as possible, and interestingly enough, Souleymane [Sy Savane], who plays Dang in the movie, said “I was worried about that,” because he’s from the Ivory Coast and that’s always how the white man gets portrayed in Africa. He said, “I don’t know how you were able to do it, but I didn’t feel like it was ‘white man saves Africa,’ it was this sort of personal journey of a very complicated and, in a sense, abusive character." Because you wonder sometimes, is he doing it for himself? Is he doing it for the kids?
There’s also a really interesting deterioration that this character goes through in terms of finding a degree of redemption and then slipping back into his old, violent ways. How tough is it to map a transition like that and then find a way to redeem him without him becoming a pacifist at the end?
It was difficult because automatically if you’re making a movie [that goes back and forth] between America and Africa, it could feel very episodic: you are in one place and [then] another place. That’s tricky, and going back and forth in the emotional state of him turning good, and the arc in a two-hour time period, is very hard because all of a sudden it feels compressed. All of that compression of time is hard to do, but the key thing is that you connect with him as a character and understand him, even if you in some moments dislike and want to detach from him, you still have an emotional connection and understand why he can get to such a dark place. Anybody who has witnessed the atrocities he has witnessed has a much different understanding or deeper understanding of that kind of pain or violence than someone who hasn’t. How do you emotionally work through that, and can you work through that? Talking to Sam [Childers], he said to me, “the person I was in the past and the person I am now isn’t so different, it’s just that now I have a good cause behind me.” That’s very much evident at the end when he starts executing people, and he sort of loses that part of himself, because he goes to such a dark place.
"Machine Gun Preacher" premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival this weekend. More from this interview soon.