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Jason Keller, Screenwriter, “Machine Gun Preacher”

by on April 2, 2012
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Don’t assume that just because “Machine Gun Preacher” is Jason Keller’s first credited screenplay that it’s the first thing he’s written professionally. He’s been working in Hollywood for almost 20 years, writing for stage and screen and toiling away, waiting for his turn for fame and fortune.

His time might just be now; “Preacher” is getting loads of positive buzz, with the “O” word (Oscar, you pervs) even being bandied about.

A native of Indianapolis, Keller talked to The Film Yap about his latest movie, his next movie (one of two adaptations of “Snow White,” his starring Julia Roberts) and more.

How did you get mixed up with “Machine Gun Preacher”? Was this an assignment, or did you shop it around?

No. One of the producers on the movie, Robbie Brenner, called me one day and said, “I just heard the most amazing true story,” and she sort of pitched me the story in five minutes, and I didn’t believe it. I thought it was just too incredible to be true, and she said, “Listen, the real guy is coming to town next week. Do you want to sit down with him?” Of course, I said, “Yeah, I gotta meet this guy.” And that’s how it happened. I sat down with Sam the first time and started talking, and we kept talking for months and months and months. I didn’t know if I wanted to write the movie, frankly, for a lot of different reasons, and it took me almost six, seven months before I really agreed to write the movie. It was a very difficult thing for me. I really held onto this thing for six months before I finally called Robbie and said, “Yeah, I wanna write this movie.”

Once it got going, how did you approach writing something based on a true story … and this is based on a book as well, right?

Yeah, well, I wrote the movie before the book came out. The book wasn’t published until sometime later. But it was daunting, I have to say. Just the scope of the story, the timeline itself, spanning some, really, 30-plus years of this man’s life, trying to distill was very challenging. I had never written a true story before, and I wanted to get it right because as I started to know more about Sam’s story, and I started to understand more about what was happening in the Sudan and the idea of child soldiers, it became a huge burden for me to get this right. It wasn’t just another screenplay or another writing assignment for me. The story really crept into my bones, and the faces of those kids, as I started to educate myself about what was going on over there, really seared themselves into my psyche, and I had to get it right. That was what made it very difficult, writing this movie, because it was a true story, and I wanted to tell it truthfully, and I wanted to do it correctly, and it was very difficult. It took me a long time from the first moment I met Sam to finally getting a draft that I felt happy with. It took more than a year just because I was researching so much and was desperate to get the facts straight and render it in a dramatic and truthful way.

There’s a lot of play in the idea of a movie being “based on a true story.” The term being bandied about a lot these days is “inspired by a true story,” which, to me, is basically an admission that the movie is largely not based on fact. And even in “based” movies, there are dramatized moments. How much of that did you have in “MGP”?

I tried to be as truthful as I could. Having said that, it’s not a documentary, you know what I mean? I think in terms of those movies that you are talking about, movies inspired by true events or based on a true story, I think this movie is more true than not true. Every scene in this movie, barring just two, if it’s not true, then it’s directly inspired by something that’s happened to Sam or his family or the children in Sudan. Part of the answer to this is that that’s why it took so long to write it. It was very important to me to not just write some sensational story and stick an “inspired by a true events” tag on the end of it. I wanted the spirit of this movie to be true and I wanted every scene in the movie to support that spirit, and I think we succeeded in that. Is it 100 percent factual? No. Have I taken dramatic license in certain areas? Absolutely, I have. But I think this is definitely a true story. I stand by it.

At what point did Gerard Butler and Marc Forster, these heavyweights, come into the picture, and what were your feelings?

Well, my feelings to having Gerard Butler and Marc Forster react so passionately to my script, it felt great. Those guys are very talented, and I was excited to work with them. That was great. But Marc and Gerry didn’t come to jump into the process until almost a year after I first met Sam. As soon as Marc read the script, he was absolutely committed to making the movie, and Gerry was basically the first actor that got the script. He read it, and the next day said, “I have to do this movie.” Getting those two guys behind the movie made it real very quickly. This is not a very easy movie to get made in Hollywood. It had everything going against it, and there’s every reason not to make a movie like “Machine Gun Preacher” in Hollywood. But all of the filmmakers involved were absolutely committed to getting this movie made. Those guys jumping on board made it a very passionate push from me to write a screenplay as good as it could be, and it became very real very quickly.

I was almost surprised to see you there on set in South Africa. The screenwriter is usually not only not encouraged to participate, but is asked to not show up on set at all. So you were more involved?

It’s really a testament to Marc Forster. Y’know, this movie doesn’t get made unless everybody involved is doing it as a passion project. That means none of us got paid, all of us were away from our families forever, all of us were told we could never make this movie, and all of us fought tooth and nail to get it made. In the very beginning when I met Marc and he responded to my script, I asked him if I could be a part of the process because by that time I had become so passionately involved with what was happening in Sudan and northern Uganda that I didn’t want to just hand this off, although I trust him completely. He’s one of the most talented guys in town, I needed to be a part of it, and I asked him if I could be a part of it, and he said, “If we get this movie made, then yes.” And to his credit, he invited me into every step of the process. I was on set every day of shooting. It was not only an incredibly fulfilling experience for me; I think it was important for all of us to experience this together. We all came into this with our own sort of desire to do something with this film, and all of us being together in this process made a better movie. And no, it’s not typical, and frankly I think Marc was a little nervous those first few days I was on set because I don’t think he knew what would happen, but it was a wonderful process making this movie.

Now you have a background in theater, right?

Yes. Well, you know, when people have a background in theater, they went to Juilliard and worked off Broadway. I don’t have that kind of experience. I first got started writing by writing plays. I was a playwright for years and years and years until I shifted over and wanted to write screenplays.

Then I’ll ask you the obvious question: What’s the difference between the two?

Yeah, huge difference. You’re a writer, you know, but writing screenplays is a very constricted format. You really don’t have a lot of time to tell a story in a screenplay, and you don’t have that problem with plays. You can sort of indulge yourself when you’re writing a play and getting into a character. If you’re writing a screenplay, you have to get to it very quickly, and you have to get to it dramatically, and you just don’t have the kind of time you do when you write for the stage. So for me, making the switch was very interesting because it took me awhile to realize that writing screenplays was far more precise a form of writing than writing plays. I didn’t intellectually understand that. You have to be very precise when you’re writing screenplays, and it can get in the way of telling a good story, and it forces you to be very choosy about how you’re rendering a certain character or a narrative. That’s the biggest difference.

Was there anything specific to “MGP” that you had to eliminate because of that?

Well, the story spans 30-plus years of Sam’s life, so distilling that 30 years into 120 pages was extremely difficult, and also, the structure of the screenplay was difficult to define, because half of this man’s life plays in Pennsylvania and the other half takes place in Nimulay, Southern Sudan, so trying to render that into a screenplay and not have it feel overly episodic was very difficult. There’s a very episodic feel to this man’s life, and I wanted to somehow illustrate that. To answer your question in a long-winded way, yes, I had to distill 30 years down to 120 minutes, and I had to somehow tell a story that took place in two very different locations and make that work, so we had to mash things together and pull out some things we didn’t want to pull out, but I think we succeeded at the end of the day.

Can we talk about a few of your influences, some of your favorite movies?

I didn’t go to film school per se, but my film school was reading great screenplays. There are some guys around here who were the very best there is. Steve Zaillian, Eric Ross. I read great screenwriters and I try to pull apart how they do what they do, and deconstructing great screenwriters’ work has been the best education, and it’s how I get inspired in terms of writing movies. In terms of my favorite movies? I loved “The Social Network” last year, I love “The Insider.” That’s a true story I found incredibly compelling and well done. What else? There’s a lot of them out there.

Anything thematically similar to “Machine Gun Preacher” that you had in mind?

That’s a great question, but no. I’d never tackled a true story like this, but the inspiration came from the man himself and Sam’s family, whom I became very close to. And spending time with them, talking to them, traveling to Sudan with them, that was my real inspiration for this movie. I don’t know what movie would be similar to “Machine Gun Preacher.” But I had the benefit of that family in front of me. I lived with them in Pennsylvania for a time, and I saw them working in the Sudan.

I’d like to talk about some upcoming stuff you have. You’re writing one of the two “dueling” Snow White films.

{laughs} Yes, a dubious distinction.

How did that come about? Obviously, yours was first, right?

Our (Relativity’s) Snow White was bought by the studio almost 5 months before Universal bought “The Huntsman.” Basically the middle of November last year, I was called by Relativity, who’s producing our version. They had a script, but weren’t happy with it.  They said, “We’re very motivated to beat the other ‘Snow White.’ Are you interested?” I said yes. I went in to talk to them, and let me tell you, Joe, it was fascinating. I’ve never been a part of anything like this or been a part of something that was shaking down like this. They had a script that was interesting, but they wanted to do a pretty extensive rewrite on it. They said, “We want to beat the other ‘Snow White,’ and in order to beat it, we need to come up with a take on this movie and have a finished script done in four weeks and, at the end of that four weeks, it has to be good enough to get Julia Roberts, who has an availability in 2011 to shoot this movie.” So I said, “Give me two days,” and I went off, I came up with a take on the movie. And Tarsem (Singh) is a friend of mine, he’s directing the movie, he was in on that first meeting, too, and I pitched them my take on the movie. Tarsem was there and the producers and Tucker Tooley, the president of Relativity. They liked the take and asked if I could write a script in four weeks — “You have to write a script in four weeks.” I said, “I can try,” and they turned to Tarsem and asked if he could start to put together an art department and costumes — “today, that can play off of the pitch you heard Jason tell you.” He said, “Yes, I can.” I started writing on a Tuesday, Tarsem started an art department and costume department, and we started designing stages the same day I started writing, which is not typical. We were literally playing off of each other. I would be in the middle of writing and would go over to Tarsem to talk about something and would see the artists drawing something I had written the day before. Then they’d come to me and say, “Hey, this is great, but what if this was here, and what if we put that there?” Then I would go home based on their input and make changes to the script. We basically did the entire script in four weeks, and we got it to Julia Roberts and she read it and said, “Yeah, I’ll do it.”

No pressure there, by the way.

I know, right? You know, it was one of those things. It was such a Hail Mary pass and we all knew it, and we just took a shot and everything came together.

And are you still doing this vampire movie, “The Passage”?

Yes, I’m writing “The Passage” now for an amazing director, Matt Reeves. You know him, right?

Yeah! He did “Cloverfield.”

Yes, and the remake “Let Me In.”

Yes, that was terrific.

Did you see “Let Me In”?

Oh, yes. It was great. I’m a big fan of “Cloverfield,” too.

“Cloverfield” was great, and I love the original “Let the Right One In,” but man, he did an amazing job on his version. It’s been a blast working with him. So that’s what I’m working on now, and Michael Mann is attached to a movie that I think we’re going to make, a book I adapted last year called “Go Like Hell,” which is about LeMans racing.

So you’re starting small, not working with the big boys right away?

{laughs} Yeah, right. It’s been a busy two years.