“Machine Gun Preacher,” which goes into nationwide release today, is the latest in a decade-long collaboration between director Marc Forster and former Jayhawks drummer Thad Spencer. The thought provoking action film is was the third feature film that his Minneapolis-based company, Asche & Spencer, has scored for the director, following “Monster’s Ball” in 2001 and “Stay” in 2005.
The new film is inspired by the true story of Sam Childers, a Pennsylvania ex-con whose religious conversion inspired him to take up arms to defend orphaned children in Sudan from local warlords. Ache & Spencer, which creates music for commercials, scored the film from last May through March, creating 33 musical sequences. The company’s music is featured through more than half the 90-minute film’s running time.
The collaboration between Spencer and Forster is unusual for Hollywood releases. Spencer begins composing months before the typical post-production rush, creating sonic moods and instrumental choices prior to shooting with the script as a guide.
The director and composer share an aversion for what Spencer calls “the standard Hollywood cinematic approach, not giving the audience an elbow in the ribs and telling them how they ought to feel. Forster wants more neutrality” and less emotional manipulation, he said.
Writing music for the film, which repeatedly switches locations from the United States to Sudan, was like scoring two movies, Spencer said. “We had the Sam Childers character in eastern Pennsylvania, reforming his life and becoming a better human being. Then he goes to Africa and has his hair blown back by the scope of what he sees, realizing this is a much bigger world than he ever realized.” The score reflects those shifting moods with passages of “Pentecostal revival rock ‘n’ roll” in counterpoint to sweeping, richly orchestrated soundscapes. The soundtrack, featuring the original song "The Keeper," written and performed by Grammy-winner Chris Cornell, is available on iTunes.
Spencer and company made an on-camera contribution to the new film as well. He led a five-member combo of his colleagues in a cameo as a church band.
“I thought, ‘We look like earnest church people. We’re all from the Midwest. We can do that.’ Forster told us not to cut our hair or facial hair for six weeks before filming. He wanted us looking a little weedy.” Their sequence took three days to shoot. “That was nerve-wracking because I had no idea we were going to have to do that much reacting on set,” he said.
Spencer’s big moment came when the film’s producer and star, Gerard Butler, turned to him as the cameras were rolling and pulled him into the scene.
“He said, ‘You guys are sounding real good tonight,’ and he looked at me. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t have a line. I nodded in an immensely nervous way, because I was profoundly nervous.” The scene made it into the final cut of the movie.
Spencer’s ongoing association with Forster has had one bittersweet disappointment. When Forster was hired to direct the most recent James Bond movie, “Quantum of Solace,” he pushed for Spencer to write the score. He flew to England for interviews with producers Barbara and Michael Broccoli, who ultimately decided to keep the whole production in England.
“It as a little disheartening. To compose into that franchise would be very interesting, but the idea of that John Barry score and those themes is so well established,” Spencer said. “How would you reinvent that?”