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Jason Keller escapes development hell

"Maching Gun Preacher" is longtime writer's first screen credit

When the studio asked Jason Keller to sign up for kidnapping and dismemberment insurance before traveling to Sudan to research his script for “Machine Gun Preacher,” they weren’t kidding around.

“You couldn’t go anywhere without seeing whole villages that had been razed to the ground and the burned out hulks of tanks and trucks on the side of the road, the remnants of an ambush,” says Keller, who went there to get a firsthand look at the Children’s Village orphanage run by biker-turned-minister Sam Childers (played by Gerard Butler in the film).

Last fall’s release of “Preacher” not only helped bring the plight of conscripted Sudanese children to light, it gave Keller his first screen credit. During the preceding 10 years, he’d made a good living with a series of sales, options and assignments that included a $1.4 million payday from New Line Cinema for his spec “Sugar’s Sweet Science of Bruising” in 1999, but nothing got a greenlight.

As frustrating as it was, the 43-year-old scribe thinks he benefited from those years in development hell.

“I wasn’t sure I was ever going to have a movie made,” says Keller, who lives in L.A. with his wife, actress Kristin Dattilo, and their two daughters (ages 1 and 4), “so the screenplay became the art form for me.”

Born and raised in Indianapolis, the son of Susan and Ron Keller, the latter a pitcher for the Minnesota Twins in the mid- to late-’60s, Jason became enamored with writing after a teacher took a shine to a short story he wrote in high school.

Following stints at Ball U. and Regent’s College in London, where he wrote and directed numerous plays, Keller moved to Los Angeles. After several years of eking out a living working various low-level production jobs, a script he co-wrote with roommate Steven Christopher Young, titled “The Whole Magilla,” found its way to Mel Gibson, who ended up optioning it for $75,000, and Keller’s career got its jumpstart.

Keller’s more recent assignments include two literary adaptations for Fox, Justin Cronin’s epic novel “The Passage,” for director Matt Reeves, and A.J. Baime’s nonfiction book about Formula One auto racing in the mid-’60s, “Go Like Hell,” for director Michael Mann. He’s also done page one rewrites of “The Tomb,” set to star Sylvester Stallone, and “Mirror, Mirror,” starring Julia Roberts, due for release in March 2012.

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