'American Sniper' Screenwriter Goes Back to War in His Directorial Debut
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because war is personal and some wounds are permanent.
By Molly Fosco
Jason Hall first came to Hollywood as an aspiring actor, but like many others who do the same, rejections quickly started piling up. So, taking a cue from Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, Hall turned to writing his own films to star in, and found that studios liked his scripts, with one caveat: They wouldn’t cast him in any of the roles. Initially, this was a deal breaker, but Hall soon realized his acting dreams were trashing his shot at a different kind of Hollywood career. He decided to give this screenwriting thing a try.
Hall got his first big break in 2010 when he was tapped to write American Sniper, a film directed by Clint Eastwood about Iraq War veteran Chris Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper), the most lethal sniper in U.S. history. It would go on to earn six Academy Award nominations (it won one) and bring Hall a slew of writing offers. But Hall’s most recent project put him behind the camera, directing Thank You for Your Service, which premiered Oct. 27. The film revisits the Iraq War, but shifts the focus to the struggles faced by returning veterans. Sniper, a major box-office smash, came under fire from those who criticized the film for glorifying war and for its one-dimensional portrait of the Iraqi people. As Hall’s career picks up speed, he spoke about the challenge of narrating both sides of an international conflict fairly, while also trying to avoid being pigeonholed as that guy who makes war movies.
The soldiers in this story are fighting a war that follows them home and stays in their hearts and their minds.
A Southern California native, Hall, 45, attended USC and still maintains the brawny physique of his college wrestling days. Before giving up on acting, he was a regular on Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the late ’90s. He went on to write the 2009 comedy Spread, starring Ashton Kutcher, before landing the Sniper gig.
Even with several generations of military veterans in his family, Hall never planned to write a war movie. “The story kind of found me,” he says. He was approached with the script idea for American Sniper, based on Chris Kyle’s autobiography of the same title, and things moved quickly. Hall and Kyle spent months working together. Then, just two days after Hall submitted his first draft of the script, Kyle was shot and killed by a fellow veteran he’d been counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder. As the topic comes up, Hall’s voice mellows. “It’s challenging to get close to someone and have that happen,” he says. “It did make me wary of stepping into these relationships.”
And still, he signed on to do Thank You for Your Service because he had something else to say about war. “The soldiers in this story are fighting a war that follows them home and stays in their hearts and their minds,” Hall explains. “I hope to educate the civilian population about what these guys go through and the cost of these wars.” He proceeded cautiously with the project, and even so, found it difficult. “They were really suffering and there was a lot of loneliness and a lot of heartbreak,” he says.
Writing about the intricacies of war fairly is not easy, but producer Andrew Lazar, who worked closely with Hall on Sniper and other films, thinks Hall is well-suited to the job. “Jason is able to really flesh out nuanced characters in a very deep and provocative way,” Lazar says. He also thinks Hall’s connection to the subject matter — his grandfather served in World War II, his uncle in Vietnam and his brother in Desert Storm — makes him the right person to tell these stories. “Jason genuinely cares about veterans and the people who have served our country,” Lazar says.
But some veterans take issue with Hall’s approach. Garett Reppenhagen, who served as a sniper in Iraq in 2004 and is a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War, was disappointed by Sniper’s portrayal of the Iraqi people. “We were completely integrated with Iraqi forces,” Reppenhagen says of his deployment. “In American Sniper, it seemed like every Iraqi was either a bad guy or was being manipulated and controlled. Where are all the Iraqi people that I worked alongside to make changes in that country?” Still, Reppenhagen agrees that a film about veteran PTSD, which is the primary focus of Thank You for Your Service, could be helpful to the community. He’s unsure if he’ll see the film, but he’s optimistic. “It seems like it’s going to do a better job than the Chris Kyle story,” he says.
Make no mistake, Thank You for Your Service is a war movie, but one with very few battle scenes. The film’s heart is the raw performances by Miles Teller as Staff Sgt. Adam Schumann and newcomer Beulah Koale as Solo Aieti, who give a face to PTSD. Hall says his intent is to show a side of war many people never see. “We have no idea what these soldiers have been through or how hard it is for them to come home with all these psychic wounds,” he says.
With two big war films under his belt, Hall is ready for something new, only he’s not deviating from the military theme just yet. He’s slated to direct The Virginian — about George Washington’s role in the French and Indian War — and he recently completed a script about a female pilot who served in Afghanistan. Two more war movies, but with enough difference to satisfy Hall for now. “If I can get out of Iraq, I’ll be happy,” he says.
There’s no question that Hall’s interests are broader than war, says Lazar, and he’ll tackle those topics when he’s ready. For now, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter getting props for his first directorial effort is sure of one thing: His acting days are behind him. “I haven’t missed it,” Hall says, laughing. “It’s been a very natural progression and it’s certainly more artistically fulfilling on the [directing] side.”