Most of the movie biopics that figure prominently in awards season had their share of twists and turns, but none more than American Sniper, the film about Navy SEAL Chris Kyle that Clint Eastwood directed for Warner Bros. Jason Hall, the writer since the film’s inception, explains how Sniper overcame more setbacks and tragedy than most films.
DEADLINE: You were an aspiring actor not that long ago. How did you become the sole writer of American Sniper?
HALL: I tried to be an actor, did TV parts in shows like Buffy The Vampire Slayer, played the bad guy or the MacGuffin bad guy with the half-baked mustache. I’d read these terrible movie scripts and couldn’t get auditions for them. I thought maybe I could write a terrible script for myself, but they wouldn’t even let me audition when I did that. My first script, I remember this guy telling me I was getting more than Ben and Matt did at the beginning. This producer says, “I know you want to act in this, but what if I told you Milos Forman wanted to direct this, with someone else?” I remember being in the lobby of the Four Seasons and saying a little too loud, ‘Milos Forman can go f*ck himself.’ So that went away, and then I wrote another script about a blind wrestler. I wrestled since I was a kid, and there are these great blind wrestlers who compete up to nationals. I’ve wrestled them, and you have to keep your hands on them at all times, and if you separate the ref blows the whistle and connects you again. Some of these guys are really good. So I’m ready to play this blind wrestler, and John Dahl is interested and says to me, “This is perfect for Matt Damon.” And I said, “Matt Damon can go f*ck himself!” And that went away.
DEADLINE: Didn’t you tell me that at a certain point, your acting dreams stunted your progression as a writer?
HALL: Yes. I wrote another one, this was autobiographical, and when they said, “Keanu Reeves would be perfect for this,” I swallowed hard and said, “Keanu Reeves can … Keanu Reeves sounds like a great idea.” It was much smoother sailing after that.
DEADLINE: But wait. Didn’t Ashton Kutcher star in Spread?
HALL: Yes, and that was the end of the acting thing. I wanted a little part, but Ashton says, “I don’t think you’re good-looking enough.” Looking back, when they put me on camera, I come off a bit angry-looking, like there’s something wrong. I’d say, “Maybe I have too many thoughts in my head,” and they would say, “Just stop thinking and act.” I couldn’t.
DEADLINE: So how did you become the writer of American Sniper?
HALL: Daniel Loeb, who funded a private security company Chris Kyle started, mentioned Chris’ story to me and Peter Morgan. Dan had danced with the movie business, and he was tempted to pay us to write this. I end up going to Texas, where Chris was holed up with a bunch of Texas Rangers on a hunting trip. It was a weekend course, where they brushed up on firearms, did some training and hunting and drank a lot of beer. It was Kyle and 50 cops. I’d never been to Texas, and it’s a shock when they drop you into a room with a sniper and 50 of his closest Ranger friends. I talked to him a bit, but I didn’t drink like they did, and I got that “I don’t trust this kid” vibe. I’m thinking, “I came all the way down here — why isn’t he talking with me?” I only realized later: He’s a sniper, man, and they sit back and wait.
DEADLINE: How long was the wait?
HALL: Until one of his cop friends got tired of me and we got into it and I threw him in a headlock and took him to the ground. I’d wrestled as high as 189 pounds and learned how to handle big, strong guys. Turned out that is how you prove yourself to guys like Chris. He warmed to me after I threw his friend in the headlock, like, “Maybe he’s not so bad.”
DEADLINE: What kind of guy did you find?
HALL: When I met Chris, he was this really messed-up dude, and you could just see he was in a lot of pain and turmoil. First time I shook his hand and I looked in his eyes, I was like, “Holy cow.” You could see it, how that war took something drastic from him, a piece of his humanity. What he did. What he saw. What he lost. Whatever happened over there, it took a piece of him. And I called my wife at that moment, and I was like, “I’m coming home early. I don’t know what to do here. This guy seems like he’s still at war.” Chris had just gotten out of four deployments in Iraq, and you could see him struggling to get his life and his head back. Later, his kid and his wife showed up, and I could just see a light go on. I knew there was a movie there. I suddenly saw a man who was a father and a husband, someone I hadn’t seen the night before. I didn’t understand until then how these guys felt, trying to return to society and their families, after being fueled with this intense patriotism as they did the things they did. He was 11 months back by that time, and as I was walking out the door he was like, “Oh, by the way they’re going to write a book.” I said great, but I didn’t think I’d get the chance to tell this story. We’d be in a bidding war, and we didn’t have any money.
DEADLINE: How did you keep this alive?
HALL: Over the next nine to 10 months I tried to keep in contact with him, tried to get to know him. I’d seen the light come on, a little bit. I started to understand him through his wife. I saw she wasn’t going to quit on him, and this was a tough woman. I started to get that he was somebody else before all this and maybe there was a chance he could be that again.
DEADLINE: With the other biopics, the writers wrote about narrative arcs that had long ago played out.
HALL: It was like I had been dropped in on the second-act turning point of this guy’s life. His story wasn’t over, despite all he’d already done. So I tried to keep in touch with him and tried to find out, who is this guy? Who’s behind all this? What compelled him to do what he did, and what did it cost him? That was the real challenging part. Finally, the book came in and it was this brave sort of barroom, bawdy tale of one man’s war. It had great stuff in it, but it didn’t answer my questions about what compelled him and what it cost him. It seemed to be between every line of the book, just out of reach. The moral dilemma that caused him this great haunting seemed to be there in the book, but it was unspoken. And then it turned out nobody in Hollywood wanted the book. It went around town and everybody read it and they were like, “Ooh, yikes.”
DEADLINE: It seems like when you talk to war veterans, they don’t dwell on the horrible things they saw. How did you get Chris to lay bare something most vets won’t?
HALL: What you said is absolutely true. I’ve got a grandfather from World War II, an uncle from Vietnam and a brother from Desert Storm. They all circle around it and tell you some of the more charming stuff. My grandfather, how he got into a bicycle accident and hurt himself really bad. His plane went up the next day while he was laid up in the hospital. His plane got shot down over Germany, and they all died. He met my grandma in the hospital. I heard that story, but I didn’t hear the horror stories. You try and get in there, and you take your moments when you can. I’d ask Chris about something dark, about what really haunted him and you get, “Hey, are you hungry? Let’s go get a sandwich.” Even with my best efforts, I would never have gotten all the way there. Anyway, I texted Chris and told him I’d turned in the script, and he said, you know, “I hope your work’s good, dude. Good luck.” He was humble about the whole thing and didn’t think they’d ever make the movie. I made a joke and he cracked up a little, and it was a big source of pride for me that I had learned how to make him laugh. I turned in the script that day, and the next day I got a call. A guy was like, “Hey, I got bad news. Chris Kyle was just murdered.” I’d spent all this time getting into this man’s head, getting as much as I could, getting to know him and developing his voice. I had his family running around in my head, and then I hear he had been murdered. It was tragic.
DEADLINE: Why didn’t the project die with Chris?
HALL: Seven days later, his wife called me. She said, “If you’re going to do this, you’d better do it right because this is going to play a part in how my kids remember their dad.” And what I’d come to learn from this is, if you want to know who a man is, you don’t ask the man, you ask his wife. What I got from her was an emotional context for who he was — before, during and after this experience. How it changed him, and even more than that, the tenderness that existed in a guy who was so thoughtful that you almost couldn’t put it all into a character because it’s hard to believe. I got that context from his wife, all the stuff that wasn’t in the book. She told me this beautiful story about how, two months before he passed, she walked in and there he was, in his cowboy boots and he’d ironed his jeans with a pleat like cowboys do. He had his hat on and he was spinning this antique six-shooter on his finger and she felt like … by then, her husband had been home for three years, but she finally felt like spiritually and mentally, as a father and a husband, he’d arrived. She took me to that beautiful moment, which you see in the last part of the film. I wrote it word-for-word from what she told me.
DEADLINE: How different was that first script draft you’d turned in from the one you wrote with his widow’s input?
HALL: It was huge, I’d say about 70 percent. It went from being a war movie to being a movie about war and its effect on this one man. For me that story is the story of us, of the United States. You know, how we want to do right, how we have this emotional need and desire to find justice, to seek it in the world and to protect it. And how it puts us into a position like Chris got in, where we risk more than just our physical being, we risk something emotional. It became about the psychic wounding of the Western man, you know? We’ve been on over-watch for a long time as a country, and this is the story of that — the story of the perils and the price we pay and how we suffer for that.
DEADLINE: What kind of reaction had you gotten from the draft you’d turned in before Chris died?
HALL: I’d pitched the idea once without Bradley Cooper, got a pass and then went to him. He and I tweaked it up a little bit, and we went into Warner Bros and sold it. I turned it into Bradley and Andrew Lazar and Peter Morgan, and the next day, Chris was murdered. I asked them not to read the first draft, because the story wasn’t over. They probably read it anyway, but the whole story changed — the place it was told from, the point of view and the purpose. And the story after the war. Chris didn’t tell me any of that. He didn’t tell me he was helping guys. He didn’t tell me he had found peace, that he’d found his way home through helping other soldiers. He didn’t tell me any of that. It’s like I said: A man will say, “Ask me what my life is like and I’ll give you the touchdown, but I’m not going to tell you what it took to get there.
DEADLINE: American Sniper was particularly touching in showing that heroes pay a high personal price for greatness, and so do their families. It’s particularly touching in this film, going beyond The Hurt Locker, where the bomb defuser mostly seemed restless until he was back dismantling deadly bombs.
HALL: That was the allure of the drug. You know that quote at the beginning: War is a drug. Understanding the toll on the family came through Chris’ wife. This woman went through four tours of duty as well. She raised those children largely alone, kept that marriage going for the better part of 10 years. Yeah, he went four times, but between each tour there was a year to 15 months of training. All of that training is not done at home. So this guy comes home for two weeks, then he’s off doing a workout for training again. He’s up in the mountains. He’s out in the high desert. He’s gone. There are a number of phone calls between them in the film, and the reason that I chose to do that over something more filmic was, that was the reality of their marriage. They conducted their marriage over a satellite phone for 10 years. What I found so interesting about that was, for us this war was so far away; at least it felt that way to me. This Geiger counter of lives lost on CNN and you shake your head and you are onto something else. For people like Chris and Taya, this was their life. She’d get a call and it would be her husband, who’d call three or four times a week sometimes. After a screening, I heard stories of the worst phone calls wives got, interrupted when their husband would end up in a firefight. They all had them. For Taya, Chris dropped the phone when he was in battle, and she could hear the firefight and then he’s out of range or had run out of batteries and couldn’t call her for 10 days. You realize this was their reality. They were connected in this way, and that’s the impression that I wanted to give. Chris was a tender guy who saved this woman, swept her out of her own depression. She was rough around the edges when he met her. He loved her until she could love herself. He pulled her back. Then she did the same thing with him. Her voice over the phone was, in my opinion, the thing that pulled him home. Once you start to believe that you’re going to die, you die. They told me that once you start to have doubts, you die. He says at one point in the movie: “That letter killed Marc Lee.”
DEADLINE: Where Marc’s mother reads a letter at his funeral as he questions whether this effort was worth it?
HALL: What Chris meant was, that kind of questioning, entertaining those doubts defeats the certitude of Achilles. That’s the defeat. It’s like a war fought in the mind first, and then the battlefield. I’m sure Chris was certain he was going to die. He got shot at a ton of times, and got shot twice that scene in the movie and he got blown up once. He very nearly did die.
DEADLINE: That rewritten script got a commitment from Steven Spielberg, who developed it and then left. He brings a different sensibility than Clint Eastwood, it was evident in Munich. How different was the movie Spielberg wanted to make? Is that a question you can answer?
HALL: Yeah, I’ll try not to get myself in trouble here. I worked on the script quite a bit with Steven, for two months. His interest was in trying to paint a really complex and full picture of that war, trying to contextualize not only our place but also that of the enemy. I’d found the story of the enemy sniper, Mustafa, that Chris is up against. It was a true story and a beautiful sort of doppelganger, a mirror for Chris’ character. Steven really wanted to bring that out. I thought it was very intelligent. In my mind, I’d written this character as someone who was a lot like Chris. He was the hero for his own side, the legend over there who suffered the same ills over the course of this war. He felt the same emotional turmoil, fatigue and stress that Chris did. Steven was really interested in that.
DEADLINE: That wasn’t in the film Clint Eastwood shot.
HALL: What Clint does so beautifully is he presents this picture that’s so realistic. It’s life with imperfections; it’s spare and brutal. He’s interested in the man. He’s interested in the hero, his desires and wills, and he’s also interested in the frailties. That war was an ugly war and Clint didn’t try to beautify it, didn’t try to make it look like anything that it wasn’t. He didn’t try to make it look cinematic. He didn’t try to make it look more appealing to a moviegoing audience. That’s not his concern. His concern is realism, and truth. He is a man who trusts his instincts. You hear he does one take and moves on, but you don’t understand. He knows the truth and has been doing this so long and his instinct for truth is so sharp that he brings it out in everybody else, from his crew to his actors. He did a lot more takes on this movie than usual. He stepped into this thing and was so in the moment. He doesn’t push you into anything. He doesn’t manipulate the audience in any way. The movie is entirely unsentimental because he’s not trying to tell you what to feel. How many times do you go to a movie and it’s like, what are we telling the audience to feel? You can look at this movie and think, “Oh, this is patriotic propaganda — yee-ha, war hero, here we go USA!” But it’s like so much more important than USA. There’s a song that was made and it was like “yee-ha USA,” but you listen to it and you get into it and you realize, “Oh man, this is so much more than that. This is totally different. This is saying something about a war that’s really complex and about what we ask these guys to sacrifice.” I think any war told realistically is an anti-war movie. How can it not be? At the same time, I think Scorsese said that at the same time it glamorizes it because this is where heroes are made. I really wanted to show that war is human. We show the sacrifice and we show the cost, and if we can understand that in a base place in our body, and we can feel that, then maybe we’ll be less inclined to jump into another war.
DEADLINE: What did Chris Kyle’s widow tell you after she saw American Sniper the first time? Can you share?
HALL: I can. She came out of the dark and she was crying and I held her. She’s crying on my shoulder and she says, “I don’t know how you guys did it. You brought my husband back to life. I just spent two hours with my husband.”
DEADLINE: How did that feel?
HALL: Intense. That was the top for me. This movie can go on and make a bunch of money or win some awards or not. For me, that was it. I was like, “I’m done.” There was another guy who saw it, who she brought, who’s a Navy SEAL. At the funeral he said, “If you fuck this up, I’m going to kill you. I don’t say that as a threat.” I said, “Well, it sounds like a threat.” He said, “I just say it because I love this man and that’s how much he means to me. And I don’t have much to lose.” When he walked out of the screening, I was like, “Am I good?” He said, “You’re good.”