Jason Hall’s rise to awards-nominated screenwriter might seem Cinderella-like, but behind the American Sniper scribe’s “overnight success” is a tragic story that helped define the new film.
Written by Todd Aaron Jensen
(January 9, 2015)
Most people forget that the original Cinderella story is actually a pretty brutal saga, physically, psychologically, and emotionally, so when the phrase is applied to the tale of Jason Dean Hall, the screenwriter cringes more than a little. The 42 year-old Hall is today a magnet for kudos and awards buzz for his breakthrough work, American Sniper, the true story of U.S. Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, whose four tours in the Iraq War landed him the jagged mantel as the most lethal sniper in American military history. The film, directed by Clint Eastwood, starring Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller, is hitting theaters now, but Hall’s “overnight success” as screenwriter – more akin to a second act, after an abortive stab as a professional actor resulted in but a few television guest spots (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, CSI: Miami) – is eclipsed, in his heart and mind at least, by the grim tragedy that befell Kyle, a husband and father to two young children, and with whom Hall had formed a very close friendship through the years.
In 2010, Hall was a writer searching for a story to tell, sent to Kyle’s Texas home by a mutual acquaintance with the notion that there might be a great film in Kyle’s life story. The relationship between writer and soldier was tentative at first, but deepened through the years. “He was always cordial, but there was also some distance in his eyes, and he made it clear, without saying a word, that he wasn’t going to be saying much,” Hall remembers. “He was this sort of Achilles-like character, and I felt like I’d been dropped somewhere close to the second act turning point of his life. I just had no idea how the story would end.”
On February 2, 2013, Kyle and friend Chad Littlefield were gunned down at a Texas shooting range, victims of a war veteran they were helping assimilate after a particularly punishing tour of duty. By the end of Kyle’s life, the unlikely duo had become good friends, and it became more than a job, but a mission, for Hall to pay proper homage to the veteran and his surviving family. “The first time I saw him open up his arms to his kids, there was this light that flashed through his eyes, and it became totally clear to me: before all of this war stuff, this guy had been a different man,” Hall says. “It became important to me to tell that story, and I wasn’t going to let anything stop me from doing my best.”
Photo: ©2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc
Bradley Cooper in American Sniper.
One of the riveting aspects of American Sniper, which differentiate it in many ways from other war films, is its intimacy, its attention to the domestic drama that surrounds both war veterans and their families.
Yeah, we found a compelling story in that struggle of this man and wife, this family, who have to deal with the aftermath of war. Most war stories that we’ve seen before are these stories where the soldiers go away, and they go up the river, or they go into the jungle, and it’s one mission, and then they come back. The reality of this war for these families was much different. The soldiers would go away and then come back, and go away again and then come back. It was very hard for families, and the technology that was involved was also something that made things really hard. With all of this technology, no matter where the soldier was, you could hold his pain in the palm of your hand. For most of us, war was just a ticker on CNN, but for families at home, it was very intimate, very profound, very painful.
War movies are tricky. I mean they’re almost can’t win propositions because it’s either jingoism or nihilism, sentimentality or blunt force. How do you balance all of that?
Above all, what I wanted to show is that war is human. Most Americans had very strong opinions about the Iraq War, and a lot of those opinions were about how unjust the war was. But that didn’t really address the reality of the men and women who were actually fighting it, or the people waiting for them at home. We know that war is hell, but when I saw Chris and his wife working things out, with her never quitting on him and him opening up as much as he could to her and to their kids, I thought, I know what we all think we know, but what I want is to show this. That’s what felt right to me.
That human aspect is delivered right up front in the film’s opening sequence, where Kyle is poised to take a killshot – a child in his crosshairs, no less – and we’re uncertain what he’ll do.
Yeah, I jumped-started the movie with this moral dilemma, to make it a very human thing right away. Is he going to shoot this kid or not? That’s what it’s going to take to save the Marines that are in trouble in that moment. So is he going to do it? Can he kill a kid? Could you kill a kid? If he can’t, is he going to step off the gun and risk the lives of these soldiers, or force someone else to take the shot and accept all of the agony that goes with that? I really wanted to put the audience in his position.
It’s kind of a high-wire act, a risky move. It could really alienate an audience, but it works beautifully.
With the wrong director or the wrong actor, yeah, it could all be over before the first act plays out. I don’t mind if it makes audiences uncomfortable – it’s kind of supposed to – but if it hadn’t been done perfectly, audiences would just check out. They’re not doing that.
With all respect, at the time you pursued this story, you weren’t exactly a hot property in Hollywood. How did you come to this project?
Basically, I found myself in a very unique position, being invited to spend a weekend with Chris and his family. I don’t know exactly how or why, really; it was just one of those amazing things. I remember at the end of that first weekend with Chris, where his son and I had gone hunting, and I had seen how deep this man’s life was and how deep his story could go even though he wasn’t saying much of anything, and it seemed like he was just sort of barely tolerating me, I was walking out his front door, and he said to me, “Oh, by the way, they’re writing a book about my life.” And I thought, “Oh, well, great. That was a waste of time.” I figured Scott Rudin, or whoever, was going to swoop in and see what this book was and that would be that.
That’s not what happened, though.
No. The book went on to do very well as a book, but it was a book that a lot of people had a hard time with. Chris, basically, dictated his story when he was just home from combat, and they hired someone to come in and take it all down and, I don’t know, you could call it “snippy” or “gruff” or “war stories from a drunk guy sitting in a bar.” The stories were all true, but the book was written in a tone that made it very hard to embrace this guy. There was no understanding of who he really was or why he made the decisions that he did. It was kind of, like, “Here are my war stories. Take them, leave them, or fuck off.” So the book came out and no one in Hollywood wanted to touch it, and that made me kind of the perfect guy for the job.
How did you develop the screenplay?
I came up with a pitch that was, basically, a war movie. It had some of the elements that you see in the movie now, but it wasn’t fleshed out. It wasn’t full of who this man really was and what the war cost him, and other guys like him. It did get Bradley Cooper interested, and Bradley was incredibly insightful about the piece. So I kept writing and I stayed in touch with Chris and seeing how he was doing and, basically, just kept pestering the hell out of him, trying to get answers to stuff as questions would come up. It was challenging sometimes. Ask a man like Chris Kyle about his emotions and he’ll want to go make a sandwich.
A lot of veterans – maybe most of them – don’t really like to get into the details of their experiences.
Yeah, yeah. Eventually, I started to understand who he was, and he saw me come to that understanding, and eventually I learned how to make him laugh and I was able to get a good sense of the man, even without getting direct answers to these questions I was asking him. We got close. One day, I was just finishing up the script, and Chris and I were texting back and forth, and I told him that the big day was coming up, that I was turning in the script, and he texted me: “Good luck, man. I hope you work again!” Which was kind of hilarious. I responded with some dirty joke that only a sailor would laugh at, and Chris responded with an “LOL,” and I was so proud of that moment. I got an “LOL” from the most lethal sniper in U.S. history. So I turned in the script, feeling pretty good about things, knowing that I’d done my best by Chris, and the next day I got a call from one of Chris’ good friends and he said, “Chris just got murdered.”
He was gunned done by a veteran he had been trying to help, right? That’s unfathomable, really.
Yeah. Really, it was. I mean, I have two kids of my own, and the first thing I thought was, “His kids are going to grow up without a father. His wife is now a widow.” Then, you know, I’d spent two and a half years getting inside this guy’s head, falling in love with him, really getting to know him. It was… traumatizing.
All of the film school in the world can’t prepare you for a loss like that, but your training as a writer was fairly unorthodox anyway, wasn’t it?
Well, I went to USC, but I couldn’t get into the film school. I was in the theater department, but I didn’t really care for it much, so I dropped out. But there was this guy in the film school, Art Murphy, a really tough, old, legendary guy with a reputation for throwing desks and chairs around his classroom when he got pissed, and he hated people auditing his class. Most of the people at the school – students, faculty, pretty much everybody, I think – were kind of terrified of him. But he was this genius. I mean, really a genius. So I thought to myself, “I’m going to audit his class and learn everything I can.” Except, he hated people sitting in on his classes so much that he actually had a doorman – like a bouncer – and I kept charming my way into the classroom anyway. Eventually, the guy at the door said, “Look, man, I don’t care who you are. If Art finds out about this, he’s going to kill you.” But I just kept going to his class and turning in projects and I’m asking tons of questions in class and I was doing really well and I was learning a lot and I was making a pretty good impression.
Of course, he must have found out about you.
Well, yeah, and when he did, he picked up a chair, just like I’d heard he sometimes did, and he threw it across the room. And then he started laughing. “You’re the one fucking guy I thought was really getting something out of my class, and you’re not even fucking enrolled,” he said. He was just laughing, “With brass balls like that, you’re gonna make it.” Then he gave me his phone number and told me to sit in on any class I ever wanted to in the USC film school and if anyone gave me shit about it, they should call him right then and there. He said, “If they give you any trouble, tell them Art Murphy said you are welcome anywhere you want, and then tell them to fuck off.” Classic Art. I can’t tell you how much I owe that guy. So I, basically, went to USC film school for a year and a half, and I was just writing screenplays and getting all the film education I could.
That’s a great story. Tell me about developing as a writer.
I was mostly trying to get acting jobs back then, and acting was going okay. I got jobs here and there, but it never satisfied in any artistic way. It did allow me to read a lot of scripts, though, and I finally decided to start writing full-time. I’d finally figured out what mattered most to me in a movie: character. So that’s where I always start. The story matters, obviously, but not at all if the characters aren’t there. That’s where the emotional part of movies comes from, and that’s why I go to the movies. I don’t really go to the movies for an intellectual experience. I go because I was to feel something. I want to have my understanding of the human experience deepened in some way.
So it was lots and lots of practice at that point.
Yeah. I wrote for 14 hours a day, 7 days a week, and I’d get notes from a friend who really knew screenplays and stories, and the notes were always amazing, and I just kept going. It took me two years to finish my first script. When I look back on it now, it’s not great, but it was the best “great” I could get in that moment.
Once the American Sniper script was done, it was snapped up by Steven Spielberg. That’s probably a pretty life-changing moment.
Yeah, that kind of changes everything. It changes the profile of the project and suddenly you’re in pre-production overnight, and I got the benefit of sitting down with Steven, who is one of our greatest storytellers, and he’s giving me notes, and I realized pretty quickly, “I’m on a moving train. I’d better keep up with the train or I’m going to get canned and rewritten.” Nobody ever said that to me, but I knew well enough by that point, “You keep up, or you’re replaced.” So there’s this buzz and this little bump in your life, but all that noise and celebration around me, it was drowned out by the fact that my friend had been murdered trying to help another veteran. And then a few days after the deal, Chris’ wife called me and said, “You need to get this right because this is how my kids are going to remember their father.” I’ve always been somebody who stands up for what he feels is right, but what she said really made me realize, “This is a tremendous responsibility. There is no room for screwing this up.”
When Spielberg moved on to other projects, Clint Eastwood came on board as director. He’s a very different filmmaker, and one with his own distinctive style. How does the project change at that point?
Clint has this real musical sense in his filmmaking and he’s able to tell things with these subtle little grace notes – a glance or an image that’s almost a throwaway. He likes to pare it all down, so we had a real back and forth on all of that, and coming to understand what Clint needed and what was worth fighting for – the things I needed – was my big challenge. I learned a lot. You step in there with the big boys and you’re either going to get stepped on or you’re going to identify what’s really important to you, stand up for it, and have a good time.
So you went toe to toe with Dirty Harry?
Look, it’s better for a writer to say what he thinks, back it up with good reasons, and see what happens. You’re a writer, man; you don’t swallow your voice. Writers need to remember that they are the authors of the material and that their opinions and voices really matter. That’s what gave this thing life to begin with. That’s what started the conversation. Ultimately, with Clint, we both wanted to make the best movie we could and we worked really hard to do that and there is a tremendous amount of mutual respect there. Working with him, I learned a more cinematic way of cutting through things of telling a better, leaner story. I learned clarity. Clarity is purpose. Clarity is truth. Clarity is meaning. That’s good stuff to know.
Read more about Jason Hall and American Sniper in the January 2015 issue of Written By.