Actor, Academy Nominated writer and now director, Jason Hall was in Phoenix last week promoting his upcoming film “Thank you for Your Service” While here, we spoke with him about his process as a screenwriter, why he felt the importance of making this film, and his particular attention to detail as a director.
An excerpt of our interview with this fascinating filmmaker is below, but if you’d to listen to the interview in its entirety check out The Cinema Files’ Podcast!
TCF: I’m interested in the path a story takes getting made into film, so how did this one come about from the book to the script to you directing it?
Jason Hall: Steven Spielberg was gonna direct “American Sniper”, and I was working on the script with him, with his intent to start in late fall, and this was a couple months after Chris’ death on February 2nd. During that process, I think he saw that I could articulate his notes, and he trusted me with his book and said, “I wanna do this as well,” and so we started off on that book.
Originally it was designed as a story about the therapist, Fred, who now is just a footnote, a doctor on the phone. Well-played by David Morse, who’s awesome and kind of gives you the reassurance through that voice that you know from a hundred films that this is the answer. But, I discovered in writing that that was not what the story was about, and you kind of have that instinct that’s screaming in the back of your mind despite whoever he has aligned to play this great part, this is probably really more a story about these guys getting off the airplane than it is about a doctor up in Napa. And so, I kinda had to go down the wrong road to figure out which the right one was. And he was gracious in allowing me to do that and help me steer this towards that.
The whole time I was writing it for him, which you often are, and then he either chooses to do it or not. And I kind of had an inclination that it was maybe a smaller movie than he was intending to do next, and so I started prepping myself to be able to pitch myself and direct the film.
For all the war films that we make, we haven’t made a ton of films about guys coming home. I think cinema holds a big responsibility in that it’s able to shift people’s perception…So it’s also beholden upon us to tell the right story and to tell the true story, and not just the half of the story that sells.
The three characters, Adam, Solo, and Will … Adam is a person that you talk to. Solo is a person that you talk to. Will, you talk to the widow of and that sort of thing. So in talking to Adam, or in maybe Miles talking to Adam, one of Adam’s biggest problems is that he can’t talk about what happened. He doesn’t talk about it with Saskia and he doesn’t talk about it with his friends. Is that because he was a leader in Iraq, so he has to show a certain strength? That he’s almost like Teflon? Is that part of it? Or maybe not.
I think for these guys … The challenge with this story was making a story personal enough about Adam that it was universal but also making a story that was not just about Adam but that applied through these three guys. And their decisions applied to every warrior that’s come home with some circumstance like this.
I think that the schooling of the military, and what they teach these guys, is to shoot at human-shaped targets so they can shoot at humans, to walk into the bullets when your first primary instinct is to walk away. They teach them how to be fearless and how to do things that normal humans just don’t have the capacity to do. In doing that, they’re creating this toughness and this shell that allows them to do it, and everything that comes after, about finding your way back to yourself, is untaught. And it’s about how do you remove that shell? How do you remove the shield that a warrior’s been given to go into battle? And taking away that shield’s very hard.
For someone like Adam, it blew me away that as heroic as everything he had done in battle was, he came back and was able to reveal himself to David Finkel, the author, and allow him into his life and allow him to watch what he was going through. Even in some of his resistance to tell stories, or to hold onto certain things, or not … His willingness to articulate and to allow this guy in, and to be vulnerable to this guy, was as heroic in my mind as anything he did in battle.
What I find interesting about “American Sniper”, and especially “Thank You for Your Service”, is that both films seem to put more emphasis on what happens when a soldier comes home as opposed to what happens in combat. Why do you think that’s so important to talk about, especially in film?
I think that to know what the consequences of war are is tremendously important to society. Especially a society that’s found a way to distance itself from the aftermath of war and the consequence on its warriors. In my mind, of what I’ve seen, these guys are honorable young men and women who are making the decision to serve their country, and it’s beholden on us, not just the government but the citizens, to make sure that we’re making the right decisions electing people who make decisions that put us into conflicts that are as equally as honorable as the men we’re sending over there.
I think there hasn’t been a tremendous amount of stories about soldiers coming home that have been told. For all the war films that we make, we haven’t made a ton of films about guys coming home. And I think cinema holds a big responsibility in that it’s able to shift people’s perception, and it’s able to tell stories in a way that just a storyteller with a voice and an audience cannot do. So it’s also beholden upon us to tell the right story and to tell the true story, and not just the half of the story that sells.
What kind of research or prep you did coming into this film. Were you able to speak to some of the real-life counterparts that appeared in the film? What kind of things did you learn and how did that influence the film?
David Finkel did such amazing journalistic work in following these guys. He went and lived with them, with Adam, with Solo, with Amanda, and several others in the book for ten months. And so, he gave us a bible. And it was up to us. We had everything that had happened to him, and the way in which they had reacted to those circumstances, and the way that they felt was articulated in the book. And it was up to us to get our hands on them and soak up all the psychic energy that we could, how they talk, what the tone of their voice was, what the quality … And what it looked like, what it felt like.
When I heard that I was auditioning just to get the job to direct, I immediately … I was in D.C., and I was supposed to go to Manhattan for the weekend with my wife, so instead, we went to Manhattan, Kansas. There’s an airport in Manhattan, Kansas. I said, “Good news and bad news, babe. We’re still going to Manhattan. The bad news is it’s in Kansas.”
So I went immediately there and started driving around and went to his house that he had … He had since moved, moved back to North Dakota. Went to his house. Went to the base. Went to the shady parts of town where some of the characters had wound up in trouble. And I went and just tried to dig into that with my hands.
I had, at that point, known Adam for two years because I had been writing the script for a good two years, and so I had a first-person relationship. I had been on the phone with him all the time. Texting with him, with Emory, with Amanda, with Solo. And so I had involved myself with them. As then soon as I brought Miles on, we immediately went out to visit Adam. We sat in the snowy field with him when he was duck hunting, and then just sort of soaked up all we could from this guy.
Once we started filming, Adam and Miles had a relationship at that point because it was a couple months. And then we had Adam down to train them. So we went through a boot camp that these Navy Seals ran and Adam was the sort of administrator. And like – we don’t do it like the Navy Seals, here’s how we do it. And he gave us the Army side of that. And then we asked him to stay as long as he could. He went back for a couple of stretches to visit family, but he was with us throughout the whole filming.
Having him on set and being able to just put hands on him and … Not that he’s gonna be like, “You didn’t do that right,” or “You didn’t do” … If he saw something wrong, I was like absolutely do tell us if you see something wrong. See it, say it. That’s what we’re doing here. And he would. He caught some stuff on the uniform. And he’d say, “Ah this stuff in my living room, that was all wrong.” Cause I had pictures. I had documentation. I had police reports. I had after-action reports. I had a massive amount of information that I asked the people that were working for us to match. I wanted it to be as close as humanly possible.
No, we had Solo down. Emory’s in the movie. We had Amanda Doster, and she brought her daughters down. We tried to involve everybody in the movie and saturate the entire movie with the experience of these real-life characters. So their history, and their touch, and their energy is enmeshed in the fabric of this thing.
I made sure that we had 200 actual veterans sitting in the VA because I know that veterans recognize veterans… I imported two tons of trash into Morocco because I hadn’t seen an Iraq war film that had enough trash in it.
How would you say working with Clint Eastwood on American Sniper prepared you for this one? Did you learn anything from him from a directorial point of view?
I think you learn a lot from anybody who you watch who’s a master like that, and certainly there’s an ease and fluidity with which Clint works that’s intoxicating. I don’t have that same persona as Clint, and so I’m a little bit more … I wanna get every single fucking thing right. And so, I’m very anal and, God bless him, I’m not that kind of filmmaker.
I wanted to find architecture in the houses that were similar to the architecture of the houses that they lived in. I made sure that we had 200 actual veterans sitting in the VA because I know that veterans recognize veterans. I got after-action reports. I didn’t allow certain colors in Iraq because I knew those colors weren’t indigenous to the rest of my Iraq. I imported two tons of trash into Morocco because I hadn’t seen an Iraq war film that had enough trash in it. Hurt Locker was maybe an exception because they were able to film it in Jordan, and that’s the middle east so they had the right color of trash. But it’s also about the colors of trash.
And also, I’m interested in being a filmmaker who puts messages into this, so I planted things … Trauma is sort of the repetition of a story, and what these guys come home with is these incidents where they unwind them and retell them. And unwind them to the point of, like, where was the first part of it that I made the mistake? Was it when I got out of bed and I didn’t get dressed fast enough to make it in that first Humvee, and so I was put in the second one? Or was it backwards? And so they play it backward and forwards, and it’s a bit of a mystery. So I planted a bunch of objects in the first half of the film, in the greater portion of the film, that actually ends up in Iraq. And you’ll never know what those are, but they’re certainly in there. And the reason I did that is because I want your brain to start adding up the information of all of those things that you previously know, and then it starts adding up the information as if you’re gonna solve this mystery.
You know, Amanda Doster still wonders to this day, like she knows what’s happened. She’s read the reports. She’s talked to everybody involved, but she still just wonders is there something else that she doesn’t know. One little piece of information of what was he thinking or feeling right at the last second before he died. And if she could just get that piece of information, that’s what trauma tells us, like I have to figure it out. I have to figure it out. And it’s this process of just trying to get to the top of the heap of all of this information and all of these memories to get to that point where you solve it. Was it my fault? Could I have done something more? And so, I tried to fill the audience with that sense of information piling up in the last part of this film.
“Thank You for Your Service” opens Nationwide on Friday, October 27th, 2017