Both American Sniper the book and American Sniper the movie tell the story of Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle and his storied military career but each offers quite a different portrait of the man. The movie sands off some of the book's raw bravado and explores Kyle's family relationships in great detail.
Jason Hall started as an actor in Hollywood and had transitioned to a screenwriting career when he heard about Chris' military record and traveled down to Texas to meet him, long before the book became a runaway bestseller. He put in time with Chris and built a bond that gave him a sense of a more complex family story that wasn't highlighted in the book. Jason eventually landed rights to the film with Chris' blessing and extensively reworked his film after Kyle's murder in early 2013.
Clint Eastwood directs and Bradley Cooper stars, but Jason Hall is the third main creative force behind one of the year's best movies. He talked to Military.com about the experience.
You were a big part of putting this movie together. How did you get involved?
I was fortunate enough to hear about Chris in 2010. And I heard some of the stats of US most lethal sniper and the 2100 yard shot.
I kind of found my way down there to Texas and went to meet him. There was no book yet. I just knew those stats and I confirmed them with somebody who was a formal SEAL guy, who was working in the CIA. Who was also dubious at first when I asked about Chris. He said, “You know there's five guys in the world that hit the shot and your guy is not one of them.” And then he called back a week later and was like, “So your guy is one of the five.”
I walked in to meet Chris and of course I wondered what effect this war had on him, as patriotic as it was, to take lives the way he did. I found him to be really cordial, but I also felt that I could see something in his eyes. He had certainly been through the war and I wasn’t sure that he was all the way back.
That was compelling, but it was also a little bit concerning. You felt like you kinda got dropped in the middle of this guy's life. He was ten months back from the war and he wasn’t talking too much about it. We challenged him to figure out what the angle was on this and at first I wasn’t sure that I was the guy to tell the story. I thought I might end up coming home early.
The next day I was fortunate enough to be there when his wife and his kids walked in. And he spread his arms to his kids and kinda struggled down to his two bad knees and I saw his eyes light up. I realized this guy was probably somebody else before this war and could probably find his way back if he was lucky. And I saw in his wife someone who had struggled through that ten years of war with him and done her own deployment alongside him on the home front. In that relationship I saw a story.
You’re down in Texas having this conversation with Chris and yet, at this point, you’re not a guy with a long Hollywood resumé.
No, I wasn’t. I didn’t know what the story with Chris was and he didn’t talk too much and the guys around him told a few stories and whatnot, but it was hard to break through. But when he was with the family, there was a warmth there that I saw in him, that’s obviously something you don’t show when you're hanging out with your guys, it's a different mood. When his family was around, you saw this other side to the man, and that was what I wanted to explore.
In the war movies that we’ve seen before, we see this guy go away to war and they go up river or they go into the jungle or they go deeper. And this war wasn’t like that closer than ever to home because of the technology and SAT phones and all that. These families have been in close contact with these men in war and had heard things that families had never heard in any previous war. I wanted to bring across was how germane these families were to this war and how close they were to it, despite half the world feeling like it was worlds and worlds away and only knowing it from what they saw on CNN.
The family relationship and the impact of his service on the family is almost a bigger story in the movie than his success during his military career.
That was the point for me because that’s human and that’s what I wanted to show. We know war is hell; we've seen that. Chris was so successful in his career that some have called him the Achilles of Iraq, but, despite his success, there was a ton of hardship and sacrifice for him and his family. A lot was taken from him by this war. I wanted to show that war is hell and war is also ultimately human and it affects an individual in a unique way and it resonates through the rest of their lives, through their family and everyone they know.
How did you all agree that you would write a screenplay?
When I walked out the door, he said, “Oh, by the way, there's going to be a book.” And I said to myself, “Oh, great. There goes my chances of getting the book rights to this.” But I stayed in contact with him and with some of his coauthors.
When the galleys came out for the book, the early copy of the book, my producers and I read it and devoured it, but we weren't the only ones reading it. It floated all over town. We had a history with Chris and a knowledge of it and I had some idea of that there was more than just this book.
He wrote this book around the time that I met him, which was less than a year out of that decade-long period of fighting, and I knew there was more to this guy than was printed in those pages. I didn’t feel those pages answered what inspired Chris and what drove him to serve and really what it cost him.
The things that I had seen in person weren't ultimately articulated in the book. I had laid out for them what I thought in the beginning, while I was there, but the book was a huge resource to us. It told everything he did over there and it gave us a context for what kind of operations he was on and there were clues in there that I managed to unravel and helped lead to bigger things that Chris didn’t talk about for whatever reason. But that book was written by a guy who was nine months out of war and it has that sort of edge to it.
My screenplay is based on the book. I don’t think a lot of people knew how to tell this story and there wasn’t a tremendous response to the book in Hollywood. It wasn’t like this thing that everyone was chasing after. If it was, I probably wouldn’t have gotten the chance to tell the story. I also think they thought it sounded a little controversial. So we got the rights to it and I went out to Bradley Cooper and got him onboard and we sold it to Warner Bros and set it up.
I set about writing it and communicated with Chris the entire time, asking him questions and details and bugging him and trying to find out what drove him and what was between the lines of the book.
We got pretty close to finishing the script and I came to care for him and I told him I'd turn it in and he said, “Good luck, hope you work again,” something like that. And I made a joke and he laughed at it and said, LOL. I turned it in and the next day he was murdered.
That was very traumatic. I felt close to him not only because of our personal relationship, but because of my relationship with his character and trying to live in this guy's head and with his wife and family and their voices floating around in there. It tore me apart, you know? It tore me apart knowing that those kids would grow up without their father.
I went down to the funeral and reconnected with Taya and said, “Call me when you're ready to talk.” She called five days later and said, “If you're gonna still do this, you need to do it right because this is going to play a part for better or worse in how my kids remember their father.”
All of a sudden this movie took on a more important role in their lives. I spent four hours on the phone through that day and she just laid it all out. Then it was four hours the next day and three to four hours every day after that for a good two-and-a-half, three months.
We dove into everything and, at some point, I think we both realized that this was more than just research. This was helping her to process all that she had been through with this man and to celebrate it and feel useful in cementing his legacy while she was exploring and processing this tremendous grief that she had.
Through that process, she revealed a lot of Chris's personality and the side of him that men don’t reveal to other men when we're asking each other questions. If you want to know who a man is, you ask his wife. You don’t ask the man.
It sounds like your script changed quite a bit after Chris died.
It certainly did. It changed about 60 percent. It involved the family much more and I was able to get the voices right and I was able to understand who Chris was before the war and how this guy with this big heart and this uncommon tenderness was able to pull this girl out of the darkness and drag her into the light and love her until she could love herself. And it was her standing in the light that was able to pull him out of the darkness when the turmoil of war engulfed him.
The end of the movie was not stuff he had revealed to me. I knew he was helping veterans, but I didn’t know the extent of what he was doing and the way that he had put himself out there and how much it was ultimately part of his healing.
That was a process that I could feel was happening. I could just feel Chris lightening up over the course from the first time I met him to the beginning of 2013. You could feel that, but it was something that he never articulated it to me and Taya was able to do that. She painted the picture of this guy who only two months before he died was the time she finally felt like he was home.
She recounted a moment where she walked in and he was spinning the six-gun and he had his pants pleated and he looked like a cowboy again. More than the way he looked, she felt physically and spiritually that her husband had finally made it home. Then she took the opportunity to tell him that. That last scene in the movie basically came directly from their lives.
The movie is a lot more personal and open than the book about Chris’ personality.
Well, thank you. This began as a war movie with elements of family and it became a movie about war, that where the sacrifice of this man was truly revealed in its totality. Painting him as that human and showing his sacrifice, it becomes universal. Chris represents all soldiers. All these soldiers make an equal sacrifice. You know the greatest warrior to the one who doesn’t even see any action. They still make this tremendous sacrifice. And I thought that was powerful, a powerful statement about war in general and what we ask of these men when we choose to send them off to fight.
If nothing else, hopefully some of these guys can see Chris, a guy who lots of people look up to for what he did, and how also suffered and he was able to go seek some help. We ask a lot of these guys and we put them in a very stressful situation and sometimes there's a biological reaction to that. And you know hopefully some of these other guys can see that it's all right to admit that it's okay to say they don’t feel okay.