Saturday, November 22, 2014

AMERICAN SNIPER (2014)—A Few Evening Class Questions for Screenwriter Jason Hall

Yet another eleventh hour entry in this year's Oscars® race is American Sniper (2014), directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle, decorated United States Navy SEAL and the most lethal sniper in American military history. Based on Kyle's autobiography of the same name, American Sniper's screenplay was written by Jason Hall, a struggling television actor who has since become one of Hollywood's up-and-coming screenwriters.

When Hall first approached Chris Kyle about adapting his bestselling autobiography into a film, Kyle was "a little prickly at first", his "eyes filled with turmoil", but they established a working relationship that then carried over until 2012 when Hall began writing the script. Though "not the chattiest guy in the world", Kyle provided a lot of input into Hall's script, as did his wife and the people around him who knew him well. Hall texted him when he was turning in the script and the following day Kyle and companion Chad Littlefield were murdered by 25-year-old fellow veteran Marine Eddie Ray Routh, whom Kyle and Littlefield had purportedly taken to the gun range in an effort to help him with what they were told by his mother was post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Kyle had started going to the Veterans Administration to pick up guys who had been wounded, taking them out hunting or to the gun range for target practice, and in that way found some peace of mind. It was his own way of being of service without redeploying to the Mideast for another tour of duty.

Hall was interested in Kyle's personal story because he wanted to know what compelled men like Kyle to fight? Why did they feel compelled to put themselves through tour after tour of duty? As the film revealed, Kyle enlisted when the U.S. was not at war. So his experience was a little bit different than those men who enlisted after they saw the Towers fall. With Kyle, the need to protect others was within him from an early age. He would always stand up to the bullies and protect his younger brother (who later told Hall that Kyle got beat up on too, yet always defended him). Within the film, Kyle's father teaches him that there are three kinds of men: sheep, who don't know how to protect themselves; wolves, who prey on sheep; and sheepdogs who protect the sheep against predators. Along with wondering why men like Kyle fight, Hall was equally intrigued by what it cost them. In Kyle's case, it cost him dearly.

As a screenwriter, Hall believes there's no sense in making a movie about an individual if it doesn't say something about all of us. He hoped that by helping to create this film it would reveal that Kyle's personal story was the same as the story of our country. We are the country that feels the need to do what's right and just and, as a country, we've been on overwatch for a long time. We've been on the top looking for the bad guys. But at some point, as with Kyle, when the sheepdog hunts the wolf long enough he becomes a hunter. In real terms, this often results in PTSD. The challenge of presenting this issue within a filmic treatment is to not caricature those with PTSD as powder kegs waiting to blow. Each individual experiences the syndrome variously, no less the stigma attached to the condition, so it's a very personal thing for these guys. It's hard to closely examine the issue of PTSD without these men feeling they are being undressed and laid bare. These men of war are trained like professional athletes. Millions of dollars are spent training them. But the military doesn't continue on to train them how to come home and find peace. Despite the few things that are done to indoctrinate them out, the military moreorless abandons them when their duty is done. Most of these soldiers come home and have no jobs; 40% have nowhere to live.

American Sniper had its first screening at AFI Fest where critics (see The Hollywood Reporter) cautioned the film would have a difficult time convincing liberal, left-leaning audiences to rally around a Navy SEAL best known for killing people; but, Hall disagreed and said he wasn't as concerned with audience reception as with critical fallout. Kyle's autobiography was a bestseller in the flyover states, which speaks to what is relatable in his story. Unfortunately, the book was written at a time when Kyle was really struggling with his PTSD and was written with an angry voice.

What Hall learned from interacting with Kyle is that you can't ask a man who he is. A man is not going to break his heart open to an investigative journalist. But you can ask his wife because his wife is going to tell you the truth. Ten days after Kyle's funeral, his wife Taya phoned Hall and told him, "If you're going to do this, you better do this right. Unfortunately, this is going to be a large part of how my kids remember their dad." She then proceeded to make herself available by phone every day for three or four hours a day. They spent a good 200 hours on the phone talking about Kyle. She got to process her grief and feel useful solidifying her husband's legacy in the right way. She told the story of a man who was so sweet before the war with a gentility and solidity that she responded to. She talked about how that was chipped away by his four tours of duty. The scene late in the film where she tells Kyle that she feels she finally has her husband back and knows how hard it was for him to get back to her and their kids actually happened. She had the chance to tell him that word for word a couple of months before he was murdered.

Hall graciously accompanied the film for its San Francisco Film Critics Circle screening on Thursday, November 21, 2014 at San Francisco's Century 9, which afforded an opportunity to ask him a few questions about his work on the film.

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Michael Guillén: As a screenwriter writing a script that is, in effect, critiquing the dehumanization of war, how do you negotiate this line of prurience where you've actually ended up with a film that is quite violent? I'm interested in how you decided to frame the action and the forces that led to his dehumanization?

Jason Hall: I approached this story … I saw it as the story of Achilles. In my reading of Achilles—what I come away with—is that the hardest victory is the one in which he got his humanity back. You can't sugarcoat this because this is what these guys went through. What I've put up on the screen is 1/100th of the violence and hostility that they witnessed over there. I've heard things that would peel your eyes back. It's a lot that we ask of these guys and it would do them an injustice not to show at least a portion of what they went through. We ask, "Oh man, what did you see?" We say, "Thank you for your service. Don't really want to hear about it, but thank you so much." The illumination of a little bit of that so that we can get a taste of it opens their experience up so that we can understand it a little better.

Hopefully, this movie will speak to those returning soldiers who aren't Chris Kyle, who aren't Navy SEALs, but who know his name. Like I said, he's the Achilles of that war and he struggled and he had to ask for help and he came home early and it was a tough war for Kyle so hopefully these other guys will see that—if Achilles had to ask for help—maybe it's all right to admit that, "I don't feel okay. Maybe I can talk about it." But I tell you what, there's still this huge stigma, especially within Special Forces, about: "We don't deal with that. We don't get any stress. We don't have it. Because we're trained beyond that. Because they weeded those guys out and we're the tip of the spear." That's a dangerous thread because it prohibits the guys who are experiencing PTSD to come forward, which is unfortunate.

Guillén: But in terms of your craft as the scriptwriter, how much of that action were you able to lay out ahead of time in the shooting script?

Hall: Oh, I went into it. I get very detailed. In a movie where everything's moving it's hard to get every scene you've written with a camera. It's easy when you're sitting at a typewriter to do it all; but, the beauty of working with Clint Eastwood is that I always saw this as a western and he shot it as a western. He captures the naked emotion. There's a truth to Clint Eastwood. It's not as polished as David Fincher—it's not like a Swiss watch—but, it's so honest that it involves a deeper part of us. Eastwood shot the script he read. He's famous for doing that. He responded to the script and wanted to go out and shoot it.

That being said, I didn't know I was writing for Clint Eastwood. I finished the script and a couple of months later I heard Steven Spielberg was reading it, which for a screenwriter is like: "This is it! I've arrived." I thought, "This is the best call I may ever get in my life and whatever happens, what a great day, right?"

I was taking my truck out into the valley to get fixed. I had bought a truck from Japan and the steering wheel was on the wrong side. I was driving out there when I got a call, "His door is closed. He's reading it right now." I was like, "Oh gosh. He's reading it. Spielberg's reading the script." Then I got a call: "Spielberg's agent just walked down the hall to Bradley Cooper's agent and the door's closed there." And I was like, "Oh my God!" At the same time my phone was dying while I was dropping off the truck. It's at, like, 3%. The guy at the repair shop remembers me and he says, "Oh man, my daughter's doing great!" He starts talking about his daughter while the phone is ringing in my pocket and I want to know what's happening with my script but I also want to talk to this guy and respect him so I let the phone ring and ring. I'm in the middle of the valley and I tell the guy, "I have to go" and he asked, "Do you need a ride?" And I'm like, "No, no, no, I'm just going to walk." I get out of there and answer the phone and they tell me, "Spielberg's doing your movie!" and I'm like, "YES!!" and ask, "So what….?" And my phone dies. I had a five-mile walk to the Starbucks but that allowed me to sit with it and that was beautiful. I developed the script with Spielberg for a number of months. But he had a bigger number in mind than the studio was willing to spend on it so we parted ways.

But then I got another call from Bradley who said, "You're not going to believe who's directing this movie." I was like, "I don't know, Bradley, just tell me." Because I was heartbroken when Spielberg walked off, y'know? He said, "Clint Eastwood" and I was like, "Wow." The crazy thing about it is that there was something charmed about Chris. That's what I found the hardest thing to capture. He had all these nicknames. They called him Midas. They called him Right Time Right Place. He made it out of stuff you should not make it out of alive. He writes a book and it goes on to be a best seller. There was something charmed about Chris and his life that passed on into this movie.

My greatest moment in all this, above and beyond Spielberg and Eastwood, was 10 days ago when his wife came in to watch the movie. She came out of the movie and gave me this big hug and was crying her eyes out. She said, "I just spent two hours with my husband. Thank you." That was it for me. Whatever happens next is gravy. I felt a real duty to do right by her and do right by her kids and tell the story right because I knew those two kids were going to watch this movie someday.

Guillén: Along with putting on 44 pounds for this film, Bradley Cooper nailed Kyle's Texan accent. How much of that regional speak is inflected in your script?

Hall: I tried not to go overboard with it. Kyle would say, "There's a tanga in the winda." I'd be thinking, "What is that?" You don't want to go too far with it so that he sounds hickish because Kyle wasn't a hick. I don't know, I can get a Texas accent after a couple of beers.

Guillén: Along with Selma, American Sniper is receiving early press for being a late entry in the Oscars® race. Can you speak at all to your personal feelings about these studio processes to get the film out there to be eligible for nominations?

Hall: Look, I'm happy to be involved, y'know? I mean, I got to work with Clint Eastwood and Bradley Cooper! It's a dream come true and I just feel happy to be involved and I'll do whatever they want me to do. It's a thrill. It really is.

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