How The Screenwriter Behind 'American Sniper' Got It Right
The first time screenwriter Jason Hall met Chris Kyle and his posse – Hall's first-ever visit to Texas – he was the only one in the room wearing tennis shoes instead of cowboy boots.
"I could feel the war on him when I shook his hand," Hall recounted. "It was a visceral reaction."
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Hall had heard about the legendary sniper – the man with a record number of kills and a 2,100-yard shot to his name – from another SEAL friend based on the west coast. He read Kyle's autobiography and found it written in the "blustery, chippy voice of a guy just back from the war."
But once the screenwriter met the SEAL in person he knew that a straight reading of the autobiography would result in a movie that didn't tell the whole story. There was a lot more to the man than a guy who knew his way around a rifle.
"He was 37, but he looked 57," Hall said. "The war had taken a toll." Hall noted how Kyle had trouble crawling around with his kids because his knees were shot.
Kyle's wife Taya – who'd weathered four war deployments on the home front – added another dimension. Hall studied her reactions to her husband, her concerns when his mood went south and how her face lit up when he was with their children.
"It was the idea of war at home and a marriage reeling in the wake of prolonged war," Hall said. "In that I saw a film."
So Hall came up with a proposal that he pitched to a few studios. In time he landed a deal with Warner Brothers that included Bradley Cooper in the lead role. Upon their first meeting, Kyle said to Cooper, "I need to drag you behind my truck and knock the pretty off of you."
For his part Cooper said he was willing to do whatever it took to get it right. The actor started working on his Texas drawl, learning the weapons of a SEAL sniper, and gaining weight, ultimately putting on 44 pounds for the movie.
Hall worked on the screenplay for over two years, closely communicating with Kyle as he honed the various elements. Over that time the two developed a close friendship.
"I'd call him on his cell phone, but being the special operator he was he'd never answer the first time," Hall said. "He'd text back: 'What's up?' and then we'd talk for hours."
Hall discovered an Iraqi sniper named "Mustafa" while reading The Sheriff of Ramadi, and after a series of discussions with Kyle he added the enemy shooter to the plot. "Mustafa was Chris' doppelganger," Hall said. "He's an integral part of the story."
Kyle's state of mind was also an integral part of the story, but Hall was very guarded about falling into the trap that Hollywood's clichéd portrayal of post traumatic stress over the last 10 years or so has become.
"Chris saw a lot of combat and took a lot lives and lost brothers," Hall said. "He felt strongly that he should still be over there, even after his fourth tour. It haunted him."
Eventually Hall had a script Kyle and he were happy with. The day after he delivered it to the studio he received a phone call from one of Kyle's teammates, a fellow SEAL. The teammate's words will forever be burned into Hall's memory: "Chris was just murdered by another vet."
Hall attended Kyle's funeral unsure of the future of "American Sniper," the film. He felt out of place. The SEALs in attendance treated him as an interloper. He described his presence at the reception following the memorial as "showing up to a 'Sons of Anarchy' party in a white Izod."
Later Hall found himself sitting around a pool with a group of SEALs. None of them seemed interested in talking to him, so he kept his distance, fearing that whatever trust he'd built over the previous two years with Kyle was gone. Finally one of them looked over and said, "Why don't you get the hell out of here."
But Hall didn't leave, sensing he was at a crossroads of sorts. Instead he challenged the guy who'd told him to leave to a wrestling match. The SEAL took him up on it, and the two grappled on the concrete pool deck, drawing blood on knees and elbows in the process. Hall, who'd wrestled in college, wound up winning the scrap.
The ice was broken; trust was reestablished. "I realized the guys were hurting," Hall said. "They'd lost a brother."
During those sad days Hall also got an ultimatum from Taya Kyle, who knew that a major motion picture would play a big part in how her children remembered their father: "If you're going to do this you need to get it right."
The widow and the screenwriter established a line of communication much like he had maintained with the her husband during the writing of the screenplay, which proved to be invaluable in actress Sienna Miller's performance in the film and how the couple's relationship is portrayed.
Taya Kyle's input also informs how Bradley Cooper plays Chris Kyle. "If you want to know a man ask his wife," Hall said.
The last element in "getting in right" in Hall's opinion was having Clint Eastwood as the director of "American Sniper." After he signed on Taya related that Chris had said that if he had his pick, Eastwood was the guy he wanted to direct the movie.
"Clint is a jazz musician who brings musicality to the imagery as he tells stories," Hall said. "And he also has the western mythology down. He's part of it in America."
That sensibility was important in bringing art out of the otherwise barren and unpopular landscape of the Iraq War, according to Hall. "Iraq wasn't a pretty war," he said. "It's ass-hot; you're thirsty and dirty. Clint found beauty in the truth of that."
The movie crew also underwrote the movie's realism by involving veterans in the production, most notably Navy SEAL vet Kevin Lace who started out as a stuntman and wound up playing himself and the wounded vets who appear in the target practice scene toward the end.
"American Sniper" had a limited run in theaters during the holidays, and the box office results were very encouraging and quelled studio execs' fears surrounding the track record of movies about the Iraq War. (Even the Oscar-winning "The Hurt Locker" didn't do that well, money-wise.)
But Hall feels that the journey he's been on with "American Sniper" – shaped by having to deal with the loss of his friend Chris Kyle – created something distinct and more universal than others have managed on the topic.
"'American Sniper' started as a war movie," he said. "But it wound up being a movie about war."
Watch WATM's exclusive one-on-one interview with "American Sniper" screenwriter Jason Hall: