Writing a screenplay based on an autobiography is challenging enough. But for Jason Hall, the real-life story of “American Sniper” took a tragic and irreversible turn immediately after he finished the script for the Clint Eastwood-directing film, starring Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller.
Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, whom Hall had been collaborating with in bringing his story to the screen, had just been murdered, ostensibly by a fellow Iraq war veteran he had been trying to help. (The man goes on trial soon for allegedly gunning down Kyle and his friend Chad Littlefield at a Texas shooting range in February 2013.)
Soon after Kyle’s murder and then the hero’s funeral he received, Hall’s phone rang. It was Taya Kyle, Chris’ widow, and after their four-hour conversation, thus began a new chapter in both of their lives. They spoke daily for hours, similar to how Taya had conducted her marriage to Chris over a period of 10 years during his tours of duty – on the phone.
For Hall, who is nominated for an Oscar and a Writers Guild Award for his adapted screenplay, their conversations were about peeling away the layers of a complex man in a way that only a wife can reveal.
She told of Kyle’s tenderness and how he had charmed her with his sincerity and conviction.
Hall says it’s an honor to be able to tell their story–and at the same time make it not just about one man and one family but about us as a nation and what is sacrificed in our name.
Shortly after the film opened wide on January 16, breaking box office records, we spoke with Hall about his indelible experience with “American Sniper.”
Hillary Atkin: You first met Chris in 2010 less than a year after he got out of the Navy and before he wrote his best-selling book, American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History. What were your impressions of him?
Jason Hall: The big challenge was figuring out who Chris Kyle was and what compelled him to become a soldier and what the toll on him was. He was affected by his experiences in Iraq. It was hard to think of what he had been asked to do. After I first met with him, I saw one moment where his face came alive when he embraced one of his kids and I realized there was another guy in there. My struggle over the next years was knowing who he had been, otherwise his sacrifice would not be known. His book is one-dimensional. If that’s all there was, that was a different story. This guy was someone else before he came a warrior. I wanted to look at what happened and what it cost him.
I did it through Chris initially, and through his book which gave a lot of details. It was unapologetic, kind of angry and boisterous. I knew from him there was a humility that wasn’t represented in the book. Two years into the relationship I felt him changing. The laughter came easier. I knew he was helping disabled veterans with stress disorders. I got to learn more about him, and started to love him. I turned in the script and he was murdered two days later.
Atkin: I can’t even imagine how shocking, devastating and horrifying that must have been. For him to be killed on U.S. soil after surviving so many enemy threats during combat.
Hall: I just broke down after he was murdered. I have two kids of the same age, and the thought of them growing up without a father was just heartbreaking. To answer that call from his wife, to face a woman whose husband had just been murdered–I realized that I hadn’t pursued her more. But try asking a NAVY Seal for his wife’s number. The process took on more meaning during my conversations with Taya, 4-5 hours every day for two months. It wasn’t just figuring out Chris and who he was, it was more than just writing, it was very clear. To portray their story with a writer’s detail–how did he smell, their first kiss, the first childbirth–she remembered all of it. In many scenes she remembered exact things that were said and if not, I attempted to create the feelings and to recreate the purpose of their life in the story we tell. She started to process the grief and it took on more meaning, and I was introduced to a beautifully tragic love story that was unlike anything I’d ever known.
Atkin: What else did you learn about Chris’ character from your conversations with Taya?
Hall: She explained the caring side of a guy who had pulled her out of a dark time. I was shocked to find the architecture of this guy before the war, that he was tender in a way. It was hard to comprehend. She walked me through how the war had changed him, hardening his character, which affected him in such a profound way. He struggled with drinking, seeking help, and when he came home, he had to find a purpose and a reason to live. The book enabled him to walk into any VA and talk to fellow vets about what they had faced. He afforded them that opportunity and in doing so found a little bit of grace that began to heal him.
But the importance of the story didn’t start and end with Chris Kyle. The narrative purpose was to try to get the story of every soldier through exploring the archetype of this warrior and to offer up to every family who can identify with it the truth in their experience.
Atkin: The film has obviously struck a huge chord with audiences. What reactions have you been receiving?
Hall: The stories started pouring in, stories from soldiers, wives, grandparents, people who came home from Vietnam 40 years ago. I’ve been told stories about how parents have been affected, and now have an understanding of what they have gone through and how important it is to have a greater understanding. These accolades are nice, but I’ve cried over some of these stories–I am so affected to the bone. I’ve heard about some guys who don’t go out of house, going to see the movie, and then have opened up and finally talked about their experiences. It’s so beautiful.
These guys wanted to serve their country, but here’s what comes home, that we’re asking them to live with some stress injury. It’s important for us to understand this. I’m telling the point of view of one warrior, a personal character of one man. Soldiers don’t get to know the enemy, they get orders. They’re told to take out anyone with a gun. That’s the exact experience of a soldier, that’s what he experiences when he’s in combat. To allow that to occur and not politicize it, you try to be as honest as possible because truth resonates. Through human truth we can access the universal. The point of art is to create and inspire emotion and thought and conversation. This film has done that. It’s important for that to happen. It’s time to have the conversation about how we can welcome them home. We’re doing a shitty job of it, it’s too painful, and we tell them, “Thank you for your service,” and that ends the conversation. They had to make choices they have to live with through the rest of their lives.
They carry an awareness of how this country feels. There’s a defensiveness, like “You don’t know what I went though.” When Chris called the Iraqis savages in his book, he was six months home from the war. You’re hearing the voice of a soldier, of a psyche still at war, and we ask these guys to do something not natural. They take on characters to take on an ugly job. That was the voice of a shadow character, not the entirely of Chris Kyle. Our job was to tell the entirety of the man he was.
Atkin: What was your biggest takeaway when you first saw the finished film?
Hall: The most important thing is the enormity of what Bradley did and how he inhabited the character of Chris. To watch him bring him back to life gave me goose bumps. Kaya said, “I don’t understand how he brought my husband back to life.” It’s a testament to Bradley, his spirit and soul. It is a remarkable achievement.