This week will see the release of Thank You for Your Service. This film is the directorial debut of American Sniper writer Jason Hall, who also penned the script for the film. While war is a well-worn subject in the film medium, not enough of these movies actually deal with the reality of what happens once these soldiers return home.
Oftentimes, we as Americans tell them “thank you for your service,” but in reality, it’s a bit of a hollow sentiment, and while they may have survived the war, we don’t really understand the real sacrifices they made. Sure, it’s easy to see the sacrifices of those who suffered injuries, but quite often the mental toll is the big problem.
Thank You for Your Service tackles that issue very well. You have a soldier who, desperate to get back to the war, finds that his memory has been shot. You have another who lost a fiancée in his time abroad. Finally, you have another, who has come home to a family that he almost doesn’t recognize. The film revels in these seemingly minute but serious problems.
LRM had a chance to sit down with writer-director Jason Hall in a round table interview, where we got to hear a lot of what went into this film.
This is kind of a big question, so apologies for starting big, but I can’t resist. It seems that a big theme, to me the idea of masculinity and bravery, and that sort of construction around those things that if you come back from service and you need help or acknowledge some type of mental health crisis, that there’s a perception, and we see it in the film with Schumann when he meets that higher officer, and he says don’t let these guys see you break. That seems very intentional and maybe is the most impactful message coming out of this. What are your thoughts on that whole construct that we have to deal with?
Jason Hall: I think that’s absolutely true. I don’t know if it’s the biggest message, but these guys go over there and they’re trained and taught to walk into bullets, and shoot at human-shaped targets so they can take a life, ultimately. We turn them into these blunt instruments to win wars, we ask them to kill to win wars. Then they come back, and there is no reacclimation, there’s no untraining of the things we trained them to do, and to seek help has always been seen as a weakness. To me what Adam Schumann did in opening himself up to allow David Finkel to follow him around, David went with Adam to war, and wrote The Good Soldiers, and then he followed him home and wrote Thank You for Your Service. I think those acts, the act of sharing, the act of asking for help, and allowing David to chronicle that struggle, and journey of his was as heroic as anything he did over in that war, and as heroic as anything anybody did in that war, for my money. I think that the military, you see at different turns, the military, I’m starting to understand this, is stuck sort of in that old western myth of masculinity. So, without getting political about the leadership of where we are in our country, and all those things, it’s fortunate that we have people like Adam Schumann who are heroic enough to not only share what they were able to do with their masculinity, but also to share the other side of that, to share the things that scare them, to share their vulnerabilities, to share their regret. I thought that was beautiful.
So what would you say is the most important message out of this movie to you?
Hall: What was the most important message to you?
To me, for me, my wife is a psychologist, and just the aspect that is overlooked, the mental anguish these people go through. They have a difficult time adjusting, and as you said, they don’t know if it’s okay to seek help or if it’s just them being weak, and the dangers behind that. Not just to the person, but their whole family unit.
Hall: Yeah. The thing that I hope people extrapolate from this too, this is not just the military, this is not just isolated to the military. This is trauma. Trauma is universal at some point in our lives, I’ve faced my own trauma. We’ll have a loss. We saw in Las Vegas. Every person that walked away from that incident is going to have the scar of trauma on their brains and in their memories. Those memories are going to cut around inside them for hopefully not as long because they’ll seek help, but they can stay with them for a very long time. This is really a universal movie about trauma and the way we cope with that. A way to get through it.
What kind of difference did it make to have people from the story on set or in small parts of the movie?
Hall: It made a huge difference. Anytime that you can invite that legitimacy into a project, it lends itself to honesty, and to an honest portrayal of every element of the story. My objective with this film was to be as honest and cut to the bone of the truth, and having Adam to tell us when something was wrong, or if it didn’t feel right. What I found primarily was Adam would be off to side and Miles, would go up to him between takes and talk to him, and just having him there, to sort of, you don’t even have to ask about the scene in particular. Or, “Hey what were you thinking?” or whatever, just having him there to soak him in, and having that air of him. There’s a thing that happens in art, where it’s a sort of psychic adoption of quality. It happens with Hockney paintings, it happens when I write something. I find if I’m really able to soak the person in, take in the quality of who they are and how they speak, I’ll start to adopt those things into the work. That’s an actor’s work. It’s really, in the most sort of artistic rendition of it, an actor is a medium. They’re supposed to be an empath, and soak these people in, transmute it, and step into their place and live as them in those moments. So to have them there is totally invaluable.
So building on the idea of authenticity, the scenes at the VA, there were the actual veterans who shot with you guys. Can you talk a little bit about involving them, and the importance of having them them there?
Hall: Our extras casting woman was faced with a tall order of me not allowing a single person in VA that wasn’t a veteran. I want to know for sure that they all served, and I want to fill that room with veterans. Every actor on their schedule has the day of their hardest scene kind of marked off, and that was the day of our hardest scene. It was filling all those chairs with veterans. We had barbers there in the morning giving haircuts to some. We got them all in there, what we found during the course of the day was not only do their stories tell the stories of war, and courage, and struggle, but they started to share their stories with each other and became friends. By the end of the day, they were from in and around Atlanta, which spans a pretty big distance, I think some of them were as far as 50, 60 miles outside Atlanta. They exchanged numbers and started a group, and now I guess a lot of them go fishing together, and they met lifelong friends that day. That was the unexpected result of making sure that the film appeared authentic. These guys found some more brothers and sisters to share their time with.
This is hell of a movie to have be your directorial debut, and what was it about it that made you feel you were the right person to tell the story?
Hall: I really thought Spielberg was going to direct it until the very end, up until the week that I finished it. When you’re working with a director on a script, you don’t really finish until they say you’re finished. So you’re finished, and then they have another note. Then you finish again, and they have another note. We went over the script the last week several times. I think it was six times, and he was actually filming a movie. So he would read it while he was working, which I don’t know how he does that, but he’s Steven Spielberg. But at the beginning of the next week, I found the movie had gotten greenlit and that he wasn’t directing it. At that point, I pitched myself. This was probably the hardest script I’ve ever written, and I put a lot of time and effort into it and it took me quite a while.
I first encountered the book after [American Sniper subject] Chris Kyle was murdered. You can do the math, but that was a long time ago. It took me finding it, and trying to find my way into it, then going away, and making Sniper, and I came with new insight into this project. Still having into work my way inside some of these characters that are hard to — as war is difficult to imagine myself in a position of having to go to war, so too was imaging myself in a position of having decided my life was no longer worth living. I don’t know if every writer has to put themselves into that mental place to exact that scene, but I do. If I can’t get there emotionally then I’m not convinced the scene is right, I’m not convinced that the scene is true, and I’m not convinced the scene is honest. So I had to find my own way to that moment in my own head to articulate it for Adam Schumann, and that was a great struggle.
I had read that when you were initially getting to know Chris from “American Sniper,” you kind of had to wrestle someone down to earn their trust. And then that happened again, with this one. If you can’t do something like that, how do you get them to talk to you?
Hall: That didn’t happen with this movie. That happened with that movie. It happened when I met Chris, and then at his funeral, I was trying to talk to the guys, and it happened again. One of the guys was like get the F out of here, you’re not one us, you’re not even drinking, and I was like, “If you’re going to put me down for not drinking then we can wrestle.” After that all of those guys did trust me. Look, I don’t know what to tell another writer who is put in that position. I was fortunate that I had wrestled in college, and so I knew I had that up my sleeve. But with this, it was more about the trust, and it was a much more tender negotiation.
It involved a lot of humility on my part, just realizing that I not only did I not understand these guys and what they’ve been through, I didn’t really understand the war as they saw it, and I really didn’t understand where they had come from in the beginning, because a lot of these guys, and a couple of them, I don’t know what’s it like to come from Samoa. You know, to be raised in abject poverty over there, and with only desire to come to America. To be willing to risk my life for that desire so that I’m going to sign on the dotted line to become a soldier. That’s the story of the Tausolo “Solo” Aieti, and for Adam Emory who grew up in a apart of Arkansas.
A lot of these guys joined the military because they wanted a better life, and that was the best opportunity. Not many of them could have envisioned that that opportunity would present itself with obstacles that it did, of them driving around in these trucks, waiting to get blown up, having molten projectiles blasting through the sides of steel plates to dismember them and their friends. That probably didn’t enter their minds when they saw this as an opportunity. Nor did they understand those memories would be singed across their brain in the form of trauma, and that they would live with them for many days and nights. To come to that, it was about just listening and shutting up, and being able come to them.
I had a misunderstanding with Emory in the beginning where I had assumed that — I had come off American Sniper — and I assumed that I understood their war. I assumed that I understood what an injury would be like. I thought wow an injury to have hemiparalysis, which means the left side of his body is paralyzed, that has to be worse than any nightmares. My understanding when I came to this, of PTSD, I kind of understood PTSD but I didn’t understand the values of that and what it meant. That many times, and he felt the PTSD was worse, and I assumed otherwise. It really upset him. I had to come back and reapproach the whole process within. It was a learning process for me, it was learning that I didn’t know anything and then having to start over, and relearn this from their point of view.
I’m really curious about how you feel, or maybe some people you work with, about lately how, with the professional athletes, and their protest against the anthem. How people take that, do they see it as something of them being disrespectful or they’re just using their rights that they have because we did this for them?
Hall: I don’t know that these guys are really thinking about that. When I asked Adam about it, he said that he respects every man’s right, that’s what he fought for the 1st amendment. He fought for the First Amendment, Second Amendment and every other amendment. He will stand because he fought, and lost brothers wearing that flag, and he’ll stand, but he respects the right of every individual who chooses to do otherwise.
You mentioned the idea of every actor knows when their hardest scene is coming. This picture is made of a lot of those scenes. Which one do you think was the most difficult out of all them?
Hall: Miles has a lot to do in that scene where he comes from hunting. You would think it’s the scene where he puts the gun in his mouth, and that is a challenge in seeing how you get to that place and how you work yourself there, and the reality of that. But the scene where he has the greatest swing is coming out of the forest, accusing his buddy of being a knucklehead for entering the forest and almost having shot him. Then coming with grips to the fact he’s having his own flashbacks, and that he’s in need of help. There’s a giant swing of the pendulum there that he has to go from all the way left to all the way right, and that was a really challenging scene. I think it kind of snuck up on him because it was 1 that we worked on in a different draft of the script. Then, I rewrote and I reshot it. We kind of snuck it in there on him and he did terrific. That’s also my favorite scene for Tommy Newman’s score. I don’t know if you know Thomas Newman’s work, but he’s fantastic. He came in, and he’s a wizard, that guy.
What’s next for you as a filmmaker? What’s coming up next?
Hall: Once we’re done with this circus, I’m trying to go back to the computer. I have a movie that I’m attached to called The Virginian, it’s about George Washington in the French and Indian War, where he was young man learning to be a leader.
Thank You for Your Service hits theaters this Friday!