‘American Sniper’ Screenwriter On How Movies Can Help Vets

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Barry King / Getty Images

It feels like just yesterday when the provocative military thriller American Sniper found itself in an unprecedented storm of awards talk, controversy, and commercial success. But it has already been roughly six months since the film was released Christmas Day, smashing records and taking in an unprecedented $240,212 while playing in only four theaters. The film, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Bradley Cooper, presents the tragic ending of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history, in a dramatization sourced mostly from the subject himself and his best-selling autobiography.

During Sniper's reign at the box office it found itself at the center of a polarizing debate, with the film being simultaneously exalted by one side while dismissed as pro-war propaganda by the other. Not up for debate, though, is that Kyle's narrative is one that hits home for many American families who have loved ones involved in the nation's missions in Afghanistan and Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom, a sobering realization that came to screenwriter Jason Hall when he started to promote American Sniper across the country.

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Now with the movie finally making it into homes across the nation on DVD and Blu Ray, Hall has found himself becoming a sounding board for neglected veterans looking for a way to have their stories heard. Their trust is not misplaced, as he is in fact working with Steven Spielberg on adapting Thank You For Your Service, the David Finkel novel about the struggle of returning home from war and the lasting effects of PTSD. Hall will direct the film, having already written the screenplay, and Spielberg will produce. Continuing to coordinate with veteran-support programs on his current projects, Hall hasn't given up hope that through public awareness and demand, we could see true policy change, including a new, more extensive Veterans Affairs Bill.

Now that the film's been out, what reactions do you still hear?
We've received a whole new wave of attention for the movie. It feels like it's living in a different environment now. There's not a lot of news or press about it, but people are still taking it in for the first time, in a new way, and the people who are seeing it aren't really the people who go to the movies. They're not caught up in the controversy or don't care about the controversy. It's still powerful on a TV, is what I'm hearing.

Have you stayed in touch with Chris's wife, Taya?
She's good. She had her book come out. She's had a lot of positive feedback with that, and it hit the best-seller list. It's really great to see her out and telling her story. She believes in supporting these guys. It's not just lip service. I think Chris's legacy can still serve these guys; he continues to help them from beyond. What he did and the way that he selflessly served others is a great model on how to help these guys. Sadly he paid a great cost for that work, but what he did, he did for his vets. That's what he believed in. Last time I saw her, we were able to go to Disneyland with their family. I think we're going out there to Texas soon, and she'll teach my kids how to ride a horse. It's been great getting to know her.

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You spent years getting to know Chris, spending time with him and getting inside his head. Do you think about him often still?
I think about him all the time. Not a day goes by, really. It's one of those events in your life that really affects you. I had an opportunity to be at the middle of something that really impacts people. I was just grateful I got to pass on his story. I'm sure a few years from now it will quiet down, but I think it's something that we can still be proud of. We tried to do it honorably, in a way that touched people and had a positive impact on the way we see our guys in combat and what they go through out there, as well as their families.

I hear that Warner Bros. is donating a portion of the profits from sales of the American Sniper DVD to the Wounded Warrior Project.
There is going to be a pretty decent donation heading that way. That's a huge deal. That means a lot to these guys and their welfare. Movies like ours shine a light on some of the issues, but there has to be follow-through there with the public. People still don't know how to participate or how to help. We've been talking about trying to push through a Veterans Bill Of Rights. I'm hoping the film i'm directing, Thank You For Your Service, will open that conversation again and address in a really true way what happens when these guys get home and how long that wait is for these families.

Are soldiers still reaching out to you?
I have a lot of families that are coming up there with stories they want to tell. What I'm realizing from all of this is that Chris's story was his story. It may have been representative of the sacrifice of every soldier, but within that sacrifice is thousands of different stories that are just as important to tell or to document. Just a few weeks ago, I was participating on a stage reading of "The Sky Was Paper" at the Kennedy Center in D.C. You hear these letters from veterans. Not just U.S. soldiers, but soldiers from Germany, Russia, and Japan. What you realize is that war is this plague of destruction on mankind that reaps a toll on families over time. I think that it's important that all of these stories are told and represented. Even if it isn't on the scale that American Sniper was, I think it's important for people to hear them. The difficulty in that is allowing them to be comfortable in sharing that information, and to present in an environment where it's okay for them to say what they've experienced, even if it's something that may be difficult for the public to deal with.

War movies have been made for decades, but you seem to really be searching for a connection with the soldiers. What drives that?
There's this incredible way that some of these guys are able to speak about what they've seen. They're able to articulate it in a way we never could, they saw something and were able to bring back this understanding of the destruction of war. Some of the guys find hope in the experience. What they saw in war makes them want to live more, live better, because they've been so close to death — they understand the value of life more clearly.

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Conversations continue about the lack of new science going into how we're treating veterans. At the moment it seems to be a one-size-fits-all method. What are you hearing from your communications with them?
The doctors that were pushing for new tests are still pushing that; they're doing everything they can. It's a challenge, an uphill battle. I don't think it's going to happen overnight, unfortunately. The reality is that everyone is different. That's part of the problem and the challenge. What works for one guy may not work for another. I think what the biggest fight right now is trying to supply the guys that get back with a list of options they can count on and places they can go. They're reluctant to lean on anyone outside, because they've lost the friends they had when they were deployed, and many of them don't know where to go for help. The ones who do need help don't really receive it. I think it's important that they have those guarantees, written down somewhere, set in stone, in those papers they sign when they put their names down to serve our country and possibly make the ultimate sacrifice.

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