In “Thank You For Your Service,” Director Jason Hall Vividly Explores What It’s Like to Return From War

Hall and Teller on set of "Thank You For Your Service." Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Jason Hall earned an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay after penning the script for American Sniper, based on the life of decorated Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle. The movie, starring Bradley Cooper as Kyle, was lauded as a powerful portrait of a national hero and an insight into the sacrifices made by those who have served in the Middle East. But in Hall’s opinion, the story of our nation’s modern day veterans wasn’t done being told.

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“I found myself deeply curious in the part of Chris Kyle’s life where he was acclimating back into life in the States,” Hall says. “I got to know him well over that later period in his life, and I could see the progress he was making. The original script I gave to Clint [Eastwood] had about 25 pages of him back home; it was cut down to a third of that. I really feel like he was just starting to come back before he was killed.”

The chance to tell that part of the story came when Hall asked to write a script based on David Finkel’s award-winning non-fiction Thank You For Your Service by none other than Steven Spielberg, who he came to know during the process of making Sniper. The book follows a group of soldiers from the 2-16 Infantry Battalion as they work to adjust back into civilian life, while struggling with the physical and mental traumas they sustained during their deployment.

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During the script writing process, Hall built a special connection to the story, especially its main subject, Sergeant Adam Schumann, and felt compelled to make the project his directorial debut. Spielberg allowed Hall to take the reins, and remained involved with the project as a producer. Now, with the Miles Teller-led film in theaters, Hall explains the cathartic process of making Thank You For Your Service and how he hopes it will help start the healing process for all our nation’s veterans.

How did you feel about this story after making American Sniper?

Listen, we have a lot of war movies, there is no doubt about that. But this movie is more about our guys coming home. It is about them coming back to a place that is familiar but now also incredibly unfamiliar. And when I say home I’m not talking about a living room with a sofa, I’m talking about a place where we can feel safe. For some of our military men and women the journey back to that place is a long and difficult one.

How was it getting to know Adam Schumann?

I was really moved by how open Adam was with his story, both the good and the bad. The guy went through a lot, and these aren’t easy moments to be reminded of. When you talk to Adam Schumann you get a guy that is trying to find himself, trying to find out why everything feels so strange.

How early did you make the decision to have Adam on set while you filmed?

I always wanted him to be on set, if he was open to it. If Chris had been alive while we were making Sniper I would have wanted him on that set as well, if that had been my decision to make. Having him there brought an increased sense of responsibility to everyone involved with the process. Having him around changed the movie, but being a part of the process also changed Adam. He found a home in this. These guys come home to a society that is completely divided and isolated. I worked hard to build a community on this set. Everyone had some sort of connection to it.

What was it like for Miles Teller to have Adam around?

Some actors would be intimidated by the idea of having the guy they’re playing on set, but Miles wasn’t at all. Before we started filming we drove out to North Dakota to meet up with Adam, and they got along really well from the start. He wanted Adam to be as involved with it as possible. I think having Adam really pushed Miles to that next level. There is no way to avoid the fact that you are standing a few feet away from a guy who has experienced something that you may never have been able to endure. There is a weight that comes with that.

Miles gives one of the best performances of his career in this, how did you know he was the guy?

The fact is at his core Miles is a blue-collar, hard-working guy. That’s a pretty rare thing coming out of Hollywood. I also knew Miles brought his own traumas from his past into this. I see him as a person who has gotten past those events, while they are still there inside of him. That pain came out in some of these scenes. I think Miles captured the essence of who Adam is, especially in his selflessness.

What did you do to make sure what ended up on screen was authentic as it could be?

First off, I sent all of the guys to a boot camp with a Navy SEAL Master Chief who makes Viggo Mortensen look like a babysitter. Miles likes to say that nothing brings people together like collective suffering, and that is absolutely true. The other actors did their own preparation as well. Beuleh Koale was an incredible find to play Solo; he had a tough childhood and brought a lot of emotional depth to the role. Scott Haze visited the guy he plays, and even spent a few weeks living in a VA hospital, using a wheelchair to get around. Then when it came to the actual production we did everything that we could, from recreating their homes to having actual veterans sitting in the VA scenes.

Over the course of the movie you only revealed bits and pieces of what Adam experiences overseas. Was a decision that you made early on?

The idea was to put the audience in the seat of the veteran, while also giving them the perspective of the family. The veteran is coming back with this experience of seeing how crazy things were there and now they are coming home to a completely different situation. The family is dealing with the fact that they know nothing about what their loved one is talking about or who they are talking about. Normally in movies you don’t find yourself confused by what is being discussed, and I thought that was important to convey. These guys stepped through a door and then made bonds that are stronger than anything else, and their families are meeting them at the other end, with no idea of any of those life-changing experiences.

You have been visiting military bases and screening this movie for veterans all over. What kind of feedback have you been getting from them?

The most powerful thing is that a guy came up to me and said, “Someone finally told our story.” Then he still followed that up with the idea that he didn’t want his mother to see it. Even if this is their truth, they aren’t going to dump it out there.

What do you hope that the civilian population will get from seeing it?

People say thank you for your service without knowing what we are thanking them for, and I really hope that this helps to inspire the civilian population to ask that question. I want them to know that these guys aren’t ticking time bombs, but we can’t get passed the issue until we start talking about it. What about their experience are we missing? How can we welcome back our men and women better?