There's an incredible pressure that comes with writing a movie about any real-life person's story. Now imagine your subject is Chris Kyle, the most deadly sniper in United States military history. That's the challenge that screenwriter Jason Hall faced when he first flew down to Texas to convince the retired Navy SEAL to let him tell his story in 2010.
"I walked in the room, it was filled Texas Rangers and SWAT guys, and apparently I was wearing the wrong kind of shoes," Hall says. Kyle wasn't talking to him. Finally, after getting teased for a few nights, he took matters in his own hands and put one of the jokers in a headlock, wrestling him to the ground. That ended up being the introduction the steely military man needed. A friendship was born.
Hall spent years perfecting a script for what would become Clint Eastwood's Oscar-nominated movie American Sniper, corresponding with Chris and his wife, Taya, and trying to capture the nuances of war and it's lingering effects when soldiers return from duty. Eventually setting the movie up at Warner Bros through Bradley Cooper's production company — who'd gain 40 pounds to play the bulky Kyle — Hall turned in a final draft after eight weeks of writing. Two days later, a friend called to tell him that Chris had been killed by a Marine who'd been suffering from PTSD.
Hall talked to Rolling Stone about befriending his subject and the controversy over the movie's political viewpoint (or whether it's outright propaganda), and why American Sniper is less of a catch-all statement than a character study.
How did you first hear about Chris Kyle's story?
It was brought to one of the producers, Peter Morgan, and myself from a guy that Chris worked with, Daniel Loeb. I looked into the story and heard that he was the most lethal sniper in history; he'd also hit an impossible shot at 2100 yards. It was so crazy sounding that I reached out to a friend of mine who used to be SEAL Team Six and is now working in the CIA. He told me, "I think the guy you're talking to is full of shit. There are only five guys in the world who have hit that kind of shot and no way he's one of them." About a week later, he called me back and said, "Your guy is one of the five." I knew I had to meet Chris, so I booked a flight down to Texas. It went from there.
Did you know what kind of script you were looking to write already? Or were you hoping to discover the story while you were down there?
I knew there was a great story there but I didn't know exactly what it was yet. I knew I had to get inside his head a bit. He was a quiet dude, he'd smile and shake your hand but there was something behind the eyes that he wasn't letting on — like part of him was still at war. I wanted to get him to open up but it felt hopeless; I actually called my wife and told her I was coming home early.
Then, before I'd left, I got to see him with his wife and kids. His eyes lit up when they came in and suddenly, I had an idea on who this man was before going to Iraq, and what the war took from him. I also caught a glimpse of what his spouse had gone through, raising the kids on her own, and that's where I saw what the movie could be about.
What was it like spending time with him?
He was a pretty quiet guy. When we hung out with his old buddies they'd tell stories, and I'd chipped away at his shell a little bit. But there was still a lot that I knew I probably wasn't getting out of him. You're a different guy when you're with a group of your boys. When I spent time with him and his family there was a different side of him.
There was a book being written about his life around the same time, right?
He told me after I had spent a good amount of time with them and was about to leave. He said, "By the way, they're doing a book on me too." I thought it was going to be an issue for the producers and myself, so we stayed in contact with him and his co-authors. We got an early copy of the book and were a worried about it getting picked up by another studio, but it didn't draw the attention that we'd been expecting — probably because it seemed more controversial than most studios were willing to be.
So how much of the script was pulled from the book American Sniper?
The book was written less than a year after he got back from combat. There was a lot of great material in there, but I absolutely knew there was more to this guy than was in those pages. It was more about what happened when he was over there, which was useful. You could tell he still had his armor on when he was writing; however; there was a lot of edge there. It didn't really get into what happened when he came home and what going to war had cost him. I wanted to take a deeper look at that.
His friend came up to me and said, "If you fuck this up, I'll kill you." It was a pretty serious threat.
Were you able to consult with him throughout that process?
I bugged him quite a bit. I would text or call him asking for a particular gun that he used in a certain deployment, or try to get him to elaborate on a story from the book. I called him just about every day. Sometimes he'd get back to me right away, sometimes it would take a while. But he usually got back to me.
What was your last communication with Chris?
I told him I was turning in the script and he said, "Good luck, hope you work again," or something like that. I texted him back and got a "LOL" text back. That was a big moment of pride for me making him laugh; he wasn't that kind of guy.
What did you text him?
I can't really say. I'll just say he was like most guys and enjoyed a dirty joke.
How much did the movie change after his death?
A lot. I went to his funeral, and while some of his friends were fine with me being there, other were really upset by it. They thought I was just there to get dirt. At the end of the night, all the guys were out drinking beers, and one of them tried to get me to leave. I told him I wasn't going anywhere. Another came up to me and said, "If you fuck this up, I'll kill you." It was a pretty serious threat.
While I was down there I reconnected with his wife, Taya, and told her, "Call me when you're ready." A few days later, she said, "If you're still going to do this, you need to do it right because this is going to play a part in how my kids remember their father." We started talking daily after that. I learned that if you want to know about a man, you ask his wife, not him.
Did Bradley Cooper ever get to meet Chris?
He didn't. He talked to him on the phone once, but that's because we had expected that Chris was going to be on that movie set when we started filming. But he had the script, my stories, the book and Taya was very generous as well.
What did she think of how he looked when she saw the finished movie?
She came out of the screening crying, and said, "I just spent two hours with my husband." The soldier at Chris' funeral that had said he'd kill me if we messed it up was also there and he appreciated it.
What are your thoughts on the intensity of debate surrounding it?
To me, the point of art is to promote discussion — and this film is doing that. It's time that we had this discussion, that we understand the sacrifice of these warriors. We didn't set out to explore the archetype of war; we set out to explore the archetype of the warrior. We did that from one man's point of view. While the movie is being criticized for not providing a larger context, this point was to explore war through the eyes of this person. That's the POV we used. It's a character study.
There's also been a lot of questioning around some of his later stories from when he got back from the war.
For people that are wondering about the unverifiable truths, those are all certainly things that we looked into. It's a fascinating element and part of the mystery of this man — but we did our homework. Everything that anyone else is pointing out now, after the movie has come out, we explored as well. As far as the movie was concerned, it wasn't a part of the narrative of the story we were telling and the desire to make this allegorical for every soldier out there.
Nobody anticipated it being this much of a success. Nobody anticipated it being this much of a hot button topic. Now we're seeing that its been adopted by the left and the right, for good reasons. It's inspired discussions, passion and anger and I think it's time that those thoughts were on the table. The beautiful part is that while everyone on the left is arguing with everyone on the right, and they seem to get further and further apart, it's the guys in the middle that this was for. It's hitting them in the exact right spot.