The acclaimed hit American Sniper shone a light on the specific post traumatic stress disorder that afflicted specialists in this generation’s particular wars. Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) was a Navy SEAL sniper in Iraq who had trouble returning home. Screenwriter Jason Hall now tells another military story and makes his directorial debut with Thank You For Your Service.
Based on David Finkel’s book, Thank You For Your Service tells the stories of a trio of returning veterans: Adam Schumann (Miles Teller), Tausolo Aieti (Beulah Koale) and Will Waller (Joe Cole). The Army brothers face a nine month backlog at the VA office, and that’s time without therapy, medication or financial assistance they need.
Hall spoke with Monsters & Critics by phone about Thank You For Your Service, American Sniper and his upcoming George Washington movie The Virginian.
M&C: The adage in movies is “show, don’t tell” but is it an interesting dilemma for a movie like Thank You For Your Service because the spouses want the soldiers to open up to them?
Jason Hall: That’s a great question and a great point. Fortunately for film, these guys rarely do open up in the way that you might hope. So we knew we could avoid that melodramatic moment where he just lays it out on the table. That rarely happens in what we’re encountering.
So in this movie, people come up and say, “Thank you for making this. My dad, my uncle, my brother went and fought.” Then my next question is always, “Did they talk about it?” Their answer is almost every single time, I haven’t found an instance happen yet where they didn’t say, “Nope, they don’t talk.”
I structured the film in such a way that we would receive these soldiers back home in the way that the family did, inasmuch as we don’t know what happened over there. That frustration was meant to be the audience’s frustration. Not only figure out who the names were that were being bounced around and the incidents that belonged to them, but also figure out how they made up what was making these protagonists tick.
It was structured in such a way that the audience was meant to feel what the family feels when these guys walk back through the door and in many ways they’ve lived a whole other life that the family knows nothing about.
They’ve had these extraordinary relationships that the family knows little about and has also never met the people they’re having the relationships with. So they’re extraordinary circumstances to dramatize.
M&C: Is the VA even more frustrating than the DMV?
JH: The VA is like the DMV on steroids in my mind. Because at the DMV you’re just trying to get your ID. These guys oftentimes are trying to save their own lives in many cases. They’re trying to find a way to put a finger in the crack of this dam of emotion they have.
Whether that’s the right thing to do or not remains to be seen but their lives are on the line. They’re there waiting to talk to somebody and oftentimes there’ve been a lot of horror stories where things go wrong and these guys die waiting.
M&C: And the people the soldiers deal with, the clerks at the windows, aren’t the ones in charge causing the hold up. Those people end up having to answer for this bureaucratic problem.
JH: Yeah, they really are. It was our job to not villainize. I didn’t want the VA to be a villain here. I think an interesting question is who is the villain? Who is the one to point our finger at? I wanted to ask that question and not give any easy answers in terms of it just being the VA.
The VA is made up of some really great people. There’s therapists that I’ve worked with in writing the script and that I’ve since worked with in understanding what the VA is going through that are fantastic, but they’re working inside of a broken system.
It’s one that’s been built over the decades. It’s become too large to handle, too large to unwind, too large to work. It is tough for the people that work at the windows and the people that are seeing these guys on their lunch break.
M&C: They’re not the villain. They need help. And you just mentioned, even the most generous psychiatrist seeing patients on her lunch break only has so many lunch breaks. There’s finite time even for those who go above and beyond.
JH: That’s right, and that particular woman who is a real woman, that incident is a real incident where she gave up her lunch break to see Tausolo Aieti.
Her name is Beth and she has a soldier at home she’s married to who was also wounded in the war is in a wheelchair and is a quadriplegic. So she goes home after dealing with these soldiers all day trying to help them, and then she goes home to help her soldier who she’s married to.
M&C: Is it common that veterans will deny having an injury just to avoid this system?
JH: I think a lot of them avoid it while they’re in, to stay in and to stay active. Then once they get out, I think you know what’s coming for you if you talk about needing to be service connected from a related incident.
They create a certain level of difficulty in getting service connected for trauma and PTSD because then you have a certain disability rating that determines how much money you get each month.
They’re put in a position where they have to remain dubious of everyone who comes through their door and asks about those incidents or claims PTSD because those people are then people they end up service connecting and have a certain amount of money they get each month for it.
M&C: Was the survey Adam has to fill out a good visual to use to show what he can’t say in words?
JH: Yeah, I felt that that was pretty powerful. It struck me as this very sanitary way of dealing with something that was a human condition and a very human problem. It’s dealt with in a very hands-off kind of way by the VA. To write that stuff down, maybe it’s easier to mark the box but it’s very arm’s distance from anything human or emotional. It’s so clinical that it’s hard to understand how these guys can relate to that.
M&C: There’s also the suggestion they know they have to game the system to get the benefits they need, and say it’s more extreme. Is that an aspect?
JH: I think that’s the big hurdle here. Right now, there is no test for it. Strangely enough, I’ve been in communication with a couple people mentioned in the book who are in positions of power. There’s one who ran the suicide room in D.C. where they examined all the bodies of anyone who committed suicide.
He’s working on something that’s in the trial stages that would basically allow you to spit on a strip and it would test you for TBI, traumatic brain injury. It shows certain markers that would occur.
That would obviously draw this new line in the sand where everything became black and white. It didn’t become about try and convince me how messed up you are, because that’s not something you want to ask these guys to do.
We’re asking them to find a way to open it up and talk about it. What they end up having to do is find a way to sell it to convince people, sometimes you have this argument or hear these stories dozens of times in a day.
The interesting part of all of this, not only of crafting the story but some of what you learn when you get in this and some of what I tried to do in the film was offering these different points of view of the same incident.
The different point of view of that incident that didn’t make it into the movie was that James Doster was coming home in two days, so he wanted to be out there with his guys. He actually wanted to be on patrol.
Nobody knew that and it wasn’t even in the book until I did additional research and found that out. I felt like I was recounting some of this to Adam who never read the book. Adam read the first page of the book and had to put it down because it was talking about him dropping his child. It was a lot for him to take and he just never picked the book up again.
When I came to him and had talked to Amanda Doster and I talked to Emory, I was talking to everybody. I said, “Well, you know, he was coming home. Did that make a difference when you learned that?” There was this great silence and he said, “I didn’t know that. I never heard that. Nobody ever told me that.”
What you realize is the experience of trauma is subjective and it’s not related to anyone else’s experience until your subjective experience is shared. Sometimes the sharing of that will avail you to different points of view of the same incident that our conscience and I guess our ego, the way that we perceive it is based on only our own perception of it until we share it. Then it becomes something we start to put together points of view around it and even other facts and elements we weren’t availed to.
I had an incident like this where I was in a fire. My brother was with someone. He was upstairs and he had a few seconds to get them both out of the second story window. He couldn’t get her to jump. He jumped and she didn’t and she died in the fire. It wrecked him.
Only a decade later, by a strange series of coincidences, did I learn from a friend of the family that she was afraid of heights. While that didn’t offer complete relief and it didn’t make up for the trauma that he experienced and we all experienced from that incident, it offered a different insight, a new insight into what he was up against. So it took a little bit of that off him.
Unless we share, we don’t have any opportunity for any of that insight that we can get from other people that were there or people that have gone through similar incidents.
M&C: Are you proud that all the babies in Thank You For Your Service are real babies?
JH: [Laughs] I’m just shocked that you’re the first person that’s asked me that. Not the first one of my friends that’s asked me that but the first person. Look, not only are ours real babies, we drop a real baby. That baby drops. We only dropped him six inches but that’s a real baby.
What I’m most proud of in that shot is you can see the reflex of that baby’s hand as he reaches up. He rolls off Miles’ stomach and if you watch it slowly, his hand goes up and he reaches which is the reflex we have.
Look, I don’t want to speak badly about any work that anybody’s done in the past but that was a point of contention. It was one of the things that I watched and I challenged them to make better. You guys actually saw the better version of it. There was a version of it that was even less convincing that was a challenge to do.
Working with real children, what you realize is that it’s really challenging. You have a certain amount of minutes. I believe it’s 12 or 15 minutes before they need a break. If you’re trying to get through a scene with a lot of dialogue, that’s a real challenge.
That was Clint’s impetus of using the fake baby. They also had two real babies to show up that day. One of them didn’t show up, was sick or something. So then you have one baby, you can use it for 12 minutes, then you have to rest it for a certain amount of time.
Without two, it was kind of inconceivable to do that scene. You learn as a filmmaker what the other side of all these challenges are but yeah, I’m proud. We had a pair of twins on [Thank You For Your Service]. These kids were great. We’re only rolling them off his stomach onto this canopy there, but this kid did it a dozen times and didn’t make a peep. He was happy. He was just happy as a clam.
M&C: Sure, I ask in good fun. How did you convince the parents to allow him to even drop six inches?
JH: We showed them first with a doll and then we said, “If you feel strange about that, let’s bring it up a little bit more and make sure he’s comfortable.” So we started at less than that. Then we incrementally dropped it so that it would be completely out of frame which allowed us to use him doing it out of frame.
The little kid you could tell was up for anything. He was a little acrobat, just when you let him stay on the bed. He was a little bit older probably than the baby that Adam had at that time but the kid was great, both of them. You just walk into it, you do it slowly and you make sure you’re not mistreating them in any way, shape or form and that the kid is having a good time.
Same thing with the dogs in the film. It’s one of those things that you want to be very cautious of. I know there are people that would prefer you’d never use dogs in a film or any animal in a film at all. My effort with this film was to make it as absolutely realistic as possible.
I felt like the journalism was so astute and so poetic but also intimate in a way that I felt I hadn’t seen this story told in this way with such intimate detail. I wanted to be intimate with the camera.
I set out to make something that was absolutely intimate and felt like we were a fly on the wall of these people’s lives. You want to paint some of these details as real as you possibly can because any one of those single things can take you out of a movie. One shot can pull you out of a movie. It requires 10 more minutes of reality to pull you back in or more. So you want to make everything real.
Those dogs were having a great time playing but we found bits and snippets, nine frames here or 18 frames there that we could use and add sound design that made it look like they were coming after each other. Trust me, I’ve also been prepared with the edit of 10 seconds on both sides of each of those cuts to show what the dogs were doing while we filmed that piece.
M&C: Hollywood isn’t exactly enthusiastic to do more stories about war and PTSD. Did the success of American Sniper help get Thank You For Your Service made?
JH: It sure did. It definitely did and for me, that was a movie that was about the sacrifice that our soldiers make in war. Chris was very good at what he did but he paid a price for doing that job.
The thing I was so impressed about here was, Malcolm Gladwell had this saying, “If you want the real story, don’t ask a hero. Ask the guy on the ground. Ask the guy in the middle.” This is that story. This is the true story of this working warrior class of ours. I think that there is a market for understanding who these guys are and the job they do. I don’t think that we understand them yet.
There’s sort of a political thing that we put on top of them because of the war they’re fighting, but they didn’t pick the war. They chose to join up because in many instances it was the best option.
Adam chose to join because he fell in love with a girl and he wanted to buy a house someday and he wanted a fence and a dog and maybe to go to college someday. So he joined for a place to live and an opportunity to go to school. It was that or fracking from where he’s from, North Dakota.
I think we overlook the fact that these guys are involved in a war before they go to war and they’re the cogs in the machinery of poverty and social economic injustices that are going on. Much of the time they lack opportunity and that’s kind of forgotten. I think these guys are forgotten in that. We put a political shade onto them based on whatever war they were asked to go to.
M&C: The visions Adam has are very disturbing. Were those in the book or things you found in research or just created to illustrate what it’s like?
JH: That was something that Adam shared with me. It was something that troubled him quite a bit but was not in the book. It was one of the few things I thought I was able to get in addition to the book in terms of an incident. That was harrowing for him to see this blood dripping down the side of his wife’s face.
It was in shadow and it’s probably less vivid when it occurred with him, but you paint the picture of how it felt less than how it looked at times. My intention with filmmaking was to let the audience feel what this guy felt in every moment, to have it be a subjective experience from his point of view. It was something he shared with me and I thought was fitting.
M&C: In The Virginian, can you take a similar approach to the American Revolution that you’ve taken to Iraq and Afghanistan?
JH: I’m interested, for me the thrill of film is when I forget that it’s a film. The thrill of the experience of going to a movie for me is living someone else’s life for a minute.
That’s my intent with this, to step into this young man’s experience and watch how he found a way to overcome himself, which was in many ways his greatest battle, and in doing so became a leader who would define us as a nation. Yeah, I’m interested in the intimacy of film.
M&C: Will you have the cherry tree in The Virginian?
JH: There was no cherry tree. Most of what we know is a fiction created by this biographer who had a vivid imagination, who had smoked more than his fair share of tobacco.
Thank You For Your Service is in theaters Friday.