Exclusive Interview with the Oscar-nominated star!
From struggling actor to Academy Award-nominated Screenwriter for American Sniper, a new film directed by Clint Eastwood based on the true story of military patriot Chris Kyle, I recently spoke to Jason Hall down the line from Los Angeles. Since its release in US theatres, box office returns have exceeded expectations with a 90.2 million opening weekend. Jason is proud of his work but admits satisfaction from audiences supersedes awards.
Shane A. Bassett. Congratulations on your Writers’ Guild nomination and good luck with an Oscar shout-out.
Jason Hall. Thank you and you never know.
SAB. Did the director, Mr. Eastwood, handpick you to write the film or how did you come on board the project?
I heard about Chris Kyle in 2010 and decided to go out to Texas to meet him after learning he was the most lethal sniper in US military history. I made my way there, we had a mutual friend in common and the film producers knew how important it was to talk with him. I met him, he was nice enough but you could really sense this guy has been through something that had taken a piece of him. It was hard to look at him to be honest, there was turmoil in his eyes. He laughed and smiled over it all but I sensed he paid a price for what he had done over there. I honestly didn’t know if there was a story there, no book at this point, but I ended up staying the night and his wife with the kids arrived the next morning. As he kneeled down to his kids and opened his arms to the wife, things changed. It was a different person I had seen in the previous 18 hours. In that relationship and that moment is where I saw a story. The struggle and sacrifice of not just the soldier but the entire family who had raised these kids virtually on their own.
SAB. Did you get to know Chris as a friend over time?
I did. From there I went hunting with him. Then on the way out, he mentioned there was going to be a book. So I waited for it to release, I texted or called him periodically and when the book came out, I saw this guy change from the time he came back from the war to the time we were writing the script – was a good three years. I watched this guy warm to me and react with me about his life. When he wrote the book, he was just back from war and that’s the voice he captured of the warrior still at war. He certainly changed as we worked on the first draft of the script together then turned it in on a Thursday, but by the Saturday he was murdered.
SAB. Very tragic indeed. Because it was a script about a real American hero. Was it more pressure?
Yes it was tragic. The pressure became a right for his legacy, the book was written when he was still alive, a moment in time, but certainly didn’t capture the changes afterward, so this is what I explored with his wife who called me after the funeral and said, ‘For better or worse, this is how my kids are going to remember their father so you need to get it right.’ So the pressure was less about he being a hero and more about succeeding truth for the family, telling more than a war story. It’s about this experience and what it took for him to get his life back.
SAB. From the original script, were there any changes or was it filmed as you wrote it?
After his passing, the script changed dramatically, the ending obviously. But I was informed by his wife, the man she had married, how he changed, how the war changed him from when they met and what he had to do to get it back at the end of his life. Two months before he was murdered, she finally felt that her husband was home, spiritually and psychologically. Her input gave me the feminine perspective from her, compassion and love, this man had quite a bit of that and the masculine side came from him. The script did change 60% after her input from less of a war story and more of a movie about war.
SAB. Bradley Cooper did such an awesome job in the lead role, but did you have a say in the casting?
When we got the rights to the book, I pitched it to two studios and both passed, didn’t want it. I had known Bradley from years back and remembered we were both very fond of the classic film Deer Hunter by Michael Cimino. I called Bradley pitching him the movie asking if he wanted to come on board, he had just made a deal at Warner Bros Films so we walked it into them and sold it.
SAB. That’s fantastic, well done. How do you feel when A-list actors of one of your recent films Paranoia or American Sniper are reciting your words?
Yes it was. It’s a much better feeling with Bradley honestly than the other film, that was a joke. Bradley is a fantastic actor and what he did in this role is nothing short of miraculous in my eyes transforming himself physically and also emotionally. Spiritually he found a way to become this guy and built up an incredible stoic, quiet character that was Chris Kyle, also humble. Bradley captured all his mortality that none of us could have anticipated. After a screening of the film, Chris Kyle’s wife came out and said, ‘I don’t know how he did it, he brought my husband back to life, it was like spending two hours back with him.’ That’s the general consensus from all who knew him, Bradley is Kyle in a subtle, beautiful performance. I hope audiences appreciate it for what it is, a towering achievement. Not many people know this but Chris had a shy persona, you could share a few drinks and you could hear the blustery voice you find in the book, make no mistake that’s exactly how the publishers got the book, by feeding him drinks.
SAB. Wouldn’t it be awesome if you and Bradley received Oscar nominations?
It would be great but the most satisfying thing of all, is what the wife said coming out of that cinema. It’s everything for people to come up and thank us for showing what they go through and not make us feel embarrassed about. Parents came up with pictures of their kids in military uniforms currently serving say they don’t talk about it but say they now feel a little more enlightened about what they go through. For me that’s the gift of opening conversation. We have a real national crisis on our hands with an average 22 veterans committing suicide a day. We train them to go overseas and kill but don’t know how to train them to come home and find peace, that’s our duty to welcome them home.
SAB. How did you transition from struggling actor to an in-demand screenwriter?
Out of necessity really. I wasn’t landing the roles I wanted and found I was a better writer than I was actor. I kept at it and found it much more artistically satisfying, you feel like you can write your own ticket a little. In acting you’re wishing upon a star.
SAB. Oh come on, in Me & Will you played a good bartender and I saw your work on CSI Miami, extraordinary. I also enjoyed most of Spread (2009 flop with Anne Heche, Ashton Kutcher).
(Laughs) You know the best version of Spread is the French version (laughs) because it’s dubbed and the voice-over guy is so energetic which is what it was meant to be (Jason yells a little in French language as an example then laughs). He’s having fun, really gives the film a nice twist it needed.
SAB. How do you feel being labelled an overnight success after being around Hollywood so long in your career?
(Laughs) It’s nice to hear the word success anywhere whether overnight or accidental, they may call it whatever they want. Any version of success in this town is a good version, I’ll take what I can get.
SAB. Have you got any screenplays you have had sitting around for years you can dust off and get made now?
Some of the stuff that’s been sitting around is probably away for a reason, I hope to go on and do new things. I’ve certainly had people come by to try and dust a few things off but looking towards the future. I have a film I did with Steven Spielberg solely about post traumatic stress and I also wrote a movie about Rasputin I’ll be doing. Can’t wait as it will be like a thank you for your service.
SAB. Finally, what was it like to collaborate with Clint Eastwood? I have interviewed actors who have worked for him and found him to be a gentleman and very thorough on-set. How did you find the legend?
An honest, generous individual bringing so much myth and history to whatever he is working on. He’s very truthful and seems to show that truth in every scene, he’s confident, an instinctual filmmaker, very sharp in that regard. Knows when he gets what he wants and moves on. He’s been called an economical filmmaker which is an unfair description, his ability to shoot as many movies as he does is because he trusts himself and his presence standing in his boots right before you forces everyone to bring their A-Game. A real pleasure to work with.
SAB. Thank you Jason Dean Hall for your time. Best wishes during award season mate.
Much appreciated but do me a favour, just call me Jason Hall, it sounds like I am in trouble from my mother using the full name (laughs).
SAB. Sure no worries and can you write a sequel to Spread, if I do that?
(Laughs) I’ll see what I can do but might find it hard to come up with material now I’m married. SAB. I see, well Spread was so devious. I hope it was more fact than fiction anyway.
(Laughs) Keep hoping, keep hoping! Thanks Shane!
Shane A. Bassett