If you’re as much of a Buffy the Vampire Slayer devotee as most of us here at We Write Things, you might recognize Jason Hall as Devin, the lead singer of Sunnydale’s greatest garage band, Dingoes Ate My Baby. If you’re not, you might not recognize him, but you almost certainly know his work. Hall traded in the acting game for a screenwriter’s pen and was the man behind American Sniper. Now he’s penned a sort-of spiritual sequel to that film in the form of Thank You For Your Service.
This effort is based on the true story of a group of soldiers returning from the War in Iraq. Miles Teller stars as James Schumann, a decorated officer who returned from his tours with the burden of some terrible events weighing heavy on his mind. It’s a story that Steven Spielberg was committed to bringing to life on screen at one point. But it was Hall who ended up in the director’s chair. And though he fought for the job, it wasn’t how he imagined it would happen.
“I really thought that Spielberg was going to direct it up until the very end, up until the week that I finished it. When you’re working with a director on script, you don’t really finish until they say you’re finished. You’re finished and then they have another note, and then you finish again, and then they have another note. We went over the script the last week several times. I think it was six times, and he was actually filming a movie, and so he would read it while he was working, which I don’t know how he does that, but he’s Steven Spielberg,” Hall said.
“At the beginning of the next week, I found out the movie got greenlit… and that he wasn’t directing it. At that point I pitched myself.”
Material this emotionally rich is no small ask for a first feature, but after the process of bringing the story from the page to the screen this far, Hall felt if it wasn’t going to be Speilberg, he would have to keep working at the vision.
“This was probably the hardest script I’ve ever written and I’ve put a lot of time and effort into it. It took me quite a while. I first encountered the book a couple of months after Chris Kyle was murdered. You can do the math, but that was a long time ago. It took me finding it and trying to find my way into it, and then going away and making Sniper [for me to find the right way to tell this story.]”
“I came back with new insight to this project, but still having to work my way inside of some of these characters,” Hall explained. “As difficult as it is to imagine myself in a position of having to go to war, so too is imagining myself in a position of having to decide that my life is no longer worth living. I don’t know if every writer has to put themselves into that mental place to exact that scene, but I do. If I can’t get there emotionally, then I don’t know, I’m not convinced that the scene is right, and I’m not convinced that the scene is true and I’m not convinced the scene is honest. I had to find my way to that moment in my own head to articulate it for Adam Schumann. That was a great struggle.”
But that struggle was all in service of a larger theme and message. Hall wanted Thank You For Your Service to acknowledge the extraordinary challenge of coming home from war. And further, to advance the conversations and awareness of mental health struggles among veterans.
One scene in the film follows Schumann to the VA. While he waits in a series of long lines only to be told about more wait time for help, he encounters a higher officer, who promptly begins to question Schumann’s presence. If he were a parent he would have said, “I’m not mad, just disappointed.” Instead he offers this council, “Don’t let these young guys see you break.” That, Hall says, is just one way he wanted the film to address the expectations and pressure placed on vets.
“These guys go over there and they’re trained and taught to walk into bullets and to shoot at human-shaped targets, so that they can take a life, ultimately. We turn them into these blunt instruments to win wars. We ask them to kill to win wars. Then they come back and there is no re-acclimation. There’s no un-training of things we trained them to do, and to seek help has always been seen as a weakness.”
And that, Hall explained, was the great bravery of Schumann, to allow a journalist, David Finkel, to chronicle his life in times of war and peace.
“To me, what Adam Schumann did in opening himself up to allow David Finkel to follow him around … the act of sharing, the act of asking for help and allowing David to chronicle that struggle and journey of his was as heroic as anything he did over in that war. As heroic as anything anybody did in that war, for my mind.”
And in a time where the realities of homecoming aren’t widely known, awareness is critical.
“I think that the military is starting to understand this, but also stuck sort of in that old Western myth of masculinity, you know? Without getting political about the leadership of where we are in our country and all those things, it’s fortunate that we have people like Adam Schumann, who are heroic enough to not only share what they were able to do with their masculinity, but also to share the other side of that, to share the things that scare them. To share their vulnerabilities, to share their regret. I thought that was beautiful.”
Thank You For Your Service arrives in theaters October 27.