Getting to know stoic Navy SEAL Chris Kyle was no easy task for Jason Hall. When the former TV actor showed up at the Kyle’s Texas home five years ago to start work on a biopic about the sharp shooter’s life and times, Hall recalls, “Chris kind of took it as a joke. He said: ‘Go make a movie about something else.”
But Hall persevered and wrote the script for American Sniper. Nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay, the movie, opening wide January 16, stars a nearly unrecognizable Bradley Cooper as the war hero who racked up 162 confirmed kills during four tours of duty in Iraq but had trouble re-adjusting to civilian life back in Texas with his wife (portrayed by Sienna Miller) and two kids.
Hall talks to Co.Create about how he a used a billionaire connection and some wicked wrestling moves to gain Kyle’s confidence after making the pivot from frustrated actor to Oscar-nominated screenplay writer.
Hall, 42, audited a few classes at USC Film School before launching his career as an actor. Though he snagged a few small roles on TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and CSI: Miami, Hall got frustrated with the lack of options. “I couldn’t even get auditions for really bad scripts,” he recalls. “I’d read a script and think ‘This is terrible.’ I figured I could write a script this bad, for sure, and then it’d be my own.”
Hall succeeded in writing a couple of heat-worthy screenplays but when they got optioned, he refused to entertain the prospect of any actor besides himself playing the lead role. “I wrote a wrestling picture that John Dahl was going to direct but when they asked me, ‘What if Matt Damon wants to star in this?’ I was like: ‘Matt Damon can go fuck himself.’ I was very headstrong. I’d written these movies for me to star in. That was my motivating force but it wasn’t going well because I was so obstinate. Then my mom told me to ride the horse in the direction it was going.”
The turning point for Hall came when he penned romantic comedy Spread. “Somebody said ‘What if Ashton Kutcher wants to do this?’ I was all ready with my ‘Ashton Kutcher can go fuck himself’ answer, but instead I said ‘Ashton Kutcher sounds like a great idea.’ At that moment everything changed and my writing career opened up for me.”
Hall expanded from character-driven projects to action movies. Some, like Paranoid, got made. Others remain unproduced. The big break came when Hall’s producing partner Peter Morgan sounded out his former high school classmate, hedge fund billionaire Daniel Loeb, about financing one of their projects. “Daniel told him, ‘I’m raising funds to start a tactical training company for this guy Chris Kyle, who can hit a bullseye from 1,200 yards. If I were going to make a movie about anyone, that’d be the guy.’ So Chris let me visit him in Texas because Daniel was putting up seed money for his company.”
Hall met with an unpromising reception when he flew to Texas to meet Kyle at a ranch house crowded with beer-drinking cops and ex-soldiers. “I’ve never been to Texas before and I don’t drink so they looked at me like from a different planet,” Hall says. “I asked Chris’s friends, ‘Why won’t Chris talk to me?’ and they said, ‘He’s a sniper, man, he sits and he waits to see if something develops and if it doesn’t, he’ll just walk away.’ So there I was with a bunch of cowboys, Navy SEALS, and cops that Chris was going to take hunting that weekend, trying to figure out ‘What do I have to do to get this guy to talk to me?'”
Hall decided to take direct action. “One of these SWAT guys had been giving me a hard time for not drinking, and when he called me a Hollywood wussy I put him in a front headlock and threw him to the ground,” Hall says. “That got me a little bit of respect where Chris was like: ‘Okay, what do you want to know?'”
(SPOILERS HO) In addition to his own first person research, Hall and producer Morgan acquired the rights to Kyle’s best-selling memoir American Sniper. He turned in the first draft of American Sniper on February 2, 2013. The next day, Kyle was killed on a shooting range by a troubled ex-Marine.
When Hall re-connected with Kyle’s wife Taya at her husband’s funeral, he began re-working the screenplay as a character study that went beyond battlefield heroics described in Kyle’s memoir. “The way the book reads, it sounds like you’re sitting across the bar from this guy telling you some war stories. It’s kind of gruff, and not the man I saw kneel down and open his arms to his kids. I kind of knew that guy was bouncing around in there somewhere.”
Expanding the scope of his story, Hall added domestic scenes informed by his conversations with Taya Kyle. He says, “The real insights about Kyle came after his death when Taya opened up and explained how tender this guy had been before the war, how the war had shaved off some of his humanity and ability to connect, and how Chris had finally found his way back to become the father and husband he was meant to be.”
Revised story in hand, Hall got on the phone with an actor he used to see at auditions 20 years earlier: Bradley Cooper. “Bradley and I had been bouncing around town forever trying to make something of ourselves,” Hall explains. “He knows movies like a cinephile and I remembered a couple of years earlier we’d gotten into this crazy conversation about The Deer Hunter, so after a couple of places passed on American Sniper I called up Bradley. He immediately asked what it had cost Chris to take all those lives and what the toll was on the man. That’s when I knew Bradley understood the story we wanted to tell.”
Once Cooper agreed to star and produce, the movie came together quickly with Eastwood at the directorial helm. Shot last spring primarily in Morocco and California, the film presents Cooper, bulked up, bearded, and Texas-accented, as a man who triumphs on the battlefield but returns to civilian life a haunted man.
“Bradley did beef up,” says Hall. “It’s almost like he needed to build up this strong silent character so he could then start chipping away at it. Often times we mistake eating scenery for great acting, but I believe subtlety is the greatest tool for any actor, and Bradley owned the inner life of this guy.”
At an advance screening of American Sniper, Hall’s script and Cooper’s performance had a palpable effect on Chris Kyle’s wife Taya. “She walked out of the theater the first time after seeing the movie,” Hall recalls. “Taya was crying and she said, ‘You guys just gave me back two and a half hours of my husband.'”