When screenwriter and first-time director Jason Hall set out to adapt Thank You for Your Service, David Finkel’s book about a battalion of U.S. soldiers return home from Iraq and their struggles once they were back, he did not do so in a vacuum: his grandfather served in World War II, his uncle fought in Vietnam, and his brother was part of the first 1991 invasion of Iraq. Hall himself had also written American Sniper, Clint Eastwood’s film about the life of late Navy SEAL veteran Chris Kyle.
But while American Sniper had touched on Kyle’s return home to civilian life, Hall’s film of Thank You for Your Service — which stars Miles Teller as true-life returning vet Adam Schumann — plunges into the reality of solders coming back to find themselves dealing with PTSD, dragged down by lingering and sometimes debilitating injuries, finding it difficult to get work and even struggling just to reconnect with family, friends and “normal” life.
Hall examines all this in his powerful yet restrained film, and Den of Geek had a chance recently to speak with him about adapting Finkel’s book, how his own family experience affected his approach, directing his first feature, and what everyday people can do to help veterans who are in the same situation even now.
Den of Geek: You definitely touched on this subject in American Sniper. How did that tie into David Finkel’s book and also the experiences of some of your own family members?
Jason Hall: Yeah, definitely touched on some of the stress and the sacrifice that these guys make in Sniper, and while working on Sniper, it was sort of a process of figuring out how much the coming home story at the end of his last tour would play into it. It kept getting longer and longer. When I was (working on Sniper) with Steven Spielberg, who was going to direct it first, that part got longer and longer, and then we found this book and started collaborating on this as well. But then when Clint came on, he wanted to make sure that that didn’t become another movie unto itself, and the end got a little bit shorter. I just felt there was a real opportunity to tell the return of the soldier – the sort of Odyssean return of the soldier – and tell that with its own character arc and its own hero’s journey.
Some of your family members went through some of these experiences and did not want to talk about them initially.
My grandfather had some experiences that were not dissimilar with getting into a bicycle accident before his plane went down, and he missed the next day’s work, and his plane went up, and his entire crew got shot down over Germany and died. He never talked about it. I heard that from my mom, who heard it from her mom. It was the same with my uncle who went to Vietnam. These are people who come home, and they carry this stuff quietly because they don’t want to burden anybody else with it. They would rather carry it themselves and then suffer in silence. Which is unfortunate, I think for them and for us — the public who could probably benefit in a lot of ways from hearing these stories and knowing what happens to these guys.
What gets in the way?
They can’t sit down and tell someone what it was like and have them experience it emotionally. They can cerebrally process what you’re saying, but they can’t imagine it. So that’s the magic of a movie. A movie can tell that story and make the person feel it and see it and hear it and bring it to life for them in a way that just someone telling you the story can’t do it. So we walk away from a movie with more empathy and understanding of that experience than we would if any of those people opened up to us, but perhaps then the movie allows us to understand them in a new and different way. It was taking a step forward in bridging that gap so that we can have a conversation with them about it.
We have something now to relate to in that conversation that we didn’t have before. We have the experience of Adam Schumann, who we’ve gone through this as a fly on the wall in his life sitting in the passenger seat, and now we can relate to my uncle’s story because it’s a little bit like this guy’s. And we can relate to my grandpa’s story of that survivor’s guilt because Adam was supposed to be on that Humvee, and what it’s like to not be on the Humvee and then to have this guy take your spot and then come back to base having been killed, and what that must be like to carry that survivor’s guilt around.
How was the book different? Was Adam the focal point there as well?
Adam is definitely the protagonist in the book as well, but you could’ve gone in a couple different ways. I found his story, and especially his wife, really compelling. I think she was a strong backbone and allowed us to also tell the caregiver story — the side of this that we often skip over too. We thank these guys for their service, but nobody acknowledges what the family goes through. The family goes through this war with them. So I love the story of Saskia and the life she brought to this and the ferocity and determination she brought to getting her soldier home.
Amy Schumer plays a widow in this and it’s so different from anything else she’s done.
She reached out to us, and we were a little shocked and surprised ’cause it was a small role. But she wanted to be a part of what the movie said, and she was willing to come in and read for it and audition. And she brought a raw emotion to the grief that was very relatable and very much seemed like what I had experienced talking to Amanda Doster and getting to know her, what she went through. So, and yeah, she looks quite a bit like Amanda Doster with the brown hair and is very good at that Midwestern kind of vibe. She’s playing a widow, and she brought a real grief to it that I really responded to.
What made Miles the right actor to play Adam?
Miles grew up in a small town part of Florida, and probably if it weren’t for having this extraordinary gift that he has, he might very well be one of these guys. Most of his friends have gone into the military. Some are special operators. Some are not, but they’re in the military, and he understands this sort of blue collar way of life, and he comes from this background. He knew who these guys were. They’re still his friends today, and he hangs out with them all the time and mixes it up with these guys a lot. So he knows who they are, and it was also about finding the guy who was age-appropriate who could bring a subtlety and a real inner life to this performance.
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You’re making your directorial debut on this movie.
I was very eager to bring this story all the way home, not to mix metaphors. But it was something I’d heavily invested myself into getting it right, above and beyond I think anything the studio expected of me when they hired me to write this film. And I wanted to bring it all the way home. I felt like I understood these guys in a way that nobody else would, and I also felt that the onus of the relationships I’d created and the bonds I’d made with these real people and the promises I’d made to them. I promised them I would get it right, and maybe I was naïve for making that promise, but when I had the opportunity to step in and fulfill it, it was one that I was eager to do.
Were there any days that were particularly challenging or things that you thought you had properly prepared for and maybe you had to kind of learn as you went?
That’s a great question. There was a lot of driving in the movie. When you’re writing those scenes, you don’t really worry about it. But then you get into those car mounts, and sometimes those can be really tricky. You have certain stretches of road, particularly when it’s raining, that you’re trying to cover with water. I think the driving is one thing, and when you add rain, that becomes its own challenge. In the middle of that, we got a lightning storm. So we had to shut down all generators during the lightning storm, and it killed us for about two and a half hours. Then we were fighting the sun, and I felt like I didn’t have a long enough run with the car in the rain, and the sun was coming up. So that was one night that was particularly tough, but I had a great crew, great producers, a great DP and first AD, so we got through it. Then I had a great editor who helped me worked my way around those scenes and sell it.
What would you like audiences to take away from this?
Well, I think the audience can expect a visceral, realistic ride from this film. I think that the performances by these actors that they probably haven’t seen before will shock them, and I think that they will come to a new level of understanding what our veterans go through from this film and what the sacrifice has been made, and perhaps come to a greater understanding and even a greater confidence to reach out to the veterans in their life and open the door for them to talk and tell their story and allow them to find their way home.
It’s a personal thing. If it starts on a personal level, and everybody that knows a veteran starts a conversation, and it can involve this movie or not, but it can be, “I went to see this movie, and this guy came home with a story and didn’t share it with anybody. I wonder if you’ve heard of that?” Or, “Is that your experience? Did you come home with a story that you haven’t told, and if so, I’d love to hear it. Let me carry some of this weight that you haven’t unloaded.”
You want to direct again?
Are you writing something now?
I’m going to take a crack at this movie, The Virginian, that’s about the early life of George Washington and his struggles to become a leader.
Thank You for Your Service is out in theaters this Friday (October 29).