The Making of 'American Sniper': How an Unlikely Friendship Kickstarted the Clint Eastwood Film
The true-life tale of America's most lethal sharpshooter began with talks between Hollywood screenwriter Jason Hall and Navy SEAL Chris Kyle
This article first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's January awards special issue.
Jason Hall's first meeting with Chris Kyle didn't start out so well. The screenwriter flew from Los Angeles to Texas in 2010 to meet the ex-Navy SEAL at the Barefoot Ranch near Dallas, where Kyle was drinking with a bunch of Texas Rangers. "It was a rough room to walk into," recalls Hall, 41. "I don't drink, so I didn't fit in very well."
Hall did, however, wrestle — or at least had in college. And after a good-natured grappling in the dining-room bar that ended with one of the Rangers on the floor, the atmosphere grew noticeably warmer. It was, in fact, the beginning of a beautiful, if somewhat awkward, friendship, a partnership between a Hollywood actor turned screenwriter (Hall started his career with a recurring role on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, then went on to pen films such as Spread and Paranoia) and the U.S. military's most deadly sharpshooter, a hardened veteran of two Iraq wars with 160 confirmed kills. And it's a friendship made all the more poignant by Kyle's shocking murder two years ago, at age 38 — he was shot at a Texas gun range on Feb. 2, 2013, by a mentally ill Iraq War veteran whom Kyle had been trying to counsel — along with the Christmas Day release of American Sniper, the film about Kyle that Hall spent four years laboring to get in theaters. Hall's script, as filmed by Clint Eastwood with Bradley Cooper in the starring role, has become something of a cinematic Rorschach test. To some, it's a patriotic trumpet call. To others, a disturbing anti-war statement. But whatever else it may be, American Sniper is at least in part one friend's eulogy for another.
"I had come to love the guy," says Hall, his voice cracking with emotion as he recalls his last communication with Kyle, the day before his murder. "I was ready to turn in the first draft of the script on Feb. 1, so I texted him. He replied, 'Good luck. I hope you work again.' "
Eastwood (left) on set with Cooper. "War pictures are always fascinating for people," says the director. "They were for me growing up, even though I'm not nuts about war. War is the ultimate conflict, and conflict is the basis of drama to begin with. And this story had drama on the home side, too."
As is almost always the case in Hollywood, it's impossible to say whose idea it originally was to make the movie.
Hall went to Texas to meet Kyle at the suggestion of producer Peter Morgan ( Identity Thief ), who thought there might be a film in Kyle's story. Morgan had heard about Kyle from a childhood friend, hedge fund manager and former Sony investor Daniel Loeb (they went to Crossroads School in L.A. together). Loeb in turn had heard about Kyle from Kyle Bass, a Dallas hedge fund investor (and owner of the Barefoot Ranch) who had helped Kyle start a security training business after he retired from the Navy in 2009. Bass first had heard about Kyle while trying to shed some pounds in a weight-loss program in California; his trainer was a former Navy SEAL.
In any case, the day after the impromptu wrestling match in 2010, Kyle invited Hall to his home to meet his wife, Taya, and their kids. "I saw a very interesting relationship between them," remembers Hall. "It was another side of war I hadn't seen in a film." As Hall was leaving, almost as an afterthought, Kyle mentioned that he was writing a book about his wartime experiences, which HarperCollins was publishing. At the time, Hall didn't think much about it, but when he got back to Hollywood and met with Morgan, along with another producer, Andrew Lazar, to discuss a possible film, the book became an issue. If it turned out to be a best-seller, they worried they might not be able to afford the rights to Kyle's life story.
The book, American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, did indeed spend 20 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list in 2012 (thanks in part to publicity generated by a lawsuit filed by Jesse Ventura — the former Navy SEAL turned Minnesota governor — whom Kyle claimed in his book to have punched out in a bar fight). But Hall, Morgan and Lazar needn't have worried. Nobody in Hollywood wanted the rights.
The late Kyle, who was shot to death in 2013 on a shooting range in Texas by a mentally ill former Marine.
In fact, after so many failed films about the wars in Iraq (Green Zone, Redacted, In the Valley of Elah, the list goes on), Hollywood seemed completely cold to Kyle's story. "The book was written when Chris was just back from the war, and it seemed like he had a chip on his shoulder," says Hall. "But I knew there was another side to this guy."
Hall didn't give up. He dialed up an actor acquaintance he'd met through mutual friends — Bradley Cooper — and pitched him the story in a way he knew would appeal to the Silver Linings Playbook Oscar nominee, who had just started a production company. "I told him it was a Western," says Hall. "The character goes from being a hero to being filled with vengeance and slipping over the dark side." Cooper fell for it. "I loved the genre," says the actor. "I loved the concept of framing it as a Western."
With Cooper on board, the project suddenly had serious heat. It took just one pitch meeting in order for Warner Bros. to option the screenplay, along with the rights to Kyle's book. Hall started tapping away at a script, making frequent phone calls to Kyle, sometimes several times a day, trying to piece together the elements that ultimately would fill out the story — what motivated Kyle, what compelled him to serve, what his occupation had cost him, and the impact on his family, on his sense of self and on his soul. One thing Hall discovered early on was that he could make Kyle laugh with dirty jokes — "he's a sailor, after all" — so Hall usually tried to work one into each of their calls to break the ice. During their last texting encounter, the one they shared on Jan. 31, 2013, the joke must have been particularly funny. "LOL," Kyle texted Hall. "I got a LOL from Chris Kyle," says Hall. "I think that's pretty good."
Within a week, Hall would be back in Texas, this time for Kyle's funeral. He found Taya and gave her a hug and his cell number. He told her to call him when she was ready to discuss what to do about the film. Did she still want to make it? Five days later, she dialed Hall's number. "She said, 'You are going to do this movie,' " remembers Hall. "'Get it right. Because this is how my kids are going to remember their father.' "
For a few months after Kyle's funeral, it looked as if Steven Spielberg would be directing American Sniper. Spielberg had read Kyle's book and Hall's screenplay and was willing to commit to it as his next movie, with DreamWorks co-producing. But he had some ideas of his own. For one thing, he wanted to focus more on the "enemy sniper" in the script — the insurgent sharpshooter who was trying to track down and kill Kyle. "He was a mirror of Chris on the other side," Hall explains of Spielberg's vision. "It was a psychological duel as much as a physical duel. It was buried in my script, but Steven helped bring it out."
Actors Sam Jaeger and Chance Kelly as SEALs
As Spielberg added more and more ideas to the story, the page count continued to grow, bloating to 160. Warner Bros.' budget for the film, though, remained a slender $60 million. Ultimately, Spielberg felt he couldn't bring his vision of the story to the screen for that amount of money and dropped out of the project. Within a week, Warner Bros. president Greg Silverman, one of the three executives who run the studio, asked domestic distribution chief Dan Fellman to call Clint Eastwood.
"He asked if I knew who Chris Kyle was," recalls Eastwood of the conversation. "I said, 'Yeah, I'm reading his book right now. Let me finish the last 30 pages and I'll call you back.' " Eastwood agreed to sign on, but eventually he had one big change: The studio was scheduling the picture for a Christmas 2015 release; he didn't want to wait that long. He pushed for Christmas 2014 instead.
Cooper, for one, always had wanted Eastwood for Sniper. "When we pitched it initially [to Warner Bros.], I cited Unforgiven three or four times," says the actor. And once Eastwood came aboard, Cooper plunged into the role more deeply than any he ever had played, physically transforming himself into Kyle by gaining nearly 40 pounds of muscle and watching hundreds of hours of home movies that Taya had lent him. Because Kyle had done it, he also started chewing tobacco — or at least a nonaddictive herbal mixture that looks just like it onscreen. "I'm an ex-dipper," says Cooper, "so I had years of research on chewing."
Cooper getting hosed during boot camp. "During a three-month period, I was doing weight training and eating [6,000 calories a day], and on the weekends I was getting into the sniping," he says. "If I had a year, I would have gone through real SEAL training."
Just as Spielberg had done, Eastwood asked Hall for rewrites. But this time, the pages shrunk. "It was for more clarity and more economy," says Hall. "Clint's a very stylistic director, more than you would think. I realized he's about doing things with imagery in a very sweeping, almost musical way." Eastwood's producing partner, Robert Lorenz, is more prosaic about the rewrites. "We didn't want to shoot a lot of stuff we couldn't use," he says. "We went through the script and cut out pages."
There never was any question about Cooper playing Kyle, but the part of his wife still needed to be cast. Since Eastwood hates in-person auditions — a lingering antipathy dating back to his acting days — even Sienna Miller had to apply for the job via a taped audition, along with dozens of other actresses. Once she got the gig, she began preparing by Skyping with Taya, meeting Kyle's children and introducing her own daughter to Kyle's family. They also met for a day in person in L.A. "From the first conversation, I was at ease," says Taya. "Sienna got it. It was easy for her to grasp the level of emotion."
Production began in April 2014 in Morocco, where the local government provided military equipment and soldiers for extras. But the bulk of the movie was filmed in California, at the Blue Cloud movie ranch in Santa Clarita and on desert locations around El Centro. In order to meet that Christmas 2014 deadline, the production schedule was extremely brisk — 44 days — and not a moment of time was wasted. Eastwood probably does fewer takes per scene than any other major director (an average of six per scene, according to Lorenz) and loses not a minute to rehearsals. "I'll shoot a scene with minimal or no rehearsal," explains the director. "I love that moment when you first see the mechanism of the actor being revealed for the first time on camera. That moment excites me for some reason." For instance, Eastwood's favorite moment in the film — when Kyle talks to a psychiatrist, saying he has no regrets about anything he did in Iraq — was shot in one take, with no rehearsal. "In the back of [Cooper's] eyes, you see a slight hesitation," says Eastwood. "Bradley just lived the moment."
Adds Cooper: "What we tried to do is show what a soldier goes through. It's not a political movie. It's a character study. The hope is that people will understand the war in a way they didn't before."
For Hall, understanding Kyle became all the more important after his death. "I came to love Kyle as a friend," he says. "While he was alive that meant something. I wanted to do right by him and make a cool movie. But after he's gone, it becomes something more."