'Thank You For Your Service' Director on Telling the Other Side of a Veteran's Story

Jason Hall earned an Oscar nomination for 'American Sniper,' and now is exploring what happens when warriors come home.
Universal Pictures/Photofest; Jim Spellman/WireImage
Miles Teller in 'Thank You for Your Service' (inset: Jason Hall)

Jason Hall is telling a side of the military experience that doesn't get as much attention.

With Thank You For Your Service, the writer-director is focusing on what happens when veterans come home, with Miles Teller playing real-life vet Adam Schumann.

Hall earned an adapted screenplay Oscar nomination for Clint Eastwood's American Sniper, which told the story of Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle. During the process, he got to know Kyle as well as Steven Spielberg, who initially was going direct the film. As Hall worked on the Sniper script, Spielberg introduced him to Thank You For Your Service, David Finkel's acclaimed 2013 nonfiction book that looks at veterans adjusting to life after war while struggling with PTSD. Spielberg had an eye to direct an adaptation of that book, but eventually gave Hall, who was already working on the screenplay, his blessing to take over the helm.

In a conversation with The Hollywood Reporter, Hall looks at the film's important message, why Teller was the right person to help him tell that story, and what it's like to tell to tell a film legend like Spielberg that you disagree with his script note.

In American Sniper, we got a lot of the war and less of the time at home. What drew you to telling the other side of the story?

My agent was like, "Why would you do another one about this?" I said, "Because one is the story of Achilles and one is the story of Odysseus." One is very much the warrior's story, and the other is very much coming home. How does the warrior find his way home?

You got to know Chris Kyle, as well as the people in Thank You For Your Service. Did your relationship with Chris affect your work in this film?

I felt like Chris' story cut short [Kyle was murdered in 2013]. I met him shortly after he got back. I watched him. In the time I met him to the time I turned in the script was a year and a half, two years. I watched this guy recovering, and I watched him finding his way home and there was a whole story in that ... The first time I really heard him laugh was a couple of weeks before he was murdered. He was finding his way home and it got cut short. Then it got cut shorter in the making of the film. Clint brings a musicality to it, that pushes us through that, and that was one of the big differences of the script between Spielberg and Eastwood — the last piece. Clint didn't want it to feel like a whole other movie, and with Steven there was about 22 pages there that got cut to like five. So there was a lot of that coming home that I didn't get to explore. 

What made you want to cast Miles? At the time, he was known for younger role. Here he's a veteran with a family.

I have followed his career and I've watched this kid with incredible charisma, but also you could tell he had a craft and he had a skill set that he brought to it. I was so impressed with Miles. We asked him in a way to do stuff that he'd not done before. He gives a very subtle performance here, and he gives a really grown up performance, too. 

Around the time he was cast, I imagine Whiplash — very much a coming of age story — was what was on everyone's mind when they thought of him.

He was very much a kid [in Whiplash], and it's a great performance and a great film, but it's a very external performance. It's a very physical performance and it doesn't ask for a lot of extreme subtlety. This requires him to have a war going on behind his eyes at all times. He brought some real detail to the job and I took him out and we went hunting with Adam Schumann, the real guy. He got to know him, and it was a fantastic experience for him to connect with this guy. Miles is from Florida. It's not like Miles came from Palos Verdes. Miles came from a part of Florida where all of his friends are either soldiers or they work some blue-collar job. He would either be a soldier, if he was lucky he'd be playing on some minor league baseball team, or he'd be putting up dry wall.

If I didn't know Amy Schumer was in the film as military widow Amanda Doster, I'm not sure I would have realized it was her. How did she get involved? It seems like a departure for her.

Two years ago, she wasn't as ubiquitous as she is now. Two years ago, when we started making it, you knew who she was and she approached us and said she wanted to do it. We were shocked she wanted to be a part of it, but she really brings the same physicality that Amanda has and the same look. You could put her next to Amanda with the hair she has in the film and you could think they were sisters. She brought a real seriousness to this and she applied herself and she wanted to be a part of what the film says. 

You have New Zealander newcomer Beulah Koale as Solo, who is basically the No. 2 lead. Where did you find him?

We auditioned 1,500 guys. I wanted to find a great Samoan actor. We ended up finding people in Australia and New Zealand. Even someone in America Samoa. And found this kid in New Zealand who had done one small indie ... I knew it instantly. I knew within 39 seconds over Skype. I put him through the paces and he had to test four times. I had to convince everybody else. That was the biggest decision in made on the film. That was probably my best decision.  It was a struggle to get him hired and kudos to the studio for letting me do it, but everyone recommended that I didn't do it. 

What's it like getting notes from Steven Spielberg on this movie?

You start to understand how detailed he is, how thematic he is with his notes. You start to articulate his notes not only in that moment but throughout the rest of the script. You start to learn how to stand up for your ideas and say, "I think that's not the right note."

Isn't that really hard, to disagree with a legend like that?

Look, fundamentally after a while, it doesn't matter who is giving you the note, it's still a note. ... He is very humble in that way. If something doesn't work, he says, "You're right." It was a cool process. Explaining my visual plan to him, and having him chime into that. He stays very up to speed on the dailies and what you are doing. You get a call every day at lunch. He kind of explains, "That moment, what were you doing there?" Sometimes it's, "Oh great," and sometimes it's "here's what I would have done." And you get Spielberg explaining how he would have shot the scene. Sometimes it's different, sometimes you agree, sometimes you don't. He was a fantastic mentor in that way.

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Thank You For Your Service is in theaters now.

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