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'American Sniper' scribe Jason Hall earned Chris Kyle's respect 'with a headlock'

Bradley Cooper as Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle in
Bradley Cooper as Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle in "American Sniper."
Keith Bernstein

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Among the 2015 Oscar nominees is Jason Hall, whose script for “American Sniper” is up for Best Adapted Screenplay.

"American Sniper" tells the story of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, known as the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history. Hall adapted the script from Kyle’s memoir. Some have complained that the film venerates Kyle excessively, and whitewashes some of the more inflammatory statements and deeds he shared in his book, while dehumanizing the people of Iraq.

Hall stopped by The Frame studio to talk with host John Horn about how he got into Chris Kyle's inner circle, how Clint Eastwood got involved as director, and how he didn't feel Kyle's book told the whole story. 

Interview highlights:

You traveled to Texas to meet Chris Kyle early on, back in 2010. Describe your first meeting with him:

I shook his hand, and he was a big guy, had a beard, and he had a smiling face. But his eyes — you could see this turmoil that was palpable. It was immediately clear to me that taking these lives, or doing whatever he had done over there, had cost this man a great deal.

Had he written his book at that point?

No, there was no book. I left that weekend and he said, "Oh, by the way, they're writing a book," and I [thought], Oh, great, I'll never get this story made. I figured someone else would come in and swoop it up, but we got lucky.

Had you gone to Texas thinking that this would be a good movie for you to write? What was your idea?

I went there thinking it would be a great movie to write. I didn't know if it was the basis of a fictional character. I didn't know anything about him other than what he had done in Iraq, and to me it sounded like he had come out of there as the Achilles of Iraq. Somehow his name sort of rose above the rest, as the war progressed and he went back four times. This name of Chris Kyle, the legend, and then the enemy named him "The Devil of Ramadi." And then his name became known on the lips of much of the Coalition forces, so when we came back, guys knew who Chris Kyle was.

So you meet this guy and you realize he's got a great story to tell. What's the obstacle to getting him to let you tell that story?

To be honest with you, I earned Chris's respect with a headlock. There was a lot of cops there the night before, a bunch of Texas Rangers and SWAT guys, and Chris wasn't talking. I was like, "Why won't he talk to me?" The guy said, "Eh, he's a sniper. He sits and waits." One of these guys was giving me a real hard time, calling me a "Hollywood pansy." And I threw him in a headlock, threw him to the ground, and I roughed him up a little bit.

This is a Navy SEAL?

No, it was a SWAT guy. He's a lovely guy, actually, I've become friends with him, but I got Chris's respect that way. He was like, "Yeah, you're alright." I knew that Chris liked to choke people out as a party trick, so ...

Some kind of party trick.

Yeah. They're a rough bunch, and you have to earn your stripes with them any way you can.

So now you've gotten Kyle to agree to tell the story. Are you spending a lot of time with him, trying to figure out how you're going to tell this story? What is the nature of your collaboration?

Well, the book came in and we read it, and we — myself, Peter Morgan, and Andrew Lazar, the producers who had been involved from the beginning — we figured we were going to be in some kind of bidding war. But the truth that I had seen of this man wasn't totally revealed in the book.

Even though it was his autobiography?

Yeah, it was told in a voice that was very gruff, and he had just been back from the war for nine months when the book was written. So you get that guy that has his armor on, he's unrepentant and unapologetic about what he did. He takes a great joy in it, and what you're seeing is the mask of this man; he had to create this persona to go to war, and we get that persona in the book.

The language he uses in the book is different from the language you use in the film. Do you think that was part of the mask — the words he uses to describe other people, people he's not fond of?

Yeah, he — as much of the forces over there did — calls the enemy "savages." You try to capture the reality of it, but without offending everybody out there. And there's something that these guys ... speak and act in a way over there, and that's the way that these guys adapt to do what they have to do. That's part of it, in my mind, and that's sacred to them. I felt like we could leave that with them and we'll portray that as much as we can here.

Originally, Steven Spielberg was going to direct the movie. How was working with Steven, and what caused him to drop out of the project?

I did quite a bit of work with Steven. We worked on the script for about two-and-a-half months. He was fantastic and it was great to work with him and see his process. He didn't feel like he could make it for the budget. I think that was the final deciding factor, and so he dropped out. That was a bad day [laughs]. A very bad day.

I was depressed after that, didn't know where we would land. And then I got a call from Bradley [Cooper] one day and he said, "You're never going to guess who's directing this movie." And Bradley and I had always talked about this as a Western; we had gone around and around, and we loved the notion of that. So I said, "Just tell me, Bradley. Just tell me who's going to do it." And he said, "Hah! Clint Eastwood." I couldn't believe it. I just started laughing. It was too good to be true. Here's this man with this mythos, this legend, and he's made movies like this, he's made movies in the dirt.

People who know Chris Kyle's story know that something horrible happens after he returns from the war. Where does that happen in the progression of your collaboration with him?

So I started writing the script, and I would talk to Chris frequently. I'd call him every day, and oftentimes he wouldn't answer the phone and then he'd text me back, "Hey, what's up?" So we'd get into this texting, where I discovered a ton of stuff from him and he was very helpful. You ask a man, "How was that? Did it hurt? What were you feeling?" We don't totally access those parts of ourselves and reveal themselves to other men, so I got a lot of stuff from Chris tactically and a lot of what he said about the war and how it went.

But we worked through the entire script together and I told him that I was turning it in and he said, "Good luck, I hope you work again." I turned it in, and that was a Thursday. On Saturday, I got a call that he had just been murdered.

What does that do to you as somebody who has befriended him? What was your reaction to something tragic like that?

I wept. I wept on the phone. I couldn't comprehend that this guy had gone [to Iraq] four times and made this tremendous sacrifice that I'd witnessed on the faces of his wife and his children, and that he had been trying to help another veteran and had been killed in this way.

A veteran who was suffering from PTS, right?

He possibly had pre-existing problems, but he had been released from a facility four days prior. That information was not known to Chris.

In the film, you decide not to show what happens to Kyle. Why did you make that choice?

It was a choice between all of us. I made a promise to [his wife] Taya Kyle. She said, "This is how my children are going to remember their father." And that was a big thing for me. I didn't want to depict this guy murdering their father and have this be something that hung over the heads of those two children like a haunt. (The suspect, Eddie Ray Routh, is awaiting trial.)

I think Clint Eastwood agreed, though we'd written the scene, we talked it out, and we went back and forth on it. I also think that we didn't want to glorify [Routh's] actions and encourage someone else to do it, thinking they'll be put in a motion picture.

Kyle's father reportedly told Clint Eastwood before production, "Disrespect my son and I'll unleash hell on you." Did you feel an equal burden or obligation in terms of how you were going to treat Kyle's story in this film? Did you worry about whether or not that would shift the film from biography to hagiography?

I knew Chris, I knew who he was, I became his friend, and I certainly became friends with his wife. We were very close and I felt a certain obligation to his sacrifice, but I didn't feel a burden of a threat or whatnot. I respected Chris and what he did, but Chris also suffered a great deal, and Chris was not a saint. We ask these guys to go over there and do things that they don't want to talk about. We say, "Thank you for your service," and they're like, "You wouldn't thank me if you knew what I did over there. I did ugly, ugly things."

And to judge or glorify them was not my intent. My intent was to put down this story and tell the story of this man, because this man's story is important to every soldier out there. Every soldier sacrifices in equal measure. They write a blank check, up to and equal to the amount of their lives. Chris wrote that check, and so did every guy that went over there. There's a sacrifice that they make and my intent was to let everybody know that, so we can understand that sacrifice a little bit better, and maybe we can embrace these guys when they come home in a different way.

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