Interview: Jason Hall Discusses His Emotionally Jarring ‘Thank You For Your Service’

With Thank You For Your Service hitting theaters this weekend, a few of us in Phoenix were lucky enough to sit down with the writer-director of the film, Jason Hall! If you’re thinking about checking out the movie, go ahead and give my review a look by clicking right HERE! Spoiler alert for the review, I really liked the movie, and it was one of the most emotionally moving films I’ve seen this year, so I was so excited to get a little bit of insight from Jason Hall! Thank You For Your Service is now available to see nation-wide, so if you get out to the theaters this weekend and see it, definitely come back and let me know what you thought!

Hall started off as an actor and moved into writing and directing, even being nominated for an Oscar for penning the screenplay for American Sniper. When asked if the transition from acting to writing and directing was natural, he said:

Yeah. I think they all kind of happen organically. There wasn’t a real plan there. I knew I wanted to make films, and I started out in the most immature form of doing that. I tried to go to film school early on and was certain I wanted to make films, so I just kept kicking down doors until someone let me do it.

Next he was asked if making that transition from actor to writer/director allowed him to make more of a difference in his films, and he said:

I think once you start writing, you kind of take authorship of what you’re gonna say. As an actor you are interpreting someone else’s message, someone else’s story, and I think as a writer you start to develop that, so I would say it was more as a writer that I could tell a story and kind of articulate some meaning or opinion through that story, not as much as an actor, but I found that as the author of scripts that I was able to do that, and that became more interesting. Obviously you’re also trying to make a living, so you’re doing what you can at whatever point you’re at, and at a certain point you’re trying to scramble just to get a job, but I’ve been lucky enough to have been able to get a couple jobs where I can say something.

Hall was asked how the story was developed from book to script to screen, and had this to say:

It came about through.. Steven Spielberg was going to direct [American] Sniper, so I was working on the script of Sniper with him with his intent to start it late that fall, and this was a couple months after Chris’s death on February 2nd. During that process I think that he saw that I could articulate his notes, and he trusted me with this book and said, “I wanna do this, as well.” And so we started off on that book. Originally it was designed as a story about the therapist, Fred, who now is just, as you know, a footnote, a doctor on a phone, well-played by David Morse who is awesome and kind of gives you the reassurance through that voice that you know from a hundred films like, “this is the answer.” I discovered [that] that was not what the story was about, and you kind of have that instinct that’s screaming in the back of your mind, despite whoever he has aligned to play this great part, this is probably really more of a story about these guys getting off the airplane than it is about a doctor out in Napa. I kind of had to go down the wrong road to figure out which the right one was, and he was gracious in allowing me to do that. The whole time I was writing it for him, which you often are, then he either chooses to do it or not. I kind of had an inclination that it was maybe a smaller movie that he was intending to do next, and so I started prepping myself to be able to pitch myself and direct the film.

Next he discussed how a character’s decision in a bank informed the rest of the story by saying:

There’s a couple moments that turn the plot in the film, and I think, for me, the bigger one in the architecture— that’s a plot point that helps turn the character arc— the bigger pivot, probably, for me, was Amanda, and really the inciting incident. You could say the inciting incident is the first scene where he drops him, but the sort of inciting incident back home is Amanda saying, “Tell me how my husband died.” So you’re asking a question to the audience that then is answered towards the end, so that gives you the sort of plot structure. But certainly yeah. Will’s decision that he makes is a turn for the character, and as a storyteller, you learn the three act structure when you read Making Movies and you go to the script classes and script doctor work, but nobody was teaching how to make a character arc. Nobody taught me how to take a character arc. It wasn’t something that I learned from any of those classes, so I had to start studying that. I found it was really hard to find anyone who understood what a character arc was, and they would start referring to three acts, but that’s not a character arc. That’s a story arc. But the character arc typically— like the films I love in the ‘70s go from resistance to release. There’s a character who resists doing something at the beginning, then fights it and fights it and fights it, then somewhere around the midpoint, there’s a release. That release leads to a moment of grace and then more problems because the release brings on a new set of problems. That was one of those things that gets him to the midpoint of his release where he admits what’s going on, and it pushes him further into “Yes, I need some help, but f***.” So there’s a bunch of those along the way that help him. They sort of follow the Joseph Campbell theory of a character arc and how that all goes. And really the Odyssean model. Once I do a script, I try and relate it to a classic and see if there’s allegorical signposts that I can kind of put in there because I think that we recognize these stories, and the character structure is in our DNA. As far back as the caves. All these pictures and stories that they tell in the caves, that stuff is in our DNA. If you can tap into the pace of that and into what we expect allegorically from our heroes then you start to have something that resonates in a deeper way.

He also dives into the character of Adam, and discusses why it was difficult for Adam to discuss the things he went through by saying:

The challenge for this story was making a story personal enough about Adam that it was universal but also making a story that was not just about Adam but that applied— through these three guys and their decisions— applied to every warrior that has come home with some circumstances. And I think the schooling of the military and what they teach these guys is to shoot at human shaped targets so they can shoot at humans. To walk into the bullets when your first primary instinct is to walk away. They teach them how to be fearless and how to do things that normal humans just don’t have the capacity to do. In doing that, they’re creating this toughness and this shell that allows them to do it, and everything that comes after about finding your way back to yourself is untaught, and it’s about how you remove that shell— how you remove the shield that the warrior has been given to go into battle, and taking away that shield is very hard. For someone like Adam, it blew me away that as heroic as everything he had done in battle was, he came back and was able to reveal himself to David Finkel, the author, and allow him into his life and to allow him to watch what he was going through. Even in his resistance to tell stories or to hold onto things or not, his willingness to articulate and to allow this guy in and to be vulnerable with this guy was as heroic, in my mind, as anything he did in battle.

In both American Sniper and in Thank You For Your Service, Hall tells stories about what happens when the soldiers come home from battle. He touched on why that’s such an important topic to address in film by saying:

I think that to know what the consequences of war are is tremendously important to society. Especially a society that has found a way to distance themselves from the aftermath of war and the consequence on its warriors. In my mind and what I’ve seen, these guys are honorable young men and women who are making a decision to serve their country, and it’s beholden upon us, not just the government but the citizens, to make sure that we’re making the right decisions, electing people to make decisions that put us into conflicts that are equally as honorable as the men we’re sending over there. There haven’t been a tremendous amount of stories about soldiers coming home that have been told. For all the war films that we make, we haven’t made a ton of films about guys coming home, and I think that cinema holds a big responsibility in that it’s able to shift people’s perception, and it’s able to tell stories in a way that just a storyteller with a voice and an audience cannot do. So it’s also beholden upon us to tell the right story and to tell the true story, and not just the half of the story that sells a lot of tickets.

Sticking to how Hall addresses PTSD, he went over how American Sniper and Thank You For Your Service were spiritually connected and said:

Yeah, I call it a spiritual sequel, I think. But I think it stands as its own film. The version of special operators who’ve fought this war, they’ve fought a very different war and came from very different places and they were very different people than who these guys are. Early on it was challenging for me. I thought, “Oh, this is great. I already know this about the war, and I’ll just step right in and tell this story.” That wasn’t the case. These guys are very different people and they had a very, very different experience, and because of the selective process of special forces, there’s  different way that those guys deal with the traumatic effects of war. In the selection process for the Navy SEALs, they weed out everybody. It’s not a physical weeding out. It’s a psychological one because it’s not the Olympic athletes who go to BUD/S and make it and go to Hell Week and make it. It’s the guys who are farmers who have a tough mind, who got up at five o’clock in the morning, who know hard labor, who just power and power and power through it. It’s the farmers. It’s the wrestlers. It’s the blue-collared kids who are just gotta have a toughness about them. Mental toughness translates to battle. They’re less susceptible to some of the things that others suffer because of that mental toughness. They’re possibly able to compartmentalize pain. They’re able to compartmentalize suffering. So it’s a real psychological weeding out of those who aren’t able to process mental anguish in a way. And that’s the selection process. These guys, on the other hand, when you’re talking to them, they have very little training. There was very little time to prepare them. There wasn’t that kind of weeding out selection process. It’s more of an any and all takers. 2007, I want to say that 39% came in on waivers, meaning they had some psychological issues or a problem with the law. So they had the waivers signed. So you’re talking about a lot of guys who entered in with problems. My brother-in-law grew up, he had some problems with the law, he got in trouble once because he brought a taser to school. He went to a tough school. He brought a taser. Bad decision from a sixteen year-old kid, and he got dinged with a felony for it. And he had to do some stuff. But he had to get a waiver to go into the military, and he actually went into the military, and when he went to Iraq, my wife breathed a sigh of relief. This kid who grew up in Hancock Park went to Iraq and she was like, “Thank God. He’s so much safer over there than he is here.” He’s just a kid— a lovable kid. But he’s got some friends who get in trouble a lot, and, you know, he’s been in some bad situations. He gets put into a situation where it’s like, “Hey, kid. We’ll give you eighteen thousand extra dollars if you want to drive the fuel rig.” He’s like, “Eighteen thousand dollars? Great! I’ll take that!” Then he’s like, “Hey. I got a little bump for driving the fuel rig.” It’s like, “Dude, the reason you got a bump is because you’re driving gasoline on streets that are paved with explosives, and if you get ticked, you’re gone!” He’s like, “Well… Eighteen thousand bucks!” You know what I mean? And so you’re dealing with kids who come in and, like, they’re kids. They’re kids and they don’t have the experience. They don’t have the training. They don’t have the weeding out process. They’re just trying to look for an opportunity that a lot of them didn’t have. And he comes from a nice family. He comes from a well-off family who didn’t really help him, but that’s beside the point. A lot of these guys, for them it’s their best opportunity. Becoming a warrior is their best opportunity. Adam Schumann fell in love with a girl. He wanted a house and a picket fence and he didn’t want to go fracking. North Dakota, that’s all there was. He could have done the fracking work, or he joined the military and got to serve his country, and that seemed much more honorable to him, and you know, he wanted to maybe go to school someday. So it’s a different, different story than special forces and telling the story of our elite warriors. This is really the working warrior class. It’s the blue-collar soldier that we send off to war, and I wanted to make a film with social realism about the blue-collar struggles of these warriors when they come home from war.

Next Hall was asked what kind of research and prep went into the film when it came to talking to the men.

David Finkel did such amazing journalistic work in following these guys. He went and lived with them— with Adam, with Solo, with Amanda and several others in the book for ten months, so he gave us a bible, and it was up to us. We had everything that had happened to them and the way in which they had reacted to those circumstances and the way that they felt was articulated in the book. And then it was up to us to kind of get our hands on them and sort of soak up all the psychic energy that we could. How they talk, what the tone of their voice was, what the quality and what it looked like, what it felt like. So when I was auditioning just to get the job to direct, immediately I was supposed to go— I was in D.C., and I was supposed to go to Manhattan for the weekend with my wife, and so instead we went to Manhattan, Kansas. I said, “Good news and bad news, Babe. Good news is that we’re still going to Manhattan. Bad news is that it’s Kansas.” So I went immediately there and started driving around and went to his house that he had since moved back to North Dakota. I went to his house, went to the shady parts of town where some of the characters wound up in trouble. And I went, and I just tried to dig into that with my hands. I had, at that point, known Adam for two years because I had been writing the script for a good two years, so I had a first-person relationship. Been on the phone with him all the time, texting with him, with Emory, with Amanda, with Solo, and so I had involved myself with them, and then as soon as I brought Miles on we immediately went out to visit Adam and sat in a snowy field with him while he was duck hunting. Just sort of soaked up all we could from this guy, and once we started filming, Adam and Miles had a relationship at that point because it was a couple months, and then we had Adam down to train them, so we went through a boot camp that these Navy SEALs ran, and Adam was the sort of administrator and like, “No, we don’t do it how the Navy SEALs. Here’s how we do it.” And he gave us the Army side of that, and then we asked him to stay as long as he could. He went back for a couple of stretches to visit family, but he was with us throughout the whole filming. So having him on set and being able to put hands on him, and not that he’s gonna be like, “Well you didn’t do that right!” If he saw something wrong, I was like, “Absolutely, dude. Tell us if you see something wrong. See it, say it. That’s what we’re doing here.” And he would. He caught some stuff on the uniform, and he’d say, “This stuff in my living room, that was kind of…” Because I had pictures. I had documentation. I had place reports. I had after action reports. I had a massive amount of information that I asked the people that were working for us to match. I wanted it to be as close as humanly possible. But no. We had Solo down. Emory is in the movie. We had Amanda Doster and brought her daughters down. We tried to involve everybody in the movie and saturate the entire movie with the experience of these real-life characters so their history and their touch and their energy is enmeshed in the fabric of this thing.

As I mentioned in the review, I saw the film in a theater full of veterans which was a moving experience. Hall touched on the reception from veterans.

It’s been terrific. The first time I showed Adam I showed him in New York. We didn’t have the score yet or anything. We got him some popcorn and a Coke, and he didn’t touch the popcorn or the Coke the whole time, and he basically cried for an hour and forty-five minutes, and he laughed, and he had these experiences of beauty and experiencing this love that he had with his wife and all this stuff. I, afterwords, gave the guy a hug and held him for fifteen minutes, and he sobbed, and he was like, “It’s beautiful. I can’t believe you guys did this.” That was kind of the experience. We had everybody come in and watch it at once, and it was wild. The most common response I’ve gotten from veterans is, “Somebody finally told our story.” I said, “What about American Sniper?” And they said, “Yeah. That’s a Chris Kyle story. That’s one-in-a-million. This is our story. This is what we experienced.” And it’s not an easy one to share. Sometimes this is not one that they’re— they want people to know, and they identify super personally with it, but it’s also that part that’s still like, “Are we ready to share this?” It’s that part that any warrior goes home. It’s like, “Am I ready to share this part?” The party that we’ve gotten from their families is— that’s the beautiful thing, and it’s the, “I had no idea that this is what he’s going through. Or this is what he doesn’t talk about. Or this is what he means when he talks about so-and-so.” We’ve had beautiful experiences where someone will come with their wife, and it’s a guy who’s been home for four years. There was a guy who was even helping us with some publicity stuff and he was like, “Oh, bring my wife,” and he brought her, and he was just a squared away dude who was, like, talks great, makes sixty-five, seventy-five thousand dollars a year. He’s good. He’s been home for four or five years, and he brings his wife, and they walk out of the theater and she’s like, “Hey, so do you have any stories like that?” And he’s like, “Yeah.” And it’s like, they have stories. You know what I mean? And they just— they are or they aren’t gonna share them, but at that point he decided to share with his wife because she had seen this movie and she kind of had a new understanding of his experiences, and he shared this story with his wife and it, like, changed their marriage. We just get a lot of people coming up to us like, “Thank you for telling this story. My brother, my uncle, my grandpa served.” My question is always “Does he talk about it?” And they’re like, “No.” And my response to that is, “Tell them that you saw the movie, and tell him you have a new understanding of maybe what he went through. Just open the door a little bit and leave it open, and sooner or later, a lot of these guys will walk through that door if it’s open and they feel you understand them.”

He also addressed a more psychological issue when families don’t discuss and ask questions, and they just assume that the person returning from war is fine because they put the questions off.

I think they’re expecting the same person they sent off to return to them. They expect the same person, and they expect that person to step into the same role that they had when they left. What they’re not expecting is that the person they sent off comes back changed and different, and parts of them are unknown now. And the trick there to telling that story is to structure it so that the audience was also in that unknown part. You want them to be with Adam and with the guys, but also to step back and say, “Oh wow. Who are they talking about? What are these names that they’re banding around? And I don’t know what happened to that guy. This is unclear.” And it’s intentionally unclear because that’s what the family experiences. the family experiences the mystery of, like, “I’m trying to unwrap the newness of this person and get to the bottom of this story. He’s had relationship and experiences— extraordinary experiences that I don’t understand or even know about.” And it’s almost as if they’ve lived this other life, you know, on the other side of this door that you don’t get to know about or ask, and so it was up to us, you know, I wanted to find a way to structure the film so that the audience felt that too and is like, “God, I want to know, what are they talking about? Who’s Emory, and Who’s Doster?” And, like, trying to pull it out of them the way that the family does. You want to put the audience in that seat so that they experience it like the family does, and that is absolutely the case. These guys come back in the door and it’s up to the family to kind of dance around and figure it out and unwrap this new man who’s walked through their door that looks a lot like the same man they sent off but is often times quite a bit different.

Finally, he talked a little bit about getting to work with the notoriously calm Clint Eastwood on American Sniper, and he talked about what he learned as a director.

I think you learn a lot from anybody who you watch who is a master like that. Certainly there is an ease and a fluidity to which Clint works that’s intoxicating. I don’t have that same persona as Clint, so I’m a little bit more— I want to get every single f****** thing right. So I’m very anal, and I don’t— God bless him— I’m not that kind of filmmaker. I wanted to find an architecture in the houses that was similar to the architecture in the houses that they lived in. I wanted to find— I made sure that we had two hundred actual veterans sitting in the VA because I know that veterans recognize veterans. I got after action reports. I didn’t allow certain colors in Iraq. I imported two tons of trash into Morocco because I hadn’t seen an Iraq war film that had enough trash in it. The Hurt Locker was maybe an exception because they were able to film it in Jordan. That’s the Middle East, so they had the right color of trash, but it’s also about the colors of trash. And also I’m interested in being a filmmaker who puts messages into this, so I plan things. Trauma is sort of the repetition of a story, and what these guys come home with is they come home with these incidents where they sort of unwind them and retell them and unwind them to the point of, like, where was the first part of it that I made the mistake. Was it when I got out of bed, and I didn’t get dressed fast enough to make it in the first Humvee, and so I was put in the second one. You know? Or was it backwards, so they play it backwards and forwards, and it’s a bit of a mystery, so I planted a bunch of objects in the first half of the film. In the first, you know, the greater portion of the film, that actually end up in Iraq. And you’ll never know what those are, but they’re certainly in there, and the reason I did that is because I want your brain to start adding up the information of all of these things that you’ve previously known, and then it starts adding up the information as if you’re gonna solve this mystery. Amanda Doster still wonders to this day— she knows what happened, she’s read the report, she’s talked to everybody involved, but she still just wonders is there something else that she doesn’t know— one little piece of information of “What was he thinking or feeling right at the last second before he died?” And if she could just get that piece of information— that’s what trauma tells us. I have to figure it out, I have to figure it out, and it’s this process of trying to just get to the top of the heap of all of this information and all of these memories to get to that point where you just, you solve it. “Was it my fault? Could I have done something more?” So, you know, I tried to fill the audience with that sense of information piling up in the last part of this film. So I guess I learned a lot from Clint and nothing at all. Maybe it just takes a hundred films to get that ease and calm.

Thank You For Your Service is not out nation-wide, and you can check out one of the most emotionally impactful films of the year at your local theater right now! As always, thank you, and keep listening to 88.7 The Pulse!

About Justin Lyons

Hey, it’s Justin Lyons! I am the Chief Film Critic for The Pulse. Have any questions for me? Please feel free to email me at [email protected]