In 2014, screenwriter Jason Hall made a giant splash in Hollywood when he wrote the screenplay for the highly successful Clint Eastwood film “American Sniper,” about our country’s deadliest sniper, Chris Kyle (adapted from Kyle’s memoir). For his directorial debut, Hall returns to storytelling about those who have served in the military, but this time focuses on the grunts who didn’t come home to the same fanfare, like Sergeant Adam Schumann (portrayed by Miles Teller) and his fellow veterans. Using David Finkel’s journalistic account Thank You For Your Service as its guide, Hall’s film explores the lives of Schumann and his peers after coming home, and offers a harrowing image of PTSD as these men try to reintegrate themselves back into society.
RogerEbert.com sat down with Teller, Hall and Schumann to talk about the film, the right questions filmmakers should ask when making a movie like this, how "Thank You For Your Service" provided Schumann “the world’s greatest therapy session” and more.
Jason and Miles, when you’re making this movie and trying to do it right, what are the right questions to ask someone like Adam?
MILES TELLER: I feel like this presented the most questions that I’d need to ask for with a role, just because I had no experience with military, and that’s something that’s an absolute black or white, there are no gray area there. You need to know your p’s and q’s and have it all engrained. So for me that was all square one, and Adam being a soldier and being in infantry and being a grunt like that, all that helped define the person that he was. And then look, man, you’re also trying to grapple and understand things that are unimaginable for us as civilians. You’re trying to grapple with war. And also, I was 29 when I made it, and Adam when did you do your first deployment?
ADAM SCHUMANN: 21.
MT: 21, and even then trying to shift that lens. So, I had a bunch of questions, but in terms of what questions were off the table or that you didn’t want to ask, there needed to be a level of intimacy in terms of me and my … I’m going to refer to him as my character or my subject at that point, but he’s now a good friend of mine. But at that point he was the subject that I was trying to absorb and study as much as I could, and I needed to be able to get … yeah, I was hoping that he liked me when he met me because there was some shit I needed to ask and we only had 48 hours with him. And luckily, Adam throughout the whole process, he was an open book.
AS: Knowing that they had two days in trying to figure out who this character was … now I can talk about it, but in the beginning I had no understanding of a movie or what their process was or what they go through to relay a message on the screen so that everybody can understand it.
JASON HALL: The reality too is that we also had the book; David followed everybody around for nine months. We had a Bible to this, and then it was about getting the juice of who this guy was, and the essence of who he is. And I think for me, the most important question especially when you are dealing with a quote-unquote biopic is, “What is this about?” If you just make a movie about someone’s life, it doesn’t make any sense. If you followed me around and made a movie about my life it would make no sense at all. I would have no idea what it’s about.
MT: A movie about your life? I’d watch it.
JH: [To Teller] I think you should call [Adam] your “specimen.”
AS: I’m not a stool sample! [laughs]
MT: My “subject” … my “specimen.”
JH: What is this movie about? It’s about homecoming, and homecoming is not these guys walking back into their house and their town with a parade, it’s about people returning to themselves. How do we find a way back to ourselves? That’s a story that’s as old as Odysseus, as Homer. It’s revealing and finding a way back to self.
Jason, with this and “American Sniper,” do you believe the adage that it’s impossible to make an anti-war war film? Do you wrestle with that?
JH: If I am thinking about that and anti-war, then it’s a political film. What I was trying to do in both of these films was be honest to the nature of these people, to the nature of Adam and Solo and Amanda and to be honest, in [“American Sniper”], to be honest to who Chris Kyle was and how he saw the world. It wasn’t about me making a comment on who Chris was and how he saw the world, it was about me revealing this character and how he saw the world and what that point-of-view cost him. And look, a lot of people adopted that, and it all came from Michael Moore and his wonderful tweet about snipers. Do you remember that? “My grandpa was killed by a sniper in World War II. Snipers are cowards.” And so it set off this political maelstrom, and obviously Clint [Eastwood] played into that and everything.
MT: War’s won long range and close range. That’s just how it’s …
JH: But I approach these films through character, and I relate to that and I’ve done a lot of study with the classics and find that the keys to allegorical and the keys to revealing who these characters are archetypes and a lot of work with that. I’m interested in the characters, I’m not interested in making a political statement.
Miles, when you were taking it on and making your character, did you consider the politics yourself?
MT: People are going to bring their political views to this, and that’s just the nature of the beast, anything you do. I don’t know … I mean, as an audience member seeing it now I don’t see it as pro-war or anti-war, I think it’s just—
AS: It’s pro-human.
MT: Yeah, and obviously J took this on his shoulders to shine some light on this, and I’m absolutely for that and for the cause of it. And at the time I’m just trying to figure out this guy so that I can tell his story because I know how impactful his story can be.
JH: And certainly when you’re shooting it, I remember someone was giving me notes that were like, “Let’s have more battle.” And I said, “This isn’t about the battle, this is about the individual and how they see the battle.” It’s not necessary to the story … to flourish that and to indulge that and goose it up. And we all wanted to tell the story that was just absolutely and truthful and put the audience in the front seat for this ride of what this guy had gone through, his personal view of what he had gone through with hopes that it brings them closer to understanding what most veterans go through coming home.
With this being your first directorial project, I had heard from Paul Haggis that Clint Eastwood hardly changed his "Million Dollar Baby" script when he adapted it, so I imagine for “American Sniper” it was the same ...
JH: It was almost totally intact.
… was that jarring then to go from Eastwood doing your exact vision, but then with your own movie have to deal with so many notes and people trying to sell it?
MT: He’d be on set like, “You missed a ‘the’ there!” “Sorry, is this inappropriate?” [laughs]
JH: Here’s the reality. Spielberg gave me this book and at that time he wanted to make the film himself. But his intention was clear, he was like, “I want to do more for the soldiers.” We were in the process of doing “Sniper” together and he gave me this book knowing that “Sniper” was not going to do for the soldiers what he would hope. And he ultimately gave it up. And his intention, and the intention he powered us all with, was telling this story for the benefit of the people who had gone through it. And others who might gain from their experience. And that was, to be allowed to make a studio film about this, about something important that matters about real people who are not coming home to popular acclaim and book deals as the deadliest anything on the planet.
With “Sniper” you had the exception.
JH: You know, I think Malcolm Gladwell said that if you want the true story don’t go to the hero, go to the guy in the middle, go to the guy on the ground who has nothing to lose by telling the truth. And like, this is the absolute truth.
AS: I had nothing to gain or lose. They did a great job of just cracking that book open.
JH: He found himself in a place where he was like, “Here’s where I’m at and here’s my story,” and when you read the book, what you come away with is … because the first book, The Good Soldiers, is about everything he did in battle. And it’s all very heroic, and it’s like, “wow, these guys were in a shitty situation and they comported themselves like heroes.” Then you read this book and it’s like, “Oh, everything he’s doing here is far more heroic than anything he was asked to do over there,” in revealing himself, in letting this guy follow him around, in revealing weakness, in revealing fear and the cause of this and how it was rippling out into his life and destroying everything that he cared about and loved. That’s heroism.
That’s a through-line with your movie, Jason, and your performances, Miles, and your experiences, Adam. About making it OK for men to show their weaknesses. That it’s not a flaw. And I’m curious as what that importance is to you to help get that image out there.
JH: It’s the lie of Western mythology, it’s the Western masculine man, which was all about how are we going to face the unknown evils of the west, the dark savage man? The idea of masculinity was about facing the Indians, it was about, You go out there and be strong and be brave and take on this savage unknown, because we can’t do it, and come back and hold it in. That’s where it developed. And some of that is a lie and it has caused tremendous damage throughout the years for all of these warriors coming back from these wars, to be like, No, no, no. We hold it in. We hold it in. And it’s like, we wonder why the suicide rate is high. Or we wonder why we’ve had decades and decades and decades of warriors not talk about it. When people come up to us after this movie and they’re like, “Oh my dad fought here, etc,” I’m like, “Does he ever talk about it?” And they say, “Nope.” And I’ve got a grandpa who didn’t talk about it, I’ve got an uncle who didn’t talk about it, I’ve got a brother who didn’t talk about it, and he was in Desert Storm.
MT: I grew up in a pretty small town in Florida and a lot of my friends were in the military. One dude will post a sign that he saw in his neighborhood, “Combat Veteran Lives Here, 4th of July Don’t Do Fireworks.” And that just incites all of this shit like, “Oh this pussy probably didn’t even serve,” “Fireworks? Grow a pair” and all this shit. And someone will be like, “Hey man, leave him alone you don’t know what he fought.” And then someone will say, “I was with you in that same fight, you didn’t fire shit.” And it just becomes reply, reply, reply, and they’re just tearing each other apart. It’s unfortunate.
JH: It’s hard to be emotionally available and walk into gunfire. That’s the truth of it. The duality of man, it’s hard to have both of those things operate, this extreme bravery and this emotional availability and vulnerability. Like, can those two things exist? I don’t know. They exist in rare form in this guy to a great degree, and that’s what we all responded to and galvanized around, was this guy who had the bravery to come back and talk about it.
Miles, do you have a specific interest in showing characters who reveal a deep pain? Even since “Rabbit Hole” you’ve been playing emotional characters, or in “Whiplash” you play another man who is trying to be strong but experiences a type of emotional gauntlet.
MT: I always relate to characters on an emotional level; I know that if a script is right for me it’s because I’m feeling something during it. I can analyze it later, but for me the introduction is emotion. And with Adam and a lot of these guys, I’ve heard the analogy that they’re ducks. They’re cool on the surface but underneath they’re just paddle, paddle, paddle and trying to stay afloat. You’re lucky as an actor if you get those opportunities, because when you’re first in the business you’re just trying to get anything, and it’s rare to get a character in your 20's where you’re really dealing with some weighty things. And this part offered … I needed as much time as I could to try and relate and make this honest.
When you’re on set, how do you keep it emotionally honest? Do you go for precise ideas or just feel it out?
MT: It’s like, you have the guy he was, the guy he became, the guy he is now. But still understanding who I was, and almost figuring it out as you go along.
A: Yeah, because you didn’t just play me as a soldier, you played me as a husband, as a father, as a friend, as someone hurt. It was incredible.
MT: And their brains, they are different when they come back. But that doesn’t mean they can’t remember like, “Man, I used to be able to just sit here and be so chill, and now I’m very screwed up.”
JH: The very skills that helped Adam survive in combat become a detriment to his survival at home, and to his way of life of living a happy fruitful, productive life. Because the things that made him survive are the things that are getting ticked off by sounds and sights, and those things … you know, they change biologically, so you come back and you’re biologically different than when you letft. That’s gonna be passed on as well, that’s going to be passed on through his DNA and his life. He is biologically different, warriors come back biologically different. I think that’s something that we don’t understand and it sounds like wacky science—
AS: It’s as true as it gets.
JH: I had heard that several times, and then I talked to the head doctor at the VA. And he said, “War fighters are biologically different. You can take someone into therapy and we can show through brain scans how their brain changes after several sessions of therapy. You can do the very same thing for war fighters, and bring them back and show how their brain has changed.” They’ve seared these memories into the amygdala, and it colors—
MT: Say that sentence again.
JH: These memories are seared into the amygdala. And …
MT: Oh, here we go. [laughs]
AS: The medulla … oblongata!
JH: The amygdala is the part of the brain that gives every memory their flavor. So every memory that they have is colored by … has this scar across it of trauma.
Adam, how does watching this movie help your own therapy process?
AS: God, everything about this is therapeutic. It seems like the more … Finkel spoke with us and he wrote Good Soldiers and then he spent nine months sitting in the backseat of my car, disappearing into the corners of my house or sitting on the rocks behind me fishing and he really did that. And then to come back to this, and the more I spoke of it and the more it was brought up … I’ve seen my progression through this whole thing. This whole, even if nothing happens, I’ve gotten the greatest therapy session of my life over the last few years, just being able to work with these guys and throw it out there. I’m tossing shit out of my pack, I’m lightening the load, so to speak.
JH: And I think watching him, knowing him for three and a half years now, and knowing all of these guys and then bringing them back together to watch this film. We had them all out to LA. First of all, you’re watching it and what you realize is that you’re watching it with Amanda Doster, who never was at that funeral, and that’s coming out of her. And you’re watching next to Solo, who had the worst day of his life when he tore up that apartment, and he’s reliving that and it looks just like his apartment, we made sure, and his mind is totally blown. And you’re doing it with Emory and they come out of this and what happened was, they were all standing kind of separately and processing. And I walked around and started talking to everyone and they kept mentioning “beautiful,” “that was beautiful.” And they’re working through it, and slowly it kind of came together and it was like, there was a recognition of, “OK, we did this, and all of our stories have come together to mean something.” And it was also apart from them now, it was something that we could examine as an audience and take a look at this and be like, “Oh, that was my life, and those events that I lived actually have some meaning now.” Which goes back to what I was saying in the beginning, which is “What does it mean? What is it about?” Their stories, it’s not often that people can look back on their lives while they’re still living it, while they’re still walking around, and see that it had some meaning. And so, to have been a part of something where we gave these people’s lives meaning, these people who were in the middle and who came back and who suffered and who are working warrior class, and to have done something that gave their lives meaning is a tremendous joy to all of us.
MT: Seared into the amygdala …
AS: The medulla … oblongata!