How the screenwriter of 'American Sniper' convinced Steven Spielberg he was ready to direct

Jason Hall Alberto Rodriguez GettyAlberto Rodriguez/Getty‘Thank You for Your Service’ director Jason Hall.
  • Jason Hall, director of the upcoming movie “Thank You for Your Service,” first got into the business as an actor in the late 1990s.
  • After a stint in rehab and his own personal “welcome to Hollywood” moment, he turned to screenwriting.
  • Hall convinced Steven Spielberg to give him a chance at directing after earning an Oscar nomination for writing “American Sniper.”


The way things were playing out for Jason Hall at the start of his career, the combination of hard luck and personal demons could have led to him being just another rising star who faded out too quickly.

Coming out to Hollywood as an actor in the 1990s after studying film at USC, Hall had the tools to make it. He had chiselled looks and studied acting with some of the best teachers after going through a two-year Meisner acting course. That quickly landed him work on a few TV shows, including a recurring role as Devon MacLeish on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

He had also caught the eye of James Toback. The Oscar-nominated screenwriter behind “Bugsy” and director of movies like “Fingers” and “The Pick-up Artist” was trying to get “Harvard Man” off the ground, a movie about a Harvard basketball player who throws a game for the mob and then tries to fend off both them and the FBI while on a bad LSD trip.

The time James Toback was going to make him a movie star

A female friend of Hall’s had met Toback at an airport and the director wanted to audition her for the movie, Hall recalled. He said his friend thought Toback was “a little bit strange” but she took the script and, after realising she wasn’t right for the movie, passed on it, instead telling Toback to consider Hall for the male lead. (Toback has recently been accused by over 30 women of sexual harassment.)

“He met me and we clicked,” Hall told Business Insider over the phone earlier this month. “I had been to prep school and I had done some of the experimentation that the character in the movie had and he was like, ‘You’re the guy! I’ve sat down with everybody in Hollywood and you’re the guy.'”

But nothing in Hollywood goes according to plan, and “Harvard Man” was Hall’s first lesson in that.

As Toback tried to get financing, Hall said the two would often work together on scenes from the script but also do a lot of things that had nothing to do with the movie. One time, Hall picked up Toback from a Los Angeles airport and drove him to a Beverly Hills bank, where Toback withdrew cash so he could then race off to Las Vegas to gamble.

“It was a strange relationship,” Hall said, looking back.

But what came out of it was the first important decision of Hall’s career: He went to rehab for substance abuse and got himself clean. When he got out, Toback was ready to make “Harvard Man,” but not with Hall.

“I came back and he said, ‘You changed!'” Hall recalled. “And I’m like, ‘I stopped doing all that nonsense so I can do the work,’ and he said, ‘Yeah, but now you’re not the guy. I don’t see it anymore.'” (Business Insider contacted Toback for comment but did not get a response.) “Entourage” star Adrian Grenier eventually landed the lead role in the movie, which was released in 2001.

That led to the second most important decision of Hall’s career: writing his first screenplay.

From failed actor to Oscar-nominated screenwriter

“I was like, am I going to be James Toback’s guy on acid or am I going to live a clean life and try to pursue a career in the arts and not die by the time I’m 35,” Hall said. “So I started writing scripts for myself.”

He thought the plan was foolproof. Feeling he could come up with better material than the scripts he was auditioning for, he decided to write himself into his own scripts and make the deals for them contingent on him acting in them (a la what Sylvester Stallone did with “Rocky” or Matt Damon and Ben Affleck with “Good Will Hunting”).

But it didn’t go according to plan. Hall found interest for the scripts but no one wanted him to act in them. He finally relinquished his dreams of being a movie star and decided to move forward as a screenwriter. The first script he sold was the 2009 movie “Spread,” starring Ashton Kutcher. He also got a writing credit on the 2013 Liam Hemsworth thriller, “Paranoia.”

Then he hit pay dirt around 2011 when he got his hands on the yet unpublished memoir of the deadliest marksman in US military history, Chris Kyle. Hall spent time with Kyle and his friends, earned their trust, wrote the screenplay, and got Bradley Cooper involved, but nothing happened until two months after Kyle’s murder at the hands of a former Marine suffering from PTSD in February 2013. Steven Spielberg read the script for “American Sniper” and bought it for his company, DreamWorks, with an eye to direct it.

Bradley cooper american sniperKeith Bernstein/Warner Bros.‘American Sniper.’

Clint Eastwood would end up directing, and with Cooper starring as Kyle, “American Sniper” went go on to become one of the surprise hits of 2014, earning over $US350 million domestically of its $US547.4 million worldwide total (the movie was made for $US58.8 million) and getting six Oscar nominations, including one for Hall. The film would end up winning an Oscar for best sound editing.

But that wasn’t the last gift Spielberg gave Hall. While writing drafts of the “American Sniper” script for Spielberg, the legendary director said he had something else he thought Hall would be good to work on.

“I think we were working for two months on ‘American Sniper’ and he came in and dropped a book on the table,” Hall said. “He said he wanted to do more for the veterans.”

Convincing Spielberg he can direct — and almost getting kicked off a plane in the process

The book was “Thank You for Your Service,” written by journalist David Finkel, and it examined the recent string of soldiers coming home and struggling to adjust to civilian life.

“Spielberg and I both loved that aspect of the story, what the coming home was like,” Hall said. “And Spielberg posed the question after reading the book, ‘You don’t think this and ‘American Sniper’ are too similar?’ I said there are similar aspects but only in as much as one is the story of Achilles and other is the story of Odysseus. ‘Thank You for Your Service’ can be the homecoming.”

Like “American Sniper,” Hall could tell that, with Spielberg’s work load, he probably wouldn’t get around to directing “Thank You for Your Service,” so while writing the script he threw his hat in the ring.

Following a pitch call — which Hall said occurred while he was in the middle of boarding an aeroplane and the flight attendants were close to kicking him off because he wouldn’t hang up the phone — Hall scored a formal meeting with Spielberg to interview for the directing job. His persistence paid off, and he got the gig in June of 2015.

“Thank You for Your Service” follows a group of soldiers (among them Miles Teller) returning from Iraq who struggle to integrate back into civilian life with their families. Dealing with both physical and mental wounds, the men’s search for normalcy often brings them back to each other to find strength to continue on.

“I felt like this was a way to bring all these guys all the way home,” Hall said of the cloak of PTSD that hangs over the movie. It’s a struggle he said he’d seen with countless veterans, including Kyle, whom he felt had turned a corner when they spoke over the phone for what turned out to be the final time two days before his murder.

“I felt the guy was making it home,” Hall said of Kyle. “I heard him laugh and be at ease in a way that I hadn’t before.”

DreamWorks‘Thank You for Your Service.’

“There’s a whole other battle to fight once a solider comes to the decision to seek help,” Hall continued. “I definitely relate to that, realising I needed help and being in a place of struggling but knowing I needed help.”

But Hall says he knows his struggle with substance abuse pales in comparison to what most veterans deal with, simply because of the overworked and chaotic US Department of Veterans Affairs they have to deal with to get help. The frustrations veterans have with the VA is something that Hall prominently puts in his movie after numerous visits he took to the VA in Los Angeles before shooting.

“It’s a circus down there,” he said. “They are out there all day to get help and the place sometimes just cut it off and say, ‘We’re done, come back tomorrow.’ It’s hard enough for these guys to admit some kind of vulnerability, so when they are able to take that courageous step to ask for help the help should be there for them.”

Hall has found his niche in Hollywood by telling stories about American heroes coping with life beyond the battlefield. And if it’s up to him, his most epic look at the topic will come next.

He’s got a script in the drawer titled “The Virginian” he’s trying to get into production about a conflicted young George Washington who tries to conquer a French fort. Getting the project off the ground won’t come easy, but if it’s one thing Hall knows, it never is.

“Thank You for Your Service” opens in theatres on Friday.

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.