Mike Fleming

EXCLUSIVE: Jason Hall was marked an A-list screenwriter the moment DreamWorks and Warner Bros joined forces after Steven Spielberg agreed to direct Bradley Cooper in American Sniper, based on the life of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. Not surprisingly, both studios want more from Hall. Warner Bros has just closed a blind script deal with him, and I’ve learned that DreamWorks is in early talks to have Hall adapt the upcoming David Finkel book Thank You For Your Service, about the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder syndrome that is becoming a major issue for vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s something Spielberg likes as a potential project down the line, though that is all early days.

I sought out Hall because I find it instructive to see how a guy with one screen credit (2009′s Spread) and another coming (an adaption of the Joseph Finder novel Paranoia) gets white-hot so quickly. Every writer’s trajectory is different, but there’s a common thread: there is no such thing as an overnight success screenwriter. It’s years of struggle to find a voice, and then maybe a lucky break. Hall came to Hollywood to be an actor, and only found his way to screenwriting because things were going so badly. “I did TV parts in Buffy The Vampire Slayer and other shows, playing the bad guy or the MacGuffin bad guy, with the half-baked mustache,” Hall told me. “I would read these terrible movie scripts, and I couldn’t get auditions. I thought, maybe I could write a terrible script for myself, but they wouldn’t even let me audition when I did that. My first script, I remember this funny lawyer telling me I was getting more than Ben and Matt did at the beginning. This producer says, I know you want to act in this, but what if I told you Milos Forman wanted to direct this, with someone else?” Still in full actor mode, Hall was direct: “I remember being in the lobby of The Four Seasons, and saying a little too loud, ‘Milos Forman can go fuck himself!’ So that went away, and then I wrote another script about a blind wrestler. I wrestled since I was a kid, and there are these great blind wrestlers who compete up to nationals. I’ve wrestled them, and you have to keep your hands on them at all times, and if you separate the ref blows the whistle and connects you again. Some of these guys are really good. So I’m ready to play this blind wrestler, and John Dahl is interested and says to me, this is perfect for Matt Damon. And I said, ‘Matt Damon can go fuck himself!’ And that went away.”Things turned for Hall when he finally took to heart some advice from his reps at CAA and Management 360. His writing was getting really good, they said, but his acting dreams were killing him. “I wrote another one, and it was autobiographical, and when they said, ‘Keanu Reeves would be perfect for this, I swallowed hard and said, ‘Keanu Reeves can…Keanu Reeves sounds like a great idea. It was much smoother sailing after that.”

Ashton Kutcher starred in that film, Spread, and helped extinguish Hall’s acting dream for good. “I wanted a little part, but Ashton says, I don’t think you’re good looking enough,” he said. Ultimately, Hall came to grips that he was not going to be the second coming of Sly Stallone, who famously held onto Rocky until allowed to play the fighter. “When they put me on camera, I come off a bit angry looking, like there’s something wrong,” he says now, looking back. “I’d say, maybe I have too many thoughts in my head, and they would say, ‘just stop thinking and act.’ I couldn’t.”

He continued honing his voice as a writer on projects that didn’t happen, building currency at Warner Bros: there was a movie about pioneering rock DJ Rodney Bingenheimer, a Grand Theft Auto movie for Eminem. Then came the big break.

It started when Dan Loeb, the billionaire founder of the hedge fund Third Point (who lately has been viewed a potential player in a possible sale of Sony Entertainment assets) was looking to help out his friend Chris Kyle, the sniper who had just come home in 2009 with the most confirmed kills in U.S. military history. He told Hall about him and it sounded like a good enough movie subject that Hall headed to Texas, where former killing machine Kyle ran seminars on guns and hunting. “It was a weekend course, you got brush-up training in firearms, you went hunting, and you drank a lot of beer,” he said. “It was Kyle, 50 cops, and me. I’d never been to Texas and I’m dropped into this room with a sniper and 50 of his closest Ranger friends. I didn’t drink like they did, and while I talked to Chris a bit, the vibe was, I don’t trust this kid. I thought, why isn’t he talking to me? I only realized until later why. He’s a sniper, man, and they sit back and they wait.”

The moment Kyle waited for occurred when one of the cops got tired of Hall, and they locked up and went at it. Hall, who in high school wrestled as high as the 189-pound weight class, knew how to handle big strong guys. “Me and this cop got into it, and I threw him in a headlock and took him to the ground.” Hall found out later that’s how these guys prove themselves. “Chris warmed to me after I threw his friend in the headlock, and it was like, ‘maybe he’s not so bad.’” They began spending time together, including a hunting trip where Hall watched Kyle connect with his wife and a son who was also going hunting. Kyle was still trying to shut off the switch that made him the country’s most accomplished sniper, and it wasn’t easy. “Chris had just gotten out of four deployments in Iraq, and you could see the transition happening, as he struggled to get his life and his head back. And when his kid and his wife showed up, I could just see a light go on. And I knew there was a movie there. I saw a man who was a father and a husband, someone I hadn’t seen the night before. I didn’t understand until then how these guys felt, trying to return to society and their families, after being fueled with this intense patriotism as they did the things they did.”

Hall thought he’d continue this crash course in father-son bonding on that hunting trip, but learned different. Kyle put him in an empty duck blind, alone, giving him a gun and a walkie-talkie, and leaving him there five hours. “I didn’t see a duck or a deer, only an armadillo and when I radioed Chris, he said, no, you can’t shoot that,” Hall recalled. “They were only 200 yards away from me, and took down three deers, with his son getting one of them. The whole time, I didn’t see a damn thing.”

By then, Hall had been well into the planning of the project with producers Andrew Lazar, Cooper and Peter Morgan, the latter of whom was there at the meeting with Loeb when Kyle’s name first surfaced. Cooper had just set up his company, 22 & Indiana Pictures, at Warner Bros, and American Sniper became his first producing project there. The studio also bought rights for an autobiography that came together after Hall had begun his research, and went on to become a bestseller. “We pitched it to Warner Bros and had an outline. I wrote it in about eight weeks, gave it to Andrew Lazar on a Friday, and the following day, I get a call from Chris’s buddy, Dauber, telling me that Chris had just been murdered. I’d spent eight weeks inside this guy’s head, and just like that he was gone.”

While in Iraq as a Navy SEAL who accumulated 160 confirmed kills out of 255 estimated total kills, Kyle was so good at his deadly job that he was called the “Devil Of Ramadi” by Iraqi insurgents who placed an escalating bounty on his head. Kyle reportedly had survived being shot twice and being in the middle of six IED attacks. But back home, he had no chance when he and a friend were killed at a Texas shooting range by a 25-year old Marine they were helping through PTSD. The Marine allegedly snapped and turned the gun on them.

Hall would not speak on the specifics of that tragedy, but was not surprised that such a hard man like Kyle would lend support to a fellow vet. “There was a side to Chris that surprised me at first,” he said. “He was this super generous humble guy who could be so loving with his time, taking in every underdog he came across. It was hard to believe this generous kind father had also been one of the most effective killers the military has ever seen.”

At that point, the priority for Hall, Cooper, Lazar and Morgan was doing justice to Kyle’s legacy. Hall attended the funeral, and, after getting into another brawl with another Kyle pal who didn’t appreciate an interloper trying to gather information, Hall bonded with the fallen soldier’s SEAL pals. “It was late, I wasn’t drinking like they were, and they didn’t trust me when I told them I was just here to tell Chris’ story,” Hall said. “So once again, there I am, wrestling a guy on the pavement. I did alright, and then it was like, `Here’s my phone number.’ Through them, and especially Chris’ wife Taya, I discovered more of the human side of Chris, and how much he struggled to come back. Taya was grieving, I needed to hear more stories about Chris, and she opened up her life.”

The payoff will be the movie, but an early one came after Spielberg read the script, and immediately declared he had found his next film. The pieces fit together perfectly, as Cooper had just turned in a career performance, getting Oscar-nominated for Silver Linings Playbook. Hall immediately called Kyle’s widow.

“That was the most fulfilling moment of all those years, letting Taya know someone great would be telling Chris’ story,” Hall said. “We have all felt a lot of pressure to do right by Chris and his family, because this movie will be a big part of how Chris’ kids remember him. Taya at first thought I was messing with her when I called, but then the tears flowed. The name Spielberg means the same to everybody.”

And that’s the back story on this overnight success.