SALT LAKE CITY — For first-time director and veteran Hollywood screenwriter Jason Hall, the process of bringing David Finkel’s book “Thank You for Your Service” to the big screen was driven by a personal connection.
“I poured my heart into this script,” said Hall in a phone interview, noting an uncle who fought in Vietnam, a brother who served in Desert Storm and a grandfather who served in the Air Force during World War II.
Despite all the family connections, war stories were rarely shared among Hall’s family, so he was all the more impressed by the candid nature of Finkel’s effort, which recounts the true story of Sgt. Adam Schumann and several Iraq War veterans as they wrestle with their civilian lives.
Hall was impressed by the openness the veterans offered Finkel as he investigated their personal struggles, stating that he "wanted to do the same thing in terms of directing the film."
Hall first encountered Schumann’s story while working on the “American Sniper” screenplay with Steven Spielberg, who was originally going to direct the story of veteran sniper Chris Kyle before stepping away in favor of Clint Eastwood. Spielberg gave Hall a copy of Finkel's book, imagining the film as a companion piece to the “American Sniper” film.
“He asked if I thought they were too similar," Hall said. “But I said that I didn’t think so, that I felt one was the story of Achilles and the other was the story of Odysseus.”
For Hall, “Thank You for Your Service” would be the compelling tale of the “everyman” who returns from war without all the accolades and honors, and he hoped the film would “shed new light on what these guys go through when they come home.”
Ultimately, Spielberg stepped away from “Thank You for Your Service” as well, and the directing reins fell to Hall. For the first-time director, the opportunity was described as both an “honor” and a “giant ‘be careful what you wish for’” situation.
To do the job, Hall built on his experience as a screenwriter.
“I always try to write a script as if I was an architect drawing blueprints for a director,” he said. “If I don’t see it, I don’t write it.”
He also benefitted from the help of the real-life veterans he was immortalizing on screen, adding that many were involved in the making of the film.
In fact, Sgt. Schumann was so helpful as a military adviser that he was shipped off to do the same job for an upcoming Ang Lee film, and both he and Sgt. Michael Adam Emory turn up on screen in “Thank You for Your Service” cameos (the real Sgt. Schumann actually greets his own character — played by Miles Teller — when he arrives at an airport early in the film.)
The veterans were also present for a special pre-screening, an experience Hall described as “profound and moving.”
"When you watch a movie in a theater, you’re sharing the first collective unconscious of the people around you," he said. "You can pick up on the reactions, and that was certainly true for this viewing.”
The director noted that after the screening, members of the audience — people who had just watched their own lives play out on screen — lingered alone to process the experience, but consistently used the word “beautiful” to describe what they had seen.
Hall hopes that the veterans who see the film will find comfort in knowing others have shared their experiences.
And for everyone else, Hall hopes that watching the film will allow them to “come away with a new understanding of our veterans and what they go through,” and create conversations that will “find a new way to welcome (veterans) home.”