Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
It felt poetic and sprawling in a way because of the numbers and the masses that were going through this.
Screenwriter Jason Hall (AMERICAN SNIPER) shines an incredibly necessary spotlight on the travails and tribulations of the every-man, young men tasked to do the extraordinary when serving overseas in the military, with his latest gripping feature THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE. Adapting the David Finkel novel of the same name, Hall, who also makes his directorial debut here, has crafted a powerful, poignant film about how we must start doing better for these men – more than just repeating a hollow phrase.
The film follows the true-life story of Sergeant Adam Schumann (Miles Teller) as he and two friends – Tausolo Aeiti (Beulah Koale), who’s suffering from a traumatic brain injury, and Will Waller (Joe Cole), who survived being blown up several times – return home from a tour of duty. Though tasked to carry on with normalcy, they’re haunted by what they experienced in the war zone and by the unanswered questions left as a residue on their futures.
At the film’s recent Los Angeles press day, I spoke to Hall about the learning curve involved in making this and steeping the production in staggering amounts of authenticity – right down to the production and sound design.
AMERICAN SNIPER was such a huge success. What made you want to tell another story about a solider with PTSD? There’s obviously a wealth of things in THANK YOU that weren’t discussed there.
I felt like this was an opportunity to go into this side of it. I’m constantly comparing SNIPER to Achilles and this to Odysseus. That portion of Chris’ story was very short – it was about twelve pages in the film. I could’ve told a whole movie about his coming home, or how he found his way back to his family. But this seemed like an opportunity to get into the problems that these guys go through.
The journey from learning you need help, to asking for helping, to trying to actually get the help, felt like this sort of epic sprawling journey that was occurring with a lot of guys coming back where these weren’t our heroes, these are our every-man working class warriors, who are going through this is great, great numbers. It felt poetic and sprawling in a way because of the numbers and the masses that were going through this.
What was the learning curve like since this was your first time directing?
It was a bit like I expected. I tried to shoot a very personal movie. It was familiar to me. I surrounded myself with great people. The curve is going from sitting at a computer by yourself, maybe getting a few phone calls a day and talking to a few people, to being in charge of a great, big set with 150 people working for you, in which case you have to delegate authority. You can’t do everything yourself. You have to learn to be a leader and inspire. That was probably the biggest challenge.
The filming, the directing actors and the choreography of it wasn’t as much, but it was just about finding a way to inspire people to tell a very authentic story and get it right down to the license plates, watches and medals – the faces in every room. There’s details like in that VA scene, where there’s pictures on the wall of real soldiers who were killed in action. Some of the people in the VA, because we had all real soldiers in there, they actually recognized the people on the wall, who had served beside them and died beside them. It resonated with them that we had gone to great lengths to reach out to their families, to get permission from their families, to get them signed, to share information and hear stories of their fallen family members. It meant something to those families and it meant something to these guys that we had something on the wall and it registered in their faces which we then turned the camera on.
When you first met Adam, what was it that you were first struck by and what was it that was most important about him that you wanted to incorporate into this script?
There was a real humility to him. Coming from this world where I was working with SEAL Team, who are the top of the top on the food chain, to talking to Adam, who was a great soldier over there, but he’s very rank-and-file. He had a very human quality to him. He was very emotionally articulate in a way that I didn’t expect. I’m sure my wife wishes I was that emotionally articulate. He’s open and available to everything. It’s important that I found that, but important that I found the quietness in him, the reflectiveness and the stoicism. He’s proud of what he’s done over there. Even in holding in all these regrets at the same time, he’s proud of what they did and the way they approached it and the way they carried themselves into some of this conflict that also includes these memories he holds deep regret over.
One of the first powerful moments that struck me was in motor-speedway scene where Adam moves closer to the track to drown out reality – to extricate himself from this emotional conversation with his wife. Let’s talk logistics of shooting that. That must’ve been a nightmare for your sound crew.
It was a total nightmare. We shot within the confines of their actual race that was going on. It was pre-season so it wasn’t quite as crowded, so we had to bring in some [extras]. It was something that had to be heavily worked on in post with the sound. But it was very important to me that, yes, you got it exactly. He’s stepping into the fence to drown himself in those sounds – the chaos of that. Something we don’t understand as civilians is there’s an extraordinary power and adrenaline these guys experience when they go off to fight. The machinery and rumble of all that, you come home, and all of that is gone. There’s a quiet. It was important to dissect that moment and juxtapose the quiet they do have in their lives before he steps into that.
The cars themselves have a great sound, but we put additional sounds within the mix of the cars that are actually mechanistic sounds from Bradleys and tanks and all kinds of equipment that do occur in war so we could build into that sense of electricity these guys feel.
The other scene that’s haunted me since seeing this months ago is the scene where the commanding officer chastises Adam for getting help. That was something that’d never occurred to me. It’s such a gut-buster. It’s probably something that happens a lot more that we’d think, right?
Yeah. I do know for a fact it happens quite a bit. Even now when we feel like, ‘Alright. We’ve kind of gotten past that and turned a corner,’ it’s like, ‘No, this happens all the time.’ That’s a scene that people from the army have had a tough time with. They’re like, ‘That’s not us. We don’t do that.’ But that’s the dirty little secret. Of course you do that.
It’s such a brave thing to do. But to go get help and then to feel guilty for doing so is just…
No and look. Everyone adores their commander in a way that’s like hard to explain. You can go on YouTube and look at the lead command in our military and how he talks and speaks. While they all adore him and he talks real tough, and it’s a little bit of that tough talk that these guys are used to, because that’s how you train them to walk into bullets. You can’t have that tenacity and then like turn around and think this guy’s like, ‘Oh. I’m glad you’re seeking help. Lemme give you a hug.’ That’s not how they make these guys. That’s not how they train them.
What was the toughest day on set and was Adam there? I would imagine this might bring back some tough memories.
He was on set quite a bit. We got him to come down first during the boot camp and then he stuck around. We just tried to fold him in wherever we could for him to get that sense of authenticity. He was present for some of the rough stuff. Sometimes he’d walk away from watching us film. The true test was when it all came together in the edit. Seeing it, we gave him some popcorn and a Coke and he didn’t touch the popcorn or the Coke. He was gripped by the movie. I got up and gave him this big hug and held him for several minutes as he cried in my arms and said it was beautiful. He was super proud of it. We brought them all into watch the movie and it was all of them having that reaction. It’s a measuring stick for how far they’ve come and their troubles now have been woven together to carry meaning by way of this film. They can see that maybe their troubles and all these hard times and bad days will maybe carry hope for somebody else through those times of need.
You also got Bruce Springsteen to sing the end credits closing song “Freedom Cadence.” How did he get involved?
What happened was Adam was humming that song one day. Our military advisor heard him humming it and was like, ‘What was that?’ He was like, ‘Ah. It was just a thing we’d sing around the base.’ When we got to set, he was like, ‘Sing that song again.’ Adam’s got a great voice and my producer Jon Kilik recorded him singing it. It’s a chant that they used to sing as they marched around base. He’s friends with Bruce and Bruce was like, ‘Wow. What is this? This is great.’ We went up and showed it to Bruce and he loved it. We left him with the video. He said, ‘Alright. Gimme a month and send that kid up here.’ So we sent Adam up there. Bruce had written music to the cadence and put it together. He was like, ‘Hey kid. Come on,’ and pulled him up to the mic and they sang it together.’
Having now directed, does this change how you write?
Yeah. I’ve definitely learned more as a director from my writing than I ever did from just writing a script. You start to know what you need and what you don’t. There were times when I was like, ‘Who wrote all this dialogue?! Someone tell the writer he’s writing too much dialogue. We get it already!’ You realize you don’t have to hit things so hard and you can find in visual methods to tell the story is also the writer’s job. I learned that from Clint. Clint was very much like that. [mimics Clint Eastwood’s voice], ‘Hey. I’m going to cut this scene if you don’t find a way to fit it in.’ You find a way to fit it in to a shot where it’s the cowboy boots are being exchanged for the combat boots. That tells you more than a two-and-a-half scene of dialogue.
THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE opens on October 27. On October 26, up to 10,000 free tickets will be presented to U.S. veterans and active-duty servicemembers at more than 400 AMC locations nationwide. Each of the first 25 servicemembers (per location) with valid, government-issued ID who request a ticket will be given one free admission to the 7:00 p.m. preview screening.
Here’s the press release for more details:
The promotion will be available at all AMC Theatres playing Thank You for Your Service. Free tickets will be available on a first-come, first-served basis and may only be picked up at the AMC box office on October 26. Each guest must present a valid government-issued military ID to receive their ticket, with a limit of one free ticket for each military ID presented, while supplies last. This offer is valid for the 7:00 p.m. showing of the film on October 26, only.
“Once we began a discussion with AMC about how we could embody the spirit and message of Thank You for Your Service, they stepped up to the plate in a major way,” said Jim Orr, Executive Vice President, General Sales Manager, Universal Pictures. “We are honored that up to 10,000 U.S. veterans and active servicemembers will be among the first to experience this riveting film from our partners at DreamWorks.”
“Thank You for Your Service reminds us all of the tremendous sacrifice made by America’s servicemembers and their families,” said Elizabeth Frank, EVP Worldwide Programming and Chief Content Officer, AMC Theatres. “AMC is pleased to partner with Universal Pictures to offer veterans and active servicemembers the opportunity to attend this preview screening at no charge.”