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Director is on a mission with Service

By DAN LYBARGER Special to the Democrat-Gazette

This article was published November 3, 2017 at 1:52 a.m.

writer-director-jason-hall

Writer-director Jason Hall

"I'm on a little bit of a mission here," says writer-director Jason Hall.

"You can't achieve that mission without making a realistic, hard-hitting, visceral movie that touches people. The mission is to just relay to people what these guys go through."

"These guys" are former members of 2-16 Infantry Battalion, who served in Iraq a decade ago. Journalist David Finkel followed them for several months for his 2013 book Thank You For Your Service, which deals with the difficulties they faced after leaving the army and moving to civilian life. Some of the men and women had traumatic brain injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder, which are in some ways harder to treat than physical wounds.

Hall's adaptation of Finkel's astonishingly intimate book, which earned the author an NPR Best Book of the Year and a New York Times Book Review Notable Books of the Year, concentrates on Sgt. Adam Schumann (played by Miles Teller) and Tausolo "Solo" Aieti (New Zealand's Beulah Koale), who both struggle with psychic scars that frustrate them and their families.

"For some of these guys, they're more comfortable with war. They're more comfortable with their unit. What they miss so often is the brotherhood. It's such a challenge for many of them to let go of that, even if they're struggling with what they're struggling with, to walk away from that camaraderie, knowing that the guy on your right and the guy on your left would lay down [his] life for you. It's hard, no matter what you're going through mentally, it's hard to walk away from that because those relationships mean something," Hall explains.

"Most of us civilians will never experience a relationship like that. I don't have anyone like that -- barring maybe my wife on a few days out of the month -- who would lay down their life for me. You just don't. They've got a unit of them.

"Almost everything is taken care of, and you hear that from guys, especially from guys who get in when they're young. As you know, you graduate from high school, and you start getting a checkbook. That's a challenge, but imagine skipping that whole period of your life and having someone take care of all of that stuff for you, and then getting out when you're 26, 28 or 30 after having experienced a bunch of traumatic episodes and then trying to step back into society and to do all those things, all of those 'simple' tasks that these guys didn't learn coming out of high school."

Hall drives the point home when Schumann and Aieti arrive at a Veterans Administration waiting room and find themselves behind scores of wounded veterans whose injuries are more apparent. Assembling that many people for the short but vivid scene proved unexpectedly tricky.

"You would think that it would be, but it wasn't all that easy. We needed a good 200 of them, and in order to get them to come out and fill out more paperwork to get a job is challenging for a lot of them. A lot of them needed help getting there," Hall says.

"You don't want just anybody. You want faces that tell a story. It was important to fill the waiting room with veterans and to have guys whose faces told the story of the wars they'd been through. None of them knew each other when the day started out, but at the end of the day, they'd all become friends and exchanged phone numbers. From what I hear, they go fishing now, there's a bunch of friendships that were formed from that day in the waiting room."

In the film, Schumann and Aieti have difficulty discussing why they simply can't shed their uniforms and "get on with their lives." For Hall and the actors, this created a problem because the soldiers' injuries were real but not terribly cinematic. Hall initially cut his teeth as an actor on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Without a Trace and gave Teller and Koale unusual exercises to help his performers get into their characters' heads.

"I was lucky to have these actors who were willing to go to that place and build those memories inside of themselves. The challenge there is stillness. Once you do that work and plan those memories inside you, then you have to be still," Hall says.

"I had [Koale] go to the butcher every day in Auckland and buy some meat and let it sit out for several days. So every time he worked out his memories, from Tausolo's point of view, he would smell that rotten meat."

That eye for detail eventually paid off. Aieti and Schumann consulted on the filming, and Schumann helped Bruce Springsteen put together the song that plays over the closing credits.

Facts About Flyover Country

The subject matter is familiar for Hall, although the soldiers whose lives he depicted were based at Fort Riley, near Junction City, Kan., and he's a native Californian. He received an Oscar nomination for writing Clint Eastwood's American Sniper about the late Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. Both Sniper and Thank You For Your Service depict life near military bases in places such as Kansas and Arkansas -- with an unusually sharp eye for detail.

While the landscape (mostly Georgia posing as Kansas) looks a little off, the characters sport Kansas City Chiefs caps, and there are references to Cowtown's scarier streets a casual visitor wouldn't know about. It's oddly refreshing to see a movie made by somebody who knows a trip from Junction City, in eastern Kansas, is a haul from Arkansas.

"[But] a road trip from Kansas to Arkansas isn't going to frighten them. These guys have driven roads in Iraq that are much more harrowing," Hall says. "I come from the mountains. I come from the same world."

In the film Schumann heads to Arkansas to visit a soldier -- Staff Sgt. Michael "Adam" Emory -- because he felt responsible for Emory's having been shot in the head in Iraq.

"Emory's doing great," Hall says. "He just won third place in a jujitsu tournament last weekend.

"God bless my wife, when I was auditioning for this job, we were supposed to go to New York. 'I've got good news, and I've got bad news. We're still going to Manhattan. That's the good news. The bad news is we're going in Kansas.' We drove through some of those streets down there, and I thought, maybe I'm going to drop you off at the hotel and come back on my own," he remembers.

"We put a lot work into it. I had pictures of Aieti's house, and I had a report on what he did, and I knew where the holes were. We duplicated all of that stuff was much as we could.

"I was lucky we found our way to Atlanta because we started out in New Orleans, and New Orleans didn't pass for Kansas at all," he adds. "With some of the rural stuff, you don't have quite as much land and open space, so that was the biggest challenge. But as you saw, this was a very personal movie, so it was shot in a very subjective way.

If Hall has specialized at anything, it's in revealing the sacrifices military spouses have made. American Sniper and Thank You For Your Service demonstrate wars don't always take place on battlefields.

Hall says, "The family doesn't know who these people are, and most of the soldiers come home with this whole history that they don't understand. We structured it the way we did almost as a mystery where these soldiers come home, and these families try to unwind that. It takes a while to figure out who's who and what happened over there. Sometimes, it can take a lifetime."

MovieStyle on 11/03/2017

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