Thank You for Your Service – stepping into the boots of a returning warrior

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“They carried me across their war, reliving every lacerating memory that still echoed inside them.  In doing so they empowered me to paint a personal picture of their sacrifice, in hopes that it may lead to a deeper understanding of the unthinkable sacrifice that all our veterans have made in the service of this country.” Writer-director Jason Hall.

Based in part on Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Finkel’s book of the same name, Thank You for Your Service follows a group of U.S. soldiers returning from Iraq who struggle to integrate back into family and civilian life, while living with the memory of a war that threatens to destroy them long after they’ve left the battlefield.

“The story was about stepping into the boots of a returning warrior.  Being able to explore that from within the home was fascinating to me,” says Jason Hall—Academy Award-nominated screenwriter of American Sniper— who makes his directorial debut with Thank You for Your Service and also serves as its screenwriter, and spent two years adapting the multi-storied work into a screenplay.

“We’ve been accepting these soldiers home since as long as we’ve been an empire, but we have so far to go in understanding what they’ve been through—and learning how to embrace and create space for the changes that have occurred within them.  That’s the challenge for any family welcoming a soldier home.”

For Sergeant Adam Schumann (Miles Teller, Whiplash)—and many soldiers like him—the process of leaving combat back in Iraq was as seemingly simple as getting on that plane.  But standing on the tarmac again in the arms of loved ones would turn out to be merely a first step in the long and exacting journey of actually returning home.

 

David Finkel

David Finkel

It was during journalist David Finkel’s eight-month tenure embedded with the soldiers of the 2-16 Infantry Battalion that he met the man who would largely serve as the bridge between his account of “over there” (detailed in “The Good Soldiers”) and “coming home” (“Thank You for Your Service”).  Ten years later, the memory is still vivid.

The author recounts, “One day, during a quiet period, I was asking around: ‘Who’s a great soldier?  Who do I need to meet?’  Somebody said, ‘You’ve got to meet this guy Schumann; he’s our best.’  A couple of weeks went by before I had the chance to introduce myself—and this great soldier was a rather thin, gaunt, haunted-looking man, sitting alone on his bed.  It turned out that the great Schumann—after two-and-a-half tours in Iraq, after 1,000 days in combat—had reached his breaking point.  He simply couldn’t be in the war anymore, and he was leaving that day…and that’s when I got to know Adam.”

When it came time for Finkel’s second book, “It was a very easy call to build the book around Adam and his attempts to recover.  The truth of war turns out to be that you’re in it for the guy next to you.  The truth of the after-war is that you’re pretty much on your own.  Recovering is a lonesome business, whether you’re truly alone or you’re with a family.  It’s a long, hard, unspooling road and with the example of Adam Schumann, you can see how long the road is and what it’s like to travel it.”

Finkel is quick to point out that the journey undertaken by Schumann and others like him is not trod by every returning soldier—but, since 9/11, about two-and-one-half million Americans have entered military service and of the two million who have been deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan or both, “roughly 500,000 have returned with some level of psychological wound.  They now get to spend years, if not the rest of their lives, trying to outrun and recover from the invisible wounds of war.  That’s a lot of people—it shouldn’t be ignored, and neither should these people be pitied.  Attention should be paid and effort spent to understand.”

For Finkel, who continued to follow Schumann and others engaged in the after-war, it became about the resilience of these men and women, struggling to endure.  He notes, “The closer you look at the lives of the soldiers in this battalion who fought at that time, resilience comes with complications.  Life is a day-to-day act of willing yourself into the next phase of what comes once you’ve come home from war.”

Finkel’s second book was enthusiastically received by critics (with NPR, The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, The Economist and others naming it a Best Book of the Year) and readers, among them, filmmaker Jason Hall.  While in early collaboration on the feature American Sniper, Steven Spielberg had handed a copy to Hall, who says, “I found it so interesting because it’s about everyday heroes.  It’s about our grunts—the blue-collar warriors who are coming home and assuming the role of husbands and fathers and brothers.  It’s challenging to step off an airplane and immediately step into that role, with a lack of understanding from the general public—and even their families—on what they’ve been asked to do over there.  We thank them for their service but we don’t really know what we’re thanking them for.

David Finkel  is a journalist and author who writes about war and conflict.  Among his honors are a Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting in 2006 and a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant in 2012. An editor and writer for The Washington Post, he has reported from Africa, Asia, Central America, Europe and across the United States, and has covered wars in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq.  He is a frequent lecturer at colleges and universities, was a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in 2008, and was a senior writer-in-residence at the Center for a New American Security in 2011.

 

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Hall spent two years adapting the multi-storied work into a screenplay.

Finkel remarks, “It was strange at first, because the work I’ve done is reporting.  It’s journalism—I wrote a book about what happened, but that book doesn’t necessarily lend itself to becoming a movie.  Watching Jason take the work I did and refashion it into this film has been fascinating.  It is true to the intent of my work, and he did a great job.”

Hall approached the script with his own set of objectives:  “David wrote what seemed like a poetic work of journalism—he followed these guys around for 18 months, lived with them in their homes and recorded their most private moments.  My goal was to accomplish the same thing cinematically—to cut as close to the bone as we could and take a peek inside these lives.  I wanted to give the audience a raw look at a world they haven’t seen before.  Cinema has the ability to create understanding and bridge empathetic gaps in a way that no other medium can.”

As he traversed the largely psychological terrain of these men’s stories and translated that onto the screen, Hall was also confronted with a distinct set of challenges: “The after-war is the war these soldiers bring home in their heads and their hearts.  They walk away from the battlefield and leave it behind—but it doesn’t always leave them.  These memories, images and instances of trauma have been recorded and built up over the course of a war, and they echo around inside of them like sharp objects.  The challenge was to dramatize that and to create this war back home that’s going on inside while they struggle to find their way back to themselves.”

Producer Jon Kilik, who has collaborated with filmmaker Spike Lee from his days on Do the Right Thing to 2015’s Chi-Raq—as well as shepherded The Hunger Games franchise since its inception—has long been fascinated by stories of untold (and unassuming) heroes.

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The producer was likewise moved by Finkel’s book, which he read shortly after its publication, even looking into acquiring the rights (nabbed by DreamWorks).  The same time that Hall was busy promoting American Sniper, Kilik was likewise involved on his latest, the moving sports drama Foxcatcher (which went on to net five Oscar® nominations).  Although the two were in each other’s orbit, they wouldn’t connect right away.  “And I’d heard a lot about him—that he and Spielberg were developing Thank You for Your Service—but we weren’t able to meet,” says Kilik.

Nearly a year later, in summer 2015, Kilik received a call from Hall, upon recommendation from Hall’s agent.  The now screenwriter and first-time director was searching for a producing partner.  Kilik remembers, “At the time, I had no intention of taking on anything new…but what sometimes happens is that a story comes along that is so strong and special.  Getting to know Jason, and where his research had taken him, excited me, as did his passion as a first-time director.  The story has everything—heroism on and off the battlefield, commitment, real people, coming home…”

The producer continues, “I try to make a career of telling stories about people that need a voice, a light shone on them..  As a filmmaker, it’s the only way I know how to improve or bring attention to a situation.  By calling this the after-war, it’s a bit of a call to arms for us to understand the gravity of this, how important it is—for us to be there, a part of their return.  They are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice, and that deserves us holding up our part of the bargain.”

Filmmakers were in agreement on the transition from book to screen being governed by the production’s unofficial watch word—authenticity.  Kilik says, “In taking this book to screen, there were the usual practices of restructuring, compression of time and sometimes, of characters.  We took great care, because these are people’s lives, and there was tragedy that came along with it—we had to treat everything with the utmost respect, always.  In the end, we are telling a story of incredible strength and courage.”

JASON HALL

Jason Hall during the filming of Thank Your For Your service

Director’s Note

Jason Hall is an Academy Award-nominated filmmaker whose films seamlessly blend incisive social commentary with emphatically human stories, turning real people and challenging issues into gripping, entertaining cinema.

Hall is the product of a military family: His grandfather was a WWII vet, his uncle was a Marine in Vietnam and his half-brother was disabled in the Army during Desert Storm.  Having witnessed the effects of war on those who fight, he was inspired by the remarkable story of Chris Kyle.  After meeting Kyle and hearing his story firsthand, Hall was honored to be entrusted with authentically rendering his journey on screen. American Sniper, written and executive produced by Hall and directed by Clint Eastwood, was released in 2014 by Warner Bros. and earned six Academy Award® nominations, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay for Hall.

Hall currently has several diverse projects in development, including Rasputin for Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company Appian Way.

Born in Lake Arrowhead, California, Hall attended Phillips Exeter Academy and USC.  He began his career working as an actor before transitioning to filmmaking.  Additional screenplay credits include his debut feature Spread, which was produced by and starred Ashton Kutcher; and the thriller Paranoia, which starred Harrison Ford and Gary Oldman.

JASONWith the Army as his answer to a slew of college rejection letters, my older brother shipped off to the Middle East in 1991.  Our family huddled around the TV watching dust-clouded news feeds of U.S. forces as they drove Saddam out of Kuwait.  After a speedy victory, my brother came home with his arms and legs and sense of humor intact.  He told us war was boring and hotter than hell, but another story seemed to vibrate behind his pale eyes.  Ground combat lasted a mere 100 hours, but it had altered him.  Like my uncle who fought in Vietnam, and my grandfather who flew in WWII, my brother would never talk about it.  It became the unspoken space between us.

In 2013, I was introduced to “Thank You for Your Service” by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Finkel.  The book seemed to explore all that my brother had left unsaid.  It follows the Army’s 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, home from Iraq, back to Topeka, Kansas—into what the author calls the “after-war.”  Exploring the trauma haunting our soldiers, the veteran suicide crisis and the bureaucratic nightmare otherwise known as the VA, the book was a sprawling, winding masterpiece.  Still, it needed a narrative structure, a heartbeat and a hero if it were ever to become a film.

We found our hero in Adam Schumann.  Like my brother, he came home changed.  The war still echoed through his existence, fracturing his identity and uprooting his future.  But in his struggle I found a tale of survival and hope.  That was the story I hoped to tell anyway.  At that time, I had just finished writing American Sniper and had watched Chris Kyle emerge from his own battles with PTSD only to be tragically murdered.  Adam’s story struck me as a way to continue the conversation, to transition from Achilles to Odysseus, and see a warrior home.

The men of the 2-16 didn’t come back to book deals or popular acclaim—they were normal grunts hoping to return to normal lives.  But for many of them that dream was gone.  Finkel earned their trust by following them into battle; I endeavored to do the same.  They carried me across their war, reliving every lacerating memory that still echoed inside them.  In doing so they empowered me to paint a personal picture of their sacrifice, in hopes that it may lead to a deeper understanding of the unthinkable sacrifice that all our veterans have made in the service of this country.

—Jason Hall