This week, the film Thank You For Your Service is released in theaters. Starring Miles Teller (The Spectacular Now; War Dogs), it’s written and directed by Jason Hall, who is probably best known for his Oscar-nominated, adapted screenplay for Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper. It’s a movie that covers a lot of authentic ground about the plight of the modern-day veteran’s return home, including such struggles as PTSD, endless amounts of paperwork to acquire benefits for physical and mental issues, and the inability of many veterans to reconnect with their families and even begin the process of establishing a normal life back home. Teller plays the real-life veteran Adam Schumann, who was the subject of the book of the same name by author/journalist David Finkel about Schumann’s and other veterans’ experiences.
I recently had a chance to sit down with Hall, Teller and Schumann in Chicago to discuss being the subject of a book and film, and how honestly Schumann’s experience is captured, both as a soldier and as a veteran struggling to find his place in the real world once again. Naturally, as a long-time Bruce Springsteen fan, I couldn’t help ask about the newly recorded song the Boss provided for the film’s closing credits. Enjoy…
I’ll ask you the first question, Jason, because it’s the most important question you’re going to get today.
Jason Hall: Knock it out.
How the hell do you get Bruce Springsteen to do a new song for your movie?
JH: Adam got him to do it.
Adam Schumann: Sort of. I think it was more Jon [Kilik, producer, who’s produced a great number of Spike Lee’s films, as well as The Hunger Games movies].
JH: Adam had a cadence that they sang in boot camp, and Jon recorded him singing it on his cell phone. Jon is friends with Bruce, and played it for him. Bruce was like, “Oh, that’s cool. How’d the movie turn out?” “Movie turned out great.” We played him the movie. Bruce loved it, watched it twice, and then said, “Send me that recording, come back in a month, and bring that kid.” So Adam went up there with Jon and recorded the song with him.
Are you on the song, Adam? I know there’s a male choir on it.
AS: Yeah, I’m in the background there. We all chime in. It’s me, Jon Kilik, and Bruce Springsteen.
I’m familiar with versions of that song and I know different people do it different ways…
JH: Yeah, Bruce rewrote some of the lyrics to the song.
If I heard it right, some of the lyrics are callbacks to “Born in the USA” even. There are new words in there. But that’s the nature of that song, right? Don’t different people tailor it to their experience?
AS: Yeah, once you hear a cadence in basic training, it just becomes that mantra in your head, so you carry that on wherever you go, and then when you’ve got guys under you and you’re calling cadence, you call the same one. So it’s just passed down through generations, but changed from time to time.
Miles Teller: You got the scoop! [Everybody laughs]
Let’s start with David’s books that served as your source material. What do you remember responding to? What did he do differently than maybe some other things you had read in the past?
JH: Part of it was where I was at that time. I had just gotten really close to Chris, I’d watched Chris Kyle [the subject of American Sniper] recovering. When I met Chris Kyle, he had real bad PTSD. I don’t know how best to describe it. You could feel Iraq coming out of this guy’s pores, and it was very intense. He was an intense dude and he did a lot of things over there. I watched the guy start to come home; I watched him get better. And the first time I really heard him laugh was two days before he was murdered. I talked to him and said “I’m about to turn in the script,” and he said, “Good luck, man. I hope you work again.” And he had this laugh that sounded really easy and free and I was like, “Wow, I haven’t heard him laugh like that before.” And then I got a call two days later that he’d been murdered.
So I felt like this guy was just making it home, and he got it stripped away from him. I felt like something got taken from all of us a little bit in the story. So the book was presented to me two months after that, and it seemed to tell that entire story, because I was very interested in that story of him coming home. It was only part of Chris’ story, just a small part, and then when Steven [Spielberg] came off the project and it went to Clint [Eastwood], it become a smaller part of the story, and I was very interested in that part, and to read Adam’s story in there described in such great detail was really appealing to me. It was like the story of Achilles and then the story of Odysseus.
Adam, you let this writer into your life to a certain degree, at a time when you had other things to worry about, both over there and here. What was it about David that you felt safe letting him come into your life like that?
AS: David has got a way of just being there without being there, and he’s very relatable, you can see the empathy. He’s there for the right reasons, and you get that feeling from the questions he asks. I only spent a couple days with him in Iraq before I was gone, and then he approached me a couple years later about the second book, and it was a period in my life that were the worst years of my life, like two or three years. And he asked me if he could pretty much catalog that, and I don’t know why but I trusted him—that story was going to be told, and he was going to do it justice.
And then what about Jason? Why was he the right guy to tell your story for the screen?
AS: I don’t know yet [laughs].
JH: Pure charm!
MT: “I’ll let you know when we figure it out.”
AS: Jason has a way about him just like David, and he comes from a place that’s genuine and heartfelt—they’re storytellers, you know? And the story needs to be told and when you get someone like that, after listening to all the questions and their reasonings behind it and what they wanted out of this is…I mean, it wasn’t immediate comfort with Jason—no offense—like it was with David, because it’s a movie, it’s Hollywood, it’s business.
JH: We were on the phone first; I didn’t immediately have the opportunity to run out there and go meet him. We reached out to all the other main characters in the film, and he was the only one who really allowed me in, in the way that he did, and that’s time to be earned.
When you’re making a film like this, you don’t want to make the situation worse in his real life.
JH: No, that’s right.
What were the steps you guys took to make sure that this was not making it worse?
JH: David’s journalistic integrity was remarkable to me, and that was one of the first questions I asked David: “How did you get all this information? How did you sit in these people’s lives without affecting the course of their life?” And the true answer is, David was great at that, he didn’t take water, he didn’t piss in their house, he was a church mouse. He’d just disappear, but the reality is, you have to have some effect. There is someone sitting there in your life.
My approach…I couldn’t be so cautious and I couldn’t be so thorough either. So I had to come in quick and fast and try and hit hard and get all the information that I could. But David had cataloged everything of Adam and told his entire story, so all of those questions had already been asked. David had asked hundreds of thousands of questions. I can’t possibly do that. What I’m trying to get out of Adam is more just talking to him and trying to get a sense of the cadence, the way he talks, who he is, the tenor, what things move him, what things make him angry or make him laugh, what his sense of humor is. I’m trying to hear it with my ear and tap into who he is that way. It’s a psychic thing. You can get all this information about someone, but when you put your hand on their knee, you’re like, “Oh, okay. I understand something different about this person.”
Miles, you have been on a run now of playing real people and you’ve got one coming out now in a few weeks [Only the Brave], same deal. Is this something you’re doing deliberately, or has this just fallen out like this?
MT: No, I’m hoping to have what I find to be the best-quality scripts. I hope that they land in my lap somehow, and I’m at an interesting age. There’s guys that are in their mid- to late 30s who are really great and substantial actors, and they’re going to get, if the part’s just a little older this way, they are going to get that before me. But I’m not young enough to do this. I’m in an interesting spot, I felt like I was maybe a hair young for Bleed for This, but it takes a director seeing you in the part and giving it to you. But no, I’m not deliberately seeking out autobiographical roles by any sense.
JH: It’s the only way he can make friends.
As an acting exercise, because all of these people that you’re playing are still alive, is there an extra level of responsibility you feel to playing these parts?
MT: With the amount of responsibility, I don’t care. It’s a job. So if someone is paying me—it doesn’t matter how much it is—to do this job, the amount of respect I have for myself and the amount of respect that I have for acting, I would never phone it in. But with something like this, there is an added level, and you need to get it right because it’s military. And to me, that was something that absolutely means something. I hold that occupation in the highest regards, and for these guys, there is no gray area; it’s black and white, and you better get that right or they’re going to tear this film apart. Honestly, it wouldn’t even matter what the hell we were doing. If we feel like we’re embodying these soldiers, and they’re looking at the uniform, and it’s all jacked up or we’re going up the stairs in a cooky formation, that takes them out of it, and the veteran community I think is a big part of this audience, so it was important to respect them.
Tell me about first meeting Adam. What do you remember?
MT: Jason and I flew to North Dakota. Adam was in his Revenant stage of the season.
AS: It was a long winter.
MT: Yeah, you’re just molting. He was starting to grow bark. It was a pretty good snowfall, and it was up in North Dakota in early December and J and I went up there. Jason had met him before; it was my first time, and I’m sure it was uncomfortable. It’s just such a bizarre…if you get a movie made about your life, something incredible had to happen, whether that’s tragic or heroic or whatever it is, it’s just really bizarre to have that made. We had two days together, and I knew it was the only time I was going to see him before we starting filming, so I just wanted to crack that open and not come in like this bully-ish Hollywood type, and I’m not. If anything, I felt like me and Adam started in a pretty good spot, and then that opened the door.
JH: They hit it off. Miles is super inquisitive, and he’s great at asking questions that cut to the core of who people are.
MT: And J’s great at buying beer. So he bought us beer, and I started the inquisition.
AS: He moderated a drinking game.
JH: The reason that Finkel followed Adam home is because Adam has an emotional intelligence. He’s able to explain things even as he’s in the things that he’s explaining. He’s very articulate in that way, which is just a super gift, and I think extremely rare. Here’s a guy that had the picture of James Doster and his daughters on his wall. That’s the guy who took Adam’s spot [on a patrol] and ended up dead. And that’s the worst memory and the worst regret of his life, but he honors that guy. He wears everything on his chest and on his sleeve, and it’s not in a boastful way but with a certain dignity that I think is remarkable. Miles really tapped into that immediately, and we were able to go straight to the core and not beat around the bush.
You do something remarkable in this film: you make the struggle with paperwork seem like the worst fight anyone could ever have to go through. Usually, filling out forms is not an inherently cinematic thing, but you make it the thing that breaks everybody. Was that a challenge, making that one of the centerpieces of this film? And then my other question is probably more to Adam: why is this still a problem in the real world?
JH: It was important to me that this struggle was the plot of the movie. I didn’t want there to be another plot and then this was sort of a subplot. It was very important to me that Adam’s real struggle was the plot of the movie, and then the challenge was to make that thrilling and compelling and tense. To find a way to build in all of the emotion that’s packed into the high stakes of these guys getting a yes or no, or a service connection in this case, that would allow them to get the help that they need and resources. I love movies like Coming Home, but Coming Home is more about that relationship and it’s a melodrama, and it’s got a lot of stuff in there that’s not about coming home. I wanted to make a movie about coming home. Steven Spielberg loves The Best Years of Our Lives. I wanted to make that movie, but in that movie the war’s over. In this movie, the war has just begun.
AS: Well I guess the best way to describe it is: the Army and the VA are husband and wife, and you’re a kid and your parents divorce, and when they’re done with you, you’re living with mom and dad, and the Army is mom, they’re taking care of you, you’re good. You’re getting ready to get out, and they’re done with you. They take your rifle, they take your uniform, and they give you this packet that says, “Here, they’re going to take care of you now.” And you open it up, and your Welcome letter and “This is what you need to do at the VA.”
Then you walk in the doors, and it’s like, “What are you doing here? You need to go see him first.” And Jason just encapsulated that frustration that, because you don’t know what the heck you’re doing. You’re just lost. And you’re like, “They told me to come here, so I’m here. Well now what?” And then you’re told to go here, and then it just becomes this frustrating mess in your head. It’s a huge system. I can’t imagine how hard it is for them to deal with the numbers that are coming back. It just needs to be talked about, and this film’s going to do that. It’s going to bring that stuff up and get a discussion going, and I think we’ll get some crosstalk and hopefully get some things figured out.
JH: The VA’s the second-largest health care system on the planet, and they’re trying to do everything for these people, everything. They’re their Podiatrists, their Ear Nose and Throat, their brain doctor, their trauma doctor, which they do actually well. Trauma and mental health they do particularly well. But then they also want to be their heart surgeon. And you can’t do all things for all people and do them all well. It’s my opinion, and I think it’s the opinion of top VA leadership now, [David] Shulkin [Secretary of Veterans Affairs] included, that they’re doing too many things. They need less people and they need to be doing less things. They need to be focusing on trauma and mental health, and they need to get these guys their services that are due to them.
The VA is still issuing checks to a survivor of a family of a soldier who fought in the Revolutionary War. I’ve played this film for Shulkin and I’ve played it for Scott Blackburn, the Deputy Secretary, and I’ve played it for the top people at the VA, and their first response is, “Everyone that works at the VA needs to see this movie.” You saw the film; it doesn’t make the VA look good, but they recognize that they have a problem. What I don’t want is for this film to scare people away from going to the VA. I want it to scare the VA into doing a better fucking job. Make us realize we need to help them do that. Whatever legislation and laws that means, we need to help them do that.
The entire goal of this movie is to let the civilian population come to a greater understanding of what these veterans went through so that it’s not beholden solely upon the VA to welcome them home. So that we can do a little bit more than just thank them for their service. Let’s have a better understanding of what they went through so that we can feel like we’re on even enough ground to start a conversation, ask them how it was. “Hey man, I’m so glad you’re home. Tell me what it was like.” That opening of the door makes all the difference to these guys. And if we can just crack open that door a little bit as a society, we can take some of that burden on and welcome these guys home.
AS: I was living in Napa, I was working at the Pathway Home as a peer counselor and I’m getting gas in town one day, and this older gentleman, probably in his 70s, comes up to me and looks—I got a Big Red One sticker on the back of my truck. He just walked up to me and said, “First infantry division?” And I said, “Yes, sir.” And he just shook my hand and said, “Welcome home.” He shook my hand and looked me in the eyes and said, “Welcome home.” He didn’t say, “Thank you for your service” or anything like that. He just said, “Welcome home” and he turned around and walked away. I sat down in my car and cried for fucking ten minutes, because nobody have ever really done that—other than your wife when you get home or your mom and dad, but for someone just to come up and just do that was huge for me. “Welcome home.”
Another thing this film does really well is honor the women, the wives…
MT: The caregivers.
Exactly. The ones who are taking on a lot of added responsibility when these guys come back. Tell me about working with Haley [Bennett, who plays Adam’s wife, Saskia] and what about those scenes make them so very tough to watch sometimes.
MT: Yeah, I think what was tough with this particular part, even when I was just talking to Adam about it, he’s now a couple years removed from it and he’s even more years removed from his last deployment, so the relationship with his wife, you have what it was, what it is, how you are trying to get back what you’ve lost. It incites a million different questions, and you can go as deep with it as you want. I felt like Haley gave a pretty good representation of what she was trying to get out of Adam, what she wanted her husband to be. It was just easy to play off of her without really ever rehearsing. I felt like from day one, we had our dynamic pretty locked in.
JH: Haley’s the most raw and naturally gifted actress of her age and generation. There may be other actresses who come to the table with some other skills, but Haley has a raw talent in that, you get something out of her on some takes where it’s absolutely honest. It was unlike anybody else I’ve met, and I’ve met a lot of the top actresses out there.
She actually reminds me a lot of Sienna Miller, in that she completely vanishes into the part, to the point where I didn’t even recognize her initially.
JH: She does, and that was part of the goal too, to find people. And Miles does that as well. Miles is one of the few actors of his generation where you’re not like, “Oh, that’s the guy from those other movies, yeah, yeah.” He disappears into this, and that was part of the goal.
MT: Well, I do that one thing really well, and you know what I’m talking about [laughs].
JH: That thing.
MT: We don’t need to talk about it here.
JH: If you want to represent the social realism, if you want to represent the nameless, faceless, working warrior class that’s coming home, you want to disappear into this movie. And that was our goal, to represent a film that was so close to the truth that people forgot it was a film.
MT: Every time J says “social realism,” me and Adam take a drink.
AS: It’s our new game.
Thank you so much. It was really great to meet you. Best of luck with this.