American Sniper: Bradley Cooper and writer Jason Hall talk about Chris Kyle, film's protagonist
'American Sniper' star Bradley Cooper tells Rebecca Keegan about the compelling need to honour sharpshooter Chris Kyle
On February 2, 2013, Jason Hall had just turned in his first draft of a script about Chris Kyle, the deadliest sniper in US military history. The same day, Bradley Cooper, who was producing the film and had agreed to star, was at a screening of Silver Linings Playbook for a group of veterans in Washington.
Kyle, still acclimating to life in Midlothian, Texas, after his fourth and final Iraq war tour, had just texted Hall a "LOL" in response to a raunchy joke. Their project together, American Sniper, was lurching along in development at Warner Bros.
Cooper and Hall had pitched it as a western with Kyle pitted against an equally gifted enemy sniper in the sandstorms of Iraq. But Kyle's story took a bizarre and devastating turn when he was killed later that day at a gun range near his home, allegedly by a veteran he was trying to help.
"The gears just went off for a second," Cooper says, recalling the moment he learned about Kyle's death. "Everything just kind of stopped. Your brain takes in the information, but your body hasn't quite caught up. Chris and I, we're the same age, the same height, the same shoe size. You're just reminded anything's possible in life."
Less than two years later, American Sniper is ready for release in cinemas in many territories, including Hong Kong. But instead of a straightforward tale about an elite warrior, it now is, by necessity, a complex story about the heavy burdens that a veteran carries home.
Clint Eastwood, perhaps Hollywood's greatest chronicler of male stoicism and its side effects, directs the film, which Hall adapted loosely from Kyle's bestselling autobiography written with Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice. Hall's script deliberately borrows from Eastwood's Unforgiven. The 1992 western's line, "It's a hell of a thing to kill a man" becomes, in a hunting scene in American Sniper, "It's a hell of a thing to stop a beating heart".
The story toggles between the intensity of the battlefield, where Kyle earned the nickname "The Legend" for his 160 confirmed kills, and the bittersweetness of the home front, where his wife, Taya (Sienna Miller), is the audience's proxy, both charmed by and worried for her husband as she feels him emotionally disengaging with each tour of duty.
Even before Kyle's death, a contemporary war movie was not going to be an easy sell, particularly for Hall, whose two previous screenplays, the 2013 thriller Paranoia and 2009 sex comedy Spread, cover very different thematic terrain. The scriptwriter had met Kyle through hedge fund manager Dan Loeb and established a relationship with the marksman on a hunting trip.
He wasn't having any luck with his pitch to studios until he reached out to Cooper, a friend who had established a box office track record as the Wolf Pack's chief charmer in the Hangover movies and was about to collect his first of two Oscar nominations for a role as a vulnerable bipolar man in Silver Linings Playbook.
That performance and another as FBI agent Richie DiMaso in American Hustle proved that the Philadelphia-born actor could handle neurotic, east coast oddballs, but a drawling, Texas-born Navy Seal was another kind of man entirely. Still, Hall approached Cooper on a hunch, knowing he loved the 1978 Vietnam war movie The Deer Hunter. "The first question Bradley asked me about Chris was, 'Did [the war] mess him up?'" Hall recalls.
Cooper says that since he started talking about the film to journalists, he has begun dreaming that he was Kyle, walking around his house in Midlothian. "I always feel like I carry the character with me," he says. "I just found tremendous empathy for him; I admired the sacrifice he made, his strength." After Kyle's death gave his story a third act that was sadder than fiction, Cooper and Hall put the project on hold. "We didn't question so much whether the movie would go on as whether it should go on," Hall says. "For us to just continue like nothing had happened, it felt gross. It was heavy. It just didn't seem fair that someone could go through all that he did and come home and be murdered in his own backyard." But with Taya's blessing Cooper and Hall resumed the project in the months after Kyle's death, albeit with a determination to get deeper under the layers of his character. Kyle's widow and Hall talked daily for hours, and she shared details of her husband's gentler side that had been omitted from the memoir, like how she knew Kyle was feeling better when he started ironing a crease in his jeans and wearing a flashy belt buckle.
"If you want to know who a man is, don't ask the man, ask his wife," Hall says. "Taya said, 'If you're still going to do this, do it right. 'Cause this is how my kids are going to know their father', which sucker-punched me."
Steven Spielberg came aboard briefly to direct in the months after Kyle's death, before dropping out over budget concerns, but his interest stoked the studio's. Greg Silverman, Warner's president of creative and worldwide development, suggested Eastwood, who has had a nearly 40-year relationship with the studio. With Eastwood aboard, Cooper began to prepare in earnest. He worked out while listening to Kyle's adrenalised playlist of Linkin Park and Staind songs, ate 6,000 calories a day to gain the 16kg of muscle that separated them and enlisted a dialect coach to perfect a particular West Texas accent. He watched videos of Kyle, adopted his habit of breathing loudly through his nose and learned a ridiculous amount of information about guns.
"At that time [before Kyle died] I felt I wasn't right for the role. Look at me, I'm from Philadelphia, I weigh 185 pounds. He was a huge [guy] from Texas. I thought maybe Chris Pratt. But in order to get WB to buy, I had to agree to star. I loved the story, though," he says.
"I was fearful. There's nothing worse than seeing an actor pretend he's from Texas, doing an accent. You're like, oh, shut the f*** up. The hope is, two minutes into the movie you forget it's me." In spring 2014, Eastwood shot the film in Rabat, Morocco, and in Southern California, where the Blue Cloud Movie Ranch in Santa Clarita stood in for urban Iraq and the Imperial Valley town of El Centro provided the setting for a climactic battle scene. Most critics agree that American Sniper's strengths lie in the naturalness of Cooper's performance and the immediacy of the battle scenes, but they tend to disagree on its political stripes. The Los Angeles Times' Kenneth Turan praised the film for showing that "heroism and being on the right side do not solve all problems for men in combat", but LA Weekly's Amy Nicholson dismissed the movie as "unexamined jingoism".
Hall says the movie's politics are deliberately as impenetrable as a dust storm. "We went into Afghanistan and I got it," Hall says. "We went into Iraq and I was, like, I don't totally get it. But as soon as we had boots on the ground, I supported those guys. There are humans fighting this war, and the effect on them is singular and personal."
Cooper says he'll be screening the film for veterans groups and hopes that, as with audiences who saw themselves in his bipolar character in Silver Linings Playbook, soldiers take some solace in his portrayal of Kyle. "I just want to show the movie to vets and hope they don't feel so alone," he says.
Los Angeles Times
American Sniper opens on Thursday