Jason Hall had just turned in his first draft of a script about Chris Kyle, the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history. 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 himself, still acclimating to life in Midlothian, Texas, after his fourth and final Iraq war tour, had just texted Hall an "LOL" in response to a raunchy joke.
It was Feb. 2, 2013, and 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 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 said, 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" arrived in theaters Christmas Day. Instead of a straightforward tale about an elite warrior, it became, by necessity, a complex story about the heavy burdens 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), emerges as the audience's proxy, both charmed by and worried for her husband as she feels him emotionally disengaging with each tour.
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. Hall 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 vulnerable role as a bipolar man in "Silver Linings Playbook." That performance and another as permed FBI agent Richie DiMaso in "American Hustle" proved that he 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 said.
Earlier this month, two days after he had opened on Broadway in a profoundly different but just as physically demanding role, "The Elephant Man," Cooper arrived at an interview in a pair of Merrell hiking boots of the type Kyle had worn in Iraq. He said that, since he'd started talking about the film to journalists, he had begun dreaming that he was Kyle, walking around his house in Midlothian.
"I always feel like I carry the character with me," Cooper said. "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.
"Nobody wants to make an Iraq war movie," Hall said. "Nobody. ... But we didn't question so much whether the movie would go on as whether it should go on. 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."
Cooper declined to define the politics of the film, which takes place between 2004 and 2008 but still feels current as ISIS has begun the process of undoing the democratic gains that U.S. troops painfully wrought.
"The whole reason we wanted to tell the story was to be as specific as possible about this guy and not make a comment about anything else," Cooper said. "That's for people to do who are watching the movie. I'm not saying this is a pro-war movie or an antiwar movie or a war movie, even. It's a character study about a soldier having to go from family life to battle and back."
With Taya's blessing and participation, Cooper and Hall resumed the project in the months after Kyle's death, but with a determination to get deeper under the layers of his character. Taya 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 said. "Taya said, 'If you're still gonna do this, do it right. Cause this is how my kids are gonna 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 interested stoked the studio's. Greg Silverman, Warner's president of creative and worldwide development, suggested Eastwood, who was making "Jersey Boys" for them, his latest in a nearly 40-year relationship with the studio.
"I had done war stories before, but this was more of a cross between his romantic life and his exploits in combat," Eastwood said in an email interview. "'American Sniper' is set in a war that is still fresh in the minds of the public and opinions are still divided. But regardless of how you feel about the war, we should appreciate the people who serve in the military and the families that support them. That's another thing that attracted me to the film."
Prepping to be Kyle
With Eastwood aboard, Cooper, who was about to earn his Oscar nomination for "American Hustle," began to prepare in earnest. He worked out while listening to Kyle's adrenalized playlist of Linkin Park and Staind songs, ate 6,000 calories a day to gain the 35 pounds 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."
"I was fearful," Cooper added. "There's nothing worse than seeing an actor pretend he's from Texas, doing an accent. You're like, oh, shut the ... up. The hope is, two minutes into the movie you forget it's me."
This spring 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.
Cooper, Eastwood and Hall discussed multiple endings before deciding against actually showing Kyle's killing for reasons of both storytelling and taste.
"I considered ending the film at the shooting range," Eastwood said. "But that would have shifted the focus to his death and made it a different movie. We were telling the story of Chris Kyle's life and wanted to keep the focus there."
Instead, the movie ends with moving real-life footage from Kyle's funeral, some of which Hall recorded on his iPhone, as thousands of Texans waved at the procession from roadsides and overpasses.
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 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." LA Weekly's Amy Nicholson dismissed the movie as "unexamined jingoism." And the Hollywood Reporter's Tom McCarthy said, "The politics of the war are completely off the table here."
Hall said the movie's politics are deliberately as impenetrable as a dust storm.
"We went into Afghanistan and I got it," Hall said. "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 said he will 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," Cooper said. "Maybe people will relate to and empathize with Chris' story and maybe people like me and you, the next time we see a soldier in an airport we'll think for a minute about where they're coming from and what they've been through and have more understanding."