One Room With A View went another 12 Rounds with Clint Eastwood’s go-to master of on-screen war fighting, Sergeant Major James D. Dever USMC (ret.), to get the detail on how he turned Bradley Cooper into the deadliest sniper in US military history, how the physically and emotionally combative story of American Sniper was brought to screen, and what the legend of Chris Kyle means to America now.
1. How would you say that this film differs from other portrayals of snipers on screen with films such as Enemy at the Gates, The Hurt Locker, or Sniper?
You only see these movies with snipers in where they never show the family part. [Chris Kyle] has a family; he meets a woman, gets married and has kids. So we’ll see both parts of his life in American Sniper. We’ll see him going into combat, being a sniper, being a US Navy SEAL and then the impact of him being married and having a wife and kids. We’ll see him walking that line as a warrior and then as a father and a husband. You’re going to see the impact on the family back home that you don’t see [in other films]. [The film asks] “How do the wife feel when their husband is out there in combat and they’re at home where nothing is happening?”, and the emotional impact of when he’s back home, getting over the stress of being in combat and then having to be a normal husband and father. It’s a tug-o-war. The Navy SEALs [deploy] for six or seven months and come back, like the US Marines, whilst the US Army deploys for a year but have leave during their deployment. The SEALs would go out for six or seven months [to Iraq], come back, and re-form, then anywhere from six months to a year. You’ll get to see [all four] of Chris’s deployments to Iraq. You’ll also get to see him when he’s in training too.
2. How did you approach training Bradley Cooper for American Sniper? What was the boot camp like?
Bradley Cooper was involved [with the project] for a while; even when the film was going between various directors, he was getting in shape and working out. He had a training routine and personal trainer and then [when he joined our training team] we went to the range. We had to get him up to par with the rifles. We fired the Mark 11, Mark 12 and the Win Mag. We also got him up to par with the M4 and the Sig P226 pistol. We got him and the rest of the actors playing Navy SEALs and we went through how to work as a team, weapons handling, how to move on patrol, how to clear rooms, and how to move into and secure a building etc. All the other parts were played by actors except one. That part is played by a Navy SEAL who was out there on tour with Chris Kyle, Kevin “Dauber“ Lacz, who actually plays himself in the movie. It was great to have his knowledge because we could work out the right training with the actors and my guys and the extras, and he could answer any questions we had on equipment, weapons, gear etc.
3. You spent 25 years in the US Marine Corps, whilst Chris Kyle was a US Navy SEAL. How did you approach understanding the difference in sniper training and doctrine between the two branches?
The Navy SEALs have their own sniper course, the US Marine Corps has one and so does the US Army. At first, the Navy SEALs used to go the US Marine Corps or the US Army sniper course until they developed their own. What the Navy SEALs do [differently] is learn how to be their own spotters. The US Marine snipers and US Army snipers work in pairs, one as spotter, the other as the shooter, and they rotate off the sniper rifle. What I mean by being a spotter is you have a high-powered scope and are looking for any activity [while positioned] alongside the sniper on the rifle. With Navy SEALs, they do it by themselves, so Chris is the spotter and the shooter. You’ll see that in the movie at the sniper school where Chris is being trained to be the spotter and the shooter. [At all the sniper schools] We all learn the same things, how to shoot the rifles, how to breathe when you’re firing, how to judge a target’s distance etc. The difference is that the Navy SEAL snipers are trained to be both spotter and shooter.
Also in the movie, you’ll see Chris working with US Marines, because the Marines were attached to the Navy SEALs in Iraq as their security. This is because when you move into an area to set up as a sniper, you also have to have security. This is in case they get attacked. If you are in a building [as a sniper], having a [security] team with you means you are secure when taking shots. You’ll see in the movie that he has a Marine next to him as security, and in the later tours he’ll have a Navy SEAL as his security.
4. Why do you think cinema has such a longstanding fascination with snipers?
Because, I think, in the movies or television, the sniper has to be unique. He’s got to be top notch physically and know his weapon. You have an individual that will go out by himself, without the enemy knowing he is there; take out individuals, and then return. You have to have map and compass reading skills, be able to calculate unknown distances etc. You have to be really professional in the way you move, you act, and hit targets at unknown distances. By that I mean you have to calculate the distance with a range finder or naked eye, find where the target is, calculate the wind speed and elevation, and then fire once and hit the target. It takes a lot of training, firing, and understanding to become a sniper. Not all individuals can do that, so being a sniper is one of the top jobs. You have to understand yourself and your body, your weapon and your surroundings. Most of the time, they’re out there by themselves, in harm’s way, and they know that. A sniper needs to take the shot to protect individuals. Snipers are mainly used in over-watch, which means that if a unit is moving into a hostile area, the sniper is scanning the area for anyone else out there setting up traps, putting down IEDs etc. That’s his job and he helps save a lot of lives. He also has a good impact on the enemy. They think they’re safe and then one of them goes down and they don’t know where the shot came from. It’s very psychologically effective having a sniper on the battlefield.
5. Speaking from a military point of view, what is important to get right with snipers on-screen – and what aspects of sniping and snipers do films get wrong?
The things to make sure are correct are how they handle the weapons, the way they use the elevation and windage on their scopes, how they fire the weapon, control their breathing for the shot, the waiting for the shot, how they press the trigger, the way they act, and the follow-through with the weapon and the way they move. A lot of the movies don’t get it wrong actually. Taking care of the weapon is one of the major factors for any sniper. Moving into a hostile area undetected is really a big part of what snipers do in training and on operations, such as how they patrol and move so that the enemy cannot find them. All the sniper movies I’ve seen are really locked on about the way they carry the weapons, the way they move into their positions, the way they set up ready to be in over-watch or take out an individual. It’s more than just “I’ll just flop here, take the shot and leave” in a clean uniform.
In American Sniper we got the correct gear and uniforms. And it’s not like the uniforms are straight off the clothing rack. They’re not pressed, they’re dirty and sweaty from crawling around. The prop master, Mike Sexton, and Deborah Harper with the costumes did a great job. Mitch Kenny was the supervisor with the costumes and you’ll see the equipment they are using and the clothing they wore [on screen] is highly accurate. [Regarding technical aspects of snipers in films]: Personally, the ones that I’ve seen, they’ve been getting it right. With Sniper, starring Tom Berenger, the first film was really on the mark, like the way he set up with his M40. In Enemy at the Gates, the way they move into an area and set up was very good. And you’ll see that also in American Sniper. Sometimes, I find that films and TV get sloppy for not showing the emotional toll and what it takes to be a sniper, always going out knowing that you might not come back.
6. A key aspect of the film is the relationship between Chris Kyle and his wife, Taya. Speaking from your own experience, can you describe the challenges of balancing service and home life?
It’s not a light switch. You go out into a combat area for six or seven months or longer, then you come back and now you have to be a normal person again around everybody. You have a family that you have to get to know again. That’s the hard part. You’re out there with your comrades, your buddies and you all have the same work ethic together; be it back in the rear, laughing and joking, or serious on the missions – and then you come back home and it’s like re-dating your wife again. Even though you’re on operations, things are still going on back home. They aren’t frozen. There are always problems, be it the house or the car that you now have to take care of.
The emotional toll on those back home is hard. Getting to know your wife again is hard because she’s busy doing her thing back in the States while you’re doing your thing wherever. Independence is key. You’re independent in what you’re doing, and your wife is independent in what you’re doing. And then there are the kids. You get back and the kids are grown up. Last time you saw them, they were little babies and then they’re getting all grown up. It’s about talking with each other, finding out the emotional tug-of-war that you have. You can’t fully open up to your wife or your loved ones or your friends, but you can open up to your buddies who you’ve been in combat with. That’s the struggle.
7. In Chris Kyle’s autobiography, he says that most of his shots were taken between 300-400 yards, but his longest shot was 2100 yards. What does it take to hit a target at that distance, and how did you go about working with Bradley to ensure the on-screen firing was believable?
In American Sniper, we’re going to show the Battles of Fallujah, Ramadi, and Sadr City, as they show the type of warfare that was mainly fought in Iraq. Those are built-up urban areas, so your shots are between 300-400 yards, on targets that are moving or putting down IEDs. You’ll also see his longest shot in the movie. For taking shots of any distance as a sniper, you have a dope card, which you put on the stock of your weapon. On the dope card, it lists distances so that you can dial in your windage and your elevation on your rifle scope. So if you have a target at an unknown distance, you have your range finder that you carry with you; you use the range finder to give you the distance to the target, then you check your dope card on what you need to dial onto the scope. You also need to calculate the wind, and add that into the dope for your scope, plus elevation. That’s all really hard, and then for a target at 2,100 yards, it’s even more difficult to see through your scope because of the distance.
In the sniper training, you learn how you put the correct dope on the scope, the amount of pressure you put on the trigger etc., so we did the same thing with the training [with Cooper] for the movie when we were out on the range. We were shooting at targets at 600 yards and 800 yards, so he got to know how it feels. He’s a good shooter. He studied hard on it, and he really is a good shot.
8. How was it working with Clint Eastwood and Bradley Cooper on this project, and how was your experience with the making of the film?
Working with Bradley and Clint was really awesome. Clint wanted everything right, like he always does. Bradley is really a hard worker. He worked out every day and really got to know how a Navy SEAL moves and acts. When we shot in Morocco, in Rabat or in LA, he wanted everything right, like Clint did. Working with them was a really, really great experience. We had to work with Moroccans, who become Marines and Navy SEALs in the movie that didn’t speak English, so we did a boot camp with them, and it was great to see them on the screen moving like Marines, kicking in doors. It’s great to see that. We used the Moroccan army too and in the background, when shooting in the States, we put a lot of effort to get it right. I take my hat off to all those involved.
9. What does it take to become a sniper, and how do the realities of being a sniper compare to those often seen on screen?
Not everybody can become a sniper and not everybody can become a Navy SEAL. Especially with sniping, you have to be a really, really good shooter with the rifle and an exceptional understanding of the weapon itself. Plus you have to have the motivation of wanting to be there because there’s going to be a lot of hardships, and you have to put your heart into [the training]. It’s not just about being physically fit, it’s also about having a lot of strength in your personal life too because you’re going to miss a lot of things to be a sniper. Sniper school is a long process and it’s not that easy. Sniper schools last about three months, and it’s that long because it’s not just about learning to shoot the rifle; you need to learn stalking, moving, and you have to know compass and map reading. You’re no good if you can’t get to where you need to be. It takes a lot. When learning stalking techniques, you are moving into position to take a shot, and you have people out there with binoculars, checking to see if they can spot where you’ve shot from or to see you moving, so it’s a very tough school. A lot of people drop out, or fail because they don’t meet the standards. On screen, what you don’t see are the hardships that Chris has to endure outside of the training. You don’t get to have time with your friends, you really have to study. In most [military training] schools, if you drop out, your teammates will tease you for that, but if you get dropped from sniper school, they don’t tease you because they know how difficult it is. They either know how hard it is from failing it, or they know how hard it will be, or they don’t want to attempt it because they know how hard it is! The school is very stressful with long hours, knowing you could be failed and dropped out and sent back to your command at any point. Every one of the sniper schools has a high rate of dropout.
10. Chris Kyle fought predominantly in Iraq. What are the challenges of fighting in urban and desert environments, how are snipers used in such places, and how did you approach putting that on screen?
Let’s start with the urban areas. In urban areas, snipers are used in over-watch. They will be put into a building while the US Marines or US Army are moving through that area, so the snipers can cover them and watch way ahead of the advancing troops for any enemy setting up an ambush or IEDs or any unusual movement. They will always report [unusual movement] and if they see an enemy with a weapon, they will take them out. The snipers are protecting the troops on the ground at a higher elevation, in a four- or five-storey building or on a rooftop. They are giving the commanders information on what they see on the battlefield – that’s why they are so important. You’ll see in the movie, the Marines will go into certain areas while Chris is in over-watch, protecting them and giving information to the commander as to what is happening.
Also you’ll see how the Navy SEALs are trained in house clearing, CQB or Close Quarter Battle, and them working with the Marines, and the Marines working with them. It’s a team effort. Knowing that you have snipers in the area when you are moving, and they are protecting you, is a very big comfort. They are out there, keeping an eye ahead of you while you are doing house-to-house clearing and giving you information or taking out individuals that could do harm to the unit. It’s a real morale booster. Going in house-to-house is the most dangerous thing. You don’t know when you go in if there are individuals who may have put an IED [in the house], and you’ll see that in the movie. In urban areas, it’s very difficult to fight because you blow things up and there’s rubble that the enemy can hide, it’s difficult to clear rooms etc. In Fallujah, they cemented up staircases so the Marines had to enter rooms, finding that there are IEDs, then fight all the way to the roof to make sure it’s clear. Going into an unknown area, fighting room-to-room, then fighting into the next house, is really hard. In open desert, you’re only going to find a few people who are moving because there is less cover and places to hide. In the cities, insurgents would take their shots and move; you had more of the enemy forces putting up IEDs at night or during the day, knowing that the US forces were moving into certain areas.
When the ground forces have moved through, the snipers will move to another location. You’ll see in American Sniper, they’ll be in a position overnight, and then be relieved by another sniper team taking the position so that Chris could sleep and eat. Once the Marines or soldiers have moved further on, they would move to be over-watch again, so they would constantly be moving. Maybe they would be in a position for a day, maybe two, and then change position. Just like in real life, the battle has moved on, the Marines have moved through and now you have to move to the area where they will be going next. Depending on the rate of movement to the objective, it determines how long you’ll stay but you will always have your eyes open, keeping their path cleared. Any individuals that are setting up on roofs or planting IEDs in the streets, the snipers will take them out.
11. The story of American Sniper has such a strong resonance with audiences, particularly in the US. What is it about this story that makes it so powerful and important to put on screen?
I think what makes his story so powerful is how he loved America, he loved his job, he loved his fellow team members and I hope we show that on-screen because we shot it to show the emotional toll on the individual on combat and back home, not seeing some of your comrades live. It’s hard on the individuals; you never want to see one of your friends be killed. It’s his job to be a sniper, taking out targets, and then have a home life.
12. For you, speaking as an American, a veteran, and a military adviser, what was the most important thing to get right with this film?
The most important thing to get right was the way to portray Chris Kyle. What an individual. Think about it: what he went through, what he did in his military and civilian life, and having a family. I want you to know that it’s not easy to be a Navy SEAL. Not everybody can be a Navy SEAL, not everybody can be a sniper, and the toll that it takes on those that are Navy SEALs and snipers… We wanted to show how Chris Kyle loved his country, his service and his family and that he had that tug-of-war. He loved what he did while knowing it could destroy his family and he had to make a decision of family over the service. That’s very hard on the individual when they love something so dearly. He was really dedicated and he had a decision to make between the service and his family. That’s a big decision and if you’re ever put in that situation, it’s not an easy one to make. He could have stayed in the service and lose his family, and he loved what he did but he decided to get out to be a family man because he loved his family too. That tug-of-war is very tough and he was an exceptional individual. He was really outstanding in his trade and at his job and if you all of a sudden have to give that up because you don’t want to lose your loved ones, that’s a hard decision to make.
American Sniper arrives in UK cinemas on the 16th January 2015. You can catch the trailer below: