Pat Tillman Foundation can’t fulfill its mission to empower military veterans and their spouses without the generosity of our supporters across the country. Nationwide, over 400 Tillman Scholars are striving to impact our country and communities through their studies in medicine, law, business, policy, science, education and the arts. Every “Tillman Tuesday,” we are committed to highlighting the individual impact of a Tillman Scholar, focusing on their success in school, career and community—all thanks to your support. This week, we spotlight 2010 Tillman Scholar and Army veteran Chris Roessner, who graduated from the USC Peter Stark Producing Program with a Master’s in Cinema/Television Production. As a professional screenwriter, Chris’ debut screenplay “Sand Castle” made it onto Hollywood’s 2012 “Black List” – a list of the top unproduced screenplays ranked by over 500 executives at studios, production companies and financiers.
What was your motivation behind joining the Army when you were 17 and how long did you serve?
“To be quite honest, my motivation for joining is something I’m still trying to figure out all these years later. On a surface level, I wanted money to go to college and get out of the small towns where I was living (Canton, OH and then Temple, TX). No one in my family had ever gone to college, so it was really important to me that I go. On a deeper level, my biological father, who at the time I had never met, was an ex-military guy. After getting back from Iraq, I sent him an email and we got together for the first time. On this weird, subconscious level there was this desire to earn the right to have a conversation with him because I knew he was a military guy. Part of me was kind of bullied into the military by the ghost of the father I didn’t know.
Your dad served as an Army Ranger, and in the Special Forces, yet you didn’t meet him until 10 years after you joined the Army yourself. What was it like meeting him for the first time?
“I got back from Iraq in 2004 and served in the reserves until 2008 while I was earning my degree at USC. It was great meeting him after my deployment. I have zero animosity towards him, which has a lot to do with my mom never speaking a bad word about him. Meeting him put a lot of puzzle pieces together in my mind – sitting across from him, a person I had never met before, yet at the same time I could not be more similar to him in even the most nuanced ways. I actually met him in 2010 while I was in Washington D.C. for the first Pat Tillman Leadership Summit. For most young boys, there’s so much tied to our fathers that we don’t realize, whether we know them or not. I think that after I got back from Iraq and I met him, I realized how much my decision to join the military had to do with him.”
While serving in Iraq from 2003-04 as part of a Civil Affairs unit, what did you learn about yourself?
“While I was in Iraq I learned about the limitless potential that human beings have. I saw kids a little bit older than me do some really amazing things under incredible duress. I spent a year there witnessing day in and day out what it is that human beings are capable of, certainly in the heroic sense, but also the day to day coping sense of what’s going on around you. It’s amazing how adaptive the human mind can be to whatever the circumstances are. If there is anything I were to carry away from that experience it is that there is always untapped potential and it requires certain circumstances to draw it out from us.”
As tough as it is, how did you break into the Hollywood screenplay industry? What has that journey been like for you?
“It’s absolutely brutal, horrid and very competitive. I got a big piece of advice when I started USC and the film director Robert Zemeckis came and spoke to us on campus. He said, ‘if you want to do this job, you can but it will cost you your 20’s – everyone else is going to be making money and buying homes and getting jobs and you are going to have nothing.’ He was absolutely correct. It cost me my 20’s. There’s certainly a lot of times when you feel stalled for a period and have difficulty making headway, but if you stick with it hopefully the clouds open up and you find yourself doing what you want professionally. Thank God I was able to make it through to the other side.”
In your words, how did you ‘make it through to the other side’?
“I went to USC for my undergraduate and Master’s degree. When I graduated, I got a job as an assistant making no money working 12-14 hours a day helping a producer run his life and his business. While I was doing that I was also writing a screenplay about my experience in the Army. When I finished it, I was able to get him to read it and – thank God it was semi-decent – he helped me develop it and get it read around town. Then he fired me and said, ‘now you’re a writer and you need to start writing more!’ I was able to use that momentum and everything started to fall into place. After 10 years of work, the right person read my stuff and everything literally fell into place in a single day. I started sending my screenplay around on a Friday and by Monday I was a professional writer. I could quit my job, work for myself, and go to meetings around town where people would ask, ‘where have you been all this time?!’ My response was, ‘I’ve been here for 10 years but no one was paying attention to me.’”
Sand Castle chronicles the story of your two years and more than 200 missions as a machine gunner in Iraq’s Sunni Triangle. The screenplay centers on the platoon leader as they attempt to protect Baqubah, a dangerous farming village. Tell us more about the film and how you came up with the idea to pursue that war story angle.
“At the time, I wasn’t writing it for my career, but rather just to keep myself sane. I didn’t expect there to be any grand attention garnered for it. Anything that continues to happen with this screenplay is still a big surprise to me. My initial impulse to write it was to get it out and say ‘I have all of this stuff, memories and experiences stored up inside me.’ If I wasn’t a screenwriter, I would have written a novel or something else; screenwriting is my natural way of interacting with the world though – so that’s how Sand Castle manifested. There was also the desire to hold on to some of the memories and tiny little moments that had happened in Iraq as time goes on – and I didn’t want to lose those. While I was in Iraq there were awful and beautiful moments, and I wanted to have a document so I wouldn’t lose those memories. At the same time, my screenplay was a big pie in the sky dream.”
What was it like when you learned your screenplay had made the 2012 Black List?
“That was a life-changing moment for me. I was in New York because my fiancé was having a big moment in her TV writing career too. I was going to have lunch with a film executive and as I was sitting in the restaurant waiting for him, my phone started buzzing nonstop. I learned I had made the Black List just as the executive was walking in. The first thing he said to me was, ‘Congratulations on making the Black List!’”
Are you working on any other interesting projects right now?
“I will be in Jordan in September for pre-production of Sand Castle. I’m also writing an action movie for Universal and I’m adapting a book for a big actor/director. I just finished a television pilot that I’m very excited about too.”
How did you learn about the Tillman Scholar program and what support have you gained from the community of scholars?
“I learned about it when I was online reading about Pat and heroes of our time. As I read on, I discovered the Tillman Scholar program and immediately began my application. It is the accomplishment for which I am most proud. Every time I attend the Leadership Summit or any other Pat Tillman Foundation event, I’m excited from the moment I get there. It gives me pause and reminds me that my life can be so much bigger than the bubble in which I’m currently living. Whenever I leave to come back to my ‘normal world’, I’m filled with such excitement, joy and perspective as it’s helped me remember that regardless of what my job is or anyone else’s job is, there’s a way to use it in service of others.
It motivates me to do what I love to do and try to have a pretty grand affect in a positive way. I think regardless of what business you’re in, if you have the goal of bringing some respect to that business, you’re doing the right thing – being a Tillman Scholar is a great reminder for me to do that.”
What professional and personal goals have you set for yourself and what is your ultimate dream job?
“Without question I am living my dream job. For years and years I was dreaming about having this job and doing this ‘thing.’ It certainly has come with some unexpected obstacles, but it is so much better than I could have possibly imagined. As “up and down” as this business can be, I try to be as short term as possible and focus on the thing that’s in front of me. Right now, it’s getting Sand Castle made as best as I possibly can, and doing so authentically is going to take everything I have. I have to 100% engaged while in Jordan.”
What was tougher and more challenging, your deployment to Iraq or breaking through in Hollywood?
“I would say that my time in Iraq was more physically, emotionally, and spiritually draining, but the plus side is everyone around you is working for a goal larger than themselves. They all have those principles and values for which you agree, which makes it a lot easier. The difficult thing with Hollywood is that it is also emotionally and spiritually draining, but has the added downside of some people who often serve themselves and not anything larger.”
Was there a moment when you arrived in Hollywood and found yourself star struck? Or you realized you had finally made ‘it’?
“I’ve had a lot of those moments. I used to work for George Clooney’s company, Smoke House Pictures, as a part-time job while going to school. On my last day there, Clooney came in and they had a ping pong table set up in the middle of the office. At the time, I think I was the only other guy in the office, so he asked me if I wanted to play ping pong for a second before I went to pick up lunch for everybody. As I was playing ping pong with him, the whole time I was thinking, ‘this is the weirdest life I’ve ever lived!’”