Legendary filmmaker George Lucas helped returning Army Capt. Henry Hughes achieve his Hollywood dream, offering mentorship on the short film “Day One” was nominated for an Oscar at the 88th Academy Awards.
“He’s one of the greatest storytellers of our time,” Hughes said of Lucas. “How could you not aspire to be like that, or to meet that person and glean as much as you can?”
Hughes is off to a good start, thanks to the help of Lucas and others. “Day One” won the BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) U.S. Student Film Award, a college Emmy and a Student Oscar. “After those three we could tell it was gaining momentum and that’s what made us eligible for the Oscars,” Hughes said.
His film was among the Oscar nominees in the Short Film (Live Action) category. The Oscar was awarded to "Stutterer" on Sunday, Feb. 28.
Hughes wrote and directed the film based on his 2009 experience in Afghanistan with an interpreter whose story inspired a unique perspective of war.
“Her strength provided a light strong enough to cut through the fog of war,” Hughes said. “She is so many things: American, Muslim, female, combat veteran. She is also my muse.”
The film is about Feda, a 30-year-old Afghan American woman pushed aside by her conservative community for being divorced with no kids. Taking control of her life, she uses her one marketable skill as a bilingual immigrant, and returns to her birthplace as an interpreter for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. On her first day on the job, she must help the pregnant wife of an IED maker deliver a baby.
Hughes’ journey to the red carpet began when he and five other representatives of the armed forces were introduced on a series by television journalist Bob Woodruff and ABC News called “Standing Up for Heroes.” The episodes introduce veterans to highly qualified mentors specifically chosen to help develop a strategy and a plan for their post-military careers.
Hughes signed up for a program called American Corporate Partners, a nonprofit organization dedicated to assisting veterans in their transition by offering long-term career development through mentoring, career counseling and networking opportunities.
“George Lucas spent quality time and was generous, opening up his entire life and facilities and he relayed strong, simple advice and was very helpful,” Hughes recalled. “I would show him some work, and he would give me some notes on that work and that was basically my development as a filmmaker. That process was about defining things like, ‘What kind of filmmaker was I?’ That’s an important question to ask very early on in your career, so that was very helpful.”
Lucas was grateful for the opportunity to mentor.
"These guys are heroes, we need to help them,” said Lucas, who taught Hughes how to write the script, and his team at Lucasfilm taught him how to make the movie. “Your training in the military is exactly the training you need.”
Hughes, who had to make a thesis film in order to graduate from the American Film Institute, said he wanted to make something about his time in Afghanistan that was satisfying and valuable. “I realized pretty quickly that we hadn’t seen any new takes on a war film in a while. It kind of had been falling flat for me. Most movies were based on dudes going on missions, which is only a part of what is happening,” he said. “So, I had this interpreter that was having to bridge massive identity questions. I thought that’s a much more interesting window into that military genre. I never knew what I was going to say in terms of the riddle, ‘What is war?’ but I thought that through this character maybe I could make people go on an experience that felt like what it was like to go to war.”
“Day One” takes a different approach by looking at war from an unusual perspective. “I thought that maybe if I could talk about this predominantly male experience through this woman in the very female arena of birth, than maybe we could actually get to the point where you touch these sublime moments that you find in war as something both horrible and beautiful at the same moment,” Hughes said.
Growing up in a big military family where both parents were officers, Hughes had a knack for storytelling as well as a sense of service. “I kind of grew up with a camera in my hands from the time I was 12 or so with my friends skateboarding around Heidelberg, Germany,” he said. “From there it just became a natural extension that I wanted to make movies. But I knew I had to do the military thing first. It was a personal thing, something that my ancestors had done and something I wanted to be a part of.”
Hughes went into the Army for about five years as an armorer officer serving as a scout platoon leader, and a specialty platoon leader with two tours in Afghanistan. He uses his military experience as a foundation for telling stories in unique and interesting ways.
Hughes understands the emphasis put on military transition, and he is grateful that military service is currently well respected in society and in the entertainment industry. “It’s unavoidable to go from one to the other without some sort of transition, just to kind of redefine yourself,” he said. “You have this closeness when you’re in a unit. It’s a whole lot of feeling and it takes up your entire being. When you’re out you don’t have a bunch of people around you that are doing the same thing that you are doing in these teams. You’re all of a sudden alone, in an individual place. That’s certainly what I experienced, and it was difficult.”
Hughes credits the Department of Veterans Affairs for helping him get on his feet and back into school after the military. “I know it’s not the most perfect system, but they did right by me for sure.”
Working with the VA, Hughes learned that he needed to get back into an education curriculum.
“For me, I realized that what I needed to do to avoid spending the rest of my time scared, was that I needed structure. So school was a way to channel my aspirations and sort of move forward,” Hughes said. “The fact that they enabled me to go to school, which for me was my path forward and the structure that I needed to transition, I owe so much to them.”
One place veteran filmmakers come together is the G.I. Film Festival, a nonprofit educational organization dedicated to sharing the military experience in and out of the arena of war. The festival is the first in the nation to exclusively celebrate the successes and sacrifices of the servicemember through film.
“The G.I. Film Festival is a great film festival, they have been massive supporters of not just me, but the whole veteran community and helping to develop that voice, and that’s so important that we have some sort of platform like that,” Hughes said. “It is helping really develop what it is that we are collectively saying as veterans, what is that experience. They are doing a great work.”
In addition to the collective voice of veterans, Hughes emphasizes truth in the stories that move people in new ways with a focus on that truth and not getting too hung up on subtleties. “I think there is a problem in Hollywood with a lack of accuracy at times and that can be distracting for those who have been in the military.”
He explained, “I will say that the real onus is on us in the military community, because we get so wrapped up in accuracy that we are forgetting about the truth and we’re confusing the two. We think it’s good just because a movie is militarily accurate and it’s tactics are sound, or that it looks like it’s doing the things that we did. That may not be illuminating anything new about what we did. I am much more interested in films or shows that would try and illuminate what the veteran experience is, what it’s like to go to war, what it’s like to come home. Accuracy matters, you need it to get there, but we’re just being distracted by what’s quantifiable as accurate and really I think we are missing out on the bigger search for trying to find out what we did and how we did it.”
On the eve of the film industry’s biggest event, Hughes is overwhelmed by the impact his movie has made.
“(Day One) just took on a whole other life of its own with the Oscars,” he said. “I never expected the movie would be in theaters. People really want to see it now, and that’s awesome. That was never the expectation. All I wanted to do was make a movie that moves people, and it’s great to have that feeling that it is moving people.”