Henry Hughes has served two tours in Afghanistan. With a thousand stories to tell, Hughes decided to focus on the story of a female translator who is working with the U.S Military in Afghanistan.
I sat down to talk to Hughes who scored an Oscar nomination for Best Live Action Short, to talk about his choices behind the subject and find out what it’s like having George Lucas as a mentor.
Awards Daily: Before we even start talking about the film, you trained yourself in Afghanistan, like twice, right?
Henry Hughes: Yeah, I did two tours with the 173rd Airborne [Brigade Combat Team], which is like airborne infantry or paratroopers. I did two tours, I was an officer. That’s like the resume of it [laughs].
AD: Obviously with that kind of background you must have thousands of stories. What made you want to tell this particular story?
HH: You know, it’s hard to capture what it feels like to go to war, like in a movie or in a book. A part of the issue is that we kind of see the same story over and over again, which is my story. A young white man goes to war, very idealistic, and comes back and tries to figure out what to make of it all. Or doesn’t come back. I felt like we’re not getting anywhere new with this territory, we’re not illuminating things different. Then, when I met my interpreter, it didn’t hit me right away that I would make a story about her. We were just friends for a year and then I got out of the army and we kept calling each other and you start to realize that this person has a lot of inherent conflict and that she had to find her own way in the world. She is having to bridge two cultures and gender. No one is supporting her to go there, she had to do it on her own. Having that sort of integrity is the stuff of movies and the stuff of inspiration, I guess.
AD: How long did it take for you, from writing the script to directing and then getting it made. How long was that process?
HH: The script was kind of rushed into production actually because I was at the American Film Institute and this was my thesis film. We were going to make a different thesis about something else entirely, but we ended up losing the life rights. I had done an exercise in my year at AFI where you shoot like two or three days and you cut it together and it’s all like internal; you don’t show it to other people. It’s a way for us to practice our craft. I had done something [for that] with the character of my interpreter and I thought that if I have to do something very quickly, I can do this because I know this person and I know that world. We started writing the script around seven or eight weeks before production.
AD: One thing that is so refreshing is that you tell it from her point of view. There are so many viewpoints you could have told it from. What was the decision behind that?
HH: Certainly, and part of it is that I think the female point of view, in that environment, is far more interesting. My mother was in the army, for instance, and I grew up with my mom and two sisters, and much later we had a little brother. I grew up around a lot of women and you see things differently. The electronic voices for all the military equipment, like in a tank or in a cockpit or even Siri, it’s always a woman’s voice. It cuts through all of that stuff. It’s totally happened where I’ve had an interpreter who is a woman where you say something and you hear her say it back to you and there’s something about having the other gender say it that just tamps down, somewhat, that Lord of the Flies, boy’s club stuff. It gets closer to what the truth is, I think.
AD: There are two important scenes are so powerful. The first one is, obviously, the first scene and then the second is when she’s going to the toilet. What can you tell me about those two scenes?
HH: Sure, the toilet one is a combination of a few things that actually happened to us; one where she was using the restroom and we’re like out in the middle of a mission and her whole thing for a long time was like, “try not to use the bathroom while we’re out on mission.” But it was like five hours and you need to drink water and so, I remember, it just got to a point where she couldn’t take it anymore and said, “I have to go.” I was like, “I didn’t know you had been holding it in for weeks of missions, what are you doing, man, just go [laughs]! We’ll find a spot!” It made me think about how she had to hide that.
Then there was another event where we had gone out and found four IED roadside bombs and I knew there was more on the route because you could just tell. It was like we were still going that way, we haven’t seen this land for while, there is going to be more. But it was getting dark and so we realized that the next one would find us, so we stopped searching. We circled the wagon, fuck the night. So it was my turn and I was using the restroom and I saw this motorcyclist driving on the road that we were just on, he passed me, and then about 100 meters or so down the road he blew up. That was obviously a crazy and interesting feeling to sit with because I regret not saying anything. Why didn’t I think to? I was tired and it slipped my mind. It didn’t even occur to me to say, “Hey stop.” In the film, it somewhat comes across, not as well as I had hoped it would, that her stopping to pee stopped them from getting hit.
AD: That just gave me goosebumps! Something else I loved is the way it flows. There’s a nice flow to the whole film. From the way you wrote it and envisioned it, there’s a final product on the screen; was that how you had envisioned it?
HH: Um, it’s hard for me to say. I was really trying to capture something that’s really hard to do and I can’t tell if maybe someone else can feel this or not. It’s after these sublime moments that are very particular to a conflict like this where you have things that are beautiful and things that are horrible and things that are both. Also, you don’t have the structure in how you view the world; this is now beyond that. You don’t have language to comprehend it. So, I feel that that was certainly a part of that and I wanted it to be a rush and somewhat of a roller-coaster of ups and downs. At the end, I can’t tell you what it was like to go to war. I haven’t figured that out yet and that’s what I’m trying. I can maybe take you on an emotional ride that’ll make you feel like how I felt. Over the course of a longer time, that’s certainly how I felt.
AD: How long have you been back now?
HH: Since 2011.
AD: Wow, that’s very recent.
HH: I suppose. I don’t know. It feels far away now [laughs].
AD: I have to ask, how does it feel to have the Oscar nomination?
HH: Sure, it’s unsettling [laughs]. All of a sudden there’s this thing other than you that people think you are, which is fine, except that’s not me. I got like weird with all that for a moment, I just tried to focus on how cool it’s going to be that my wife and I get to go to the Oscars.
AD: That’s incredible. And I read somewhere that George Lucas is your mentor!
HH: It’s totally right! He was very kind in volunteering to be a mentor for a veteran as a part of a veteran’s program called American Corporate Partner’s. I happened to get George because he saw some of my work; I assume other people submitted work. He’s just been incredibly supportive; I’ll show him my work and he’ll give me notes. Less on particular stuff and more about big picture, how you want to be a filmmaker, how you want to be an adult, how you want to be a husband, that kind of stuff. It’s cool. It’s interesting because obviously he’s this massive titan in the industry or iconoclast, but he’s also a human. I appreciate that about him. He’s been very good to me.
AD: That’s so cool. How can we see Day One? I’ve had the honor of seeing it, but how can the public get to see the film?
HH: It’s in theaters presently, along with the other Oscar nominees. It’ll be out on iTunes and VOD and all that on demand stuff February 22nd or something. It’ll be on Amazon, iTunes, Verizon, and Google Play.
AD: That’s great! What can we expect from you next?
HH: I definitely want to continue working in this area. It’s very integral to who I am and what I want to explore. I hope that I get to make a feature or series about this. I’m shopping around both ideas. Not for the same story, but for the same world. Something that we’ve really had a good look at is the way that we look at love or sex because of the sexual revolution. We haven’t had that kind of talk about what combat is for the modern day. Our stories and the way we look at it are kind of antiquated. I think we need to look at it from a new point of view.