Brian Hanson has lived a few lives and succeeded in some of the harder endeavors known to man: earning a Ranger tab and making a movie. He grew up in Southern California, worked in Hollywood for awhile and then felt called to serve in the U.S. Army. He left Hollywood and became a Ranger serving on multiple deployments to Afghanistan. Upon returning from his service he fulfilled his dream by writing, directing and producing his first film, The Black String, starring Frankie Muniz.
WATM: Can you share about your family and your life growing up?
I was born in Detroit then my parents moved to San Diego. They were tired of the snow and wanted a new lifestyle on the West Coast. My father has always been a huge TV, film and history buff. I grew up in Escondido which is a suburb of San Diego. I had a sister that unfortunately was killed in a car accident when she was sixteen so that was a life changing moment in our lives. It was a paradigm shifter. My parents worked hard, and my youth was in many ways the normal SoCal life — riding bikes with friends, enjoying summers and playing sports. I had a real fascination toward movies and telling stories. It was always in me. I played football and baseball in high school. I also did student government. We did a field trip when I was a senior in high school to see a talk show at Paramount Studios to see The Kathy Lee Gifford Show. Seeing the stage, PAs and cameramen showed me that showbiz was a real industry and that I could do it. Even though I did (short) films with my friends it made me aware that I could direct myself toward the industry. It is a real thing.
I graduated that summer and my sister died, so all bets were off on going into the industry at that time. I did one year at San Diego State and then decided to travel abroad with a friend. We worked as bartenders and lived in the United Kingdom. It is what 18 year olds should do— go see the world. I started reading Syd Field books and Robert Rodriguez books like Rebel Without a Crew, watching El Mariachi, Swingers, Reservoir Dogs, Clerks, Blair Witch, The Following…I was really into the big studio movies (Saving Private Ryan, Back to the Future, The Matrix) and the independents. It was like you can do this, get a camcorder and you can do it. I knew I wanted to join the military, but not at that moment in my life so I came back from Europe and transferred up to Cal State Northridge. I graduated and got my proper film school bachelor's degree. I knew I wanted to be a Writer/Director. My parents were very supportive of my endeavor in making it in Hollywood and telling stories.
Once US Forces entered Iraq in 2003, I had read voraciously about 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan. I knew I was going to join the military at some point, but when? I would be pouring drinks for young, good looking Hollywood people at a bar making hundreds of dollars a night where over their shoulder would be a TV on reporting the Battle of Fallujah. I started to not feel right about that, and I wanted to be an honest storyteller. I would like to be a storyteller that speaks truthfully and authentically and didn't want to be the person that imitates. I didn't want to be an imitator of Goodfellas or Full Metal Jacket. I knew I needed that life experience to be an authentic storyteller. I did a TV Pilot with some friends that we raised money for, and Brandon Routh was in it. This was right before he was cast as Superman in Superman Returns. Brandon and I bartended together at that time. He was a great guy to work with. I was also bartending at the Playboy mansion during the end of the glory days for Hefner and the Mansion. It's tough to just walk away from all of that and you are making decent money in Hollywood. You are just one step or script away from "it" happening.
After not much happened with the TV Pilot I started to realize that Hollywood and LA are still going to be here. I wrestled a year or two of how to leave it behind after I had started a life. As I approached 30, I looked in the mirror and decided to join the Army because if I waited longer, the military wouldn't let me join - I'd be too old. I would have regretted to my dying day if I did not serve. There were no questions in life. I knew joining as an older guy would be different when compared to most recruits. But I wanted to volunteer my time and some of the years of my life to serve my country, but I had to step up and go do it. I gotta do this and gotta do it now. I knew my goal was to come back to LA with this accomplishment and service to my country being complete.
Hanson at Fort Benning. Photo credit BH.
WATM: What made you want to become a Ranger and what was your experience like?
I didn't know all the details when I enlisted as an 11Bravo (infantry), but I knew that Rangers and Green Berets were the high-speed special-operations units. One day in Basic Training at Fort Benning, the Ranger recruiters came out to ask for volunteers and my Drill Sergeant SFC Metcalfe looked at me and said, "Hanson, you better f'n volunteer." So, I volunteered on the spot and a few months later I was reporting to Ranger Assessment Selection Program. Unfortunately, SFC Metcalfe was killed in action a year later when he deployed to Afghanistan with the 173rd. I thank SFC Metcalfe for pushing me to go Ranger.
I was stationed at Fort Benning with 3rd Ranger Battalion where it is a high-speed training cycle. You train for six months and then deploy for about 3 to 4 months. There is always a Ranger Battalion deployed. Just operating at that tempo, at all times, is exciting and inspiring to see your NCOs, squad leaders and platoon sergeants are on their sixth or tenth deployment. It was very inspiring to see their commitment to the unit at the cost of their family and personal time. When you are a single young, enlisted person it is very inspiring to see that level of motivation. Rangers hold themselves up to the highest standard of leading the way. You are always being tested. It is uncomfortable and you never have a chance to relax. It is a great way to stay sharp. It is a tough head space to always be in. You are always being watched. The young (new) guys compete like professional athletes to deploy, like trying to make the starting roster. Once you deploy you want to be on that mission every time. I deployed to FOB Salerno in Afghanistan on the border real close to Pakistan. My second deployment was at Camp Leatherneck/Camp Bastion and then my last deployment I was at FOB Shank aka "Rocket City". That place was hit like all day with nonstop rockets. It's funny how used to it you get.
The Taliban used a lot of ingenious guerrilla tactics like setting ice on the mortars to eventually melt and then go off at some point during the day. Apaches would launch to try and find the culprits however they were not there. We ran the night shift out there for High Value Targets (HVT) where we went on night raids. To see how targets were acquired and track and intel was gathering where the strike force commander was the CO. From top to bottom the whole thing was a collection of assets. We worked with the Air Force, Navy, Marines, big Army, DIA and had civilians running the drones. It is amazing to see people come together for these task forces where all of these people work together on the fly. Being 30 and seeing this strike force run by young soldiers/civilians is amazing because in Hollywood most 23-year olds close to me are up and coming bartenders/actors/writers/directors. In Afghanistan we had 23-year-old Forward Observers bringing in Chinook helicopters into dangerous LZs to pick us up for a night raid. 24-year-old squad leaders are ensuring that everyone is accounted for and that no one is left behind on the side of a mountain in Afghanistan. It is amazing to see what young people can do where they have been trained at such a high level and have high expectations. They achieve and are motivated. I think Hollywood is an amazing place where things get done, but I think a lot of it is a 10-year delay. It is a bit of an arrested development sometimes.
In a training incident I was a towed jumper. We were doing our yearly training for airfield seizures which is an entire battalion operation to seize an airfield. I was the last guy to jump out of a C-17 at night with a full combat load and got hung up on the plane which made me a towed jumper. I was hanging outside of a C-17 at 1000 to 1500 feet circling Fort Benning banging against the side of the plane and fully conscious. Thinking that I might die at any moment and this is not a normal thing to happen to people. My static line wrapped around my weapons case where when you are jumping your weapons case is attached to your thigh and your harness. Somehow there was too much slack in the static line to where it wrapped around the weapons case so it wouldn't release me. The static line stays clipped inside the plane and it is supposed to pull the back of the pack tray. You jump and it pulls it out, but it got wrapped around and it pulled me.
I was okay with a tight body position and covered my reserve chute, so it didn't release. I was out there for six minutes. I thought they were going to cut me loose to where all I have left is my reserve chute to land on some trees at night next to the Chattahoochee River. Then I started looking at my boots flying through the air and thought this is what parasailing must be like. Then I thought, did they forget about me and is the C-17 going to try to land? Do they not know I am out here, and I am going to do some high-speed combat roll on a tarmac as the C-17 lands? You are trained to keep a tight body position out there, so they know you are not unconscious. I kept slamming against the side of the C-17 behind a gigantic turbine engine. I hit the plane and stayed there where I started to get dragged across the skin of the plane. I felt hands underneath my arms and they pulled me in. Everybody was so glad to see I was alive and in one piece. I was just relieved as I was out there so long, I went beyond any initial shock, concern to just cut me loose guys so I can land on a tree with my reserve shoot.
They pulled me in and did a great job making sure I was okay. I had to retell the story for weeks to a lot of soldiers, especially Sgt Majors at the DFAC wanted to hear the story of a towed jumper. It was a very bizarre story because no one wants to be a towed jumper. It is a total nightmare scenario short of both chutes failing. It all ended well and twelve stitches in my chin was it. After all of that my 1stSgt checked on me and made sure I was alright. He then told me, "Get ready you are jumping tomorrow." We had another jump the next day. The 3rd Ranger Battalion was like you are jumping tomorrow to get over any fear of jumping again. Just get out there and do it. I jumped not 24 hours later and believe me I was concerned. I said, "There is no way that can happen twice." I got out the door and was fine. There is not a lot of pity or sympathy it is like get back up and do it again unless you are truly hurt, alright get up and do it as there is no time to think about. That is something I take with me to this day.
All of the pre-jump training you do these repetitive and boring things you already know, and I did one of those things without even thinking about it. It dawned on me why I do this training every single time. When that one time does happen, you are ready and have gone over the worst-case scenario. You will be that much quicker to save your own life or someone else. It seems so mundane and so repetitive and a waste of time until you need it. That repetitive action like weapons malfunctions….but when you need that instantaneous second nature habit it is the most important thing you could have known at that point.
View of Camp Salerno. Photo credit wikipedia.com.
WATM: What are you most proud of from your service in the Army?
I am proud I stepped up to the challenge of 75th Ranger Regiment (thank you SFC Metcalfe) and made the team. Severing with my Ranger buddies was like the saying goes: "I was no hero, but I walked amongst a few." I did my part and I know guys that are still out there doing it. I know squad leaders that are now getting their own platoons. Some guys have gone into elite units like Delta Force and the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. I still think about them often and stay in touch. I want to make them proud because of the work they are still doing...I try to keep pushing myself in a way that would do right by the effort they are putting on…I am proud to have been on a team with those guys and seen what leadership means…and at such a young age and for so many people. I am proud to have seen it and been associated with that level of person.
Frankie and Paige Muniz, Kayli, Chelsea and Brian at Dances with Films. Photo credit BH.
WATM: What values have you carried over from the Army into Hollywood?
One thing that you see among some twenty something bartenders or Hollywood newbies that is unacceptable in the Ranger Regiment and also unacceptable in the Army are excuses. It is the same on production, there are no excuses. There are just no excuses. I don't want to hear it other than a solution. Maybe an, "I'm sorry," and that is it where I don't even want to hear an excuse. Unless there is something disastrous you need to untangle. No excuses, just solutions. The high-level professional types of productions have that mentality where I really appreciate it. I do see the correlation between military units and productions. You have one mission where everyone comes together to accomplish it.
Also, you see this in the military and it is a career everything, keep moving forward just like a twenty-mile ruck march. You worry about the next step, then the next phone pole, then the next quarter mile where they will all add up. You can be overwhelmed by all of it if you look at it all at once where if you do it one step at a time you see that you can do it. Those are two crucial lessons I learned in the Army.
Hanson, Frankie and crew at Dances With Films. Photo credit BH.
WATM: What was one of the toughest lessons to learn coming from the service to Hollywood?
Even though I had worked in Hollywood before leaving, I came back a veteran, and still had to learn that there is a system in Hollywood. The system is not as rigid perhaps as the military. It isn't just this artistic endeavor where you get to be a genius and be Quentin Tarantino or you are Steven Spielberg because you say you are. There is a hierarchy and there is a smart way to navigate. There is a way to get oriented and to a very real map of how this town works and have very realistic expectations. I think that veterans and others think of their prior accomplishments, whether a lawyer or a company commander of an infantry company, where you are not going to be a 1st AD. That is a ten-year path that is very regimented. The biggest challenge is understanding what the path to success is and how to realistically pursue those things. Know that they all take time and embrace that.
***Since leaving the Army I have learned so much by working as a Production Assistant on HBO's Barry, Silicon Valley, Room 104 and worked as Assistant to Matthew Rhys on Perry Mason. Being on set and working for top level professionals has been an incredible learning experience and given me insight to become a better filmmaker on my own projects. I also greatly appreciate the film/tv mentorships, education and opportunities I was given through Veterans in Media Entertainment (VME), USVAA and WGF. It has been very important to find mentors and work for professionals.
Hanson with members of the cast and production staff at the Austin Film Festival. Photo credit BH.
WATM: What was it like writing, producing and directing your own feature film, The Black String?
The story was percolating for a long time before making the film such as Donnie Darko, Repulsion, Jacobs Ladder, which does a great job of blending horror and military, and Rosemary's Baby. It was conceived with my bartending buddy Andy Warrener before I joined the Army. We wanted to explore in that story what it is like to be on that edge where you are experiencing something and no one else believes. It is you against the world. How do you convince someone of something that crazy of a witch conspiracy or a coven of witches? Or some really wild, evil cabal? The moment you say those words you already sound like you are having mental problems. Doctors will definitely not be going to believe.
The challenge we wanted was for a character to have to convince his family, his friends and his doctors of something that is inconceivable where no one in the real world is going to believe that. We put that in a genre we enjoyed which was horror. Now we thought maybe we would make that movie, but I joined the Army and Andy got married and moved to Florida. The wild thing is that you never know what you write today may be a movie in five or ten years. I lived a whole crazy life in between thinking of the story while tending bar with my buddy and then going into the Army. The difference in the time gap was about seven years. I could not have guessed that would have happened, especially with Frankie Muniz.
The creative part I was very comfortable with in the directing and writing having made many short films. I got an MFA from Mt. Saint Mary's University with the GI Bill, which is a beautiful thing, loves the GI Bill. I owe so much to the GI Bill. So, I got very comfortable with the directing portion where you get very creative to bring this vision and feeling and this emotion you have to life in a very technical way. It is running the business, the producing part of things, to where you are starting a business, you are an entrepreneur. My producing partner Richard Handley, he is a Navy veteran and was an officer and Physician's Assistant, he runs a contracting business with the DoD. We ran a business together where many purely creative types don't understand what that level of dedication and commitment is.
To this day I have had probably had equal amounts of discussions about corporate taxes, LLCs, investor shares and running a business as I have about storyboarding shots. When you are doing an independent film like this, truly a passion project, you are building a team that is not a whole lot different…then opening a small company. You and your business partner are shouldering the burden if not for months, but for years. You have to love it and I do where it has been a great journey to where we had such great crew members and other producers that have helped us along the way. It is a multiple year endeavor when you do something like that in the independent world. You really are from the very beginning of raising money all the way to negotiating with distributors and foreign distributors and how you cut checks to your investors. It's a true business education and kind of feels like I got this mini MBA education.
That was unexpected but the directing part was just amazing. Working with such talented people and friends that I had before joining the Army…we really were able to bring a lot of relationships such as Ravi Patel I bartended with as well. Cullen Douglas and Ravi and I did a TV pilot in like 2008. It was amazing to be able to reach back to my pre-Army friends that are so talented and my post Army, new team of filmmaking friends and bring everybody together. We called on so many favors. We had such great support from Mt. Saint Mary's, VME and Vega Baby. We called in every favor where it is such a positive experience. When we landed in Frankie Muniz where he is a champ.
He brought his "A game" even for the tiny movie it was. He loved the character and the chance to do something different. He gave everything to our tiny project as he would have to our multi-million-dollar project. He treated us with respect, and he treated the script with respect. He came to set daily with a big folder of his personal notes. He was meticulous like a pro and his level of preparation and how he kept track of everything and what he brought was just amazing. He took that movie and made it really something different than perhaps something we thought. Frankie made it his Breaking Bad character. Like his Malcolm in the Middle dad, Bryan Cranston did on Breaking Bad. He was still kind of that funny person but had a much darker take on it. It is a dark twist on that guy you already know. Frankie imbued the role in the film with his Malcolm in the Middle persona, but whoa that is the dark side of it. What happened? Like Breaking Bad, what went wrong? To work with a pro, I learned.
To be able to work with actors like Ravi, Frankie, Cullen, Oded and Chelsea where they are people that do this for a living to be able to work with people like that and be creative partners with them for my first feature was inspiring. To see how a team can really work with everybody really contributing some high-level creativity. Everyone on the team had so much to add. You have to shepherd the project to where everyone stays on track, but still allow personal creative contributions from cast members. A director is like a manager of a company. You have to work with the talent, resources and the money of your company. You still have to get to the goal, but you can't be resistant to some things that are great new ideas.
Hanson and Handley on stage at the GI Film Festival. Photo credit BH.
WATM: What leadership lessons in life and from the Army have helped you most in your career?
"No excuses" and intense preparation for a project. It is preparing like you are the best and spending hours a day preparing. Don't assume, always do pre-combat inspections. It is having everything truly ready to go. Because once you arrive on set and once you arrive at that location it needs to be ready and needs to be operational. If not you, need to have a back-up plan. Research and having contingency plans. Checking your equipment and your team. It can be seen as micromanaging, but it doesn't have to be that bad. In the military everybody checks their troops. It's just how it is to make sure your guys and your buddies are ready to go. I think that can be transferred to the civilian world and film production.
Screen capture of The Black String. Photo credit BH.
WATM: As a service, how do we get more veteran stories told in the Hollywood arena?
We need support from great organizations to promote veteran voices and veteran creators. Such organizations as We Are The Mighty, Veterans in Media and Entertainment (VME), of which I volunteer heavily with, the USVAA, United States Veteran Artistic Alliance, and the WGA Writer's Guild Foundation do support veterans. We need the support from industry professionals and organizations. They are out there, and they are growing. I think that with the people in the position in power right now, the producers and executives that can green light things, I do think they do a really good job where there is always a presence of the military and law enforcement. There are always more and different perspectives. To keep in mind and do the rote, stereotypical type of story lines. There are a lot of really nuanced, interesting and unexpected perspectives that veterans can bring to the time-honored tradition of military inspired entertainment. The producers, executives and showrunners should be open to finding those unexpected angles to veteran stories.
Hanson with Steve Fiorina and Handley at the GI Film Festival. Photo credit BH.
WATM: What would you like to do next in your career?
I plan on directing my second film in 2021. My first one was the horror genre where my next one is likely going to be a thriller with a military character. I always want to do things that are thought provoking. I definitely want to challenge viewers and explore philosophies. …Christopher Nolan makes great entertainment and with challenging ideas and philosophies. He is an independent filmmaker making giant movies, which is something to strive for. Since I have completed my first film…I have been working to get on great television shows as a writer. There are so many stories to tell and I joined the Army and lived this life to help tell authentic stories. I would love to be in day in and day out be in a room with other story tellers creating an amazing show. Creating stories with a team. I will continue directing but would love to be in that writer's room doing innovative television.
Brian Matthew Rhys on "Perry Mason". Photo credit BH.
WATM: What are you most proud of in life and your career?
I am most proud of serving in the 75th Ranger Regiment. In a sense in my career I may never do anything as meaningful as that even if I make ten more movies or even if nominated for an Academy Award. I don't think that I'll ever be prouder than spending those days with my Ranger buddies in Afghanistan or sweating in Fort Benning. I am also proud of making that first movie and everyone that contributed to that colossal effort from nothing. Rich Handley and I being these recent film graduates decided to make a movie where we built that coalition from the ground up. It is an effort we are very proud of and what we did and everybody that was able to help us achieve that.
On the back end we got distribution through Grindstone and Lionsgate to where we had to find everything from scratch. The studio didn't fund this. Movie making is a risky endeavor and long commitment over many years. The movie has been out now over a year and we are still making producer phone calls and receiving emails four years later. When you divide the money, you might make on the back end of an indie film and divide the hours by what you put in it, there might not be much money so that passion that drives you to keep working. There is a bond between people that have that level of passion to work 15-hour days. You are not really thinking about the paycheck where you are there to get the job done because you believe it is similar to the military mindset.My wife Yani Navas-Hanson is from Venezuelan; she left the country and I met her in Atlanta when I was at Fort Benning and she was studying at Georgia Tech. She was the accountant by trade and then was our accountant on the movie. She left her country, learned English here in the US and transitioned from corporate accounting to entertainment accounting and from taking on the challenges of an independent film. What someone like her can accomplish if they are driven and keep pushing forward and to be able to accomplish that in a few years is amazing. People do have to surround themselves with the right people. If you are in a relationship with someone who is not supportive with this career path or your family is not supportive, then you might have a tough time during the ups and downs. Family and friend support is crucial. I have fantastic and supportive friends and family.