Henry “Hank” Hughes is a Writer/Director, Army veteran and Academy Award nominee for his short film Day One. Day One received critical appraisal and earned him a Best Narrative (short) Gold Medal at 42nd Annual Student Film Awards, BAFTA US Student Award at 2016 BAFTA/LA Student Film Awards and Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film nomination at 88th Academy Awards. His most recent work is where he co-produced The Outpost, which was released this past summer to positive reviews. The Outpost depicts the Battle of Kamdesh based on Jake Tapper’s book of the same name. Hughes served in the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team while in the Army and deployed to Afghanistan twice during his service. He continues his creative work in Hollywood as a continued patriot, storyteller and American Film Institute graduate.
- Can you share about your family and your life growing up?
We have been a military family since 1775. It’s kind of Lt. Dan (from Forrest Gump) situation where our oldest relative is a Quaker. He quit being a Quaker so he could fight in the Revolution. He was the scribe for the Declaration of Independence so its his handwriting on the document. His father had been an indentured servant from England and a Quaker. Since then we have all been in the Army through all of the American wars. So, I grew up with my dad having three siblings all in the Army. My mom, who is Italian-American, as soon as they got here her father joined the Army and her twin brother is in the Army. My parents met in the Army where they are loving and progressive people. My mom is a speech therapist and a special education teacher. She has a lot of empathy. A lot of spirituality comes from my father because he is a devout Catholic. They look for the meaning in things which led me toward storytelling.
My great grandfather was a spy for the US during the Cold War, and we had a relative that fought in the Civil War. He was in New Orleans as an occupier from the Union Army during the war where he met his wife there where she threw pee on him since he was from the North. I made a lot of skateboarding videos growing and love skateboarding. Watched a lot of Tony Hawk and Chad Muska, where Muska was a hero of mine. I picked up skating while in Germany where my dad was stationed in Heidelberg. That was me and my buddy’s identity in our early teen years. Germany is like a second home to me. My sophomore year of high school we moved to Fort Knox, KY where it was not as accessible as Heidelberg was with the mass transit.
- What made you want to become a soldier and what was your experience like?
Family tradition. I always knew I was going to join the Army and I am Henry Hughes IV where all of the other Henrys had been in the Army. I knew I would only do it for a time not a career, especially as an officer. I liked the Captain and tactical and below level interesting. The higher parts were not as interesting to me. Being a Platoon Leader was amazing. I went to Boston University and studied Film and English. I was probably a mediocre cadet where I had other priorities at the time. I became an armor office because my dad was armor, so it seemed like the smart thing to do. I learned all this stuff on tanks and basically became an infantryman upon going to the 173rd. I did a bunch of the schools, Scout Leaders, Airborne and Ranger which took over a year. My unit was in Afghanistan and wrote my battalion commander about having Thanksgiving with my family and joining the unit afterwards in Afghanistan.
A friend from high school and neighbor during my skate boarder days in Heidelberg who I had lost touch with was in the same unit, the 173rd. I had planned on linking up with him once I got to my unit in Afghanistan. Upon graduating Ranger School my father informed me my friend had died during my first or second week of the schoolhouse. He had been killed in action. His name is Ben Hall and he was killed in action on August 3rd, 2007.Three or four lieutenants died there where the combat was pretty intense. The Battle of Wanat, and Battle of Ranch House took place when I was there, where they are similar to The Outpost. I did have a moment in college where I thought, “do I really want to go to war?” I decided if I was going to go, then go do it all the way.
I got to go twice to Afghanistan and the second time got to work with a specialty platoon that targeted bomb makers. We had Explosive Ordnance Disposal, Military Working Dogs and a Female Engagement Team, which made us like a CSI/SWAT mix where we gather evidence at bomb sites, link it to a bomb maker and then try to track down the bomb maker. It was much more personnel in my second deployment. My first deployment was fighting hillside to hillside where on the second one we were going into people’s homes at night which made it unpleasant at times. We disrupted them in their sleep and took their children to another room. Day One is about that idea of going into people’s lives.
On my second deployment I had a female interpreter where she became the genesis for Day One. She was such an incredible person so everything I did was through her. I had this woman’s voice for an entire year where I had never seen that in a war film. It was so particular to my experience. We had an instance where an Afghani man brought us his wife with a child sticking out of her where the Army medics had to help deliver her. I combined those two stories for Day One. I am very proud of my military heritage and where I come from. It is inescapable in many ways as I continue to grow as a person, I will forever be a part of that time. I don’t want to lose it and, in many ways, it was a second family. I can’t let down my friends from that time and that bond. I have more of a responsibility of me to them than of them to me.
- What are you most proud of from your service in the Army?
I am most proud that my friends from that time reach out to me to talk to about things they are feeling. I did three or four years of therapy to understand my own feelings during that time. I am very proud to help other people I care about help navigate their feelings from that time.
I love being from 173rd and love that unit. I do love the Army but have a stupid attachment to the 173rd that I would call childlike for another person. There is something about being from that unit that I just adore. I would make stupid mistakes in defending its honor for some reason that wouldn’t matter. The Army is so big, and a machine where I felt like a shock trooper with 173rd, very close knit.
- What values have you carried over from the Army into Hollywood?
Integrity. I found that lying gets you nowhere. It always comes out. I try to be very frank and try to maintain a dialogue similar to my time as a young leader. There is an openness and integrity that I learned from there that is avoidant behaviors that people partake in Hollywood. Ghosting is a simple way to look at it where if you avoid talking with someone or a problem it will go away. I think that makes it stew and creates other problems. What you see is what you get creates an actual better creative environment where there is no different understanding or subterfuge where I will be honest with them about their ideas. Whenever that I speak it is coming from a place of truth and knowledge. It gets the ego out of the way. Dishonesty and subterfuge can work in the short term where long term of strategy is not going to pan out. No one wants to work with someone they can’t trust.
- What was one of the toughest lessons to learn coming from the service to Hollywood?
Failure in the military can be catastrophic. Failure in the civilian world or Hollywood might feel like it is, but it isn’t. I would sometimes take on a failure in the civilian world as it were the same as when my platoon sergeant got wounded where it was my fault. It is not true and only a feeling, so partially true. There was so much responsibility inside of being a platoon leader where I absolutely cared about my platoon sergeant. I would sometimes write a story or have interactions within the industry where I felt like I failed on the same level. Failure in the military is binary; you live, or you die. Out here it is a spectrum and failures are a place to learn from. I had to adjust my emotional relationship with failure.
- What was it like working on projects such as Day One and The Outpost?
Very rewarding to me because I love having a product I worked hard on. I have even gotten into building stuff with wood where I have made four desks now. Day One involved more of my war time experience even though The Outpost is more autobiographical. I am thankful to explore those times from my life. The Outpost was very strange to me because that place doesn’t exist anymore. There is a distinction in my life from before I went to Camp Keating and after I went to Camp Keating. It’s like there is a big turn in my life. I was at Camp Keating in 2008, a year before the battle from The Outpost.
To be able to go back there in this surreal and make-believe way where they recreated The Outpost and it looks incredible was amazing. It was like walking into a memory and it felt exactly like I was there. It was just surreal to go back in this fantastic way. My mom came to set for the last three days. I got to show her where my bunk was and what the base looked like. I took her to the closest thing possible to show her what that was like in Afghanistan. I feel very fortunate that I get to do the things that have such meaning to me. I live a good life now where I get to work on things I like.
Daniel Rodriguez, veteran of the Army and the Battle of Kamdesh, acted in the movie as himself and wrote a great book called Rise: A Soldier, a Dream, and a Promise Kept. He has a music career now and is a great guy, so it was good working with him and fellow veterans on the film.
- What leadership lessons in life and from the Army have helped you most in your career?
Knowing who is in charge and when. Working with EOD where when we got to the bomb site they were in charge. You may think you are always have the right answer as the Platoon Leader where you are not. You need to listen to and lean on the experience of your senior NCOs. I need to know what right sounds like and as a leader I need to be able to listen. Once you get everyone thinking then you can work like a well oiled machine. In Hollywood they say the best idea wins where a costume designer may have the best idea on part of the project, where you should listen to them and their expertise.
- As a service member, how do we get more veteran stories told in the Hollywood arena?
There is a huge separation between the life of the soldier and the life of the civilian. We need to bridge that gap. There is a warrior class in our society and those that wouldn’t even think of joining the service. We need to tell more personal and authentic stories of our culture. We have had a fair number of outsiders of what they think the culture is about and the things that they find interesting we might find commonplace so there is a disconnect there. It is empowering people from our own culture to tell our stories. People will eventually be able to understand it to where it is not Hollywood blood and guts of it all. People would never think that my mom and dad in the Army. They were both soldiers. They don’t think about that part of it where they only think of the infantry stuff. We only see one small slice. Policing is not about guns and raids it is this whole community thing. We need to see the whole spectrum.
- What would you like to do next in your career?
I would like to produce a feature film. I rewrote the script for The Outpost, was a co-producer and got the chance to act, which I never thought I would be an actor. I would love to be able to make my own movie. I did a feature version of Day One and am trying to get that made. I am writing some other scripts as well. I would like to make movies and TV shows from this culture I came from. Maybe one day I will do something that is not military related. Some people warn me about not being “pigeonholed,” which is a “champagne problem.” The military culture has not really been explored. I haven’t really seen it in movies in a way that I would like to dig into about my family.
- What are you most proud of in life and your career?
The circle of people I keep around me with family and friends. I have a solid circle of love.