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Marine turned producer, director and entrepreneur breaks down the movie biz

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Hart (center) on set for the TV Show Covert Action. Photo courtesy of Jody Hart.

Hart on set producing Street. Photo courtesy of Jody Hart.

Marine and Hollywood entrepreneur Jody Hart provides his wisdom and experience from working his way up in the industry. Hart spent time in the Marine Corps post-high school in the mid-1990s from 92-96. After his time in the USMC, he fell into his Hollywood career through a chance film shoot close to his home. After he returned home to Oregon, he learned Hollywood was in town filming the movie “Without Limits” about the famous runner Steve Prefontaine. Like most of the townspeople, he signed on to be an extra. Hart ended up being right smack in the middle of the set as the Stanford Coach next to the stars of the film. Hart has worked on small projects to big ones such as TV shows like Alias, The Last Ship, Grimm, and S.W.A.T and films such as Kill Bill: Vol. 1, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, J. Edgar, Transformers, Race to Witch Mountain, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and The Italian Job.

Hart’s Bootcamp platoon photo. Photo courtesy of Jody Hart.

Hart grew up in Oregon with a strong sense of country and the outdoors. He comes from a close-knit family that enjoyed camping, hiking and fishing. He shared that he had a, “…good childhood and the core values stressed by my family respect elders and authority, take responsibility for your own actions where if you have done something wrong you take your punishment and move on.” Respect the law and being a good person were stressed as well. His father taught him to, “Stand up for what you believe in and don’t be a bully.”

Hart (center left) with Patricia Arquette and his Combat Casting crew on Medium. Photo courtesy of Jody Hart.

He shared, “I played football in high school, but my grades were not good enough for a college scholarship.” He grew up knowing about his family history of service. “I knew my father was in the Air Force,” Hart said. “My uncle was in the Army and my other uncle was in the Navy, and my grandfather was in the Army in World War II.” The first Gulf War was going on while Hart was in college. He commented about the day he joined the Corps. “It was raining one day, and I got in my jeep for a ride. I ended up at the Marine Corps recruiting station which was located in a shopping area. I sat there for an hour daydreaming and then left.” He returned the next day to check out the Air Force. He stated, “I went in and the Air Force recruiter asked me if I had issues they should know about. I had several run-ins with the law which kept me from going into the Air Force, but the Marine Corps took me.”

Hart’s family tradition of military service. Photo courtesy of Jody Hart.

Hart said, “I served in logistics as a warehouseman. We had a high cutting score for the MOS which made it a challenge to make Corporal.” He started out as a warehouse clerk but only did about five months of it. Because Hart’s father worked for IBM after he served in the Air Force, Hart was exposed to computers before much of the population — he even programmed his own games on the ATARI 400. In 1992 computers were still using the DOS system, it wasn’t until 1998 with Windows 98 that home computers boomed. So, when Hart’s staff sergeant asked his Marines who had computer experience Hart raised his hand. From that point on his MOS was 0151 Administrative Clerk. Hart’s experience of running the company office helped him with creating and running his own business – Combat Casting and his production companies. The biggest takeaway from my service is troop welfare.” He credits his service in the Corps with starting his own veteran-based business.

Hart’s training in troop welfare helped him look out for his employees at Combat Casting, which was the first-ever veteran casting company and was started in 2001. He shared, “We specialized in casting military and law enforcement veterans on Film, TV, Commercials/Print, Video Games, PSAs and government training films which started when I was a technical adviser on Alias and Crossing Jordan. I had a core group of about 20 guys on a couple of shows which the company got bigger over time. Our first big film was The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement. I set up the Genovian Royal Guard for the film. It is hard to be completely military accurate in films, luckily the Genovian Royal Guard was not real, and the director Gary Marshall preferred us to make comical mistakes like crashing into each other when marching.”

Hart (center) on set the set of Numb3rs with Lou Diamond Phillips (left of Hart). Photo courtesy of Jody Hart.

Commitment and dedication are vital to being successful in Hollywood, if you don’t have it you won’t go far. Hart stated, “It is probably the hardest job outside of being an astronaut or President of the United States. So many people come here and quit after less than a year.” He understands how long it takes to make it in the industry and provided a valuable piece of wisdom: “It takes about five years for Hollywood to know who you are and if they don’t know you by name, they won’t call you by name when it comes to casting.” Hart elaborated, “Hollywood is an endurance race and not a sprint where you have to be dedicated to your craft and your dreams to be successful.”

Hart on the Netflix red carpet. Photo courtesy of Jody Hart.

When asked what he was most proud of, Hart said, “I am most proud of just having served in the Corps. I signed up for the first Gulf War, but it was so short-lived, so I missed the chance to serve in combat, which I regret.” Hart understands the sacrifices made by veterans and how hard it is coming back out of the service to the civilian sector. He shared, “I do believe my role in founding Combat Casting was a way to give back and support my brothers and sisters that had served. Combat Casting changed how Hollywood looked at veterans. Our veterans showed real professionalism and worked as a team on set. We helped bring back the old days of Hollywood where it when it was filled with actors, producers, writers, directors who also served during WWII. We made life easier for productions to want to hire us because we were professional.”

Hart in the USMC aboard the USS Carl Vinson. Photo courtesy of Jody Hart.

There are many strong points to having veterans on set and working on projects. Hart explained, “It saved countless hours on set because I didn’t have to teach some extra how to hold a weapon. The veterans knew how to handle, fire and reload a weapon, which impressed the film crews. Hollywood started taking notice — you could see the difference when a show used veterans for soldiers or SWAT and how they moved and the attention to details on the uniforms. I believe Combat Casting helped raise the bar for how military and Law enforcement was portrayed in film and television.”

Hart (center right-back row) with actor Kevin Durand (center-back row) on the set of Smokin Aces. Photo courtesy of Jody Hart.

Hart started his career working as an extra on Without Limits as the Stanford coach. It was like a drug; he wanted more and moved back down to San Diego where he soon started working for Stu Segall Production as a prop person and armorer on tv shows like Pensacola: Wings of Gold and Silk Stalkings” He worked on Pensacola: Wings of Gold as a prop person and armorer. He said, “If I didn’t join the Marine Corps, I don’t know how my life would have turned out. It opened up so many different avenues for me.”

Hart with actor Gabriel Macht on Behind Enemy Lines. Photo courtesy of Jody Hart.

Combat Casting led him to create, produce and direct interactive training films for the military. In 2008 he started producing the Army 360, which was a “choose your own adventure” video educating troops on Cultural Awareness before they deployed around the world from Iraq, Afghanistan to Morocco, Sudan, Nigeria, Rwanda etc. As the viewer, you have to go through a PowerPoint presentation about a country and its population which is usually culture and values, beliefs, behaviors, and norms of a country. Then you go through the video which has seven decision points and seven learning points. Hart commented, “The decision point could be deadly. It was the first production to hire veterans as cast and crew across the board. This was the best OJT (On the Job Training) all of us veterans had. I was learning Producing and Directing while other veterans were learning and hone their acting skills or learning film crew jobs. It built up all of our resumes and allowed us to further our careers

Hart (center-second row) with his crew on set for the Air Force. Photo courtesy of Jody Hart.

He commented, “Because of the press we had from ABC and CNN news in 2006, Hollywood and LA started realizing the value of what we brought to productions. Films schools started opening up to veterans and allowing them to use the GI Bill.” Hart wishes he would have used his GI Bill to study film when he got out of the service not too many film schools were accepting it. He stated, “When I got out of the Marine Corps only one film school took the GI Bill which was the Academy of Performing Arts. The GI Bill had to be a four-year college and the film schools were not always a four-year degree.” He, unfortunately, lost his GI Bill benefits because he did not use them.

Hart with Vin Diesel on set for XXX. Photo courtesy of Jody Hart.

Hart provides insights into the industry: “On set I didn’t think I needed to go to school. What I have learned now I would like to have moved my career upwards into an executive role where they want a degree over years of experience. Use the GI Bill and go to film school at USC, UCLA or the like. Start there and get the degree so those doorways are open for you later in your career.”

Hart stated that the industry as a whole has a lot of ups and downs. Everyone has times where they have a flood of work and others when they are bone dry of work. You have to be smart with your money, you have always work on your craft and learn how to network. This business is about connections and being ready when opportunity knocks. He shared, “Less than 1% are the millionaire actors and producers where there is a lot of control in the upper echelons.” After over 20 years in the industry he has seen a lot of changes in Hollywood. Hart points out that in the early years of Hollywood a producer or director who say, “Hey kid I will make you a movie star,” whereas today you hear more, “What star is in your movie?” It has become more about selling the actor than the story. This can make it even harder to become an actor, you don’t get cast in a role you were born for because you are not a known name.

Hart does it all in the industry and is not afraid to try something new. He said, “I have been a jack of all trades — I love this business so much if someone asked to do something for a project, I would figure it out and take the job.” His jobs have varied on projects to include precision driving, stunts, acting, technical advising, producing and directing.

He stated, “I loved working on Alias; it was so much fun. Jennifer Garner is a sweetheart and I got to learn from one of the best directors in the business, J.J. Abrams.” Hart has worked with some high-level directors and producers,

 “I have worked with demanding professionals like Michael Bay where he hires the best crew and pays them top dollar. I have had the privilege of working and learning from some of the best producers and directors in the business, names like Clint Eastwood, J.J. Abrams, Michael Bay and Michael Mann and each are different in leadership skill. I try to take the best of each when I am producing or directing.”  

Michael Vartan, Jennifer Garner and Hart on the set of Alias. Photo courtesy of Jody Hart.

He always believes in the importance of professionalism and in keeping your bearing on set, “When things go wrong, and they will, you have to keep calm and work with your department heads to find a way to continue forward. You can’t let it get to you and you defiantly cannot let your cast and crew see you crack, because they will lose confidence in you as a leader.” Hart maintains his Marine sense of pride and carries that into his successful Hollywood career. He stated, “I am proud of my work with Combat Casting where I could give back to my brothers and sisters that served, especially since I was not able to serve in combat. My pride comes from great moments where the veterans really shined on set and the cast and crew recognized how professional they were.”

Hart recalled a moment that fits directly into his observation and belief in veterans with, “We had a moment when we’re filming a night vision product while shooting a police scene at an airport. It started to rain where my cinematographer put his hand out to feel the rain. Before he could tell his camera/grip team we would need to cover the car and cameras several of our cast and crew who were veterans marched in three ‘eazy up’ tents and covered the police car and all the cameras. The whole crew was amazed at their quick reaction and initiative, not to mention the teamwork from both our cast members and the crew. Most times the cast do not pitch in like this. This is why I am so proud to hire veterans. Everyone struggles, especially when they are new in Hollywood, they struggle to find work and pay their bills like many do in the industry. Hart would get calls from veterans at times through Combat Casting and he would not have any work for them. He said, “I would then make some phone calls to try and get the veteran some production assistant work or whatever. Or I would take myself off the job and let them take it. They appreciated the troop welfare and worked harder to represent the Combat Casting brand because of it, but to me it was like helping a friend. Yes, I might have been their employer, but we are a band of brothers, and we look out for each other even in Hollywood. It is a great feeling to have helped out other veterans.”

Hart (bottom left) on set with the cast from the TV show Las Vegas with James Caan, Josh Duhamel and James Lesure. Photo courtesy of Jody Hart.

He went into depth about enjoyable experiences on set with, “It was fun to work on Hancock where I was able to bring 20 Combat Casting members in on a job that was not military or SWAT. I was a part of a Precision Driving team and they needed a more skilled drivers than what they had at the time. I suggested veterans can follow orders and have experience in potentially dangerous atmosphere. The Precision Driving team was so impressed with the veterans many became permeant members and are still working with them today. The most fun I have had were my own productions because they were mostly just all veterans.” He did enjoy his time on director Tom Shadyac’s film “Evan Almighty” as well. Most importantly so because the production hired 40 veterans for the filming. He said, “Shadyac loved having fun, similar to Gary Marshall on “Princess Diaries: II” where Tom was going filming different actors and crew members dancing to the last song in the film to put into the end credits. Combat Casting got a group together for the filming with people dancing and doing backflips, which were two women veterans in police uniforms. We embraced it and had a lot of fun on set with him.”

He said, “Hollywood doesn’t do a lot of military stories but when they do it is either big-budget blockbusters or low-budget wannabes.” Hart shared, “They love them, and they hate them. It is either the big blockbuster films like “American Sniper” or “Lone Survivor” that are character-driven and tugs at your heartstrings. Or it is a low budget, wannabe “Delta Force” film that is done poorly in all aspects, uniforms, tactics and acting.” He believes great military stories are out there to be told but suggests to any veteran who wants to write a script about their story or any story, that they learn Hollywood story structure and then continue to work on your script, it will continue to change until a camera films it. He has been sent poorly done scripts that are over hundreds of pages long and not in the proper format.  He stated, “The biggest part is knowing the centralized theme to your story. What is the takeaway of your movie?” Hart also suggests, “Start with a novel. Hollywood likes having known IP such as a novel with a fanbase built-in.” He concludes with, “A good concept is to start with action when starting a screenplay. Get people in the action where they learn more about your character in the action…..and meet your characters under duress.”

Hart on set with fellow Marine veteran Captain Dale Dye, USMC (ret.). Photo courtesy of Jody Hart.

Hart is currently working on producing his second film that will also be his feature film directing debut with a film called Operation Jericho. His first film titled Street was filmed in 2014. The screenplay was written by fellow Marine and writer Jonathan M. Ball. It will be the first feature film to hire veterans in all aspects such as acting, directing, writing, producing, crew, postproduction and music. Hart’s “Dream Team” of the cast includes Mark Valley (Army) and Tucker Smallwood (Army) as Marine Corps Generals. He commented, “It is a military film with depth where it is the first hero film with the heroes Muslim-Americans. Our marketing is similar to that of “Act of Valor” which was a big success, due in part because the main cast was real Navy SEALs.” The film is currently in the funding stage as they have finished developing. He has his own company again as well; 1775 Pictures. The home website for the firm is www.1775pictures.com. The film’s logline is,

“While serving in the United States Marine Corps, two Muslim-American brothers are recruited by the CIA to infiltrate a terrorist cell in Afghanistan; struggling in the knowledge that destroying the whole village to kill one man will mean the loss of innocent life and true love.”

The story, in essence, is a love tale within different cultures through the lens of two Muslim-American brothers serving in the Marine Corps. True to the American motto, E Pluribus Unum (Out of many, One), our film’s storyline illustrates that American heroes come from every walk of life. – Jonathan M. Ball- Writer (Operation Jericho Novel & Script)

We wish Hart the best in his future endeavors and with his work in the Hollywood industry.