Hughes’ short film, “Day One,” is up for Best Live Action Short Film at this year’s Academy Awards. He was inspired to make the film, which features a female US Army interpreter’s first day in Afghanistan that goes horribly wrong, after his own experiences in the Army. Hughes served two tours in Afghanistan.
The film provides a soldier’s view of the war, and includes the contributions of women (including Afghan-Americans). It is timely and uncompromising, and sometimes, almost unbearably honest.
I spoke to Hughes about the project, his chance mentorship with George Lucas, and what’s next:
The film is largely inspired by your own experience, including working with a female interpreter, who you call “your muse.” Does she know the film is about her?
Hughes: She does, yeah. I don’t give out her individual information, yet, as it’s a matter of being a safety concern, with her family still being in areas that are unsafe.
Has she seen the film? What did she think?
Hughes: She has seen the film, yeah. She thinks it’s a bit taboo, I suppose. But I mean, she liked it. We’re very good friends, so she’s been very kind in allowing me to use her sort of as a muse for the backstory. And where those lines blur [between fact and fiction] is sort of funny to her, I suppose. I know she comes from a pretty conservative culture, and the fact that there’s a birth in the film is a very sensitive matter that wouldn’t necessarily be shared with those audiences, per se, so that’s why I say she thinks of it as taboo. But she does like it, and she can see it and be like, ‘Oh, I know where that moment came from,’ or ‘I know this moment is fiction.’ It’s a weird kind of journal of what our experiences were.
In the film, the interpreter, Feda, has to deliver the baby of an enemy bomb-maker on her first day. Did that actually happen?
Hughes: So, basically, there’s the parts that are inspired by a person – my friend, the interpreter – but there was a moment when a woman did come to our base with a child sticking out of her. So it was all inspired by sort of collective experiences, like that character and that event. Although they were separate experiences, they did happen in history, if that makes sense.
Did the desire to make films come before, during or after your time in Afghanistan?
Hughes: No, I always wanted to make movies, actually. It’s just that I came from a big military family, and I wanted to be a part of that legacy. But I went to undergraduate school at Boston University and I studied film and literature while I was there.
(Writer’s note: He went on to get his MFA in Directing from the American Film Institute. “Day One” was his master’s thesis.)
What do you hope audiences get out of the film?
Hughes: I don’t think I’ve really figured out what I want audiences to think, really. Just that… the truth that I can share with you is how the experience made me feel. My hope is that the movie makes you feel the way I felt while I was there.
When you set out to make this film, did the thought even cross your mind that, ‘Hey, I could get an Oscar for this?’
Hughes: (Laughs) Well, I made this as a student, so no, I guess. The longer answer is that I was hoping it would win the Student Academy Award, but no, I didn’t think that I would get nominated for an Oscar.
I heard that George Lucas is a mentor to you. Can you tell me more about that?
Hughes: Sure! Well, I’m a veteran, and he decided to be part of a veteran outreach program through American Corporate Partners, and they basically pair you with a mentor. I got George Lucas; someone got Tom Hanks. Someone else got whoever else. There was a PR push, and he had seen some of my earlier work and I guess he liked it enough! He’s been incredibly generous. I’ll show him my work from time-to-time, and he sort of opened up his company – well, it’s not his company any more but at the time it was – and I got to meet a ton of people that I got to work with later. And I just built so many relationships, and he gave me advice.
Any advice that you care to share?
Hughes: We would talk at length about film, who we make films for. Whether it’s for different filmmakers or the population. He said that at some point you have to make the decision, like he did early on. His first few films were much different than each other, and he basically tells me that cinema is who you make films for, whether that’s for filmmakers or for a bigger audience. It’s a tough question to ask yourself. Or, do I make both?
Fun question: If you win the Oscar, what will you do with it?
Hughes: (Laughs) Where will I put it? I thought about that. I don’t know. I can’t just leave it out; that’d be kind of weird. Where would I put it? I don’t know. You know what, I would put it out. I would put it in the corner of my office, nothing ridiculous.
What’s next for you? Would you consider doing a feature length version of “Day One?”
Hughes: I’m developing it into a TV series, actually. There’s a lot to be said about the culture. I really want to dive in deep. I don’t want to just focus on the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, I want it to look at the culture of the military. I’d like to feature the interpreter character again, and a few other characters. But I would love to take a deeper look at how [military] culture works.
Any films in the works?
Hughes: I actually was developing this as a feature, but I pushed that to the side for the TV series.
So far, “Day One” has won the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Award for Best Directing for a Short, the Best Narrative (short) Gold Medal, the BAFTA US Student Award and the Stony Brook Film Festival jury’s award for Best Short, among others. The film also won Gold at the Student Academy Awards in the Narrative category.