The Best Live Action Short Film category at this year’s Oscars is packed with talent. Chief among them is “Day One,” the AFI master’s thesis brainchild of writer and director Henry “Hank” Hughes.
“Day One” features Feda, a US Army interpreter, and her first day in Afghanistan that goes horribly wrong. The film is told from Feda’s point of view as a female soldier and provides insight into a soldier’s view of the war. It is timely and uncompromising, and sometimes, almost unbearably honest in its portrayal of war, being a woman in a man’s world, and vast culture differences.
Although technically created as a student film (among its many accolades, it won at the Student Academy Awards in the narrative category), it’s a beautiful, well-made film that is evocative and emotional.
This is largely due to Layla Alizada, who shines in the lead role of Feda.
I spoke to Alizada about the project, how she feels about the film’s shocking moments, and what’s next:
To start us off, how did you come to be involved in the film?
Alizada: I got involved in Day One because I had worked with Hank [Hughes] on a previous incarnation of Day One, about eight months before we actually started shooting Day One, and he asked me to reprise my role once he decided he was going to shoot this as his thesis film. I loved working with him the first time around and I was very excited to be given the chance to work with him some more.
How much did the two projects differ?
Alizada: They differed in the sense that the storyline was different, but my character was based on the same person in both. There were similar circumstances but the overall story was different. I don’t want to give anything away in terms of the storyline, maybe for the people who haven’t seen Day One. [laughs]
There are some very shocking moments in the film. When you read the script were you shocked? What was your reaction to it?
Alizada: It’s so funny because I remember reading the script, and I’ve seen the film several times now, and I still find myself, even though it’s me up there, being like, ‘Oh my God! Oh my God! What’s going to happen? No, don’t do that!’ So I feel like that’s part of compelling storytelling for me, when it can hook you in like that! And what I appreciated about reading the script was that it’s very raw and unapologetic. And that’s exciting to me, to present that and be a part of a project that explores that.
How did you prepare for the role? Did you get to speak to the woman that your character is based on?
Alizada: I did not get to speak with her. Hank was our conduit and he was a wealth of information. So, it’s inspired by her but it’s not an actual depiction of a real person, and that was an important differentiation that we had to make. There were elements that I wanted to make sure I honored, and also there were some creative freedoms that I brought to the role. Hank was an amazing wealth of information for that. I also did some research and have a family friend who had worked in a similar capacity as an interpreter in Afghanistan. So, I spoke to him, which was very eye-opening. Through our conversations, it really cemented this huge responsibility an interpreter has as the lifeline of communication and also of culture differences. So, that was all very helpful in my preparations.
What were some of your favorite memories from set?
Alizada: Oh my God, there were so many! I would say the last day is always very meaningful to me on shoots where there’s a journey for the character I’m playing. I remember shooting our last scene – I believe it was the last scene of the movie – and everybody was on set, and we wrapped up and I remember just looking out at everyone. They’re all so committed throughout the whole process of filming, and it just all felt sort of cathartic. I remember the sun was going down, and it was just beautiful because we shot on location in Santa Clarita in the desert. So that was really a visual moment that I won’t ever forget.
How long was filming?
Alizada: We shot for about seven days initially, and then there were a few days of reshoots a couple months after.
I’m dying to know (and very jealous if the answer is yes): are you going to be attending the Oscars this year?
Alizada: That is still in the works. I am going to some after parties and stuff, so we’re trying to figure it out. There is a specific allotment of tickets so I know that they are working on it right now. So I am keeping my fingers crossed.
My fingers are crossed for you! So when you watch the film, what do you get out of it and what do you hope that audiences get out of it?
Alizada: I think it’s hard to distill the messages of the film, for me. What I think is important, is for audiences who watch Day One to be emotionally affected somehow. That the film would elicit curiosity and conversation about war and the effects it has on people and the interconnectedness of all people. That’s my hope.
When I talked to Hank, he mentioned that Day One was initially in the works to be made into a feature film, but that is being shelved for the time being to make way for a television series based on it. Would you be interested, or are you already involved in, either a TV series or feature film version of Day One?
Alizada: Of course! I mean, it’s such a process in terms of making a TV series, you know? And I know he’s involved in making that happen right now. There’s such good TV out right now, so I think that would be a great form to sort of explore this world in. So I think that’s very exciting and I would love to be involved in that. But there’s so many factors that go into that and casting is one of the later stages, so we’ll see what happens with all that. But I would love to work with Hank. I think he’s an amazing storyteller, very truthful.
Along those lines, where can we expect to see you next?
Alizada: There’s a few projects that are in the works that I can’t talk about yet, but I just finished shooting a new episode of the TV show Castle a couple of weeks ago. That’s a really fun part.