It wasn’t made to be a political film. The new short Day One was supposed to explore the contradictions of war, the heartbreaking sacrifice, and the unlikely humanity found in battle.
It even had an unlikely champion: Star Wars creator George Lucas, who became a mentor to the soldier-turned-filmmaker Henry Hughes when he became a student at the American Film Institute after serving two combat tours in Afghanistan.
Now, Day One stands for even more than Hughes thought.
His movie focuses on an Afghan-American woman’s first day working as a translator for the U.S. military in Afghanistan. It’s based on his own experiences working alongside a dauntless female translator when he was an infantry soldier and paratrooper in the 173rd Airborne.
And at a time when Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has called for a ban on Muslims entering the United States, Day One – which has made the short-list of eligible films for the live-action short Academy Award nomination – is a uncompromising indictment of anti-Islamic hatred and panic. It’s also a soldier’s-view testament to the contributions of Muslim Americans in the fight against terror.
The short is currently in negotiations for distribution, and Hughes is hoping to develop it into a full-length feature film. Entertainment Weekly interviewed the writer-director about his Afghan translator’s real-life heroism, landing the Star Wars creator as his filmmaking Yoda, and Trump’s “un-American” proposals.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Some directors come from generations of filmmakers, but you come from a five-generation military family, is that right?
HENRY HUGHES: Yeah, it’s basically the family business. We came over as indentured servants, and then we were Quakers, and then we decided we were going to join the Army. Basically, on both sides of my family, it goes back as far as there’s been an America. That’s just what we do.
So a distant relative fought in Revolutionary War, too?
That’s right. Yeah, my oldest ancestor fought in the Revolution. And it’s his handwriting that’s on the Declaration of Independence. He was the scribe. His name’s Timothy Matlack. I mean, we’re not like land-owning gentry, but we were there to write down the words of those who were.
So where did you grow up? Was your father career military?
He was. Yeah, he was a colonel in the Army, and my mother was a captain. And so we kind of just moved around a lot, a lot of the South. I often say Kentucky is my home, but I grew up in Texas, Kentucky, Germany, Georgia, DC, Pennsylvania. It’s a long list.
When you entered the military, you were in the 173rd Airborne, serving as a paratrooper.
I got to be a scout, and be a paratrooper. [My friends and I] got to do the exact thing that we wanted to do, which was just be hardcore infantry, jumping out of airplanes, and living off of what you could carry.
You served two tours overseas, right?
Yeah, I was 22 on my first tour, and then 24 on my second tour.
When you went over to Afghanistan, did you already know you had this desire to tell stories, or did that come about later?
That’s always been there, I think. It started for me with skateboard videos, actually. I was a big skateboarder when I was younger. For me, I always had to do this Army thing. And then if I could be that guy, then I could be the filmmaker guy. I just knew that I had to close one chapter before I could start the other.
You saw serious combat while you were overseas. Veterans don’t always talk about it. With Day One, was it hard to make a film about the experience?
No, I think it’s important to talk about it, trying to find the truth of why it is we kill each other. I don’t think there are any simple, like reducible statements: like, this is what war is. It can be many things. It was surprisingly fun. It was an insane amount of fun. And it’s hard to tell someone that. It’s incredibly spiritual at times, where you feel very one with the land, or you become a greater organism of like 40 infantrymen moving together as one. It’s a very transcendent moment. And then it also shatters morality at times, where things don’t make sense, and you realize that this order that you create is not really doing what it’s supposed to do. There’s a great quote that I found recently that I love. And it says, war compresses the greatest opposites in the shortest space in the smallest time. I agree with that. It’s like hyperbolic life.
You’ve focused the story on a woman, an Afghan-American who goes back to her home country to serve in the American military as a translator. Tell me about why you decided to do that.
I did two tours. And my first tour was on this remote mountaintop. Then my second tour was in the low ground with a bunch of IEDs. But what was amazing about that experience was that I had a female interpreter. And that kind of changed how I saw the war. She was essentially Lawrence of Arabia meets like Tammy Wynette, going through a bad divorce. She’s this American girl. She is Pashtun, which is one of the tribes in Afghanistan. She immigrated, but she is a naturalized citizen.
How did the real woman end up back in her homeland, working for the Army?
She basically had a big event in her life where she was divorced, and she didn’t know what to do. And so her Eat, Pray, Love moment was being with 40 infantrymen in Afghanistan. That’s how she went about finding herself. And I thought that that story is much more interesting than say, a young, idealistic white guy goes to war and finds out that war is hard to understand.
I imagine you relied on her a lot. An exchange of words from a good translator can sometimes help prevent bullets from having to be exchanged, right?
Oh, certainly. She was the only one that could communicate. And that’s what our job was, was to be able to understand what was dangerous, and what was safe, and how to help, and how to not help and back out of situations. I mean, I can’t tell you the amount of information and intelligence that made our job easier and safer because she was there. I mean, she was absolutely the most valuable asset we had.
There’s a scene in the movie where she is going to the bathroom behind a bush while they’re out patrolling for IEDs and a blast goes off, leading to a kind of panic and disorientation. That’s inspired by something that really happened to you and your interpreter, right?
Basically what had happened was that we were trying to find all these IEDs one day. And we found four of them, and it was getting dark, and I knew that we were going to find more in the dark. But that meant that we’d probably find them by exploding, and not disarming them. And so we ended up staying there for the night. And then she went to go use the restroom, and basically a motorcyclist drove by us. And a few hundred meters down the road, this guy blew up. That IED was meant for us. And so that sort of like shock, that’s the kind of thing that I think war can encapsulate. I mean, I watched this motorcyclist drive by. I should’ve said something. I didn’t. It just didn’t even occur to me. And that small oversight ended his life.
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Another important thing about Day One that really struck me is, it comes at a time where we have a major presidential candidate saying a Muslim registry sounds like a good idea. [Note: This interview was conducted before Trump called to block Muslims from entering the U.S.] But Day One shows a different perspective on this woman, a Muslim, a servicewoman, an American. She’s all these different things.
Yeah, she is. I didn’t have any political agenda when I made this film. But I mean, I think it’s downright un-American to consider that we should have some sort of registry. I mean, it’s hard to use the word “hero” because — it’s overused, honestly. But I do think that my interpreter is absolutely a heroic person, and she’s done more for America than most people have. It just seems so short-sighted, and against the fundamentals of why we formed as a country. I mean, it’s really unfortunate, actually, because there are so many people that were Muslim that helped us. It’s just so oversimplified to consider it a clash of cultures. It’s not really what it is.
Has she seen the film?
She has, yeah. [Laughs] First she thought it was risqué, which is funny, because, you know, she comes from a very conservative culture. And so to see, you know, there’s a birth in the film. And a shower scene. She realizes that it’s not necessarily her that’s on screen. It’s memories of her combined with this new character that I wrote. And so I know she enjoys saying, “I know where you got that idea.” It’s a weird diary, in some ways, and it’s also completely not us in other ways.
You came back to the U.S. and started this new career for yourself as a filmmaker. You went to the American Film Institute. You’ve also made a connection with a pretty iconic filmmaker – Star Wars creator George Lucas. How did that come about?
I was as surprised as anybody! But there is a veterans’ organization called American Corporate Partners. And they find a veteran in search of a mentor, and this mentor is in a profession or industry that the veteran is pursuing. I happened to get George Lucas. That was the crazy part. Like, someone got Tom Hanks. Some celebrities volunteered to be mentors. And so [Lucas] saw some of my earlier work, and I guess he agreed that it was okay enough to mentor me.
How long have you known him?
I’ve been showing him my work over the last two years, and he gives me advice, and nudges me here and there. The man’s a titan, but he’s still a human. The notes I get from him, they simply have perspective. He doesn’t care about the minutiae. He has much more of a longer vision than he does a shorter one.
What kind of guidance does he offer?
He asked me who I made films for, if I made films for filmmakers, or I made films for an audience. He said it’s an important question you had to ask. And he said that his first two films were the same films, THX-1138 and American Graffiti. And it was basically about people trying to escape a situation. But he made one for filmmakers, and one for an audience. And he said at the end of making American Graffiti, he realized what kind of filmmaker he wanted to be, I suppose more of a populist trying to reach more of a mass audience.
It’s a hard question.
Every little filmmaker wants to say, well, I want to do both. Or I make it for me. And it’s not as helpful, I think, to understand it. What he’s talking about is language and communication. And yeah, it took me a while. But over time, I came to realize that I do want to communicate to a larger audience.
Day One is a 30-minute film. Is it part of a larger narrative that you hope to explore in the future?
Yes, I’m currently developing a feature based on the interpreter character. I just think that she has an inspiring story that needs to be told. And it’s a really fresh approach. This female character in this masculine world where we’re talking about combat in Afghanistan and the military. I think that for me, when I watched a lot of war genre or war movies, I don’t know if there’s a lot of spirituality, or I don’t connect with the material that much, and I think it’s a little tired. I think that we all know the conventions, and we all expect that someone’s going to die and find out that war is bad. And it’s so much more than that.