Veterans in Creative Careers: Giles Clarke, USC Alum and Filmmaker

Giles Clarke

Giles Clarke is a producer and writer based in Los Angeles. His most recent feature film, the dark comedy Life in Color, is due for release in 2015. Giles has also produced the short films HungerDough and Haven’s Point as well as Crazy, the recent music video for band: Max and the Moon. He was also the Unit Production Manager on the soon-to-premiere TV pilot, Bump & Grind. A graduate of the USC School of Cinematic Arts MFA film production program, Giles is a former infantry officer in the U.S. Marine Corps with over 8 years of service and three combat tours through Iraq and Afghanistan.

I was glad to be able to sit down with Giles on one of my trips to LA, and learned a lot from him. I am sure you will enjoy his advice as much as I have.



Justin Sloan: Giles, it was so great to meet you on one of my trips to LA and hear about all the cool stuff you have going on. I am proud to include you in my book, and want to thank you again for taking the time out of your busy schedule to share your thoughts with us. To get us started, can you tell my readers what you did in the military and whether you have seen any of that benefit you in Hollywood?

Giles Clarke:  I was a Marine Corps infantry officer with 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion out of 29 Palms. I deployed with them for the initial invasion of Iraq and again in 2004-2005 for Operation Phantom Fury in Fallujah and several other named operations. Following that I spent three years at MCRD Parris Island in the recruit training regiment as a Series Commander for Company G and Company Commander of Company E. At the end of that tour I had submitted my resignation paperwork, but cancelled it to do a year joint tour with Multi-National Corps-Iraq working as the ADC for the Deputy Commanding General.

As far as how that translates into the filmmaking world, military service gives you skills that will translate into success in ANY field. However, there are a lot of strong corollaries between the military and a film set.

Every production requires a level of planning and logistical support you commonly find only in the military. You often have to move large groups of people and equipment to remote locations and have a solid plan for food, water, power, and (most importantly) lavatories. You’re dealing with many different elements and departments and getting them to communicate and focus on a common objective.

There’s also a verbal shorthand used in filmmaking, similar to the military’s reliance on acronyms, which you can only become truly versed in by living with it for a while.

Film crews that have been working together for a while share a similar strong unit cohesion and trust of one another.

Studio lots are a lot like military bases. You have a massive amount of people squeezed into a finite amount of space, with some people working in the same building for 20+ years, but couldn’t tell you what goes on in the building next door.

The bottom line is that many of the same skills that would make you successful in the military will make you successful in the film industry.

JS: How did you make the transition to Hollywood, and did you always know you wanted to?

GC: I knew I wanted to go into filmmaking since I was in 6th grade. I saw several films around that time which heavily influenced me and made me realize that making films was something I wanted to do with my life. As a 12 year old you don’t really know how to go about doing something like that, so I asked teachers and my parents “How do you become a filmmaker?” They all said, “Go to film school.”  When I asked everyone where the best film school was, everyone told me: USC.

So that was the game plan: 1) Go to USC Film school, 2) Make Movies.

JS: And I’m glad you got in!  Having graduated from the USC program, what can you tell other military veterans about the program to help them decide if that would be the right choice for them? What should they expect and how has the program helped you? 

GC: Just for clarification, I went through the Film and Television Production Program. My emphasis throughout the program was on writing and producing.

The production program was a great experience and you really hit the ground running. What I consider one of the program’s biggest strengths is that is focuses on giving you exposure to all aspects of filmmaking in a very short period. By the time you have completed your first year you have already worked as a writer, director, producer, cinematographer, editor, production designer, sound recordist, sound designer, and various other crew positions, on a number of short films.

Couple that with all of the advanced graduate films and outside projects that you can volunteer on, and you’re looking at a lot of set hours to gain experience and network with your peers.

As far as expectations, you get what you put in to the program. If you just show up for the classes and do the bare minimum on projects and assignments, then you’re probably not going to get much out of the program. But, if you’re willing to get involved in projects outside of your required contributions, it can lead to a lot.

Based on the school’s prestigious alumni (George Lucas, Robert Zemeckis, etc.), there is an unrealistic expectation that a degree from USC is somehow a quick ticket to success in Hollywood. This is not the case.  Your “connections” are going to be the people that you went to school with and have respect for. As each of you gains a higher foothold somewhere, you use that to help pull your friends up as well.

I remember, on the first day at USC, all of the incoming MFA students were seated in one of the large theaters for an orientation seminar. Dean of the School, Elizabeth Daly, had everyone look to their left and their right and stated that if you stay in this industry long enough, you’re eventually going to work with both of these people again, so remember them. (Ironically, the two people I was sitting with became two of my very good friends in the program.) But, she’s absolutely right. I’ve only been out of the program a short while and I have already hired friends and been hired by friends on numerous projects.

So if anyone thinking about the USC film program has any expectations that a degree from there is somehow a fast track to success, they are going to be sorely disappointed. Your success is going to be dictated by the effort you put in. The school gives you a great direction to focus your efforts, but it won’t do the work for you.

JS: I know the program is incredibly competitive. Do you have any advice for applicants on how to stand out from the crowd and help their chances of admittance?

GC: The hard truth is that a lot of it boils down to luck, and a rejection one year does not mean you shouldn’t re-apply the next year. I have no illusions that if someone else read my application packet, I might not have been accepted.

I applied to five graduate film programs and was rejected by three of them, including the one that I thought was my “safety” school because the film program was relatively new, it was in my home state, and I had family alumni there. Comically, their rejection was the first letter I received. The second was my acceptance from USC. So there is no rhyme or reason to it.

The only advice I could give on the application is to use it to illustrate what unique qualities and life experiences you are going to bring to the program. As military vets, we definitely have a well of life experiences to draw from. Get specific, talk about a defining event or series of events that helped shape who you are today and what you will bring to the USC program.

Additionally, if you have sincere interest in aspects of filmmaking that are not your standard writer/director model, mention that. If you’re looking to go to film school to be a sound designer, editor, production designer, etc., you should definitely talk about what draws you to that.

Don’t just wax philosophical about how much you love film and how much you want to make movies. Rest assured that everyone who is applying to film school loves movies and wants to make them. Why should USC pick you over anyone else?

JS: What is one main takeaway from the USC program?

GC: Though not specific just to the USC program, my one main takeaway is to establish a personal brand as early as possible. If there is something other than writer/director that you want to focus on in film school, make that known to your peers early and often. If they know that you’re looking to be a cinematographer or editor or production designer, etc. they’re going to come to you to shoot or edit their projects. In turn, you’ll get more experience and footage for your reel, which you can use to get more work, which will give you more experience and footage for your reel, and the cycle just keeps going.

This isn’t to say that you should come into film school knowing exactly what you want to do in the industry. The film production program will make sure that you have exposure to every aspect of filmmaking. But, if you should discover an early aptitude for a particular aspect, don’t be afraid to grab onto it with both hands and let everyone know.

JS: Has the program’s alumni network proven to be as amazing as the rumors say? And on that line of thought, have you been involved in any of the military focused groups, such as Veterans in Film and Television?

GC: As I mentioned above, your strongest alumni network is the network you graduated with. It’s great knowing that George Lucas went to school there, but he’s never once called me to work on his set, my friends have, though.

I am an active member of the Veterans in Film and Television group. It is a great networking avenue and I highly recommend any vets in the industry to get involved with the chapters in LA or New York. Through them I have seen some amazing speakers: Marvel’s Stan Lee, NBCUniversal Chairman: Ron Meyer, X-Men franchise producer: Laura Shuler Donner, Writer/ Director: Kurt Wimmer, and many others.

It is a great organization and costs nothing, so there is no reason for vets not to join.

JS: I see from your website ( that you act, produce, edit, write, and basically do it all. Do you have one area you particularly focus on? Do you have a strategy when it comes to the entertainment industry?

GC: Yeah, from my website you would never guess that I took my own advice about specialization and branding. I created the website shortly after graduation when I was looking for work, as an online resume clearing house for any type of job that I might be applying for.

My specialization is in writing and producing, and that is what my peer group primarily knows me for. I graduated with the requirements for both completed.

I’ve produced and co-produced numerous short films, music videos and a TV pilot. I recently completed co-producing a feature film, Life in Color, starring The Walking Dead’s Josh McDermitt and Park and Rec’s Jim O’Heir.  It is due to be released this year and we’re all very excited about it.

Producing came naturally to me from my time in the Marines. Planning, organizing and structuring contingencies for shoots just fell into my wheelhouse. I enjoy having oversight on an entire production, vice one particular area.

As far as a strategy, the only one I’ve figured out is: work hard, keep working hard, get used to rejection, and keep in mind that you only need the right person to say “yes”.

JS:  Thank you once again, Giles. Before signing off, what is one piece of advice you would give to military veterans aspiring to find a post-military career in the entertainment industry? This can be something I may have forgotten to ask about, or a summary of points above.

GC: The only final piece of advice I could offer to any vets entering into the entertainment industry is do not feel entitled to a job because of your military service. Your military service will give you a lot of the skills, work ethic and discipline needed to be successful in the long run, but you need to hone your talent in whatever field you’re looking to break into (acting, writing, directing, etc.) before anyone will be looking to hire you.

You might have been the most honorable, selfless, valorous service member ever to grace the armed forces, but if you can’t write, no one is going to hire you as a writer. If you want to be a writer, you need to put forth the time and effort to improving that skill set.

It is unfortunate, but some vets do have a sense of entitlement in this industry, a mindset that they should be given a job because of their prior service. It’s not many, but, just like in the service: it’s always that small 10% that can screw it up for the other 90%

An example of this was when I was sitting in a veteran industry event as two executives from one of the major networks talked to us about an upcoming annual screenwriting fellowship that their network held. All writers were invited to submit applications and writing samples and the top 10 would be given a year-long writing fellowship at the network.

A woman in the back raised her hand and asked, “I’m just gonna ask what everyone else here is thinkin’, how many of those spots do you guys have ear-marked for veterans?”

I can guarantee you that no one else in the room was thinking what she was thinking, as there was a palpable silence for a minute. The exec tactfully tried explained to the woman that the fellowship was completely merit based and there was no “ear-marking” for any of the spots.

As I said, it’s not the majority, but there is a small vocal contingent that believes this and will often complain that so-and-so should “hire more vets”. If those vets are the most qualified writers, actors, stunt coordinators, gaffers, grips, etc. then, yes, they should definitely be hired. But if their strongest claim to that crew position is that they are a vet, then they should focus their efforts on becoming the best in their chosen field.

Yes, there are many people who have success early on because of their family connections or other things, but if they don’t have the talent or work ethic to sustain that position, they won’t keep it very long.

One of the biggest advantages that we vets have over others in the industry is our indomitable work ethic and discipline. Putting those tools to work for us and focusing on perfecting our skill sets, it is only a matter of time before we are the most proficient in our chosen fields.

At that point we can all take over Hollywood and really show folks what good filmmaking is all about.


These interviews will appear in an upcoming book on military members and veterans in the world of entertainment. As you wait, please read my book Creative Writing Career, on Amazon.

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