Veterans in Creative Careers: Leo Cunningham, USC Alum and Filmmaker


Leo Cuningham served in the Marines from the same year as I did and, like me, was a sergeant (E-5) when he got out. I am always glad to discover other Marines that followed a similar (yet entirely unique) path to myself.



Justin Sloan: Thank you for you agreeing to share your experience with us, Leo. To get us started, what was your time in the Marines like and do you have a crazy story or two you would like to share with us?

Leo Cunningham: As you know, the Marine Corps lifestyle lends itself to many crazy experiences. My four years of service was unique in timing (1999-2003) being split in half by peace and war. My first deployment was in 2000 as a Grunt with the 22MEU on a Mediterranean Float. We sailed the sea and hit every port. At that time, we were not at war and I thought my big story would have been some Urban Patrols in Kosovo. Ironically, on that float we got locked down to our birthing because the USS Cole was hit off the Gulf of Aden in Yemen. I remember saying, “Where the hell is Yemen?” Two years later, post 9/11, I’m learning Arabic and eating pita bread in Sana’a…

JS: I see from your resume on the Veterans in Film and Television website that you taught hand to hand combat and Close Quarter Battle to Yemeni Special Forces. That sounds like an awesome experience. Were you also a Marine Corps Martial Arts (MCMAP) instructor? Can you share some more about this experience and what it taught you?

LC: Operating in Yemen was a life changing experience for me. We were working in very small teams, living on our own and wearing plain clothes, so I had the opportunity to interact with the people on a human level. Yemen is arguably one of the poorest countries in the world and civil unrest is palpable on the streets. Children swarming you asking for water and food, the basic human needs. It was a very culture shocking experience. As for their military, it only took one day to notice they were nowhere near the standard of a Marine. They were twirling their loaded pistols saying, “Hey, Mr. Leo. Look. John Wayne!” As for being a MCMAP instructor, most of my students were guys from 2nd Recon. Alpha males only! It was a real fight club back then, so I witnessed and participated in some epic battles. I broke 3 ribs going through that course. It was good training…

JS: Do you feel your military experience prepared you in any way for the civilian life? What was your transition like?

LC: I accredit the Marine Corps with giving me the discipline and self-confidence to achieve my goals, no matter what they are. Of course my infantry and Recon experiences would have translated better into law enforcement, getting on the SWAT team, or something like that rather than the creative arts. People don’t believe you can be an artist and Marine. They think I should be chewing nails and sharpening my K-Bar. Not writing poetry.

JS: Has this knowledge of combat, coming from infantry and understanding fighting techniques as an instructor, helped you in any way with your passion for film making?

LC: Everyone says that there is no set path to get into the film industry. I’ve walked many paths and I am still trying but I won’t ever quit. You learn early on in boot camp how to accomplish difficult tasks. You learn that you can do anything you put your mind to and have an inability to quit. You learn how to attack the mission head on and see it through. That was the greatest gift the Marine Corps gave me. Murphy’s Law is always in effect on set, so the ability to “adapt, overcome, and improvise” is an invaluable tool when it comes to filmmaking.

JS: I am impressed with the fact that you went to the USC School of Cinematic Arts. That is some accomplishment. What led to your decision to attend USC, and how did you go about applying? Do you have any tips for other veterans interested in attending USC or other top film schools?

LC: I decided to take a film production class at a community college in San Diego and I fell in love with the whole process. Up to then, I was studying acting and theater but once I realized the power of film, from script to editing, I was hooked. I asked the professor what was the best film school to attend and he told me USC. I went home and started the application process immediately. I had no film experience, no reel, no body of creative work, so I really focused on the writing portion of the application. I couldn’t believe it when I got the acceptance letter. I used up all my Irish Luck on that one!

JS: What are the next steps immediately following graduation from film school? What are you doing now to make sure you get seen?

LC: I apply what I have learned and practice my craft. There are so many Veterans Organizations now that support the arts these days. The Veterans in Film and Television, the Veterans Artist Programs, and the Warrior Art Group are a few. There is also the Zero Dark Thirty literary journal where we both got our writing published in print. It is great to see. There are many amazing stories out there and I am working hard to tell some of them, but the support is much needed.

JS: I see you write, direct, edit, do cinematography, and maybe everything else? Is there a strategy here, or is it more about a love for film and getting involved wherever you can?

LC: I am running a one man production company, so I have to wear many hats! USC was great with their education of multiple disciplines of production. Post film school has been in pursuit of working on my craft and taking opportunities as they come. There really is no strategy. I just do it because I love it.

JS: We probably have some current military men and women reading who are considering the film industry after their service time. Can you share with us your thoughts on the different roles one can play, such as screenwriting vs. directing vs. producing (the summary version)? What are your thoughts on each, and do you aspire to specialize in one of those areas? Are certain personalities better suited for certain roles, from what you have seen?

LC: Veterans are perfect for the film industry… My screenplay teacher at USC was Mardik Martin, who wrote Raging Bull. He always said the most important part of storytelling is having stories to tell, to live an experienced life, meet interesting characters and tell compelling stories. So if you want to be a writer you have to have interesting stories to tell. If you want to be a director, you are most likely an artistic control freak and have an overall vision that you want to convey. I believe the best job for Vets is producing. The producer is the person who plans the mission and delegates the tasks accordingly. I think Vets make great producers.

JS: Can you tell us about your projects you have upcoming, or anything you are trying to promote at the moment?

LC: I’m currently working on directing a documentary about a Marine Corps raid in Vietnam. They are a great group of guys and some serious warriors. It’s an honor to be a part of telling their story. I’m also writing my third feature film and I would love to get a chance to direct any of them with an all Veterans crew… Assemble an A-Team for film. Now that would be a dream come true!

JS: Thank you for the interview, Leo. Before we sign off, do you have a last piece of wisdom you would like to leave us with? One key piece of advice?

LC: Move forward and use the determination and drive that you learned in the military to accomplish your goals and set your ambitions high. You can handle it.


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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