Veterans in Creative Careers: Thomas Hennessy, Filmmaker (Navy)

Thomas HThomas Hennessy was born September 17th, 1976 in Blue Island, Illinois, USA. He is a writer/director and cinematographer, along with occasional actor, best known for directing the feature films What We Can’t Have and Another Time, his supporting role in Nick Broomfield’s Battle for Haditha, and his work with Cloud Imperium Games.

Find interviews like this one on the Military Veterans in Creative Careers podcast

Justin Sloan: What did you do in the military, and why did you decide to join?

Thomas Hennessy: I joined April 1995, and my first two years consisted of various training and schools. Stops in San Diego, CA and Groton, CT took up most of my first year, and then a full year training in Kings Bay, GA before I was finally ready to earn my keep.

My first assignment was on board the USS Kentucky, SSBN 737(B). I was a Fire Control Technician, which mainly involved working on the electronics portion of the weapons systems. My first patrol was spent mostly working as a SONAR operator, along with a few weeks spent as a mess crank. By the end of the patrol I had earned my “Dolphins” and had been promoted to Petty Officer 3rd Class.

I think I did a total of 7 patrols, over the 4+ years I was assigned to the Kentucky, but my memory is a little foggy on that. Port calls were few and far between, in fact, we made only two my entire time there. Four days in Puerto Rico in the fall of 97, and four days in Halifax, Nova Scotia in spring 99. I was promoted to Petty Officer 2nd Class at the end of 1998.

I finished my tour on USS Kentucky in spring 2001 and transferred to the Naval Shipyard at Pearl Harbor. I was initially assigned to the 67EG shop, working repairs and maintenance on Fire Control and Sonar systems, but after 9-11 hit I was reassigned to the base Security Forces. I spent 18 months with the security forces, mostly in patrol doing fixed posts, but also spent some time working as kennel support with the MWD guys, and spent a while riding shotgun with a handler and his bomb dog. I also spent a little time working in investigations at the Shipyard.

It was at this time that I permanently reclassified as a Master-At-Arms (Military Police). In 2003, I transferred to Naval Weapons Station Seal Beach. I worked there first as a Watch Commander in the Patrol Division, and later as the base Anti-Terrorism Officer. I was also promoted to Chief Petty Officer while at Seal Beach. During my tour at Seal Beach I also deployed as part of Operation Vigilant Mariner.

OVM was a mission that put US military folks on board civilian cargo ships carrying military cargo such as tanks and Humvees into Kuwait and Iraq, to provide security from both the threat of Somali Pirates and land and small boat terror attacks when the ship would transit close to land, such as the Suez Canal, and Straights of Hormuz, in addition to providing security while offloading in Kuwait, which was normally done at Camp Spearhead.

This mission had originally belonged to US Marine Corps FAST Teams, but the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had called for those guys to move a little closer to the front, so the Navy was called upon to fill the void.

Most of that time was spent bouncing between Camp Spearhead and Al Fujairah, UAE.

After returning from OVM I headed to Fort Leonard Wood, MO to train with the Army’s MP corps before heading to a NATO facility in Lisbon, PO to work with NCIS as a bodyguard for the NATO Commander. While there I also enjoyed a short deployment as part of a body guard detail for General Abizaid. Tampa, FL and Fort Benning, GA were stateside destinations for that, and Qatar and Baghdad were overseas mission locations. I left the Navy in 2006. It was a big decision, but I felt I still had other things I wanted to try in life, and being that I was only 29 made me feel I was still young enough to try them.

JS: Did you find that the military met your expectations? What were some life-lessons from your time in?

TH: Serving my country, being part of something bigger than myself, being part of history, was a truly fulfilling experience. John F. Kennedy once said “I can imagine no more rewarding a career. And any man who may be asked in this century what he did to make his life worthwhile, I think can respond with a good deal of pride and satisfaction: ‘I served in the United States Navy.” I think that perfectly sums up my feeling about my time in the service. Going in as an 18 year old and coming out at 29, I was certainly an older and wiser individual, and while it is natural for anyone in any situation to experience a level of maturation during these years, I feel the military helped to enhance and heighten my own personal work ethic and level of self-responsibility. It helped me learn how to excel, how to overextend myself, and still reach goals, and even more important, how to deal with critique and criticism as a professional, and understand the differentiation between professional and personal relationships.

We used to joke that no matter what task you gave a group of Sailors, they would find a way to get it done. You could take a group of Navy disbursing clerks and cooks, give them a pile of rotting wood, rusty nails and no tools, and tell them they need to build a house, and after you walked away they would commence bitching, complaining, griping, and bemoaning what an unfair and impossible task you have bestowed upon them, but when you come back the next day, they will have found a way to get the job done. But that is the only acceptable result.

Being able to find ways to do more with less, and overcome challenges under pressure has been an incredibly useful skill as a filmmaker.

JS: Now that you have some distance from the Navy, do you have a different view on it? Do you have any advice for men and women that are still in?

TH: None at all, in fact at times I miss it.

My advice to those still serving is relish the moment you are in. Sometimes it’s easy to grow frustrated with it—it’s a hard job. But think about this, 100 years from now there will be kids in third grade US History classes reading about what you have done, and that is an incredible opportunity that not everyone gets in life. Also, always keep the big picture in mind. This can often be tough, because so much focus is placed on attention to detail, and the minutia of the moment, and rightfully so, but when frustration hits, always try to contextualize and put in perspective what it is you’re really doing.

I can remember so many times people would get spun up because for whatever reason they felt they got stuck with a shit job like cleaning the head or mess cranking or whatever shitty thing it was, and it can really affect their morale and make them lose sight of why they are doing what they are doing, but think about it like this, five years from now, none of it will matter. You probably won’t even remember the specifics of how many shitty jobs you were asked to do, or how many you actually did, but what will matter is how you carried yourself through it, and landed on the other side.

JS: As you approached your final days in the Navy, did you know what was next for you? At what point did you know the movie business was your fit?

TH: I knew I was coming to LA. I was stationed in Orange County for two years before my last overseas deployment and was in a band, and wanted to really give that a go. During my last month or so I really started to consider acting as well. I had participated in theater in high school, and always had an artistic side to me, so this was something that really appealed to me as well.

JS: What steps did you take to prepare yourself for Hollywood? I understand you went to school, but do you feel this helped and would you recommend it as a path for others?

TH: I was completely unprepared for Hollywood, and had absolutely no idea what I was supposed to be doing. I had no idea how to be an actor, how to get an audition or anything like that. This was 2006, and while the internet was certainly around, it was not the wealth of easily searched and accessed information it is today. I did find a couple websites that let me submit some photos and had some casting listings, but nothing seemed to come from them. The first big moment though for me, as silly as it sounds, was when I ended up receiving a call from someone at one of those sites who cast me as an extra in an indie movie called American East. Now I had no idea what an independent film or an extra even was, all I knew was that I was going to be on my first movie set. What made this so important though was that on this set I met other extras, who I was able to talk to and get more information from. This in turn led me to Central Casting, which eventually led me to Combat Casting, which at the time was an invaluable resource for aspiring actors. Vets were a much smaller demographic back then than they are today, so finding a pocket of other vets who could share their experiences and lessons learned with me really helped.

So long story short, the path I would advise is this: Find more people like you, but with more experience, and try to learn from them.

JS: What about great books or other resources?

TH: People are the greatest resource in Hollywood.

JS: How about your military connections, have they helped you in Hollywood?

TH: Absolutely. The second big moment for me came directly from my military involvement. Late in 2006 I received a call from a casting director who knew I had a military background and wanted me for a new war movie being made by award winning British director Nick Broomfield. A number of auditions and callbacks took place over the course of three months, and eventually they offered me a role in the film.

We filmed over two months on location in Jordan, and this may be the single most valuable experience I’ve had. There were ups and there were downs for sure, but my main takeaway was seeing the curtain pulled back, and being able to absorb the entire picture of what making a film was about. It was in that moment that I started to seriously consider being more than an actor, but a director as well.

JS: We connected through Veterans in Film and Television. How involved have you been in that group? How should veterans best contribute to the group and what should they hope to get out of it?

TH: I’ve been a member of VFT for a couple years. My involvement level has varied over that time, based on what I’m working on at the time. I think the group works best, and people are able to best contribute, when it is used as a networking tool. The group has really grown the last couple years, and it has made getting the most out of it more difficult, because there are so many people who are all at different rungs of their career ladder. At times, I might need to network with someone far more experienced in a certain discipline that I may be weak in, or I may be looking to mentor someone, but it’s difficult to tell who is who, and who is legit and who is not with so many people. It’s tough to manage that.

I think they would benefit my having tiered events for people based on experience—it might help streamline people finding the right people to work with at the right time.

JS: Are you aware of any other programs or organizations like this?

TH: Not really. Combat was kind of like this in a way, on a much much smaller scale. We would have get-togethers like poker nights and football games, but they were a much smaller op, and they were also putting people to work, which is not what VFT does.

JS: You have been involved in writing, directing, producing, editing, etc. What is your favorite role to play in the movie development process?

TH: I definitely love being a writer and director. There is nothing more fulfilling than the process of taking a feature length film from a concept in your head, to a finished product on the big screen. That said, I try to find something I love on every project I am a part of. Everyone is a chance to meet new incredibly talented people, and be able to contribute to creating something bigger than yourself.

JS: Do you have a favorite project that you have worked on, and if so, why was it your favorite?

TH: Well, my first feature film What We Can’t Have probably feels the most special to me, for a number of reasons. First, because I had a chance to meet and work with some really talented emerging artists who absolutely gave their all to an unknown, unproven filmmaker, making a low budget indie film, and that is incredibly humbling and flattering. It was also one of the most educational experiences for me as a writer, seeing that what works in your head doesn’t always work on the screen, and why it doesn’t work. Huge lessons, which I was able to absorb moving forward, and paid dividends as I developed the script for my second feature.

JS: Can you share any wacky stories from your time on set, to give us a hint of what it’s like?

TH: I don’t know about any specific wacky stories of interest, but I will say that a film set is very similar to being in the military. You have a lot of people who are great at their jobs who come together to get it done under impossible odds, but at the same time, have a sense of humor about it. Lots of jokes, the occasional prank, but at the end of the day, there is no other option other than to make the day, and so it gets done.

JS: For those men and women serving their country but who are considering making the move to the world of movies, what advice do you have? Is there one path they should take? Should they specialize or generalize? Have a career plan in mind?

TH: My advice would be to not specialize. Ease into it and see what really speaks to you. Also, cross train. If you want to be a director, you certainly are not hurting yourself by also learning cinematography and editing, or acting, producing etc… I remember when I was in film school, and I was studying to be a director, and I looked around at all the other kids who were doing the same thing and realized that common sense and arithmetic dictate that not all of us will find careers as film directors, especially right out of school. I then looked over at the students majoring in cinematography and editing, and thought, now those guys are learning a marketable skill, they will find work much easier. So I really worked hard on expanding my skill set. A lot of aspiring writers/directors/actors need to work these survival jobs like bartending or waiting tables etc. while they hope to get a break, but that never appealed to me.

To me it seemed like a better plan to start freelancing on film crews or as an editor for hire to pay my bills, while continuing to expand my professional network through these type of jobs, and also enhancing my own skills as an artist. Plus, you never know where that will lead you. Right now I’m working on a project called Star Citizen, a video game being developed by Chris Roberts, which is now opening me up to a whole new network of creative types, while also learning the ins and outs of video game production.

I’ve got a second feature in post right now, and a third one in the early stages of development, and I think that staying connected to creative types is what has allowed me to have as much success as I’ve had the last few years. I spent a few years working a day job, back when I was just trying to be an actor, and I found that I spent more time working on the day job than my art.

As far as a career plan goes, just be prepared to work hard, and don’t limit yourself. Also, always push to improve. Take classes, go to school, work on any set you can work on, and before long you will start seeing results.

JS: Can veterans leverage their military time to help them get ahead, or is it really like starting from scratch?

TH: Military experience can help open a door or two, but once inside, it really is best to start from the bottom and work your way up.

JS: Thank you again for sharing your thoughts and experience, Thomas. Before we sign off, do you have one last piece of advice? Maybe something I forgot to ask about, or a summary of your points above?

TH: Don’t put the cart before the horse. This business is a marathon, not a sprint. Make small goals, that lead up to bigger goals. It could be as simple as “I will read five pages in this book a week,” and next thing you know, you’ve read the book.



These interviews, along with the author’s advice, are available in the book Military Veterans in Creative Careers.

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