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Tom Petch
From Battlefield to Silver Screen.
A Journey of Leadership and Creativity

Tom Petch, a former SAS Commander, is a visionary storyteller whose unique career arc bridges the disciplined world of British Army intelligence and the boundless creativity of filmmaking and authorship. 

His notable achievements include founding Salt Film and Dark Wave Film, directing & writing the script for the critically acclaimed film "The Patrol," and authoring "Speed, Aggression, Surprise," a groundbreaking narrative on the SAS. 

In this feature length interview, Tom offers an in-depth look at how his military experiences have informed his creative endeavours, providing valuable insights into leadership, the art of storytelling, and the transformative power of viewing challenges through a creative lens. 

Ideal for corporate executives, creative professionals, and anyone interested in the intersection of military precision and artistic innovation, Tom's journey and insights underscore the potential for cross-disciplinary learning and the impact of diverse experiences on personal and professional growth.

It was an absolute pleasure to sit down and talk with a man whose wisdom & foresight was honed as a leader in the most extreme environments known to man, and yet retains the most humble, grounded of demeanours. 

 

Stay inspired. Stay curious. 

 

Tracey

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Q. Tom, your journey from the structure and discipline of military service to the boundless creativity of filmmaking is both unique and fascinating. Could you walk us through your professional journey so we have an understanding of how it has evolved and shaped your path?

Absolutely. My educational journey began at Portsmouth Business School, which, interestingly, has produced some of the most successful entrepreneurs I know. It was towards the end of my degree that I felt a strong pull towards something different from the conventional path many of my peers were taking. This led me to the Officers Training Corps, sparking a decision that would alter the course of my life—I joined the Army.

What was initially planned as a three-year adventure, extended to eight years. It’s safe to say that the Army became a passion. Initially I was stationed with a tank regiment in Germany and I seized every opportunity that came my way, including the challenging prospect of joining the SAS. The selection process for that was rigorous, and the stakes were personal. I had made a deal with my commanding officer that selection failure would send me back to a desk job, a fate I was determined to avoid at all costs. This motivation propelled me through the selection, leading to a series of assignments that were as rewarding as they were demanding.

One of the most profound experiences was in Bosnia, where alongside my team, we uncovered evidence of genocide—a stark, harrowing reminder of the realities of war. These experiences, while challenging, played a huge part in shaping my perspective on leadership, resilience, and on the complexities of human conflict.

When I left the military in 1997, I moved into business, briefly considering a role at Goldman Sachs. However, it wasn’t for me and the entrepreneurial spirit I had honed in the Army guided me towards a different path—the film industry. It’s been an unconventional journey, but a hugely rewarding one. 

 

Q. It’s a hugely fascinating and unique journey.  What was the driving force behind the move and how has your military background influenced your filmmaking?

You know, back in my school days, filmmaking was a distant realm, one I hadn't even considered venturing into. My military career, filled with its downtime moments, turned out to be the unexpected gateway. Watching films on those old VHS tapes during operations or training sparked a storytelling fire within me. I've always been drawn to narratives, to writing, but it was in Cyprus, post-Gulf War, that the possibility of filmmaking truly dawned on me. I was, quite unexpectedly, asked to produce a film aimed at highlighting the dedication of soldiers, airmen, and sailors during the Gulf War period. That project, albeit simple, was a revelation to me – the potency of film as a medium to convey profound messages and stories.

I found myself orchestrating a mini-production, from securing aircraft for shots to weaving together footage that painted a vivid picture of our soldiers' and sailors' efforts. That project was my inadvertent step into the world of filmmaking.

Leaving the military, I was propelled by this passion, I guess with a touch of naivety in believing that the transition to film production would be straightforward. The journey certainly wasn't without its challenges.

The parallels between the military and film industry do run surprisingly deep though.  The discipline, the emphasis on the task at hand, the collective effort towards a common goal - these military tenets found resonance in the world of filmmaking. In both realms, understanding each team member's role, their challenges, and potential, is key to driving success. It’s this synergy between my military discipline and creative aspirations that has shaped my approach to filmmaking and leadership. The key is to foster environments where each individual's contribution is both recognised and pivotal to our collective achievement.

 

Q. It wasn’t long before your first company came about - Salt Film. What was the driving force behind the inception of Salt Film and later Dark Wave Film, and how have they contributed to the UK’s film industry?

 

When Salt Film came to life in 2000, the vision was clear: to bridge gaps and streamline the filmmaking process in the UK, which, at the time, was on the cusp of a significant transformation. The industry was somewhat archaic back then, lacking the digital advancements and internet accessibility we take for granted today. Imagine scouting locations, capturing them on camera, and then physically presenting these photographs; or faxing call sheets because mobile reception was a luxury we didn't quite have.

My aspiration was not just about solving these logistical puzzles; it was about tapping into the abundant talent and the picturesque locales this country offers. London has always been a magnet for filmmakers, but my aim was to broaden this horizon, to showcase the UK's versatility as a prime filming destination. Salt Film excelled in identifying and securing these unique locations, making the filming process more accessible and inviting for both domestic and international productions.

With Dark Wave Film, the ambition scaled further, embracing the creative aspects of filmmaking, from producing to directing. It's never about the size of the company or the turnover; it's about the impact, the solutions we provide, and the opportunities we create. Our work has crossed borders, contributing to Oscar-nominated projects, and that, to me, is a testament to our vision and efforts. We've seen a shift towards a more vibrant, internationally appealing UK film industry, and I take great pride in knowing our companies have played a part in that evolution. We’re creating a legacy that transcends the conventional, and in the process shaping an industry that's as dynamic and diverse as the stories we yearn to tell.

 

Q. Speaking of legacies, your book SAS - Speed, Aggression, Surprise - has received acclaim from some big hitters. Can you share the inspiration behind it and the significance to you of the accolade it received from Mars & Minerva, who described it as being ‘the best there is on that subject’. 

The film industry really reignited my passion for the creative side of things. It was during this creative process, working on various projects, especially those with a military backdrop, that I noticed a gap. There were stories about the SAS, sure, but something about them didn't sit right with me. They felt incomplete, almost like the surface hadn’t even been scratched. So, I took it upon myself to dig deeper, to go beyond what was commonly accepted as the history of the SAS.

What I unearthed was fascinating – a narrative that diverged from the popular tales, centred around figures like Dudley Clarke and William Fraser, true architects of modern special forces. This exploration culminated in the book - ‘Speed Aggression Surprise' about the secret origins of the SAS, which in many ways, was a mission to set the record straight, to honour the unsung heroes.

When Mars & Minerva, the SAS's own magazine, heralded it as the best on the subject, that was a monumental moment for me. It mattered immensely because it meant I had succeeded in my mission – to tell the real story, to ensure the true origins and the spirits behind the SAS were acknowledged. That review, coming from within the SAS community, was the highest honour.

 

Q. You have excelled in the SAS, as a Writer and as a Film Director.  While there will have been many learning curves along the way, how do you find joy in what you do? Is there a particular aspect that fuels your passion?"

The draw of the film industry for me is undeniable. It's a realm I unequivocally adore. Like any profession, it has its share of mundane and challenging moments, but the magic lies in creation. The true joy, for me, is in spearheading my own projects. There's a unique thrill in bringing a vision to life, though such opportunities are rarer than I'd wish. It's this pursuit of creative fulfilment that keeps me anchored.

People often misconceive the film industry as a continuous reel of glamour, overlooking the hard yards it demands.

 

The truth is, making a film, from inception to the final cut, is an arduous journey. It demands a blend of creative zeal and relentless perseverance, akin to the rigour of SAS selection I once underwent. That process taught me resilience, a quality that filmmaking tests time and again. Each project begins in chaos, a puzzle that gradually finds coherence, much like strategizing in the wilderness of the jungle.

This duality of creativity and challenge is what sustains me. It's a testament to the unpredictable yet rewarding nature of filmmaking, where each project is a leap of faith into the unknown, not unlike the calculated risks of military operations. It's in navigating these complexities where I find my rhythm, drawing from the discipline instilled in the military to the free-flowing creativity of the film set. This interplay of skills and passions is what makes the journey worthwhile. 

 

Let's go back to the SAS and in particular to selection and the jungle phase, which I understand to be where selection really happens. What is it about the jungle that resonates so deeply with you, and how does it encapsulate the SAS selection experience?

The jungle, to me, is a place of profound challenge and unparalleled beauty. It's not for everyone, though. In the SAS, we often refer to it as 'the trees,' a term that barely scratches the surface of its complexity. The jungle can be seen as claustrophobic, an environment that tests you physically and mentally. It's not just the relentless heat or the constant threat of leeches; it's the totality of being in a place so alive yet so indifferent to your presence.

But amidst the hardship, there's an undeniable magic. If you've seen 'Avatar,' you might recall the scene where the characters are lost, and night falls, revealing a luminescent wonderland. That's the jungle for you. It's this otherworldly beauty that makes all the challenges worthwhile. It's a reminder of the raw, untamed nature of our planet, a stark contrast to the structured life of the military.

One of my instructors once remarked that civilians pay fortunes to experience what we endure as part of our training. They seek out virgin jungles, untainted by human touch, for a glimpse of its untouched beauty. And yet, here we are, immersing ourselves in it, not as tourists but as soldiers, pushing our limits.

But the jungle teaches you more than just survival; it teaches you to let go. In conditions far from ideal, you learn to adapt, to embrace the environment, not as a hostile entity but as your reality. This adaptability, this willingness to embrace the unknown and uncontrollable, is at the heart of SAS selection. It's about more than just enduring; it's about thriving in the most challenging environments on earth. And that, to me, is the true essence of what we undergo.

 

Speaking of challenging environments, your film debut, The Patrol, was applauded for its gripping dialogue and the profound psychological portrayal of soldiers in Afghanistan. Could you share insights into the creative journey behind it, and particularly how your own military experiences shaped its narrative and direction?

 

The Patrol was born out of a period of reflection and a bit of frustration with the ongoing conflicts post-9/11, particularly in Afghanistan. The narrative that the war was necessary and winnable, was something I found increasingly hard to digest, given my military insights.

The inception of "The Patrol" was quite serendipitous. It was during a conversation about the dire need for better resources for troops in Afghanistan that I decided to channel my frustrations and insights into a screenplay. Writing the script was an intense three-week process, driven by a compelling need to shed light on the ground realities, contradicting the prevalent narratives of the time. However, bringing this project to life was another challenge, given the reluctance of mainstream producers to back a film that painted a stark, unvarnished picture of the war in Afghanistan.

Undeterred, I leveraged my production know-how and network to independently produce the film. The breakthrough came during a scouting trip to Morocco, where the perfect backdrop for the film was discovered, significantly lowering production costs. The support from industry colleagues, willing to embark on this venture despite financial constraints, was instrumental in bringing "The Patrol" to fruition. The film was a labour of love - it took persistence and belief in a bigger cause. It’s a narrative borne out of my military experiences, aiming to offer a different lens through which to view the conflict in Afghanistan.

 

There's a common belief that if a story truly needs to be told, it will find its way out. I’ve heard it too many times, from those who have experienced it, to ignore. How do you resonate with this notion in your creative process?

There's something almost mystical about the creative process, you know? It's as if the universe has a reservoir of ideas, just floating in the ether, waiting for someone to pluck them from obscurity and give them life. This notion of the Muse, it's an ancient concept but incredibly relevant. When you're in tune with this creative force, ideas flow through you as if you're merely the conduit, not the originator. It's a bit 'woo woo', as some might say, but there's a profound truth to it.

When you're writing, or creating in any form, there are moments when you're so immersed in the flow state that the world around you fades away. It's in these moments that something extraordinary happens. Ideas that seemed elusive suddenly crystallise, as if they were always meant to find their way to you. But here's the catch – if you don't seize that moment, if you don't embrace that idea and give it form, it will drift away, perhaps to inspire someone else. It's a dance with the ephemeral, with the creative energies that surround us.

I've lived this, especially in the crafting of "The Patrol." The story, the characters, the dialogue – there were moments it felt as if they were revealing themselves to me, rather than being consciously constructed. This connection to the Muse is a reminder that stories are not just created; they are discovered, nurtured, and finally shared. And in this sharing, we find the true essence of creativity and connection.

And that, Tom, is a perfect place to wrap up our chat. It has been an absolute pleasure chatting to you and it’s an honour to list you in our 360 line-up. I look forward to supporting you in the next stage of your creative journey.

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