Interview: GOOD KILL, Director Andrew Niccol Discusses The View From Above
With the drone warfare drama, Good Kill, opening in Canada and the US this week, I had a chance to speak with director Andrew Niccol about the film briefly over the phone. But it was a very dense conversation that offers some insight as to what was keeping him up at night while making the film.
The New Zealand born filmmaker has spend most of his career working in Hollywood as a writer (The Truman Show, The Terminal) and double-hyphenate director (Gattaca, Lord of War, In Time). Much like the voice of his films, there is a pragmatic, down-to-earth manner in his conversational tone balanced with a further-reaching inquiry as to what is right and what is wrong with us as we continue to barrel full speed into the 21st century. There is a causal sense of humour in there as well.
Below is a slightly abridged transcript of our conversation.
Kurt Halfyard: GOOD KILL scared the hell out of me, so congratulations on making what to me is a pertinent horror films for our times.
Andrew Niccol: In many ways, the film scared the hell out of me too, researching it, and educating myself about it. When you make a movie like this, it is about trying to start a conversation, provoke some thought.
When you see it dramatized, even if there is some didacticism to the film, the drama itself makes you relate to the experience. At the beginning of the film it says it is based on true events, but I couldn't find any information on a pilot named Tom Egan.
When it says based on true events, what that means is that even though the pilot that Ethan Hawke plays is a composite character, every strike that you see has occurred. I did not make any of that. Nothing that you see happening was embellished. I spoke to drone pilots, in particular the case of the woman who he tries to rescue, they say seeing atrocities like that had nothing to do with their mission, and they cannot act to expose themselves, so they don't. But they have seen these atrocities and they would definitely like to act.
It is a movie about looking, and all movies are about this to some degree, but it is not just them spying. They have to stick around and look at the 'mess' they have made after the trigger is pulled.
There was a time where there wasn't much of any looking at the destruction that was caused. But now we are putting the pilots in the position of having to do the damage assessment - the counting of the dead. Previously, we've never asked fighter pilots to do that. This is a new form of warfare.
And that makes this a new kind of war movie, as we are asked to sit there and look at the damage. And GOOD KILL is coming out while this is actively going on. This is not like making a movie about Vietnam a decade or two ago. If nothing else, things have only escalated in the five years since 2010, when the movie takes place.
Right. And it is still very much going on today. There are at least 50 drones in the sky right now about a war zone. And if they do pull all the troops out, of Afghanistan for instance, the drones are not going anywhere. They are going to stay in the air.
One of the big themes, or at least the way the movie is structured, is on the nature of slippery slopes, what was the original intent of something, and how it actually plays out over time, whether by unintended consequence, or by direct intended progress. Could you comment on that, in terms of how you built the story?
In a way, it mirrors the actual drone technology. Originally, a "Predator" was for surveillance only. Then they realized that they could weaponize it. So they did. Then they built a bigger version called a "Reaper", and gave it more munitions. And now they have far faster drones which can take off and land from an aircraft carrier, which is something that used to be the privilege of the top of the Top Gun pilots, but not anymore.
Ethan Hawke's character is on the cusp of both the old world of pilots, and now this new world of piloting from a desk. I look at this movie as kind of a sunrise picture, not a sunset picture, in that he one of the first guys in this new world and those who follow will not have that previous experience.
Exactly. In some ways, he is out of date. The program doesn't want fighter pilots. They don't want people who know how to fly. They want good gamers, basically. That is why they are recruiting them. Why they base much of the technology on PlayStation. A situation where you can remotely control something. Something you said, really sparked my attention: sunrise and sunset. That is exactly the position in Las Vegas. Sunrise in Vegas, where they are operating the drones from, is sunset in Afghanistan. You could not get further away from the enemy without starting to come back.
There is a scene late in the film with both Egan and his wife where they are standing on the threshold of their Vegas subdivision, and they are looking off into the sun into the horizon. That scene is shot, well it looked to me, like a frontier western. Could you comment on that particular filmmaking choice?
The house we chose was actually owned by a member of the military. Half the homes in that suburb are owned owned by the military. I liked the choice of showing two deserts. It is an obscene contrast in the film. In Las Vegas, you get the image of what we have done to the desert, and you contrast that with Afghanistan where the desert is still, desert. That was intentional.
If one were, perhaps, to make anti-American propaganda, at least on architectural and cultural terms, pointing to Vegas seems about right. So, yea, when you think that the drones are operated out of there it is kind of apropos.
Do you understand why they operate in Vegas? Why the military is there: Because the terrain around Vegas, is very similar, and so it is perfect to train drone pilots. When they train one day, and do actual missions the next, they look pretty similar. It goes even further. To practice following a Taliban truck, you practice on tourists going from Los Angeles to Las Vegas on the freeway. Of course, nobody can see them doing that. There was a younger pilot I spoke to that would tell me that he would spend 12 hours flying the drone, then go back to his apartment on the Vegas strip, and play video games. I didn't but that in the movie, because it sounded too outrageous!
A good chunk of your films deal in with technology, and how it creates disruptive or pressure point on society. Because now you can do something, it begs the question of whether or not you should do something. Since many of your previous films use science fiction to tackle this, but this one is contemporary. I would love to hear how you got to the idea of doing a film on drones, it feels commensurate with your other films, GATTACA, THE TRUMAN SHOW, IN TIME, but it is very much real world, happing now, issues.
It was a combination of things, really. I kept seeing press reports of drone strike after drone strike, and I had no idea how they happened. And once I did, it was so eye opening, and when the character of Egan came into being, he is a kind of soldier we have never seen before. He fights the war from home. That is what got me into it, it's a rabbit hole from there.
Truffaut said it was impossible to make an anti-war film, because war movies tend to be exciting. But drone warfare and the clock-watching nature of the job, might be the first movie to prove him wrong. It is such a radically different type of war film. There have been many films already made on the decade long war in Afghanistan. How do you feel about the final product, but 'lack of exciting' I certainly not implying bad, just utterly different, and compelling in its own unique way.
Most of the excitement in this film comes from between the ears, if you know what I mean. There are umpteen explosions in this film, but you never hear one. Normally, in a movie, and what Truffaut is getting at, is the fantastic explosions where the theatre shakes. Here, the explosions are happing thousands of kilometers away. You do not hear anything. It is counter-intuitive for a war film.
In terms of remote and POV this war is fought very far away.
They are an eye in the sky, even when people look directly at them the are hard to see.
Where people on the ground start to fear sunny days. Watching those views of the ground in the film from on high, it is difficult to me to figure out who I am supposed to empathize with. Clearly everyone is in a bad place, the targets in a perpetual state of fear, and the soldiers having to be the eye of God and be witness and party to acts that bump up against the line of what is considered war-crimes.
Did you see Boyhood by any chance?
Yes, I enjoyed that film very much.
During the publicity, Ethan and I, we sort of agreed, that in one year, he was in the feel-good movie of the year, and the feel-bad movie of the year.
You and Richard Linklater seem to have a competition going for casting Ethan Hawke in your films. He's a little bit ahead at the moment.
[*Laughs*] I am slowly catching up.
It is an interesting comparison, because he is indeed so outgoing and personable in Linklater's films, but here he is in pain of the silence of his own character.
When I called him up about the role, I said, you know how you have a wonderful gift for language on screen, Ethan, you won't be needing any of that.
[*Laughs*] This is very true, in that Egan is a really emotionally unavailable person.
I give January Jones a lot of credit, because she had to play against a brick wall. She would have to goad a reaction out of him, and often Ethan only had one or two words or no words in a scene. It is almost a non-verbal performance.
The rest of the soldiers on the base, however, do spend a lot of time speaking giving us a number of points of view. There is an interesting balance, to me anyway, between the quite verbal philosophizing by several soldiers while they experience mission creep, as the nature of the mission changes over time, but then there is also a lot jargon they talk well. How do you balance the verisimilitude of the military-speak, with making the movie you want to make, dramatically.
The gung-ho character played by Jake Abel is taken from stories from the drone pilots I spoke to. There were guys like that, and then there were others that were more reticent about what was going on, especially when the CIA became involved, because that is a whole different concept going on. When the CIA went from the spying business to the killing business, a lot of people in the military did not like that. And so, there is a great rivalry on who should actually run the drone program. The air force wants run things, and the CIA wants it own program.
As a Canadian, I would be remiss in not mentioning the fantastic casting of Bruce Greenwood in the film, who, in all honest, is a national goddamn treasure.
Truly, an underrated actor. I had to find someone with the intelligence, and complexity to able to play play this guy who is obviously, hugely conflicted himself. Between following orders, and losing faith in the mission. So yea, he did a great job.
And you've given him all the good lines. Humour is a time honoured coping mechanism in war and philosopher Slavoj Zizek made the case that the most competent soldiers (in context, the ones onscreen) wield it.
Sometimes the only way to get through something like that is with some sort of gallows humour. It is the only way to survive. Truthfully, he has my favourite role.
You give the face to all the air-force characters who operate the tools, but you leave the CIA faceless.
Well, I think the CIA intentionally leaves itself faceless. These guys operating outside of Las Vegas, and although it is well publicized that they contract out the base to the CIA who are based in Langley [Virginia].
Perhaps the most subtly chilling thing was, as I speak to you over speaker phone, and your voice is ever so slightly like Peter Coyote's, watching a war be fought over polycom, with him issuing evolving orders in real time by simply being able to see their screens from all the way across the country.
That is exactly the type of the phone they have and use in those boxes. I am only showing you what is.
Where do you put yourself as a filmmaker, in terms of activism truth teller, versus, dramatist. Which side of things do you fall on, or is there a third place I am not aware?
Well, I am definitely on the filmmaker side, I'm certainly not trying to make policy or run for anything, but I think I fall on the place of shedding some light on something.
Thank you very much for spending time talking to me about the film.
No, thank-you. It was fun talking to you.