Gasparilla 2016: Gavin Hood Talks EYE IN THE SKY
The road from Indie to Hollywood and back again has been a bumpy one for South African director Gavin Hood. Following his TIFF People’s Choice-winning Tsotsi he was offered New Line thriller Rendition, and proceeded to tackle big budget monsters like X-Men Origins: Wolverine and the Orson Scott Card sci-fi romp Ender’s Game.
The latter two, it should be said, weren’t very good.
So while it may be churlish to say that Eye in the Sky is a return to form, it truly does seem to represent Hood taking back control of his vision. The film is an erudite, compelling look at the vagaries of drone warfare, using multiple communities of decision makers to showcase the complexity and ambivalence of modern “surgical” warfare. With an accomplished cast headed by the inimitable Dame Hellen Mirren, there’s plenty to admire about Hood’s latest flick.
We sat down for an extended conversation as Hood’s film was set to open Tampa, Florida’s Gasparilla Film Festival. The filmmaker is tall and friendly, and our conversation proved to be highly entertaining as we dove deep into the issues his film touches upon. We began by discussion of the city that’s home to the festival that helped bring him to international attention.
ScreenAnarchy: I’m from Toronto, a city that’s been pretty good to you.
Gavin Hood: It's been beyond great to me, mate. I think we can actually say without a shadow of a doubt that I wouldn't be sitting here talking to you now if it wasn't for what happened in 2005 with Tsotsi in Toronto. It won the audience award there and it changed my life. I made a little film that I thought, I was just hoping would get a release in my own country, and I'm not just, you know what the odds are of that happening, I mean, it could easily have happened to somebody else. So the fact that Toronto voted for Tsotsi literally changed my life.
You went from that to do some more mainstream Hollywood films.
I'm happy to be back in my wheelhouse.
I’d like to get at that - I don't know if you've seen BLACK BOOK, Verhoeven's last film. It's in Dutch and it's this crazy WWII thriller. It's amazing. There's something extraordinary about seeing it because you have a European aesthetic, but done with the skills that he honed over years of working on Hollywood films.
Oh, I love what you're saying. I think that's exactly right.
This strikes me as a little bit of what you came from, this small, intimate, almost parlour piece with the context of the stuff that you developed within the Hollywood context.
I like this interview already! I think that's exactly right. As a young filmmaker from far, far away, you're just trying to tell stories which in South Africa was not that easy to do. We didn't have a huge amount of resources, but the plus of that is the films are story driven. In the case of A Reasonable Man and Tsotsi, my work experience was honing a screenplay until it was ready, then struggling to get the money, then working through pre-production with a tight knit group of committed crew who were really my friends, and then delivering a film, then trying to sell it.
The financiers who were behind these films, because they were not huge budgets, were in it because they really believed in the film that I'd sold them that I was trying to make. You're driving the process in order to try to get something done, and your team is with you to try and deliver a film that you've all fallen in love with.
Unfortunately, that kind of experience ill prepares you for Hollywood.
There it is exactly the reverse approach. I hasten to say that [not in a negative way], it simply is the reverse approach because Hollywood is a studio, corporate-driven world where films have to be made. With an indie film, the film doesn't have to be made, it only gets made if you struggle and strive and battle to get it made. If you're running a studio, and I have great sympathy or even empathy for those studio guys now that I know the system better, you have to put out films whether they're ready or not. You have to keep this machine going - you've got staff, you've got buildings. It is a business that must produce product.
That can make the enterprise quite stressful for the studio executives because no sooner have you done one, you've got to have the next one. What's coming out next year? What's our tentpole? How are we keeping the studio and its massive payroll going?
As a naive indie filmmaker, you come and you go, wow, they want me to direct a piece and it's Wolverine, for example. It's about a guy struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, he's been through a million wars and the claws are a symbol of his desire to lash out but his desire to withdraw and pull back the claws. With Hugh [Jackman], this could be awesome! So, where's the script? Uh, well, the script's still being written, but this is the concept.
Your agent's going, “This is awesome! Sign on!” and so you do, and then you get hit with a writer's strike. But there's a release date, and all of a sudden, I found myself in a world that I was frankly ill prepared for.
But as you correctly say, I learned a massive amount through it. I'm not ungrateful. I'm actually very grateful for the experience because I learned to work in a very different environment. I learned that I do not wish to go again into a situation where the script is not completely written and that's my biggest advice to young filmmakers. Often you hear these stories of studio films where the script is still being written while prep is happening because there's a release date and that is stressful for everybody and it's no wonder that there are so many tensions in that system.
Sometimes, though, you get CASABLANCA….
Yes, great films come out of it. But often you don't. As I say this, I don't want to come across as in any way unfair. I have great empathy for the way that system works and now that I understand it a bit better, I think I'm better prepared to work within that system.
What I found was that EYE IN THE SKY has moments of, let's say traditional Hollywood epic scope - slightly bigger performances from an impeccable cast - but it has also a tableau nature to it and is almost theatrical.
Yeah. It's a courtroom drama. I think you're really on to something and it's actually quite fun to talk about it because you're right. We don't always see the way it's affected us but I think what you're saying is I would not have been able to do Eye in the Sky in the way that I have done it, with the pace and energy and the search for more scope despite it being a chamber piece. You take any opportunity you get to increase pace, to give it that sort of, frankly, Hollywood energy that keeps audiences on the edge of their seats.
I think you're absolutely right, that moving from indie, through the commercial driven necessity of Hollywood, makes me a better indie director in the end. You do want to give the audience what Hollywood knows they need, which is pace, energy, scope, wherever possible. The challenge with this film is that it could so easily have been a TV movie of people in rooms sitting behind desks looking at screens. That was my challenge to my designer, to my cinematographer. That went into how we even built the sets.
There was a time when we were struggling to get money, when it was can you do this in 30 days and the answer is yes, as long as Helen sits behind a desk and never moves and I go [sound effect] and she shoots her dialogue off quick, but that's not going to give it some scope and cinematic visual energy.
I thought if we designed the set bigger, where her desk is deep back in this bunker and she has deep place to walk up to that screen, and if we put the door through which the lawyer enters in front, so she can confront him and that gives us a reason to move within this confined space so that the space is not as confined, [that would help]. And all of that understanding comes from working in Hollywood, for which I am grateful.
When one is doing one's first indie films, one by necessity, because of the struggles to make the film in the first place, you are making the story that you need to make. And what sometimes gets lost in some filmmakers is that whole notion of you're not making it for yourself, yet paradoxically you have to make it for yourself in order to get sleep at night.
But you have to ultimately make it for an audience.
And one of the things, rightly or wrongly, that Hollywood does, is it's constantly worried about return on investment, therefore it's constantly worried about an audience. And that's the tricky balance, I think, between potential indulgence on the indie side and placation on the other.
You come to these festivals, and let's be honest, you can also see a lot of really bad films, where the pace is too slow, it's too indulgent, where there's no sense of when an audience is ready to move on. Hollywood comes at it from exactly the opposite point of view. If the audience isn't getting it, how can we make them?
When you do a lot of audience testing, and I've been involved in a lot of them, you're constantly sitting in meetings with the test results. Everybody's trying to interpret them and wanting to give the audience what they want. The danger is that you sometimes give the audience what they want and they're no longer satisfied! In the Eye in the Sky, if you ask people if they would like the [film to end], you might find a lot of people saying I wish [for one thing or another].
What I find fascinating in these marketing meetings is because we're dealing with human emotion, it's not an exact science. Do you want Thelma and Louise to drive off the edge of the mountain? No! Is the film better because they do? Yes!
I often find when I'm talking to the marketing guys and as an ex-lawyer tell them “you're leading the witness with this question!” They are going to get an answer that you want, that's not necessarily right for the film. Tee way you phrase the question in these Q&A things to the audience or these test screenings really matters lest you end up with a watered down version of your film.
In my review of STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS, I inverted the Mick Jagger line, that sometimes you don't get what you need, you get what you want, and sometimes that is strangely unsatisfying.
That's what I'm trying to say in a nutshell.
What I believe is satisfying about your film, and what is a challenge occasionally in Hollywood, is exploration of moral greyness and a sense of ambivalence about the situation.
Hollywood is very afraid of that. I couldn't get this film made by Hollywood studios. I mean, I had a number say we'll make it if the little girl lives.
The movie would lose all its impact if you didn't have that sense of tragedy at its core, at the same time, I think if the film was only the look at the poor little girl that dies, it would be an even more simple film in some ways, war bad, collateral damage bad.
Yeah, then you're just preaching.
So how did you dial back the preachiness and avoid being sanctimonious?
You're walking that line from the script to the shooting to the editing room. Alan Rickman delivers his final line with such brilliance and such, that deep voice, when he says "Never tell a soldier he does not know the cost of war". When it comes from Alan Rickman, with all of that Rickmanian gravitas, with a jaded, world-weariness. The quadruples in power.
Yet have I spun it too far his way? My spinning it the other way in terms of the cost of war to the innocent bystander and the potential for blowback from what happens to the father is not articulated in a line, it's shown visually. I think it's important that Alan makes his point and then that the other side is revealed too because the cost of war, everyone pays a price for this.
What I'm enjoying about the film is that people from both sides of the drone debate are talking. I made Rendition and it was harder because it's very clearly anti-torture, which I happen to be. I've been in the military myself, so I'm not speaking from some sort of naïve POV, but I think what I experienced on that film in terms of learning from Hollywood is the critics were just split. I couldn't get the two sides together in the way that Eye in the Sky gets Amnesty International together with pro-drone people. They don't necessarily like or agree with each other, but they actually can't deny that their point of view is in the film.
The film does is it provides the structure for the discourse. It provides a certain set of circumstances whereby those can continue a conversation. Yet part of what fuels this, as you said above, is the power and gravitas of the performers you assembled that bring their own history of numerous performances to bear on this one. It’s as if they’re pre-baked into having audiences care about them as stars.
You make a good point, that’s one of the reasons I wanted to cast Helen Mirren. Firstly, the role was written for a man originally. Reading the script I kept thinking of Helen - I think it was because I wanted something that didn't feel like an all-guys war movie. At the same time the moral and ethical questions raised by the film are questions that are being discussed now and need to be discussed a great deal.
What is the legal framework and the policy framework that's going to govern automated warfare going forward? [At the moment] wee don't have a legal framework. The Geneva Conventions were designed for nation states fighting each other in geographically located battlefields and now the battlefield is wherever that individual ideologically driven person is - in a friendly country, in an unfriendly country, in our own country. What is this new world?
So guess what, if I cast Helen Mirren, I've got men and women coming to the show. I'm also balancing what initially appears to be the rather traditional maternal female perspective of the woman played by Monica Dolan, who ironically undermines all of that when she says I think maybe we should rather kill 80 people and let al Shebab carry the blame and win the propaganda war.
Hers may be the hardest role in the film as it easily could simply be shrill.
I don't think she gets enough notice. And by the way, Helen pointed out to me, saying Monica is phenomenal in this role.
She has to be a peacenik but not a pussy.
Yeah, and she seems so annoying to everyone for a while until she makes that statement at the end and you go oh my God, and yet, subsequently, she is so affected by it that maybe her statement is also just to please someone else.
Does she really want to do that politically? And who knows? But the point about Helen is not only do you get, you get a nuance to it when she confronts that lawyer, it's funnier because this person is a foot and a half shorter than the young lawyer who backs up. You wouldn't get that from a man. You'd get a more standard, expected, and the same with Alan, if you had a lesser actor, but you also have, with Alan, there's a version, but I do want to come back to what they bring, there's a version of the general that's just a more irritated version of the general.
And there'd be an adequate performance of that, what Alan brings is all of that intelligence, wit, slight roll of the eye and he allows the audience to laugh, and release some of the tension and yet he never turns it into broad comedy. He walks that fine line, but what an actor like Helen and Alan brings, there was backstory, more backstory written for Helen. We actually met her children in her kitchen, and in the edit, we just took it out because what you said is true.
We come to a movie with Helen, we like Helen Mirren, we don't need to be told too much of who she is, she wakes up, she has a husband who snores, it's annoying, she has a dog, and oh my God, she has a back room and she does weird shit. What does this woman do? Well, we'll tell you. We don't have to have the kid and the thing and spell it all out, and with a lesser actor, you might have needed more backstory, but with her, morning dog, whatever she says, and we just know who this woman is, partly because we know who Helen Mirren is.
We root for her because it's Helen Mirren and then when she pulls the friggin rug out from under us it's like wait, Helen, don't be a bad guy. You're supposed to be my Helen. So you're absolutely right. When you cast an actor of that stature, the audience attaches to that actor more than they would if it was someone they'd never seen before. And you have to take that into account when you, and how much backstory you need, you don't need much, for her.
This is one of Rickman's last roles. Could you talk some more about the privilege of working with him?
It's really an awkward thing for me because I don't want to feel like I'm overstating my relationship with Alan. I only knew him for the brief period that we worked on this film. He was so kind, generous, intelligent, everything you think Alan is.
I always call actors in preproduction to ask if there's anything in the script they'd like to discuss. Again, learning from Hollywood, I've had the experience of being on set with an actor who suddenly doesn't want to do this and hates the writing and shuts everything down for three hours and you're like, oh my god. I swore that would never happen again, so now you meet beforehand.
I called Alan and I said asked if there anything in the script that bothers you, that you want to talk about, and his answer was “Oh, Gavin, I love this story, I think it's an important ethical dilemma that you're raising, and I just don't want to get in the way.” I don't want to get in the way, direct quote.
That's the humility, the dignity, and frankly, the awareness of his power. Because it's all of that mixed together. The humility and the awareness that he mustn't go too far and tip the story away from the essential narrative drive. But he gives that general nuance and range and personality that is beyond what's on the page.
Guy's writing is so economical in order to keep that damned plot drive because this is a story plot driven piece, he gives us just enough as a writer for the audience to know who Allan is. Just enough, and no more, and then Alan makes sure to maximize those tiny moments. So I was very fortunate to work with him.
The film contains all these contraditions - There's Britain vs. the US, there's the gender politics of a woman telling an American man to kill, and an American male says back off.
Subvert every expectation, that's what a good director should do. Surprise, surprise, surprise.
There's plenty of subversion going on. But when you have Aaron Paul saying no, for very explicit reasons, when you have the Americans looking to live by the rules and the Brits are trying to bend it, you have some very interesting politics going on.
I think it also allows the audience to come at it without feeling judged, especially an American audience. All of this I'm sure you know is based on proper research. That Tuesday terror kill list exists - if you're on that list, you don't need to call up. The Brits didn't have that list, so they're in more of a tizz.
The line that Aaron Paul gives when he says “I am the pilot, I am in command responsible for releasing the weapon. I have the right to ask for the CDE to be run again. I will not release my weapon until that happens” is a direct quote from the Colonel who trained the drone pilots that I spoke to. One of the reasons that they train them with that line is because we have to remember that pilots as young as they are can be charged with a war crime if they follow an illegal order and don't question it. Think of the pressure of that!
There can be no Nuremburg, no “I’m just following orders”.Our drone pilot consultant had exactly that experience when he was an F-16 pilot flying over Iraq. He realized his coordinates were wrong because he made visual contact and he declined to drop his payload and flew back. He had a 4 star general yelling down the phone “drop your fucking payload!” and he goes “sir, this is the wrong target.” He landed, they his black box or whatever the equivalent is, and for two weeks was terrified o fbeing courtmartialed. And then nothing happened. It just went away.
I said, why didn't you just follow the order? And he said, “Gavin, it was a civilian target and at that moment I didn't give a shit whether I stayed in the Air Force or not.”
It's easy to think that all people in the military are one thing. We know from the Snowden tapes there are pilots who go these are bug splats and kill the mother fuckers, but we also know that 30% of those pilots are leaving the program. We know Brandon Bryant has spoken out against it. So when I interview drone pilots just like in life, there's every kind of personality.
Tthe reason I wanted to use Aaron Paul as a pilot making his first strike is because those were the most interesting conversations. What was it like the first time you took life and pulled the trigger on the hellfire? And that's how our audience feels I think.
So I say all of this because I want you to know that that line is not something that Guy made up. That's something we got from direct research, that these pilots are under that pressure to make judgements. Once it's proved to them that the order is legal, they now have to follow the order or they will be courtmartialed because now they would be disobeying a legal order. But there is that zone where they have that flexibility, especially as the person pulling the trigger. So it's an interesting thing.
Did your own view on drone warfare change because of this film?
Let me go back a step - I'm often asked by people whether I think drone warfare is good or bad. It's the wrong question. My view is that the drone is another tactical weapon in the endless evolution of weaponry designed to kill our fellow man. The question is not whether drone warfare is good or bad, per se, the question is, is the strategy behind using a particular weapon in a particular operation right or wrong, by which I mean what is the total outcome. That’s something the film tries to explore, of using this weapon in this particular set of facts. Change the facts slightly, and you change everything.
Make the possibility of people dying only 10, or make the possibility of people dying not 80 but 8000, make a number of innocent lives from one to twenty - I mean, you can just mess with this and make the possibility of the leak greater or less, the facts matter. The question is are we being strategically wise in the way we're deploying this weapon?
Instead of Dresden, you do drones. Instead of buttery and torture you have the efficiency of the guillotine.
Are guillotines good? The real question is whether you have the right head on the block. And what does the audience witnessing this execution feel towards you, the executioner?
I think we all agree on is that the goal has to be to reduce extremist behaviour. It has to be to reduce jihadism and extremist ideology and frankly on all sides. And if it isn't achieving that, if the drones are being used over the tribal areas of Pakistan, in permanent surveillance to the point that that entire local population loathes those American drones, then I don't know if those drones are being deployed strategically in the right way.
It's the old whack a mole thing. I think we might be creating more moles than reducing the ones we whack with the drones. But is there a situation where a hellfire missile being used over a defined combat zone like what's happening with ISIS might be the right tactical weapon to achieve an objective? Absolutely.
…As opposed to carpet bombing.
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, far rather use the drone than the carpet bomb. It's not a question of the weapon, it's a question of is the use of this weapon in this circumstance reducing the overall blowback.
So perhaps this is the difference between an indie film and a Hollywood film - You have returned to making a film now that allows an audience to leave asking questions.
This is fundamentally the difference.