The issue surrounding the use of drones and drone strikes in the war on terror is such a huge issue today, that it is no surprise that someone made a movie about it. Last fall during TIFF, I got the chance to sit down with Director Andrew Niccol and star Ethan Hawke to discuss their new movie, Good Kill which premiered at the festival and is opening in theatres across Canada this Friday.
It’s the story of an Army pilot who is no longer allowed to fly jets into combat and is relegated to flying drone but still gets to go home to his family every night and how this ever evolving state of warfare is stripping the dignity that some of these soldiers hold on to as warriors from their very soul.
We discussed the moral issues around the topic, the effect that this life as on these men and their families as well as how the use of dialogue and language played such a huge role in the film, if it was being used or not.
Dave Voigt: It’s such a fascinating film because it does bring up the big moral issues about drone warfare but also for the ones that we don’t necessarily think about with these soldiers who are suffering through these issues of PTSD while having never had to have actually deployed anywhere. What ultimately drew you both to this project?
Ethan Hawke: Oh that’s an excellent question.
Andrew Niccol: It was the second part of your question that really hooked me on this issue. It’s just so unique to have this kind of schizophrenic warfare where you just go to war, then go home and repeat, it’s just amazing because we have never put soldiers in this kind of position before where you have no time to decompress and basically go from war, straight to your home. It just never happened before.
EH: And then there is the added strange part where they are actively aware of their PTSD where they are making these decisions about life or death for other people and they are carrying that burden. However if they tried to go to the hospital and talk to the doctor about it all they have this overwhelming sense of shame because their lives aren’t even in danger and they have friends who have lost limbs or just not made it back at all which all plays into the warrior’s mentality that these guys have. These guys need to know that no matter what they may have done, they did actually put their lives on the line for the courage of their own convictions, but when they are taking life, with no risk to themselves it starts to make them feel like an assassin, which is something that they don’t sign up for.
DV: But isn’t it a little disingenuous to say though since your character is basically an assassin?
EH: Part of being an adult means to have a discerning mind and in many ways you are absolutely right. My brother is in the military himself and he would say about Major Tommy Egan is that he’s asking questions that he shouldn’t even be asking because those decisions just aren’t up to him. However at the same time we are all very damning of people who do some very unethical things while just following orders.
DV: And that is what the whole military complex is more or less based on…
EH: Which is why they quite often don’t support movies like this one. Individuals make up and army but soldiers never really see their own humanity by agreeing to want to fight for their country and this particular solider that we are talking about right now, wanted to fly jets. What I think is robbing this man of his self esteem is that he is never in danger or like he says “Has no skin in the game” which is where he gets his purpose. It’s not easy and very dangerous to fly an F16 jet over Afghanistan and those things just aren’t happening anymore so he is asking questions about what he is doing in a way that he would have never even thought to ask before, which is slowly making him crazy. These men aren’t robots, they are people and even his frustrations are affecting his wife who is fighting to keep her family together, but we don’t 100% know the motivation behind her anger.
AN: I think that a lot of her anger comes from the fact that she just doesn’t know what is going on in his day to day life and he purposely keeps so much of it from her that it causes her to lash out because that is all she has and he is just emotionally unavailable.
EH: Until the end of the movie when you finally see her absorb what he has been holding in, then she gets a glimpse at the kind of turmoil that he is going through.
DV: Tommy is a family man, much like yourself. How much did that play into your process as you were building the character?
EH: So much of that comes across in that shot when Tommy is picking up his kids from school and he is just looking up because he loves his kids but in his heart he knows that he is taking other peoples families away from them. He’s trying to stop terrorism but he is slowly realizing how he is just terrorizing someone else. It’s an interesting thing to take in to be sure as it isn’t an easy thing to shut off, I mean can you even imagine? I think that one of my favorite moments in the film, is when he comes home and simply says “I did something good today”. And she says “Don’t you always?” His priority number one was always to protect his country and relish the feeling that he got from that, but it is something that is slipping away from him, and he knows it.
DV: Your character in this film is so quiet and so internalized it is very much the art of saying things without actually saying them. While you were doing research and talking with some of these men is that an personality trait that you found to be common?
EH: These guys were so much more silent then I could ever pretend to be, I realized very quickly how difficult it would be to do this non-verbal part.
AN: Yeah, I phoned him up pretty quickly and told Ethan that he just has the unique facility with language…but we’re not going to need any of that (laughs) because he plays such a strong and silent type, in many ways it was good and worked to our advantage because the character is so emotionally shut down. Ethan who is this emotive and talkative guy who never shuts up (smiles/laughs) has now had his words taken away from him and he has to use everything else that he has which I think makes for a great performance.
EH: It was really challenging for me and one of things that I did realize was how serious and how accurate a portrait this was going to be. Meeting these guys, I could easily imagine how being their wife would be very difficult, there is no intimacy and I mean I couldn’t get too authentic with it all because then the movie would have just been very dry and boring! (Laughs).
DV: It’s hard for these guys to take their job home with them, I was wondering was this something you found hard as well while playing this role?
EH: I honestly think that is why I understand these guys so well. My situation in life is obviously not nearly as serious as there’s is but I do completely understand them. I like shooting movies, particularly when you are playing a character like this when you are on location and away from your family because it is very difficult. In many ways you have to trick your body to thinking that everything you are going through is real in order to get the right performance but when you go home it isn’t easy to turn off this guy who is eating himself alive from the inside out. You have to trick yourself in order to get yourself to hate yourself when playing a character like this and it takes a minute. It’s just what you have to do, and you can’t shut it off when you go to dinner and while it is nice to let your hair grow out and stretch your legs as an actor, it isn’t always easy.
DV: You two have obviously worked together before, how important is that chemistry between the both of you in order to be able to get to these types of places that the story needs you to go?
AN: For this movie it was so important that we already had a shorthand between ourselves because we just didn’t have any time. The schedule was brutal, no money and no time to develop that rapport. The fact that Ethan didn’t have to struggle with where I wanted to go because we had worked together before was such a benefit for the film and a great help.
DV: Not only is it silent, but it is also very static in this predetermined space. How much of a nightmare was that?
EH: Oh hell, for the DP, the cast, the crew, we all just had this overwhelmingly claustrophobic feeling. I remember that Andrew had all these drone pilots on set while we were shooting those scenes and just watching everything. I asked them once “Does it make you crazy just sitting there?” and he smiled and nodded and I knew.
DV: How do you ultimately make that compelling to watch?
EH: You know the thing that I found amazing in the film is that when an explosion happens, you don’t hear it. It’s just creepy and I found that hit home so much more than a Michael Bay approach that wants you to feel the action vibrating in your core.
AN: Yeah, with the sound design, I made a very deliberate choice to not play up the explosions because if we had gone the other way, if we didn’t have the actual sound of the explosion we could have just inserted some dramatic music. I just thought lets go quiet and have those explosions play out like they would for the actual drone pilots.
DV: It’s gotten some comparisons to something like Top Gun, but for the modern age. How do you guys feel about that?
EH: Yeah, I do feel that way. I had this particular feeling that Tommy probably joined the Air Force because he saw Top Gun and every time he was in this steel can flying these drones he knew that this wasn’t what he signed up for.
DV: That even comes through in his line when he asks “Why do we wear these Flight Suits?”
AN: Yeah, I mean it is completely illogical, because they could just wear sweatpants if they wanted to, but that is just what they do.
DV: Same with the moments when Tommy goes into the store to buy something and people smugly ask him if is outfit is real.
EH: I think that in a strange way, that scene really does capture the essence of the entire film…
AN: Because, most people just don’t know and have never been in that situation. They open the paper and can see that there was a drone strike but they never really know how that crater on the front page got there. Until you see the kind of imagery that is in this movie and the protocol behind how they do it then you get it. It was surprising as I educated myself throughout the entire process.
DV: Was the casting of Peter Coyote as the floating voice of “Langley” an intentional choice taking the benevolent voice of Apple into this sinister role?
AN: He’s also a Buddhist priest and to be honest I think that the CIA could use a few more of those in their ranks (laughs). His voice just has this fantastic reasonableness to him and a lot of things that he is saying, I didn’t write. It’s jargon that we got from the CIA and it is all of their own justifications…I don’t have to give them a writing credit, do I? (laughs)
EH: (Smiles) It’s called RESEARCH (Laughs)
DV: The war maybe old, but the issue of drones is still a rather new one, how hard it was it to get access and be precise?
AN: What I like about the movie and the subject matter is ultimately how precise it is. It’s very Black or White because there are some very beneficial things about the drone program, but also some pretty horrific ones as well. In 2010, there were still showing 60 Minutes and very proud of the technology where most of our stuff is modeled on, but you can’t go the Air Force base where this stuff happens now because of the controversies and their ultimate decision to shut down any showing of this technology because now we just aren’t that proud of it.
DV: What kind of reaction do you expect from the CIA or the government complex with this film?
AN: Oh, I’m on a watch list, no doubt (laughs) I expect audits every month (smiles)
Good Kill is in theaters this Friday.