Interview: Andrew Niccol
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After storming into Hollywood in 1997 with his much-celebrated sci-fi head-scratcher Gattaca, and following this up a year later with his Oscar-nominated script for the now-classic drama The Truman Show, Andrew Niccol became known for his well-honed political edge.
His latest effort, drone-focussed war thriller Good Kill, looks to continue this trend, digging deep into the very nature of the American military’s latest weapon in the war on terror.
First of all, the film covers some very contemporary issues in its looking at drone warfare and PTSD. You state that it’s based on actual events?
What that means is that all of the drone strikes that you see in the movie have happened; I didn’t make any of it up. Ethan Hawke’s character is a composite character, the crew is one crew that represents many. The actual strikes have all happened. So things like ‘signature strikes’ where you basically target a terrorist and anyone next to them is also a terrorist - this all occurred. I didn’t make it up. I didn’t make up proportionality - which is this incredible word. To even have a word like that; Orwell would be spinning in his grave. They have this phrase ‘pre-emptive self-defence’, just think about that for a second. It basically means "I think you wanna kill me, so I kill you."
So how did you go about researching the film, getting access to this sort of information?
I didn’t have any official support from the military, but I spoke to a lot of ex-drone pilots who helped me authenticate everything. A lot of it’s also on public record - strikes on funerals, for instance. We think that’s an exaggeration, but please go ahead and research it. I also used WikiLeaks, and this is ironic in a way. You know that for every drone strike there’s a video record of it, because that’s exactly how they accomplish the strike in the first place. But the only ones that have disseminated are through WikiLeaks, so that’s how I could model my drone strikes, on what I was seeing.
How did you go about actually filming the drone strikes?
It’s interesting because I’d never done this before but I made a decision that it could never be on the ground because the drone pilots were never on the ground, they’re 7,000 miles away. They’re only looking down. So, when we were in Morocco (which was standing in for Afghanistan and Yemen) location scouting, they would drag me into a town and say “What do you think?” and I would say “I don’t know, I have to get up in the air!”, as that was the only way I could cast the town - to see it from above. I always shot from an aerial platform, and I brought that back to Las Vegas with me. I thought that it might be interesting that he [Ethan Hawke] has this God’s eye point-of-view, but someone’s watching him. That’s why I have all those aerial shots - they’re exactly the same height as the ones from the war-zones. It gives him that feeling of paranoia, and also maybe he’s not as omnipotent after all.
Obviously the whole idea of PTSD is quite a sensitive subject, but you dig quite deep into the nature of it. Were there any aspects that you thought you should leave out?
Not really. All the symptoms that he has are very common. In fact I gave Ethan Hawke a mild version of PTSD by sitting him down and showing him drone strike after drone strike, so that it would burn into his brain what his character had seen. Another curious aspect about that is that January Jones could be reassured that there wouldn’t be too many sex scenes, because the sex drive is actually really diminished with guys with PTSD. So all those awkward sex scenes, she wouldn’t have to do. It was kind of funny, in a strange way.
What drew me to this character was that we would never ask anybody to do this. Normally a pilot flies over a target, fires a missile and flies away. This guy, a drone pilot, fires a missile and watches. He doesn’t just watch, he has to do damage assessment, which is an Orwellian term for counting the dead. That’s basically what he’s doing. They can stay up there for 24 hours and see the destruction they’ve caused, which has never happened before. That’s what fascinated me: what does that do to your psyche as a soldier? Also when you have absolutely no risk - they have as much risk as you and me sitting here - how does that make you feel? They were going to issue a medal for drone pilots, and there was such an outcry from the other branches of the military because they said that medals are for valor and courage. Sitting in an arm-chair, you don’t get a medal for that. They had to rescind it. But then by rescinding it, they insulted the guys who were doing it, basically telling them that what they were doing means nothing. Even though what they were doing is life and death for somebody else.
This isn’t the first time that you’ve worked with Ethan Hawke - what was it about him as an actor that you thought was right for the role?
He is just such an honest actor. He’s almost incapable of doing something dishonest. If he couldn’t remember a line of dialogue I had written, I’d say it was because it was a bad line. It’s probably because I was trying to be too clever or it was a ‘movie’ line, so I would just change it. And then he would remember it. (laughs) He’s just got this great bullshit meter. It’s really valuable for me. When I called him about it, I said “You have this great facility with language. But you won’t be needing any of it.” (laughs) So it was very challenging for him in a way because he’s emotionally shut down, this guy is emotionally unavailable because of what he’s doing. So I think he liked the fact that he could do something else. Normally he’s playing this gregarious type in Boyhood or something, but now he barely says a word in some scenes. Normally he has all the dialogue.
And with the rest of the cast as well, between January Jones and Zoe Kravitz, it’s a very eclectic and talented bunch. Why do you think you went ahead and chose them for their respective roles?
Well, take January for example. She had to basically act against a brick wall. Ethan, for once, is giving nothing back, so it was a real challenge for her. It’s a really great performance, to try and reach some of his unreachable emotions, it’s a really interesting thing to go about exploring. And Zoe, she’s the truth-teller in the movie in some respects, because she doesn’t edit herself. She will say it like it is, so that was an interesting part. Bruce Greenwood is great too, because he grounded the movie, and he also had the intelligence to play both sides. I mean, this is a really conflicted guy who, as he says, doesn’t believe his own shit either. So I found that that was a really complex character to cast. And it’s good because they’re in this really intimate setting in this box as well, where it’s important to have these different personalities.
Finally just to round off, for our student readers out there, have you got any pointers for any up-and-coming writers and filmmakers who want to break into the industry?
There is no one right way. In terms of tips about writing: the simplest way I can say it is to just imagine a film and describe it. Don’t worry about all the bullshit rules about how a screenplay’s supposed to be structured and all that nonsense. All you’re trying to do is really write a blueprint for what you’re going to film.
Good Kill (2015), directed by Andrew Niccol is released in the UK on 10th April by Arrow Films, Certificate 15.