Andrew Niccol first captured moviegoers' attention with his unique takes on how the human race’s love of technology leads to unforeseen consequences in sci-fi flicks like “Gattaca” and “S1mone,” both of which he wrote and directed, and even to a certain extent in his comedic take on reality TV with his script for “The Truman Show.” Since then, he he's continued to explore these themes in high concept Hollywood movies like “In Time” and “The Host.”
But in his latest film “Good Kill,” which had its American debut at the Tribeca Film Festival and opens tomorrow, he’s looking at the same idea through a realistic lens: the murky world of drone warfare. The film tells the story of Tommy Egan (Ethan Hawke), an elite pilot who no longer flies because he better serves the military’s new need, to sit in a trailer on the outskirts of Las Vegas and pilot enemy-killing predator drones before commuting home at night.
It’s Niccol’s most ambitious and political movie since his gun-trafficking film “Lord of War,” a compelling look at the future of warfare and the toll it still takes. though when it comes to drones, Niccol sees a much more complex terrain.
What made you want to write this movie?
It was a culmination of things, reading in the press about a drone strike and another drone strike and another. I wondered what went into the drone war and it was such an eye opener for me — we have never had a soldier like that before who goes home at the end of the day. There are going to be a lot of Tommy Egans in the future. This is going to be the new normal.
But the most interesting thing in the movie to me is the big tug of war right now between the Pentagon and the CIA over who is going to run the drone program. Since 9/11 the CIA has gone from the spying business into the killing business and it is now another branch of the military. I didn't make up those phrases the CIA uses like "preemptive self-defense” or “proportionality” where if you are a big enough target they consider killing anyone around you fair game.
This feels like a return to “Lord of War” after your last two more commercial movies, “In Time” and “The Host.” Was that a conscious decision?
My life is more haphazard then you would imagine. I don't have such control over my destiny. Looking at my filmography you might think differently but if I had more control it would be a different filmography and it would be longer. I sometimes have to make movies people will pay for. I can't imagine Hollywood was tripping over itself to finance a film about such an uncomfortable topic. No, they weren't. It was a labor of love for myself and the actors. But I am drawn to movies like this and we were so fascinated by the characters and the story that we really wanted to do it.
What do you think of America's decision to place these drone trailers in Las Vegas, of all places?
People asked me why I chose that for the movie and I said, I didn't—the U.S. military did. The mountains nearby are like those in Afghanistan so it's good for military training. But they also practice flying the drones by following civilians driving from L.A. to Las Vegas as if they are a Taliban truck. It was so outrageous I didn't put it in the movie because I didn't think people would buy it. That's not the only bit of reality you were worried people would think you made up. There were younger soldiers who would spend 12 hours in a remote control war and then go back to their apartments and play video games. Ethan Hawke's character was not that guy and I didn't want to leave his story but it also just seemed so jaw-dropping to me.
You worked with Hawke on both “Gattaca” and “Lord of War.” Did you write Tommy Egan with him in mind?
No, I never write with anyone in mind. But when I finished I said, 'This is perfect for Ethan,' even though it really isn't. I called him up and said, 'You have this great facility for language and we won't be needing any of that in this movie.' His character is completely shut down emotionally. The day I finished a cut of this I went to see an early version of “Boyhood” and I was stunned. It was like two totally different human beings. I guess it's called acting, but I have a new respect for him.
You give voice to all sides in the movie, especially with Bruce Greenwood's Lt. Col. Jack Johns but also with the characters working with Hawke.
Bruce's character is the most conflicted but I spoke to drone operators who said those gung ho guys like the ones I wrote definitely exist and so do people like Zoe Kravitz's character, who was outspoken against what was happening. There is a lot of internal debate in the military about when to use the drones. The perfect example is the two hostages who recently were killed. [Note: Niccol is referring to the American and Italian being held by Al Qaeda who were killed in a drone strike in January.] There were people in the military arguing that they could kick the door down and see who was inside which you cannot do with a drone.
Was it important to you to include the scene where Hawke's character uses the drone to “overwatch” the troops in the field so they can get some sleep?
Drones can do really great things. In Afghanistan you had Marines who wouldn't leave the base without an overwatch to keep them from getting ambushed. There is no simple answer. There is a lot of ambiguity with drones. They may be the least worst option.