When director/actor Gavin Hood presented his new film "Eye in the Sky" at Miami Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival earlier this week, he didn’t expect to take the conversation on a tangent about what went wrong with "X-Men Origins: Wolverine." But, as he said more than once that evening, he felt obliged to the aspiring filmmakers he knew were in the audience.
The event was more than the Florida premiere of Hood’s latest film, it was also a career tribute, one of four at this year’s 33rd annual edition of the festival. Before bringing Hood up for the conversation portion of the tribute, Miami International Film Festival programming director Jaie Laplante took the stage at the Tower Theater in Miami’s historic Little Havana neighborhood. He spoke of Hood’s keen eye for camera placement, and then it was into clips of "Rendition," "Wolverine," "Ender’s Game" and Hood’s career-making Oscar winner "Tsotsi." After the scenes rolled and the sold out theater applauded, Hood was brought on stage.
He said of the clips, "I find all this a little unsettling but thank you...I’ve never had to sit over an audience and look at those reels and try to make sense of them."
It seems watching the clip from "Wolverine," a simple, dialogue-driven shot-reverse-shot repartee between Daniel Henney, Danny Huston and Hugh Jackman, triggered something in Hood.
Laplante asked about what happened when Hollywood came calling, after he had won the Oscar. Hood framed his response as a warning to aspiring filmmakers. “When 'Tsotsi' happened, the best we were hoping for, frankly, was to get the film released in our own country. It was made for a very low budget, and so the event that followed, including the Oscar, were not something you planned, and they came, frankly, as a huge shock, and I thought we were very lucky, and it could have been somebody else, but when it happened, Hollywood has a strange sense of calling, and when you’re young, you have a strange way of being flattered by that call, for good or bad."
He explained that his first Hollywood film, 'Rendition,' was a "very good experience." He said the studio left him alone to do his own thing, and even though Meryl Streep played a supporting role, it was still a lower budget film that wasn’t star-driven. However, he said the stakes were much higher with "Wolverine." He said it was Jackman who approached him to make the movie.
"He’s a great guy to this day," said Hood of Jackman, "and he’d seen 'Tsotsi,' and he really felt that he wanted to try to make this film about a guy who is a superhero, but doesn’t really like what he does and has all this post-traumatic stress disorder."
The film ultimately became something else, Hood said. The reasons for it were plethora, including having to deal with stunt casting, a second unit director who didn’t match his style ("I felt the action looked like ‘80s action"), and the writers’ strike that left the director with an unfinished script and facing a looming, fixed release date. He felt he had little control. Characters like Gambit and Deadpool were written in, and even the title was changed on him, which Jackman broke to him after the actor stumbled across the change on IMDb.
It was a bit of a rant for Hood that took everyone by surprise. He paused several times to admit that he had never been as honest as this about the making of the film, but he felt beholden to the aspiring filmmakers in attendance.
"I’m very grateful because I managed to buy a house off that film, so don’t get me wrong," he said at one point. "I own the mistakes I made. I learned a great deal, but I hope that the film tonight is more in my wheel house. If you don’t like the film, you can tell me after. I come back for Q&A, and I have no one to blame. It comes from working with a writer who I loved, prepping it with producers who really wanted to make the same movie, and that’s the Hollywood story."
It was the first question of the night, and his answer got a huge round of applause. It was a bit of a show stealer for the evening, but it also prepared the audience for a director ready to express deep passion about his work. Indeed, he feels quite strong about "Eye In the Sky," set for commercial release this Friday, March 11. It examines what it takes to fire a hellfire missile from a drone during a "prosecution mission" of several terrorists, through various points of view, from intelligence on the ground to the offices of decision makers to the pilots at the trigger.
Though Hood was only scheduled to appear in conversation on stage before the start of the film, he announced that he would come back for a Q&A afterward. After the intense 102-minute movie, Hood received a long round of applause that he expressed his gratitude for. He clearly seemed concerned about the film’s reception.
The film features constant legal and moral debates, as the clock ticks before any action is taken, which proves to be quite devastating. He mentioned how his experience as a lawyer has long influenced his movie-making and revealed that he had consulted with military advisors for this movie. One of those advisors was a drone pilot who was on set with Aaron Paul and Phoebe Fox, who play the pilots who not only have terrorists in their sights but also an innocent child selling bread.
Hood said the advisor was key on both a technical level but also in helping the actors understand the psychological ramifications of being a trigger man in this scenario.
"Drone pilots are suffering twice as much post-traumatic stress disorder as fighter pilots, and people are quite surprised by this," revealed Hood. "What the research shows — and speaking to our military pilot, he would have done both — he said when he was a fighter pilot dropping payloads over Iraq, he said, yeah, you were a little nervous, but there wasn’t a great chance of getting shot down. You drop your payload and then leave. You’re not compelled to go back and stay and look back...The fact that his life isn’t at risk [as a drone pilot], and he’s in a combat zone is causing some kind of weird disconnect, and also, oddly, a feeling of guilt because there’s something about being face to face with the enemy with a sword that’s honorable."
Despite the film also having the distinction of featuring Alan Rickman in his final role, as a British general who is playing an intermediary in the chain of decision-making, the actor was never brought up in the Q&A. Hood only referenced his character as a person who seems to do a very good job of compartmentalizing his job and feelings. In the end, the film did its job to get the audience thinking about what was on screen and not about his past with what he called "the Hollywood machine."