Kiwi native Andrew Niccol, who launched his Hollywood career by writing “The Truman Show,” is one of those maverick indies who writes the movies that interest him, from “Gattaca” and “Lord of War” to “In Time.” And Ethan Hawke is eager to collaborate with the filmmaker, even when the global marketplace is resistant to thoughtful original movies like “Good Kill.”
Returning for his third go-round with Niccol, in this film Hawke stars as a former Top Gun who is benched in a Las Vegas military base trailer piloting drone aircraft. He goes home to his wife (January Jones) every night, but dropping bombs in Yemen and Afghanistan from 7,000 miles away is not his idea of how to fight a war–especially when the CIA gets involved.
The movie, produced by Voltage Pictures (“The Hurt Locker”), played Venice and Toronto and is seeking a North American buyer; here are some early reviews.
I interviewed Hawke and Niccol at one of the Indiewire TIFF Talks, below, followed by interview videos, clip, and the new poster.
Anne Thompson: Making movies today is a challenge. Ethan, you’re on a roll. Congratulations on “Boyhood!”
Thank you. [Audience applauds]
Well, IFC took “Boyhood” and invested $250,000 for 12 years, that added up to the movie we’ve all seen. Thank God that IFC was willing to do that.
Hawke: Yeah, but that’s a level of risk-taking. I don’t know where it starts: if it’s up to the public to demand better material. If it’s up to actors to keep making shitty movies because they get paid a lot of money, the mall is going to be filled with shitty movies. You know, “shitty” is too easy a word. What I mean is just “easy” movies…if audiences demand a higher level, artists are willing to do it. I don’t know where it starts and I don’t know what needs to happen. I’ve been Andrew’s friend for years now, and some of the best scripts I’ve read, period, as an actor are very difficult to get made.
How often do you come across original material?
Hawke: Do you mean a screenplay that’s not derivative? I think what’s harder to do is to see an original screenplay get made. I think a lot of people are out there trying original things, and we live in a climate where, I think everybody knows, it’s easier to make an original film than it’s ever been before. It’s more difficult to get it seen or distributed, but the way technology has exploded, we’re living in an era where, if you really have the passion for an idea, you can make that movie. It’s just a question of how well you’re going to make it.
And how low the budget will be.
Hawke: Well, it won’t be very high.
Are you excited when you get material that is different? I mean, this is an unusual script. I applaud you. This is something I didn’t know very much about.
Hawke: This is my third film with Andrew, and one of the things that was very clear to me when I read “Gattaca” was — and I read “Gattaca” before I’d seen “The Truman Show” — that this was a real writer. Most people’s screenplays are kind of plans for a party. There’s not a tremendous amount of artistry, I don’t think. They seem to be, “Wouldn’t it be cool if you had a plane and wouldn’t it be cool if it blew up and, I don’t know, Jack Nicholson played the part.” These kinds of rough ideas of what a movie might be.
But Andrew writes…with metaphor and subtext and the use of language, and it’s thrilling to be a part of. All three movies I’ve done with him focus on a place where humanity is intersecting with what’s happening in the world, be it technology or, in the case of “Lord of War,” the arms industry and what that is doing to humanity. In this case, it addresses straight-on where we are with the drone war.
So why did you get involved with drones, and what was exciting about that story?
Andrew Niccol: What I was drawn to was the schizophrenia. We’ve never had warfare like this before, where a character like Ethan’s character, who’s a drone pilot, will fight the Taliban for twelve hours, then go home and fight with his wife and kids for the other twelve. There’s absolutely no line between that. It’s basically “war at home,” and we’ve never had that before.
I learned some things here that were pretty horrifying about what goes on.
Niccol: Yeah. It’s all based on actual events, so when I consulted with “x” drone pilots, because I couldn’t make this military movie with the help of the military — who politely declined to help me. When you tell an uncomfortable truth, you’re not going to get the support. There has to be sort of a “ra-ra” war movie to get that. So when it’s a complicated truth like this, you have to make it independently.
It’s almost like they’re playing video games. There’s an incredible console in a trailer, with people manipulating controls. Is this based in reality?
Niccol: This is all completely real. In researching it, what you’re talking about is a GCS trailer, where they pilot drones from 7,000 miles away — in Vegas, of all places. But there’s actually a practical reason why it’s Vegas: the drones that they use to practice with, they fly over the mountains near Vegas, which is a very similar terrain; that’s why they put the base there. To me, it was such an obscene contrast to see what one people has done with the desert, to make all this glitz and glamour, and this other desert in Afghanistan, where it’s still very primitive.
Ethan, you’re playing this pilot who was a top gun. He used to be a star, and now he’s on the ground. He was addicted to the thrill and danger of flying?
Hawke: Well, you know, Andrew’s movie is kind of wrapped in this envelope of politics, all that. But the heart of the movie is really Tom Egan, and I felt really blessed when I got the script, because I’m able to play a character I haven’t seen before. It’s this character presented with ethical questions that I haven’t seen onscreen before. One of the interesting things about this movie is that it’s a war movie where there’s a lot of death and mayhem, but it’s just 7,000 miles away, so you never hear any of the explosions. It’s this silent situation for him…
I went with my step-brother to see “Top Gun” the summer came out, and we went into the parking lot after it let out, and it was clear from our dialogue that he was going to join the military and I was going to be an actor. We had these two different kinds of reactions to it, and I imagine my character had a similar experience, you know? It’d be the right age for the recruitment of it. He’d have seen this movie and been so excited about a way to contribute to his country in such a romantic way, you know?
My grandfather, personally, was a pilot in World War II, so I was very interested in what’s happened to the Air Force, and what it’s like for a character. You say “addicted to the adrenaline.” I don’t think he was addicted to the adrenaline; I think it kind of makes it a smaller feeling. I think a lot of these guys that I’ve met, their self-esteem comes from putting their life on the line for their country, and they know while they might be doing difficult things, they have the courage of their convictions. All of us can spout our opinions about politics and whatnot, but these guys are really doing it — they are risking their lives in service of our safety. There’s a lot of pride in that. Even though you have to face some hard truth, like you might have killed some people, well, they were trying to kill me.
Now, my character is facing this very difficult situation, which is that he’s making moral decisions, and he’s taking human life, and he’s not at-risk. The worst thing that could happen to him is that he’s going to spill his coffee. That is a hard fact to live with, I think, and it requires a tremendous amount of compartmentalizing, and it was a character I was really interested to play. Regardless of the right or wrong of the situation, this is what our soldiers are being asked to do, and what does it feel like? How do you make sense out of it?
How far up are these drones? About 10,000 feet? And nobody can see them?
Niccol: Yes. They won’t see the drone, and they won’t even know what hit them, literally, when the hellfire hits.
Were you looking at real examples of this and mimicking it?
Niccol: Yes. One of my researchers was Bradley Manning and WikiLeaks, because you couldn’t see these drone leaks if it wasn’t for that.
The lingo: “Good kill” is something we hear in the movie.
Hawke: It’s an expression they often use to represent a successful mission…But there’s a long history of the military being full of this kind of Orwellian language, and Andrew really kind of mines it in this movie. It’s really true. It’s designed to help the soldiers distance themselves from what they’re doing — you know, “proportionate.”
Niccol: “Neutralizing a threat,” “prosecuting a target,” “degrading the capability of the enemy” — these are all words for killing, but we don’t like to say “killing,” because it’s better to give soldiers this distance. And they have it physically, now, as well.
You have these shots in Vegas that establish that someone is looking down on us. The movie suggests that we’re being watched as well.
Niccol: Yeah, what I loved is that Egan has this sort of God’s-eye POV when he looks down at Yemen or Afghanistan or somewhere similar — but while he’s got this God’s-eye POV, there’s God. So I sort of like to watch him in the same way.
We talked about the options as far as budget is concerned, and you guys are at a higher level of that. You’re not accepting micro-budget movies, so you have to figure out “the smart play” that’s actually going to help you.
Hawke: Acting, really, is an interpretive art, and we’re only as good as our writing, you know? I’ve always been drawn to the best writing that I can find. I don’t care if it’s in movies or theater or whatever — if you want to be in front of an audience, you have to do writing you believe in. That’s what makes it so easy to work with Andrew: they’re interesting, thought-provoking movies that have an idea behind them, that have some thought behind them, and that is rare.
The hardest thing, right now… when “Gattaca” came out, it was made at a studio. That would never happen now. The whole idea that studios were making art films. Even the word “art film” is said with a kind of scowl or disdain. I don’t know if you read it, but there was a great Kundera essay, recently, about how, in the course of his lifetime, he saw the birth of an art form, cinema, and he saw big business just completely usurp it. It’s getting harder and harder to tell stories for a medium-sized budget that have anything that aren’t obvious entertainment.
So, Andrew, how difficult was this to get made?
Niccol: It was difficult. It’s a labor of love for anyone who came to it. Nobody got paid to do this movie, so I had to call in a lot of favors. It’s difficult. In fact, I think my life is always going to be difficult, because I am trying to do something… “original” is a big word. It’s kind of pathetic, but I have to love what I’m doing.
Not pathetic at all.
Audience member: You and Ethan have worked together so many times, so I’m wondering about the shorthand on set and what that looks like.
Niccol: Well, it just invites abuse from him. [Laughs] No, we’ve got to the point where, seriously, we can say anything to each other and we do have that shorthand. I will actually go to give Ethan a note on something he’s doing, and he’ll somehow pick it up on telepathy — as I’m halfway to him, he’s already doing it. It’s easy like that, especially when you’ve got the schedule we were working with on this movie.
Hawke: It’s a huge advantage, you know? I always believed that acting, at its best… there’s a great Marlon Brando quote that you kind of have to be spiritually marrying your director. You have to kind of try to be making the same movie as them and help them add things they might not have seen, or whatever. But if you’re both trying to make a different movie, you’ll both fail. You have to try to make the same movie, and the more intimate you are with the director’s voice, the easier that becomes. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that when you take the big collaborations Scorsese’s had, with De Niro and DiCaprio, they all just seem to grow and grow and grow. That’s an easy example, but I think it’s true for all of us — when you work through your disagreements, there’s trust.
Audience member: Can you talk about your research and what access you had without the military?
Niccol: Yeah, it’s interesting. I saw [the “60 Minutes” story] too, but that was probably one of the last times they gave full access to a military base running the drone program. That’s when they realized it was too controversial and too sensitive to open it up. You can I can’t go and visit a facility they used to proudly show off the people like “60 Minutes.” But I had four ex-drone pilots who I relied on really heavily to make things as authentic as possible. That’s mostly how I did it, with archival footage — the kind of footage you saw — and also teaching Ethan’s character and other characters how to fly from 7,000 miles, the correct language, the correct protocol, and how to do it.
Hawke: You also got the blueprints of the GCSs, so we built them exactly, then had the pilots come in and show us how to use them. That was really interesting for me.
Niccol: One of the frightening things was actually the joystick you see in the GCS trailer is modeled on PlayStation or XBOX. It’s almost the exact same joystick you use as a gamer. In fact, some of the drone pilots would basically fly missions for 12 hours with a joystick, go back to their apartment in Vegas, and play video games with an almost-identical joystick. I couldn’t even make that up, and didn’t even want to put that in the movie because it just seemed too impossible.
Audience member: 25 years ago, when video games were coming out and my kids were playing them, I said, “This is how the next war is going to be fought.”
Niccol: You know, the interesting thing about this war — for instance, Afghanistan — and one of the things this drone program allows is, this war’s been going on for 13 years. It’s America’s longest war. And when the troops pull out of Afghanistan, the drones are not going to go anywhere, and it has the potential to be an endless war — that we’re going to sit, hovering over this part of the planet forever.
Thompson: Somebody in the movie says you’ll keep killing them, they’ll keep killing us, and it’s going to go on forever.
Niccol: Right. It’s Bruce Greenwood’s character. I mean, we kill them. Does anybody seriously think that if we stop killing them, they’ll stop killing us? That’s the question I don’t have an answer for.
Audience member: You had a tight schedule with this, so how did you go about preparing and rehearsing?
Hawke: One of the great advantages of working with Andrew is that he’s such a meticulous writer, and his preparation was so thorough. He made it very easy for all of us, introducing us to these pilots and introducing us to this equipment, giving us reading material and stuff. It was really pretty effortless. Also, I’ve spent a lot of time with the military. This particular thing is new, but at least I’ve spent a lot of time with the military before.
Niccol: At least I do rehearse. Yeah. I kind of insist on it, because I don’t think it really gets tired or old; it just gets better.
Hawke: Absolutely. It also helps everybody start making the same movie. Your collective imagination is more powerful than the individuals’, and a lot of times what happens on film sets is, I might be working on a speech or monologue, and I have one idea about how it’s going to be done, and Andrew says, “No, we’re going to do it with a still shot, and buses are going behind you,” or whatever it is, and it so violates my imagination of it. One sequence in the movie, one of my favorite pieces of writing in the material, is this long monologue, but I had a month before we shot the scene. Andrew and I had been out and worked on it, so, by the time I show up on set, I know exactly what Andrew wants from me that day, which is a lot. It’s very helpful.
Yeah, and we didn’t have the luxury — as you had so rightly predicted — on this movie.
And Ethan, you’ve got another film at Toronto?
Hawke: I have a documentary that I made, called “Seymour: An Introduction.”
You directed it!
Hawke: I’ve always been interested in directing. I started acting when I was thirteen years old, so I’ve had some desire to do something else in my life. Most people were doing a paper route when they were 13; if they were doing a paper route when they were 44 it’d be pretty depressing, so I try to do something else. The truth is, I never meant to make a documentary. Somehow, I feel like it happened to me. But it’s about an 87-year-old piano teacher named Seymour Bernstein. I met him, he’s a very wise and interesting person. I hope he comes to see “Good Kill,” because I’d love to see what he thought of it.