How loyal are our drone pilots to their cause, really? What happens when they start to question the ethics of drone warfare? These are just a few of the controversial questions raised in “Good Kill,” the new film from writer-director Andrew Niccol, which follows a drone pilot who becomes disillusioned with his video game-esque job when he realizes the extent of the damage his work inflicts. Ethan Hawke (“Boyhood”) stars as the drone pilot alongside January Jones (“Mad Men”) as his wife and Zoë Kravitz (“Divergent”) as a fellow pilot.
“Good Kill” is notable in that it looks at a different–though no less controversial–side of drone warfare: how it affects the pilots and their families. After the film’s premiere at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival in April, Niccol and his all-star cast spoke to Indiewire’s Film Critic Eric Kohn at one of Indiewire and Apple’s Tribeca Talks at the Apple Store in Soho, Manhattan about the myriad issues raised in the film. Watch the full panel discussion above, and check out a few of the highlights below.
Drone warfare is unexplored terrain for filmmakers.
Asked to put the “Good Kill” into context with his other films about war, Niccol was candid about his interest in drone warfare and its differences from traditional battles. “Ethan Hawke’s character has not really existed before, because he’s going to war with the Taliban for 12 hours a day and then he goes and picks up the kids from school and then he goes back,” he explained. “When we used to go to war with a country we’d actually go to the country. That’s not happening anymore. We’re going to fight remote-control wars, and that’s what interested me.” Hawke himself was interested was in the sheer novelty of his armed forces character, calling him “completely unique to our time, and a character I hadn’t ever seen in the movies before.”
Ethan Hawke relished the acting challenge.
“It was so interesting to have a character who didn’t speak. It’s a virtually silent performance–somebody who’s very uncomfortable expressing their feelings. In a way, that’s a manifestation of a whole philosophical debate the Airforce is having within itself as manned aircraft is on the auction block. We’re not sure whether that’s a good idea anymore or how valuable it is, or what role it has. This is a person whose whole identity was rooted in his ability to fly. There’s generations of aviators who are in love with this, it’s a beautiful skill. Landing an F-16 at night on an aircraft carrier is incredibly difficult to do and there’s a huge pride that comes along with that, and now there’s this loss of identity for the whole Airforce which is representative of the time period that we live in. So I found all that on a personal level and on the macro level was extremely interesting to me.”
Being the wife of a drone pilot isn’t easy either.
Jones was asked about how her character deals with being a wife and mother in the midst of modern warfare, and about the nuances of their relationship. Her answer had a lot of insight. “Well I think she’s happy that he’s home, that he’s not going away anymore. So that’s a positive for her, but she’s also just struggling with the communication aspect of their marriage and trying to keep that solid and trying to keep the kids in a healthy environment, and just trying to pry out of him any conversation or information from him. She sees how sad he is and how much he’s struggling but she doesn’t know why so it’s just a battle, almost starting fights to try to get a conversation,” she said. “And I think it’s true for a lot of relationships that are long-term relationship, but in this one in particular because he isn’t forthcoming at all in any aspect of his job. Where that might be the case in a lot of people that have these high-profile, secret job situations, she might be partially comfortable with it but obviously not when he’s sad or abusing alcohol or whatever. So it’s just that interior struggle, I guess.”
Zoë Kravitz on our desensitization to violence.
Kravitz brought up issues with our own reaction to violence entertainment content. “I feel like as an actor–or as anybody–we’re all kind of desensitized in a way. If it’s people who watch television and see the internet and read a script you’re like, ‘Okay, and they blow a bunch of people up, and then what happens, and then they have lunch.’ We all are kind of desensitized in the way that these drone pilots are, so for me the experience of living these moments and dissecting these moments made it all very real for me, and it gave me that compassion and that pain in a really beautiful way.”
The dark thematic material wasn’t a deal breaker.
Kohn asked the actors what drew them to the film, citing its dark themes and story as a possible drawback. The actors, however, had only positive things to say about the film and its subject matter. “It comes back to the story and knowing so very little about the drone program … and thinking that it was just important to be a part of the story being told,” said Jones. Hawke, meanwhile, discussed the importance of using the film to start conversations, explaining that “if people don’t have the vocabulary to discuss certain ideas you’ve got to give them the vocabulary. The way that most of us understand warfare is through storytelling.” Kravitz brought some levity to the proceedings, quipping, “I did it for the money,” to laughs from her fellow panelists, but she too was drawn to the futuristic aspects of the film. “This script reads like a sci-fi script,” she said, “and then the fact that is not is just so interesting. Had I read the script 10 years ago it would have been a science-fiction script, and now it’s like this is real.”
Some of Niccol’s research was too outrageous to put in the film
“Some of the younger drone pilots would go to the base, they would use this very Playstation equipment and fight the Taliban from a long range for 12 hours a day. Then they would go to their apartment off the Vegas strip and they would play video games. And I thought at that point, how can you possibly separate the two things? You’re fighting sort of virtual zombies at night and then you go to war the next day. For me that was incredible.”
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