I couldn’t swear that writer-director Andrew Niccol was the first subject I ever interviewed for Ain’t It Cool News (10 years ago for LORD OF WAR), but he was certainly one of the first. Niccol made a name for himself in the sci-fi realm with GATTACA, followed by S1m0ne, IN TIME, and his adaptation of THE HOST (based on the novel by Stephenie Meyer). He also wrote THE TRUMAN SHOW in 1998, for which the New Zealand-born Niccol received his only Oscar nomination to date.
Much like THE TRUMAN SHOW, his latest film GOOD KILL is about people unknowingly being watched by other people, who in many ways control their fate. In TRUMAN, this was done for entertainment purposes; in GOOD KILL, it’s done in the name of targeted killings using drones strikes in the Middle East controlled by airmen in a based just outside of Las Vegas. The idea behind this new manner of making war is that it puts fewer servicemen and -women at risk, and younger pilots who likely grew up playing video games would take to the process with greater ease.
GOOD KILL is a fascinating examination of an old-school flyboy (played by Niccol favorite Ethan Hawke) being grounded and asked to accept this new way of life. The film also stars January Jones, Zoe Kravitz, and the great Bruce Greenwood, as Hawke’s commanding officer. I had a chance recently to reconnect with Niccol, so many years later, to discuss GOOD KILL, Hawke, and the state of modern warfare. Please enjoy my talk with Andrew Niccol…
Capone: Hello, Andrew. How are you?
Andrew Niccol: I’m good. How’s it going?
Capone: Good. I would never in a million years expect you to remember this, but we talked 10 years ago when you were in Chicago with LORD OF WAR. That’s a long time ago. Realizing that made me feel really old.
AN: Well, imagine how it makes me feel? [laughs]
Capone: Exactly. In a very loose way this does feel like a companion film to LORD OF WAR insomuch that it talks about a hidden aspect of warfare that you almost can’t believe exists.
AN: Right. Exactly, which is why I was drawn to both of those projects, because of that thing. It was a culmination of hearing about it and thinking “How in the hell does this happen? What is the actual process?” And when you find out, it looks like I’m embellishing or something, when all I’ve done is just shown exactly what is. I didn’t design anything. It all looks like that. It is in Vegas. I didn’t chose there as the location; the U.S. Air Force chose it as a location. And there’s a reason, and when you find out the reason, that’s also fascinating—the terrain and the mountains outside Las Vegas look very much like Afghanistan, so it’s a perfect place to train drone pilots. I didn’t make anything up.
Capone: I didn’t think you had.
AN: I shouldn’t have been paid [laughs].
Capone: Having it out in the desert like that, I wondered if going to work each day puts these pilots in the mindset that you’re going to war in the place where your drone is. In a purely ascetic way, it would get them in the right headspace.
AN: Maybe, but I don’t know how you deal with the glitz, because of the obscene contrast of one desert to the other. Look at what’s done with Vegas. Vegas was a desert and now look at it. In Afghanistan, it’s still a desert. So the contrast in deserts was amazing to me just visually. There’s one thing I couldn’t put in the film, because I just thought it was too outrageous, is that some of the younger drone pilots will use that joy stick 12 hours a day, fighting the Taliban, and then they will go home to their apartment off the Vegas strip and play video games. When I found that out I just went, “No.” I didn’t even put it in the film because most certainly my character isn’t a gamer. He’s an ex-fighter pilot. At the same time, I just felt, how can you separate it? How can you not be desensitized if that’s what you’re doing. It was just so outrageous.
Capone: It’s interesting you bring that up, because it feels like Egan and men who actually did serve and flew missions in actual planes would be the wrong people to put in these kind of jobs, because they would be missing that rush. He says at one point that he misses the fear. I don’t know how they would adapt. The Air Force seems to think they would be the perfect people, but logic would tell me that’s not true.
AN: It started off with the Air Force thinking they’d be the perfect people. And now they realize that they aren’t the perfect people. And they don’t want the Tom Egan’s of the world anymore. They want to recruit from shopping malls, and gamers are more useful it turns out than fighter pilots. And also, there’s a code that comes with being in military. A lot of people say their favorite line is when he asks, “Why do we wear flight suits?”
Capone: I was going to ask you that. Why do they wear flight suits?
AN: I’m sure it’s just for morale, because there’s no good reason. There’s no logical reason. You could be in an Armani suit, frankly. But the other thing about it is, at one point they were going to issue a medal for a drone pilot. But they had to rescind it because there was such an outcry from other branches of the military. And so they did. They said, “Okay, we aren’t going to issue any medals.” People were saying, “No, medals are for valor and courage, not sitting in an armchair when you have absolutely nothing at stake.” But then on the flipside, when they did that, I thought, “You told drone pilots they were going to get a medal. No you said no you’re not going to get a medal. What does that do to them?” They feel even less worthwhile. You say you’re going to give a medal, and now you’re not? It’s a complicated issue, which is why I was interested in it.
Capone: What initially got you interested in this way of life and in this way of fighting?
AN: What they’re doing is impossible. It’s schizophrenia. How can you do that? You used to go to war with a country, you’d go to the country. We’re going to fight wars from home. It’s just something that’s completely new. So that’s why I thought, if I don’t know about it, I bet there are a few other people who don’t as well.
Capone: The footage of these drone strikes is supposed to be top secret. But we’re also learning that the operators tend to pass the footage around like baseball cards. I think we learned from that that footage is out there and it’s apparently not that hard to get ahold of. How many of those did you actually sit through before recreating your own?
AN: I modeled it on the Wikileaks strikes. That’s the only way it’s been disseminated, so I should credit Chelsea Manning. But the interesting thing about it, of course, is with every one of these strikes, there is video of that strike because that’s how it’s done. The archive exists, there’s no question about it. Then you have to ask yourself, “Why haven’t I seen more of these?” They are extremely precise. It’s not like we’re carpet bombing anymore. These really are surgical strikes. If we laser that house, it’s going away. You have to be sure it’s the right house. Obama was in office for three days when he ordered a strike on a Taliban compound, and it hit exactly the compound they wanted to, but it wasn’t a Taliban compound. So it’s really on your intelligence. There are other factors. That’s why it’s interesting for me. You can’t say “Drones good” or “Drones bad.” It’s way more complicated than that. It’s a new tool, but are we going to use it responsibly?
Capone: The footage of the strikes that you have is so convincing. Can you talk about the steps you took to stage those and shoot those?
AN: I shot it all in Morocco. Morocco played Afghanistan and Pakistan and Yemen. What I did was I realized of course that I could never be on the ground. I even had to have a crane when I was scouting locations, because driving into a town, I had no idea if it was going to be good, because I had to see it from above. I knew Tom Egan only saw things from above. I carried that motif into Vegas as well, and kept shooting Tommy from above.
Capone: Yeah. I did notice that. A lot of aerial shots of him driving.
AN: Yeah. Just to increase his paranoia, that he may be the next target. And when I actually got the footage and I showed it to former drone pilots and they said, “Yeah it’s pretty good.” Because what you see on Wikileaks, it’s been reproduced so many times that it’s lost clarity and resolution. And then I showed the footage to friends and colleagues and they said, “Oh, it’s too sharp.” It had been signed off by the drone pilots, so I degraded it slightly to make it more plausible to the audience. Used compression and made it flicker like the satellite had gone off because it was actually too sharp. It’s was an interesting design process when you go and people say “It’s real, but can you make it slightly less real?”
Capone: I didn’t take a stopwatch to it, but it seems like 50 percent of the film takes place in these tiny dark boxes. How do you make that cinematic?
AN: There was one sort of rule I adopted early on. It was to help me actually understand his character, so it was organic. I went inside the frame of the monitor, so that when he was looking at that woman, for instance, and living vicariously through her, we never saw the edge of a screen. We were in there with her, and it sort of sucked us into the world, and it also sucked his character into the world. So the thing is to go deep into that screen.
Capone: This is not the first time that you have used the theme of people secretly watching other people in one of your films. In none of these cases, do I get the sense that you approve of this behavior, but I think it is an interesting concept.
AN: Yeah. It’s funny because I told a friend before I made a film what I was doing and he said, “Why the hell are you doing that? It doesn’t seem like you.” And then I saw a journalistic piece about the drone program, and it said, “More TRUMAN SHOW than TERMINATOR.” And I thought, “Oh yeah, that’s why I made the film.”
Capone: So you didn’t even realize how in your wheelhouse it was.
AN: No, until that article, I didn’t consciously understand it, but there is that aspect of it that’s interesting to me.
Capone: Ethan Hawke is incredible in this. I can’t think of a film where he talks less; it’s all on his face and in his eyes.
AN: It is. It’s really funny, because I called him up—I don’t write it with anyone in mind—but when I finished it, I thought Ethan as a washed-up fighter pilot would be perfect. And so I called him up and said, “Ethan, you know that fantastic facility you have with language? We won’t be needing any of that.” [laughs] And I think it was great for him to do something different. That’s why I give great props to January Jones, because she is acting up against a brick wall. Ethan is a really generous actor and will always try and draw something out of other actors, but in this case, it demanded that he give her nothing. And there’d be a lot of scenes where he would have one word or no words.
Capone: And I actually wrote that in my notes. “January Jones might have the toughest job in the film.”
AN: He’s emotionally unavailable. I though that’s a really interesting part about it, and I think she does a fantastic job.
Capone: Absolutely. Zoe Kravitz is also sort of an interesting character because she represents this new breed of pilot, but she’s also saying out loud a lot of things Tom is thinking and doesn’t seem capable of vocalizing.
AN: Of course, he’s still trying to be a good solider and follow orders. But what I love about Zoe Kravitz’s character is she doesn’t edit herself, kind of like Zoe herself. She is basically going to tell you her version of the truth, and you’re going to hear it, which I really loved, that she would be this firebrand to say, “Hang on, what are we doing here?” Something that an old-school veteran like Ethan Hawke’s character would never do.
Capone: The language that they use in that box. It’s so specific and repetitive and ultimately de-humanizing.
AN: And they do it exactly for that reason. Where they’re physically distanced from the enemy, that language gives them some distance as well.
Capone: The one I love the most is “prosecuting the target.”
AN: That’s not mine, by the way. I didn’t write any of these [laughs].
Capone: I assumed it was accurate. The one I like the most is the one the CIA guy uses, and then Bruce Greenwood says, “You mean a double tap?” And the CIA gusy says, “We prefer this.” They’re real sticklers for the language.
AN: Right. Orwell would be spinning in his grave over the terminology they use. They have “signature strikes,” which basically means anyone standing next to a terrorist is probably a terrorist. They have a thing called “preemptive self defense.” That means, “I think you’re going to kill me, so I’m going to kill you first.”
Capone: One guy says, “We have to retaliate first,” which is hilarious.
AN: I got that from my football coach, by the way.
Capone: I couldn’t help but wonder, “What was Tom like when he was happy and wasn’t bottled up?” Now he’s just a bundle of paranoia and fear. We haven’t really had a movie where we deal with the psyche in this kind of warfare. Did you come up with something with Ethan about the type of guy that he was before we meet him?
AN: It’s even in a scene when they’re together together, where he’s talking about how he used to make her happy, and that they had sex in every room of the house, and they did it in the parking lot. But that’s not there anymore. You can see that they’ve lost that. I’m sure he was a fun guy when he was flying. For their first date, he took her up on an F-16.
Capone: Was Ethan always your top choice to play this character?
AN: Yeah. It seemed like a no-brainer to me. Also, I couldn’t have done it without Ethan, because we had to do it in such a compressed schedule, so we needed that shorthand.
Capone: Was there any official military involvement.
Capone: I don’t see how there could be.
AN: Exactly. I mean, even if it had been something where I was waving flags, they probably wouldn’t want to touch it either. It’s become too controversial.
Capone: The sequence—I guess it’s a dream sequence or a memory—where we see Tom flying, that looked very real. That looked like he was in an actual plane.
AN: Yeah, I took great care to make sure it looked real. But no, no one lent me an F-16.
Capone: We were talking before about the Vegas aspect of it. In addition to having it set in the desert, the fact that he seems to like to drive through downtown, I almost started to think that he just wanted to be reminded where he is, what he was fighting for, and to be around people again.
AN: Yeah. I think he wanted to be around life. I guess there couldn’t be anything more vibrant than Vegas. Also, I love the contrast of deserts.
Capone: It’s funny, some of the people that I saw the film with didn’t recognized Peter Coyote’s voice as the CIA guy. He’s got one of the most recognizable voices.
AN: I chose it because it’s actually one of the most reasonable voices. Even if this guy was saying outrageous things, Peter would find a way to make it sound completely reasonable.
Capone: I grew up in the ’80s, I saw him in E.T., he is like the greatest voice of authority that you could possibly imagine.
AN: Right, and I needed a voice of authority. There’s also an interesting irony that as well as being a fantastic actor, he’s an actual Buddhist priest.
Capone: I did not know that.
AN: There’s some irony in there. The CIA being a Buddhist priest. Mostly I chose him for the voice.
Capone: He’s an interesting contrast to Bruce Greenwood, who’s also a great voice of authority, but seems much more in tune with the people that he’s working with.
AN: I love what he does, because he’s so conflicted and can give both sides, and as a maverick character, not in a TOP GUN sense, but he had to give both sides of the argument, and it’s obviously a conflicted character that he’s playing, so I needed someone complex like Bruce Greenwood. He also allows himself to fade into the role, so you don’t think, “There’s Bruce Greenwood.” You think, “That’s a military commander.” He had that authority.
Capone: He was just on “Mad Men” last night for the first time.
AN: Oh, I didn’t know that.
Capone: That character is also very complex, because he’s following orders, but he also understands that there are a lot of things they’re doing that aren’t as confirmed as he would like them to be.
AN: Right, he’s trying to temper those orders as well.
Capone: At this point, do you know what you’re going to do next, or are you still figuring it out?
AN: I don’t. I am juggling some things, but if you give up two years of your life, it better be worth it.
Capone: Andrew, thank you so much for talking, and best of luck with this.