Good Kill Interview: Ethan Hawke and Andrew Niccol on Depicting the Drone War

Ethan Hawke plays a drone pilot with modern warfare anxiety in Good Kill, here’s our interview with Hawke and director Andrew Niccol (Gattaca).

It’s such an interesting film because obviously you’re going after those big moral issues of drones and fighting by remote, but also the issues that you don’t necessarily think about, like what do you do for a soldier who’s suffering these kinds of stresses but is already home?

Andrew Niccol: That second part drew me to the film. It’s so unique to have this psychofrenic warfare where you go to war, go home, repeat. We’ve never put soldiers in this position before where you have no time to decompress, you basically go straight from war to home. It just didn’t happen before now.

Ethan Hawke: And then there’s the added strange part of it, which is that they’re having this PTSD from knowing that they’re making decisions that involve life and death for other people. They’re carrying that burden, but if they were to go to the hospital to try to talk to some doctor about their PTSD they’d have this huge sense of shame because their life wasn’t even in danger. They have friends who’ve lost limbs, so there’s a weird sense of shame because of that whole warrior’s mentality – that idea that no matter what I did I put my life on the line for the courage of my own convictions. But when you’re life’s not on the line and yet you’re taking life, it makes you feel like an assassin.

Well, you are an assassin in the film. People who go into this job know what’s expected of them, so it seems disingenuous to turn their back on it.

EH: Part of being an adult is the ability of having a discerning mind. You’re absolutely right. My brother’s in the military and one of the things he’d say is that Major Tommy Egan is asking questions he shouldn’t be asking because the answers aren’t up to him. Yet at the same time, we’re all very damning of people who just follow orders and do unethical things…

But isn’t that what the whole military is based on?

EH: That’s why they don’t support these kinds of movies. But there are still individuals that make up the army, and a soldier doesn’t see their humanity by agreeing to want to fight for their country. The particular soldier we’re talking about wanted to fly jets. What I think is robbing him of his self esteem is the fact that he is not in danger. He has no skin in the game, as he says, and that’s where he derives his pride from. It’s hard to fly an F-16, it’s dangerous to fly it over Afghanistan, and those things aren’t happening anymore so he’s asking questions about what he’s doing in a way he never asked before. That’s making him crazy. To not understand that – they’re not robots, they’re people – and they’re not allowed to tell their stories.

Talking about your wife in the film, played by January Jones, and her attitude about what your character does. She is clearly more interested in the marriage and keeping things apart. She doesn’t seem to give a lot of thought to what you’re doing.

EH: But we don’t know really. We’re seeing a woman who’s desperate to keep her family together…

AN: I think her anger comes out of ignorance. She doesn’t know what he’s doing because he deliberately keeps it from her. She’s just lashing out because that’s all she’s got. He’s emotionally unavailable and that’s all she wants. She doesn’t know what his day-to-day life is like until they stand in that field near the end of the movie.

EH: That’s my favourite scene in the movie, when you finally see her absorb what he’s been holding in.

It just so crazy that you’re killing people in this trailer and then going home to your family. You have children yourself, did you think about what it would be like having a day job like that?

EH: Oh of course. There’s that wonderful shot that Andrew does where I’m picking up the kids from school, shooting it from above, and Tommy’s looking up. He knows he loves his family and he knows that he’s taking other people’s families away from them. He knows he’s working to stop terrorism, but at the same time he also knows that he’s terrorizing someone else. It’s an interesting thing to take in. Can you imagine? One of my favourite moments in the movie is when he comes home and says “I did something good today,” and his wife says “Don’t you always?” But she thinks you signed up for the military, you’re helping keep America safe, that’s priority one. He’s just not feeling good about it anymore.

There have been comparisons made between this movie and The Truman Show. Both of you had the opportunity to work with director Peter Weir early in your careers: What sort of impact did he have on your careers and what did you learn from him?

AN: Peter said one of my favourite phrases ever actually: he said “Care and don’t care.” It’s the most difficult thing to do, to really care about the work you’re doing but then also be able to let it go. He’s so wise, I love the man.

EH: I think he said it to you and he said a different version to me, he said “I wish you modest success.” [laughs] He just has the wonderful quality of being immensely prepared but totally living in the moment.

Your character in this movie is so quiet, he’s so internalized with everything. When you were talking to some of these real drone pilots to prepare for the role, did you encounter guys like Tom Egan?

EH: They were so much more silent than I could ever pretend to be. That’s one of the things I realized really quickly was that it was very difficult for me to do such a non-verbal part.

AN: I phoned him up and said, “Ethan, you have this fantastic facility with language, but we’re not going to need any of that!” [laughs] He plays such a strong silent type in it and in a way it’s good because the character is so emotionally shut down. Ethan, who loves to talk – I can’t shut him up – I’ve taken those words from him and he has to use everything else that he’s got.

EH: It was really challenging for me. I realized that Andrew had written a really serious and accurate portrait when I was meeting these guys. I could imagine being their wife would be very difficult, getting intimacy in by rows. I actually couldn’t do it as realistically as they would do it because the movie would be so boring! [laughs]

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Your character takes his work home with him and has a really hard time shaking it. I wonder if, as an actor, did you take your character with you through this process at all or did you burn it off?

EH: My situation is obviously not nearly as serious as theirs, but I completely understand where they’re coming from. I like shooting movies, particularly with a character like this,  on location. You’re separated from your family and you basically have to trick your body into thinking all of this is real. That’s just what you have to do. But when you go home, it’s not like your body didn’t go through that. You internalize somebody chewing themselves out from the inside, and you do that for an entire day, it’s not like you can stop doing that when you go out to dinner. Your body just keeps doing it! You’re tricking your brain into getting into that mindset of hating yourself. It’s wonderful then to let your hair out.

You two have worked together before, but how do you get into that headspace? To be able to say, you’re not going to be able to talk, you’re going to be this silent guy and just have to brood and simmer?

AN: For this movie it was really important that we already had a shorthand. We didn’t have any time, our schedule was brutal and we had no money. The fact that me and Ethan didn’t have to struggle with where I was wanting to go was a great help.

Not only is it very silent, but you’re also shooting a lot of the film in a very cramped, static space. Can you talk a little bit about the difficulties of shooting that?

EH: Well, not only is it a nightmare for the DP, it’s a nightmare for the crew and for all of us. We felt as claustrophobic as they would. Andrew had all these drone pilots on set while we were shooting those scenes, and I remember saying to them “Does it make you crazy in there?” You just go nuts sitting for hours in this tiny room, surrounded by these other people and video screens everywhere.

You don’t have any huge Bourne-style action sequences in there. It’s all very clinical. How do you make something like that interesting to watch for the audience?

EH: One of the things I found absolutely amazing is that when the explosions go off and you don’t hear anything. It’s really creepy and eerie. But it’s also the opposite of what movies are supposed to do. You know, Michael Bay wants to rock you from the bottom of your seat! [laughs]

Some of the reviews have been very complimentary of the sound design. Could you talk a little bit about that and some of the music choices you made?

AN: Yeah, I made a deliberate choice, even in the music, not to play the explosions. The other way of going is that you don’t have the sound of the explosion you can musically have that drum or what have you. But I didn’t even do that, I said “no, let’s go quiet and basically let that explosion play out the way it would for the actual drone pilots.”

There have been comparisons of this to Top Gun, calling Good Kill sort of the modern version of it. Did you guys feel that?

EH: I felt that way very much. I had this idea that Tommy probably joined because he saw Top Gun. You know, that’s definitely my age. So every time I was sitting there I was just like, “This is not it… Where’s my motorcycle? Where’s the volleyball court? This is not what I signed up for.” [laughs]

And yet they’re all wearing these flight suits sitting in those chairs…

AN: It’s completely illogical, but that’s what they do.

You particularly see that in the moments where he goes into the store having done what he did all day and someone would say “Oh, is that flight suit real?” It’s so strange…

EH: I think in a strange way that scene exemplifies the movie. It’s like the essence of the movie is right in that scene.

AN: People don’t know. Most people have not spent any time thinking about it. You open the paper and see that there’s been a drone strike, you see the crater in the ground, but you don’t know how the crater got there until you see the kind of imagery that’s in this movie and understand the protocol of how they do it. It’s surprising. I educated myself in the making of the movie.

The voice of “Langley” – Peter Coyote – was it intentional choosing the benevolent voice Apple commercials for this very sinister role?

AN: Also he’s a Buddhist priest. [laughs] I think the CIA could do with a lot more Buddhist priests. He has this fantastic reasonableness to him. I didn’t write a lot of the things he’s saying, they’re all from the CIA. That’s all of their own justifications for these things. Do I have to give them a writing credit for that?

Drones are so new and what they’re doing is usually so secretive. Did you have any trouble researching this topic or getting access to people and places?

AN: What I like about the movie and the subject matter is that there’s no black and white with this: There are some really beneficial things about the drone program and of course there are some horrific things. Back in 2010, they would still show off this technology very proudly to the media, so I could still access a lot of photography and material. But then they decided that it’s getting quite sensitive and controversial so they shut it down. So journalists can’t access Creech Air Force Base near Las Vegas because suddenly we’re not so proud of it.

Read our review of the film here.

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