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Interview Exclusive Interview with Director Andrew Niccol (Good Kill) (1 Viewer)

Neil Middlemiss

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Academy Award nominated writer Andrew Niccol (The Truman Show) has written and directed a handful of films, and in each project has explored the unclear lines of a social, political or moral debate. From the moral implications of genetic manipulation (Gattaca), to the open secret of illegal arms trading (Lord of War), Niccol has explored fascinating subjects, sometimes through the prism of science-fiction and sometimes through the eyes of the real world. In his latest film, Good Kill, Niccol reunites with his Gattaca star, Ethan Hawke, to explore the controversial practice of drone warfare, and the effect it has upon those who fly the drones and execute missions thousands of miles away from the battlefield.


Good Kill is a powerful, understated film with a first-rate performance from star Ethan Hawke and the supporting cast, including Bruce Greenwood, January Jones, and Zoë Kravitz.


Good Kill arrives on Blu-ray and DVD on September 1, 2015, and is available now at streaming outlets.

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HTF: America’s involvement and our approach to war over the last decade or so has been debated and scrutinized, but Good Kill is the first I've seen to really examine the moral implications of what's often called drone warfare. It's a fascinating subject and a really fascinating debate. How did you arrive at this subject to examine?


Andrew Niccol: It mostly came out of Ethan's character because I was intrigued about this new schizophrenia over warfare. How does a soldier possibly go to war at home? And that was the first aspect that intrigued me because we've never asked soldiers to do that before. And now it's going to be the new normal. We're just going to have more and more wars. What you've just seen is a period piece since it was set in 2010, but it's still going on in Syria right now. They don't have troops on the ground, they're only conducting an aerial warfare. It just fascinated me about how does a soldier, like Ethan's character, cope with it?


HTF: And as we see in the film, with great difficulty.


Andrew Niccol: Exactly


HTF: Did you get to speak to anybody that serves in that capacity, to consult?


Andrew Niccol: Yes, I did. Fortunately for me, and unfortunately for the Air Force, there's a lot of burnout in what they call the UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) program. And so I relied heavily on ex-drone pilots to authenticate it for me. That was very important.


HTF: In the film Bruce Greenwood, a terrific actor, his character, Lt. Colonel Jack Johns, distills the debate over the use - the pitfalls and the benefits - of remotely piloted craft for air strikes. That’s established in his opening speech, but it sets the stage for the larger debate, the debate that's probably taking place society-wide - or at least for those who are paying attention - while the rest of the film deals with how Ethan Hawke's character, Thomas Egan, copes with it. Was that your approach in crafting Bruce Greenwood’s dialogue, to stimulate or acknowledge the sides of the debate?


Andrew Niccol: Yeah. What I liked about Bruce Greenwood and what really drew me to the whole exploration of this was the ambiguity of it. I needed an actor like Bruce who had the complexity and the intelligence to be able to convey both sides because he is a truly conflicted guy. I mean he has the authority that the character needs, but he's got enough maverick in him to play this rogue commander who's just kind of holding it together, you sense, until he can retire [chuckles]. I love the fact that he could convey the real ambiguity of the program because there's no doubt this is the most precise we've ever had our weapons system. And yet we can kill the wrong people precisely because if you get the wrong intelligence, you get the wrong address, then you're killing the wrong people. Which is what President Obama did in, I think, the third day of office. He struck a Taliban compound that wasn't. And in some ways - you could say - committed murder on day three, but we don't look at it like that.

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HTF: And I think it's Peter Coyote's voice is Langley [the voice of the CIA] in the film and we never get to see them. We just hear questionable intelligence or things that don't make sense to those that are required to pull the trigger. What was your approach in framing Langley in that way, and how do you see that intelligence debate as characterized by the film?


Andrew Niccol: Well, that's a very controversial element of it. The CIA contracts the Air Force for these strikes, which is very controversial because they have sort of become a new branch of the military and have gone from the spying business to the killing business. So that's something that's again never happened before. I would say to the drone pilots that you flew mission for the CIA, right? And they basically said to me, "We just can't talk about that [chuckles]." They wouldn't even say, "CIA." They say, "OGA." Which stands for "Other Government Agency." There is a big tug-of-war because it's going on even today between the Air Force and the CIA over who should run the drone program.



HTF: It highlights how complex war has become. It's always been complicated but never quite this complicated.


Andrew Niccol: No, we've never asked pilots to do this. Normally, they would fly over a target, drop their bombs and fly away. Now they drop their bombs and they witness the destruction it caused and they do [a damage assessment] basically count the dead. Then it becomes even more complicated, because you're seeing this in high def - what you've blown up and the people you've blown up - so you start getting this PTSD, but you can never admit to it. You can't walk into a hospital and say, "Oh, by the way I'm feeling this." Because they would say, "Hey, you're in an armchair, buddy." So those feelings are not even validated because of how distant you are from the actual war zone.


HTF: Through your films you often examine moral quandaries, situations - fictional and real - that pose the question of what the right thing to do is, what should be done, or examining a debate of some kind. Everything from Gattaca, Lord of War - although that was more for the one-sided debate on what's right and wrong - but you always tackle these wonderful subjects. And even in the fictional In Time, there's a debate over what people are doing and how you deal with something that doesn't seem quite right. What is it that brings you to those kinds of debates for examination in the films that you write and shoot?


Andrew Niccol: I'm drawn to ambiguity. If somebody comes to me with a story of good versus evil I'll immediately reject it because that just doesn't exist and so it's not interesting to me when it's black and white like that. Because guess who's going to win? It's why I'm drawn to [Good Kill], because as we were saying, "the most precise technology," because we're not carpet bombing anymore. But when war becomes easier and cheaper, and there are no coffins coming down conveyor belts, then you have the possibility of an endless war. And so, for me, that's interesting. We're in an interesting time, and it's just an interesting thing to explore. Not that I have any answers but maybe I can shed some light on it.

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HTF: Well, the job of a filmmaker is not to provide the answers, necessarily, but to pose the question, right?


Andrew Niccol: No, no, of course not. I'm not a policy maker. I am a filmmaker, and so I'm not running for anything. But I was shocked, actually, how little people knew about it. It did open my own eyes just in the making of it, but in essence what you see is exactly what happens and none of those drone strikes that you just watched have not occurred. They've all happened. And so all of those things are done in our name and maybe we should know what's being done in our name. And the soldiers are going to be more and more like Ethan Hawke's character. That is the future of war.


HTF: Talking about Ethan, Good Kill is probably the most intimate film that I've seen you write and direct. And it simmers rather than boils and it creates this surprising intensity that Ethan Hawke carries beautifully through the film. Talk about working with Ethan again and getting that character right.

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Andrew Niccol: That's kind of funny because when I called him up about it, I said, "Ethan, you have a fantastic facility for language." And I said to him, "We won’t be needing any of that [chuckles]." Because this [character] is emotionally shut down. I mean, [Ethan’s] a pretty gregarious guy naturally. And so I think what drew him to it is that he wouldn't be playing the same guy. And Ethan is a really generous actor and will try and make his co-stars better. But he couldn't actually do that on this occasion. That was a sort of testament to January Jones is that she was playing up against a brick wall who was giving nothing back to her character-- which is exactly the way it is with PTSD. And so it was very interesting for him to do that, to play this sort of strong, silent type who was devoid of emotion.

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HTF: There are two moments in the film that really struck me. The first was when Ethan's character is driving through Las Vegas and, it's just for a moment, but he sits across from a Mosque and he just stares for a few moments, but he doesn't say anything. And I thought that was a great choice because you don't have to have to dramatize the moment, but just seeing that, knowing what he's struggling with, highlights the complexity of the war that he's participating in from afar. And the other was the scene where Egan is telling his wife about what he does, with Chris Beck's music just slightly teasing the emotions there. They're really potent moments; one uses silence, and the other really uses language. So I wanted to ask you about when to say something and when to not? Is that harder on a film, choosing silence versus saying something when you're dealing with a character struggling internally like that?

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Andrew Niccol: Interesting that you bring up the mosque because I also shot a scene inside the mosque where he goes in. There is a mosque by the way in Las Vegas. And in some weird way he was trying to apologize or make some connection, but it was far more powerful in the end to leave that on the floor and just have him looking. So we didn't know if he was going to go postal or what his intention was. He was just at a loss and it was better to stay - in my mind - with him internally at that moment. So that was that. And then the interesting thing about the scene in the field where he's telling his wife what he does for a job is that he says the most powerful things in the most matter-of-fact way. Because that's where he's had to go to try and deal with his situation. For me the most beautiful part of that scene, which is my favorite scene as well, is actually January Jones' reaction. She has maybe one word in the scene, but the way she listens is so beautiful. And it was also a terrible day, you can't tell, but it was a sand storm basically happening [chuckles]. But the way she listened to him, in some ways it's her scene because he knows all the information that he's giving her. And it's all totally new to her. So the scene is as much hers or more I think. And so that's why I think it makes it powerful even though she says one word.


HTF: Congratulations on the film. I wish you all the best with it. Thank you very much for speaking with us today.


Andrew Niccol: And thanks to you.
 

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