On the Frontlines of War and Home with Good Kill Director Andrew Niccol

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Subtlety, nuance, the invisible hand of the director—these are qualities we typically admire in a film. But every once in a while, subtlety will not do for a director because the political and social truths are too important. Oscar-nominated director Andrew Niccol makes it clear that he takes a very strong stance on the new role of drone strikes in warfare with his latest film Good Kill. For the auteur (who wrote beloved 1998 film, The Truman Show), creating the narrative of drone pilot Major Thomas Egan (played by Ethan Hawke) was fairly simple—all he really had to do was tell the truth. As is often the case, the truth is unpleasant, and Niccol doesn’t skirt around the harsh realities of America’s ongoing war in Iraq—much of which is taking place in our own backyards—and the mental toll that it takes on soldiers like his characters Egan, and new recruit Vera Suarez (Zoë Kravitz).

Paste caught up with the writer/director to talk about the importance of this story, working with Hawke and Kravitz and the marginalized women he chose to highlight in Good Kill.

Paste Magazine: This is a terrifying, powerful film. Thank you for making this.
Andrew Niccol: Thank you!

Paste: Good Kill really de-glamorizes war in a way that we don’t often see in war movies.
Niccol: Yes, I was really careful to say, “This is what is.” I didn’t actually design anything. I just made it as authentic as I possibly could. I used ex-drone pilots. And in fact I left something out that I thought was just too outrageous to fit in. It’s that some of the younger drone pilots would do a shift, fighting the Taliban by remote control. They would go to their Vegas apartment after the shift, and immediately they would play a video game! I was thinking then, how do you possibly separate what you’re doing [as soldiers] from what you do in your spare time? How do they not merge? It’s impossible.

Paste: Yes, and in some of the shots of the equipment, there’s that implication, because it looks like a gaming system.
Niccol: Yes, and the military did, in fact, model it after Playstation.
Paste : Also terrifying.
Niccol: Yes.

Paste: I thought it was really interesting that Tommy’s character is no longer a flying pilot, but a drone pilot. Why was it important for you to present him as a man who is grieving for his career in a time of this newly stylized war?
Niccol:This is commonplace in the drone program. You have guys who are grieving the loss of flying. Now, I’m a pilot’s son, so the death of flying really touched me. My Dad flew in the Air Force, and the fact is that now characters like Tommy—we’re not going to want those guys anymore. You can imagine Tommy saw Top Gun as a kid, and he wanted to be Top Gun, and then he became Top Gun, and now he’s being ripped out of a cockpit. And they say, “We’ll put you back in a plane.” But the truth is, they’re not going back in a plane. And they become quite embittered about that. They’re not ordering any more planes. They’re ordering drones, and drones are so much cheaper. They can stay in the air longer, and there’s no risk at all to any serviceman.

Paste: Ethan Hawke is a Paste favorite and I feel like I’ve had the pleasure of watching my own perception of him as an actor shift over time. You’ve been working with him for many many years now—has your relationship with him changed with each new project? How was Good Kill a unique experience for the two of you together?
Niccol: It’s quite funny, because I never write with anyone in mind. But when I finished this script I phoned him and I said, “You have this great facility with language that I really love—and we’re not gonna need any of that.” (laughs) He was just coming off of Boyhood, and it was great for him to do something different. He often has scenes [in Good Kill] where doesn’t have any dialogue—one or two lines, or one or two words. So it was interesting for us because I was using him, but not in a way that he’s normally used.

And that’s why I give great props to January Jones, because she was acting up against a brick wall. She’s with a guy who’s basically going to be totally unavailable, and she has to get something out of him.

Paste: Right. And home and family life is another conflict zone in the movie.
Niccol: Yes, because we’ve never done this before. We’ve never said, “Fight the Taliban for twelve hours, and then go pick the kids up from soccer.” It was impossible a few years ago, and we also had no idea of the implications. When Tommy was up in a plane, he dropped his munitions and he’d fly away. Now he drops them and watches. And watches for twelve hours. And then he has to do that thing they call “damage assessment,” where he’s counting the dead. We’ve never actually asked our soldiers to really see the destruction they’ve caused.

Paste: I’ll be interviewing Zoë Kravitz later today, and I really enjoyed her performance. Did you play a role in casting her? Was it especially important for you to show a woman at war?
Niccol: Yes, because they want women. They don’t want guys like Tommy Egan, who want to fly. And they also want minorities, because the poor and the minorities are the people who generally fight our wars for us.

As for Zoë, I think if you look up the word “feisty” in the dictionary, there’s probably a picture of Zoë Kravitz. And I needed that quality. I love her for that, and this character has a little bit of that—she’s a sort of truth-teller. She’s not holding back, and I thought that was really great.

Paste: One of the most compelling storylines for me was the vicious but almost casual rape scenes. Can you talk about shooting those, and the decision to focus on each character’s reaction, as well as the actual act? I thought it was interesting that Suarez was the only one who didn’t look away.
Niccol: The drone pilots who we had involved in this told me that they would witness atrocities like Egan and Suarez do, but they could not act. Obviously, it would give away their mission. In the end, Egan’s character does act because it’s the only way he can reclaim his humanity, even though it’s also an act of insanity, and he’s committed a crime.

Also, rape in Afghanistan, sometimes the woman—the victim—is actually turned into the criminal. It’s like she committed adultery. And so at that point in the film, Egan just could not live with himself if he watched her get attacked for a third time.

Paste: It’s also powerful because we get the sense that, even though he does this, there’s still no winning.
Niccol: Absolutely. And there’s really no way to say you’re anti-drone. It’s like saying you’re anti-Internet. It’s not going anywhere! We are going to be using drones and remote control vehicles to fight our wars. It’s much easier to sell to the public, because there are fewer [American] casualities.

Paste: Before we end, I have to say that it’s a true honor to speak with the writer of one of my favorite films of all time, The Truman Show. In Good Kill you return to this theme of surveillance, although of course it’s a little different this time around. Do you see a connection between the two films?
Niccol: It’s very funny because, when I started to make this, I had a friend who asked, “Why are you making this movie?” And I didn’t know! But then I saw an article when I was doing my research, and it said, “Drone Programs: more Truman Show than Terminator.” And I went, “Oh, that’s why I’m doing it!”

Paste: That’s perfect. Thank you so much for this.
Niccol: Thank you!

Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor & a film critic at Paste, and a writer for Pink is the New Blog and Heart&Soul. This New York-based freelancer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes all follows (and un-follows) on Twitter.