Andrew Niccol Interview: Good Kill, Drones, Lord Of War

We chat with writer-director Andrew Niccol about his drama-thriller Good Kill, its drone warfare premise, Lord Of War and more...

Since his feature filmmaking debut began in 1997, writer-director Andrew Niccol has made diverse movies united by similar themes. Many of them deal with the way technology either impacts us in the present or will affect us in the future. More still meditate on social injustice.

Good Kill shares the concerns and thought-provoking tone of Niccol’s best films, such as The Truman Show (which he wrote, and Peter Weir directed), In Time, Lord Of War and his masterpiece, Gattaca. Set in 2010, it’s about the experiences of Major Thomas Egan (Ethan Hawke) – a distinctly 21st century brand of soldier. Once an adept pilot, he now clocks into work at a military base just outside Las Vegas, sits in an office chair, and launches aerial drone strikes over Afghanistan and other countries in the Middle East.

A Phildickian eye in the sky, Egan can spy on his targets unseen, destroy them with the click of a trigger with no risk to himself – and when his shift is over, he clocks out, drives home and enjoys a barbecue with his wife and children.

Yet something chips away at Egan’s psyche. The thrill of combat is missing. In their place is a cloying sense of guilt over the collateral damage his job creates. As Hawke said of his character in our recent interview with him, “He’s a guy who’s compartmentalising to such an extent that he’s fighting a war from his own house. It creates a kind of schizophrenia and depression.”

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All the while, Niccol shoots the film like a sci-fi thriller. There are scenes of extraordinary tension, as Egan spies on his targets, attempting to choose the right moment to strike from thousands of miles away. For many, Good Kill will offer an insight into a new form of warfare that has so far been untouched by mainstream cinema.

As Good Kill arrives in theaters next month, here’s Niccol to tell us about how he came to make it, its parallels with his earlier sci-fi films and his war drama, Lord Of War, and much more. Sadly, we couldn’t find time to squeeze in a question about the incredible Gattaca

I thought Good Kill was quite shocking, because it feels like a science fiction film, but of course it’s set five years ago.

Yeah, it’s a period piece! We’ve reached a point where we’ve got this new technology that allows a new kind of warfare,  this new type of soldier that has never existed before. This guy who goes to war with the Taliban while he’s at work, then he goes home and picks up the kids from school. So to have war at home is a concept we’ve never had before – and it’s going to continue into the future.

There’s a lot of convincing detail in the film. Was your approach to research quite journalistic?

In a strange way it was. I got all the research I could, and it’s freeing for me, because I often create my own inner worlds – futuristic worlds. Here, my philosophy was, “No design.” No design at all. If it doesn’t look the way it looks for real, we don’t use it. So I would just say to the production designer, “When it looks like this, this image, then come to me. If it doesn’t, I don’t want to know.” [Laughs]

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At the same time, I think you’ve found a way to tell the story that’s cinematic. That must have been an interesting challenge, to compose these interesting shots.

It all comes out of story, really, because even when I was shooting the war zones of Afghanistan, I realised that the drone pilots could never be on the ground. I made the decision, of course, immediately that I can’t do anything that isn’t from their point of view, because that’s the only point of view they have. And so even location scouting was a challenge, because they’d take me to a town and they would say, “What do you think of this town as a location?” And I would say, “I don’t know yet – I have to get up in the sky and see what it looks like from above!”

I carried that motif through to Vegas. So it’s not only that Ethan Hawke’s character has this god’s-eye point of view – there’s someone watching him, too. I used that same aerial angle, which, as I say, became a motif through the film.

But it was an interesting storytelling device as well, I thought, because it draws the parallel between his life [Hawke’s character] and the people he’s spying on. They both live in the desert, for one thing.

That was the interesting thing, too – the desert. I mean, I didn’t decide to put a base outside Las Vegas, the military did, but the contrast – almost an obscene contrast, really – is the glitz and the wealth of Vegas that he lives in. You contrast that with the desert in Afghanistan, that’s still a desert – you know, they have mud brick houses. It was an interesting thing, the two different deserts. 

I thought the voyeurism we see Ethan Hawke’s character indulge in reminded me of The Truman Show, with Ed Harris’s character looking down.

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It’s funny you should say that. I had a friend who, when I was talking about what I was going to do, said, “What made you interested in doing this?” Then I saw an article that said, “The drone program was more Truman Show than Terminator.”

I went, “Oh! That’s why I’m doing it.” Because there is, of course, that element of living vicariously through the people you’re watching. That’s one aspect of the drone programme that’s really interesting, is that they’ll watch a target for a long period of time, just to see the routine, and to see some commander playing with his kids and his wife. His normal routine.

They’re waiting for the right opportunity to take him out, but at the same time they see that he’s a good man, playing soccer with his kid. But he’s still a bad guy, still a terrorist, trying to harm US troops. It’s a very weird conflict that exists, and of course, they wait for the ideal moment to target him. They hope the wife and kids aren’t at home, but sometimes they are. They still have to go ahead with it. It’s a kind of warfare we’ve never had before.

It’s disturbing. It’s almost a technological Rear Window, this film.

It is, yeah.

It also feels like a companion piece to Lord Of War. I wondered if you thought of it that way?

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It is in a way. Because it’s sort of the untold story of the war. For Lord Of War, you always see these pictures of guys holding Kalashinkovs, and I always thought, “How did that gun get in the guy’s hand?” That was always the underbelly of that war, is that character. So yeah, it is interesting. Here, you see the same thing – you see a drone strike, but I had no idea how it happens. And when I found out, it was eye-opening for me, and hopefully it will be for the audience. 

What was the process of getting this financed like, because it’s a current topic. It isn’t necessarily something people would be rushing to support.

No. I said to an American friend about the story I was going to make, and he said, “This is going to be financed in euros.” [Laughs] In other words, not US dollars. Because you’re telling an uncomfortable truth, you don’t expect a major studio to back it – even though it is the truth, there’s nothing I’m showing you that hasn’t actually happened. But maybe people aren’t quite ready to look in the mirror yet.

It feels like something that’s coming out in stories in some ways. Because [drones] have appeared in a weird sort of way in mainstream films like Fast & Furious 7.

[Laughs] Right.

Even something like Captain America 2 has drones surgically removing enemies of the state. It’s clearly something that’s playing on our popular consciousness.

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Right. But they take it to a heightened place. And this is very much down to earth, very much here and now. And it’s been going on for a while. So it’s not a fantasy. It was real to the character Ethan had to play – as I say, we’ve never had soldiers go through this. What does it do to their psyche, to do what they’re doing?

Can you tell me anything about what you’re planning to make next?

No. [Laughs] Just because I haven’t committed to anything, and I’m worried that if I told you, it wouldn’t happen. [Chuckles] But I’m juggling a few things.

Andrew Niccol, thank you very much.

Good Kill is in theaters May 15.  

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