Talking Eye in the Sky and Modern Drone Warfare with Director Gavin Hood
Eye in the Sky combines an all-star cast with a story that’s straight out of the headlines. The movie follows an international mission to capture terrorists in Kenya. But, when it’s found out that the terrorists are planning a suicide bombing, the mission changes from “capture” to “kill.” American drone pilots are brought in, but when a nine-year-old girl is seen on the site, a crisis on conscience begins leading to an international dispute and debate about drone strikes and the costs of war.
The film is directed by Gavin Hood and stars Helen Mirren, Alan Rickman, Aaron Paul, and Barkhad Abdi.
I got a chance to talk to Hood about the film, his involvement in so many political/military films, and the pressure on releasing one of Alan Rickman’s last films.
Graphic Policy: First, thank you so much for talking with me about the movie. How’d you come on board the film?
Gaving Hood: Well, I was reading scripts that my agents were sending to me and this particular script came across my desk and I couldn’t put it down. I hope the audience has the same experience watching the film that I had reading the script for the first time where you’re reading, and thinking this is interesting, and then thinking I know what I’d do at this point, and then you turn the page and another page I found myself thinking I’m not sure what I’d do.
I got to the end and I wanted to talk to somebody and of course since it was a script there was no one else to talk to. If it’s having this effect on me just reading it, if I can do a half way decent job of directing this film then the audience will hopefully have an experience that’s entertaining and leave them on the edge of their seats, but also leave them with something to talk about with the other people they saw the movie with. And thankfully that seems to be the case. I was just really excited to be sent the script.
GP: What was it about the script that got you interested in the film?
GH: I think a couple of things. I happen to be a lawyer by background. I studied law when I was a young actor and my dad said this is dangerous and you should have something to fall back on. So I studied law while I was working in film and I actually enjoyed it more than I thought I would, especially the moral and ethical questions raised. Not necessarily what is the law, but is the law correct, what should the policy be in this situation? And so I’ve often been drawn to films with slanty and tricky moral and ethical questions and doesn’t tell the audience what to think.
What I didn’t want to do with the film, and what I liked about the script, was it didn’t in any way preach to me, to tell me what to think. It presented multiple points of views from different characters, facing a difficult situation from their perspectives and then left it up to the audience to be the jury. To decide what they might or might not do in those circumstances.
And I think that’s very important. Hopefully the audience has an exciting time in the cinema and are left to debate the film one way or another for themselves.
I thought I’d learn a lot making this film and I did. I spent many many months of research on my own. I spoke with people in the military. I spoke with human rights organizations and you don’t make a film like this without taking a deep dive into the subject matter. So what you see in the film is accurately done. We had drone pilots on the set for when Aaron Paul was shooting for example to make sure what happens in the station where he is, is accurate.
And it really is where the debate is. There is no clear answer to the question the film raises about the current situation where we are using drones. As we move into this new phase of warfare. The old rules of war that were written after World War II where war was mostly between nations, well warfare is changing so much and policy, and the legal framing is struggling to keep up. Legal policy and laws that are to govern this type of new warfare are not entirely clear. And so I think the film is on the cutting edge as to where we are in warfare at the moment.
GP: You answered one of my questions as far as how accurate the film is…
GH: One of the thinks with the film was we wanted to be able to screen the film for a military General and someone from Amnesty International and they had a surprisingly wonderful debate. They didn’t agree on all things, but what we didn’t want to do was to come down on one side or the other, but we wanted to make solid arguments for both sides. We didn’t want to be wishy-washy and so I think what’s great is having the multiple characters in the movie is that you can have them argue strongly one way or another way and leave it up to the audience.
GP: In your career you’ve been involved in a lot of political/military films. What draws you to those films?
GH: I was drafted into the military when I was 17 years old in South Africa in a very controversial time and it had a profound affect on me. Then I studied law. I guess I have personal experience in both the military situation, not the specific situation in the film but having been in the military, and I have a background in the legal and moral ethical question. I don’t know if I want to be drawn to that, but given one’s background I kind of find oneself drawn to that.
And because I love film and being an actor, and my parents are actors, and growing up around film and theater, so I guess it’s the whole… I don’t know, stuff… If you can take this whole philosophical question and present it in a drama, whether it be theater or film, in a way that’s exciting and accessible to a broad audience and treat the audience with respect. Treat them with intelligence. Understand the audience is a lot smarter than filmmakers think, don’t talk down to them. They can handle tricky questions. If you can present it in a way that’s not boring, that’s exciting and stimulating. That’s what great drama has always done. From the time of the ancient Greeks, great drama, make the audience laugh, make them tense, but also give them something to think about. You can do all those things then I think you made something to think about as opposed to consumer and move on.
GP: It’s interest to me the film in many ways feels like a companion film to Rendition which you also directed. They both take on very serious and moral and ethical issues in how we’re dealing with terrorism, the War on Terror. There’s also the aspect of the insider who’s questioning their role in it all.
GH: Yes. I like that observation. Thank you very much. I think you’re right. I haven’t thought about it this way, so thank you for the question. I think it goes back to the previous questions. Because I’ve been both an insider and an outsider, I’ve had to think a lot given my own background what my own moral position is. Even in Ender’s Game, which was a much more mass entertainment movie, and I don’t think we succeeded, but I still feel what I’m proud of with that film is that young people all at some point in their life have to find their moral compass.
Entertainment so often is just good versus evil. And good guy wins and kicks bad guy ass and everybody moves on. Real life isn’t that simple. Real world policy issues are seldom that simple. Growing up in South Africa during those turbulent times and then living through the changes as they happened and seeing change was possible with the right leadership, and the right approach, I’m somewhat of an optimist, but I’m aware of how complicated issues can be.
I don’t know if I’m answering your question well Brett, but I think audiences are capable in looking into the gray zone and entertainment delivered in a binary way. Good versus evil. Black and white. Life is more complicated than a lot of our movies present it.
And great movies don’t do that for me. Great movies entertain us and leave us with something to think about and slightly changed. If you go see a movie and walk out where you’ve had your perspective of the world just shifted in some way, those are the movies we really member. Those are the movies where we say, “that movie affected me. That movie made me think. That movie excited me.” And I think that’s always the challenge in how to do that and do that in an entertaining and thrilling way. And that’s what I like about this script. It entertained me where I turned the page and wanted to know what happened next, but I got to the end I really wanted to talk to somebody. And I hope that’s what happens to most people.
GP: Yeah, that’s definitely the feeling I had after watching it. I immediately IMed my wife and told her I have a movie she needs to watch, partially so I can talk to someone about it.
GH: Awe bless you. Thank you.
GP: About the film itself. It feels like a play in many ways. I can see this being performed on a stage. Is that something you tried to channel with how you directed the film?
GH: Great question. To be honest, that truly was my great fear. Here’s the thing. On the one hand I was very excited about the ethical questions and arguments and the tension the script raised. On the other hand I was like oh my god, what am I going to do? I have a whole lot of people, in separate rooms, all over the world watching video screens. This is how a lot of our warfare is being waged, right? God for bid that should be stiff and boring.
One technical thing for example, when we were designing the set that Helen was on that’s based on a real place called Northwood London. The trick is that’s what they do. They have these big screens that they watch. So the trick and question for us, what if I sit Helen behind a desk for the whole movie? Cinematically that’s going to get really dull really quickly. So we designed the place with the screens upfront which they have, but I put Helen’s desk in the back of the room with the other people’s down the side. Which meant Helen could get up from her desk and move and walk up to the screen and express her frustration physically and move away. This allowed me to move cameras and bring it in close in the moments where she’s talking to the young targeteer and walk away. So, the challenge from a directing point of view is I needed every opportunity to give the film movement and energy and pace so it’s never in danger of becoming dull and static.
And that’s hard to do. Look at Aaron Paul’s character. He really doesn’t move. He can’t move. He’s a pilot sitting in a chair. The trick in that room and the set which is accurate in how a ground control statin would be except in mine I could move my camera and get tight intimate shots. I had him looking directly in the lens when he’s looking at the screen. Even though he’s not moving you’re looking at his eyes. And those eyes are doing a lot of work. There’s a lot of emotion happening in that face.
Then thankfully we had Barkhad Abdi to give us action on the ground. You don’t want to engage in an action sequence that’s too long, because now it’s like “oh they’re doing an action sequence.” But when he gets chased you want that to be as effective as possible so that the audience to get out of the rooms for a while.
That was really on my mind the whole time I was shooting. You could do a really bad tv version of this where everybody sits behind a desk and says their lines. Even the room we put Alan Rickman in, which is also based on a real room, we made the room slightly bigger so that there’s more room around the table so that they could get up from it and walk away. Otherwise we had to shoot it as a tv movie, everybody would have sat down, said their lines, and we’d move on. I’m thankful to the producers that I had a few extra days that allowed me to stage the scenes in a way that allowed the camera to make it a little more dynamic than it might have otherwise been.
GP: This was one of Alan Rickman’s last films. Do you feel more pressure in delivering a solid final product due to that?
GH: I just wish Alan was here to talk to you about the film. Alan, that role could have been something played very adequately, but without the nuance and humor thanks to him. I think we were very fortunate to have Alan in this film. I spoke to him extensively before the film because he was fascinated by the subject matter. That’s why I wish he were here to talk to you.
He was a highly intelligent man. Genuinely passionate. Interested in other people. Chatted with the crew. He had a way in being very natural and kind to other people. And being interested in the subject matter we were dealing with and elevates that role.
What we talked about a lot was how to bring humor to moments of tension but without going to far and jumping the audience out of the movie. What Alan does so well, Helen does it too they’re such great actors, they can be in a moment with extreme tension and they can make you laugh for a moment. If the comedy was too broad, the toned be all wrong. And that was the fine line we walked in those scenes. How can we allow the audience to release the tension for the moment and then ramp it up again without taking them out of the film.
I miss him terribly because none of us knew he was ill in the time of the shooting. I don’t know if he knew, I don’t think so, but we never discussed it. We shot those scenes in September 2014, it’s been quite a while and then through post production we didn’t know. All happened rather suddenly. It was a shock. A real shock.
He was a man of great intelligence and a lovely sense of humor and I think the film is richer for him being in it.
GP: What got you to want to film in South Africa?
GH: It was wonderful to come back and film here again. This is where I grew up. This is where my moral and ethical questioning took root. My sister lives here. I have a lot of friends here. The film industry is amazingly strong, but often they’re servicing bigger Hollywood movies. They come in and do a piece and they go. There are great crews here I’ve worked with earlier. It was great to come back and work with the crew again. By doing it all in one place and then using CGI to enhance, for example the airforce base which was really just a runway at an airport 6 house from Cape Town, we built up that base, even that CG work was done by South African CG artists. It was great having grown up here and come back and make a film like this. And see the talent here is world-class and I’m proud of them. I really proud of the work the South African crew did here and making it fun.
GP: Thank you so much again for chatting!