TIFF: Drone Pic 'Full Contact' Looks at Cost of War
A former pilot haunted by his experiences turned out to be the ideal technical adviser on writer-director David Verbeek's psychological character study.
Brandon Bryant, a U.S. Air Force drone pilot-turned-whistleblower, didn’t have much interest in helping out Hollywood after his first experience. When he was asked to consult on Andrew Niccol’s 2014 film Good Kill, Bryant emphasized that the film about drone pilots should explore the internal trauma and guilt that comes with the job. But Niccol’s film was more in the vein of Top Gun, and that left Bryant, who now speaks out publicly against the drone program, disappointed.
So when Bryant met with Dutch director David Verbeek, who had just filmed a drone pilot film called Full Contact, in Amsterdam, he was understandably apprehensive.
"I talked to David, and I said the only way you’re going to make a decent drone film is if you do it as a psychological examination of the character," says Bryant.
It turns out that Full Contact was very much focused on the internal war that raged inside its main character, a Frenchman (Gregoire Colin) working at a Nevada base who pilots drones that target terrorists in the Middle East. The film, which premieres Sept. 15 in the Platform section at the Toronto Film Festival, starts out following the drone navigator as he makes an attack on what he thinks is a building hiding a known terrorist, but, as he later discovers, was actually a school for boys. The rest of the story is told in two chapters that are set in haunting, dreamlike landscapes that bring the man face-to-face with many of his victims.
"I was really impressed and struck by how much he showed the character caring about his actions," says Bryant.
The film, which was shot over five weeks in Croatia, was already in editing by the time Bryant met Verbeek, but there were several surprising — and slightly eerie — parallels between Bryant’s life and the character’s story. For example, he too had spent many of his nights attempting to escape the guilt of his deadly day job by visiting strip clubs and bars.
"For me, it was about trying to find a sense of life because sex and drugs and alcohol give you that euphoric feeling of life, but in an almost empty way," says Bryant, who adds that, like the character, he had numerous nightmares about meeting the people he had killed. And he even worked as a luggage handler for a month, as does the character.
"There was definitely some sort of cosmic connection between Brandon and I before I ever met him," says Verbeek, who adds that Bryant participated as a consultant as Full Contact went through two months of editing, making sure the drone-strike scenes were as accurate as possible.
Bryant even makes a cameo: Verbeek recorded his voice to be used as the mission control voiceover in two important scenes.
For Verbeek, his deep dive into the tortured mind of a soldier speaks less about warfare and more about how technology has altered society and social interactions forever.
"This sense of disconnect applies to many things that we have all become intimately involved in," he says pointing to Twitter, Facebook, online dating and even Wall Street. "There are so many more levels between your existence in the real world and the way you interact and the influence that your actions have on others."