'Good Kill' Director Andrew Niccol Talks U.S. Drone Program, Casting Ethan Hawke

Lorey Sebastian
Ethan Hawke in 'Good Kill'

The CIA's drone strategy "blows my mind," says the New Zealand director

Andrew Niccol's Good Kill, which has screened at the Venice and Toronto film festivals in recent days, stars Ethan Hawke as an Air Force pilot forced to fly drones over Afghanistan.

His character begins to question the U.S. policy on the use of drones after being ordered to hit civilians. The film also captures the schizophrenia of at-home warfare as Hawke's character tries to balance the idea of flying bombs over the Middle East in the morning before going home to his family in the afternoon.

The film is stirring up debate about whether or not the CIA's involvement in U.S. drone strategy should be sanctioned. Director Niccol (The Host, Gattica) shows both the benefits and atrocities of using drones in warfare, with the goal of getting audiences talking about the controversial topic.

The Hollywood Reporter sat down with Niccol in Venice, where the film had its world premiere, to discuss casting Hawke, how the CIA changed its drone policy and how drone post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a whole new beast to tackle.

How did you research the film?

It was a very difficult research project. Of course, I researched everything that I could find. There was information about the drone program before it became controversial, before there were questions about how many civilians it was responsible for killing. And that's when they shut the program down to reporters. So I could look to everything up until 2010.

The only other research you could get was thanks to people like Bradley Manning, so I think I should credit him as a researcher. But it was thanks to things like WikiLeaks that you could actually see the drone hits.

Why'd you cast Ethan Hawke for the role?

He's perfect for it. If you look at central casting for a jet fighter pilot, he's perfect. Part of the reason I recruited him, as well as part of the movie that got to me, is grieving for the loss of flying. It's true that they're hiring more drone pilots than real pilots. They're making more drones than jets.

The other funny thing with Ethan is he has a great facility with language. And I called him up and said I won't be needing that for this movie. The character is such a strong silent type, which I think drew him to it.

Are drones often used to protect ground forces, as shown in the film?

Well, the interesting thing is they do overwatch like that. There are guys in the sky, but they can't prevent them from stepping on something. They're trying to protect them, and that's fantastic. A lot of troops won't even go out without a drone watching over them, because it's such a great way of preventing an ambush.

The film shows the CIA killing innocent civilians...

A lot of the words in the movie are not mine. They're directly from the head of the CIA. I didn't invent this term "proportionality." That for me is what blows my mind is that we decide, OK this bad guy went home, his wife and kids are sleeping. We don't know when we'll get the chance. We're going to take him out, no matter what. And they say it's "proportionate." And they have this pretty ugly word, "proportionality."

They do things like double-tapping that you see in the movie. We've actually hit first responders. We have hit funerals. When it gets to that point, then you lose me.

Do you think the line was crossed when the CIA was brought into the drone program?

In the movie, yes. The other thing about the CIA that has never occurred before the drone program is that they are now officially an arm of the military. So they're out of the spying business, and they're now in the killing business. And the other thing, which I show, is that they contract out those missions to the Air Force. They don't sit and fly them themselves.

How much in the movie was real, and how much was fictional?

The fact is, by all accounts, we've done these double strikes. We do what they call signature strikes, which they've nicknamed "crowd killing," the phrase where I think the CIA says we think it's militarily more effective to kill a group than an individual.

They're basically saying, if you're standing next to a terrorist, there's a good chance that you're a terrorist. And that may or may not be so.

Did you want to call attention to PTSD with this film?

PTSD is definitely real. The fact that Ethan's character loses his libido, it's a symptom of PTSD. And again they're ashamed. They won't show up at a military hospital and admit that they have PTSD. Someone's going to turn to them and say, "Hey buddy, I was actually flying yesterday on a real plane, and you're complaining about being on a box playing a video game?" PTSD does exist.

It's hard to claim shell shock when you're 7,000 miles away from the shell. [But] there's a very famous case about a drone pilot who's very public about his PTSD, Brandon Bryant.

Twitter: @Aristonla