When I met with writer-director Andrew Niccol last week to talk about his latest cinematic effort, drone-war drama Good Kill (which I reviewed yesterday), starring Ethan Hawke, I immediately told him how his criminally underrated directorial debut, the stylish, thought-provoking, humanistic sci-fi Gattaca (1997), also starring Hawke, was one of my top ten films ever. He smiled and thanked me, clearly understanding how my need for that remark was coming from genuine film-nerdom rather than insignificant adulation.
After beginning his career with TV commercials in London, the talented (Kiwi-native) filmmaker moved to Hollywood to tell bigger stories and his career path so far has been rather interesting although not necessarily mainstream-friendly, despite obvious attempts like sci-fi actioner In Time (2011) starring Justin Timberlake and the screen adaptation of Twilight’s Stephenie Meyer’s not-so-much-of-a-literary-phenomenon The Host (2013). His trademark credits remain the aforementioned debut and 2005’s socio-political satire thriller Lord Of War which offered one of Nicolas Cage’s few breaks from the usual mind-numbing fare he's settled himself in post-Oscar.
What many people probably don’t know is that Niccol also wrote the screenplay for the brilliant The Truman Show (1998) which granted him an Oscar nomination. He’d written that before Gattaca but producer Scott Rudin who’d optioned the script, was unsure about letting a first timer direct it hence he hired Peter Weir for the job. Almost twenty years later, Niccol returns with a film that once again confirms his inclination for compelling and thought-provoking storytelling, although for the first time he deals with reality and one of the most controversial topics of our time. Yet despite telling such cerebral and serious stories, the filmmaker is a rather relaxed and funny man whose friendliness and intelligence were a pleasure to experience during a lovely spring afternoon at the Soho Hotel in London.
Can Good Kill be considered your first indie film of sorts in a way?
Well, people would say and actually they’ve said it to me before that I kind of make indie films with studio money because they’re all unconventional somehow which is a tabú in Hollywood in a way. Right from Gattaca I guess, for some reason, I was inclined to make sort of art-house movies and try to convince studios to produce them. They’re not necessarily mainstream ideas. But yes, this was definitely financed as an indie film.
What about the scope and scale? This film feels more contained compared to what we’re used to seeing from you.
Yes and no. If you think about it, there are several aerial shots and explosions but surely it’s more contained because of the protagonist, this schizophrenic character that I love. He fights the Talibans for twelve hours a day and then goes to pick up his kids from school and that’s a totally different kind of soldier we’ve never seen before because it’s never been possible before. So for me that and what it does to his psyche was really interesting. How can you possibly do that?
That was exactly my first thought as I was watching the film and frankly some scenes, though not particularly graphic are still chilling and disturbing because of everything they imply.
And there were some more disturbing things I didn’t put in the movie. When I was researching it, some of the younger drone pilots would fight the Talibans with this joystick for twelve hours and then they would go back to their apartment in Las Vegas and they would play videogames. When they told me that I jaw dropped and I couldn’t put it in the movie because I felt people would think it was too outrageous, even though it’s true. How do you separate what you’re doing when you’re fighting zombies at night and then you go to work in the morning and fight a digital, virtual war again? I put a videogame console in the bedroom of Ethan's character's son but I felt I couldn’t go any further than that.
And you also have the Coronel (Bruce Greenwood), addressing the new recruits in his orientation speech by saying that half of them were recruited in malls precisely because they are a bunch of gamers.
Yes, because it’s true. Nothing that you see in the movie is made up. All those missile strikes have happened. I mean, Ethan Hawke’s character is a composite character but everything you see has happened or is happening and that is why I was interested in it. When I started the process I didn’t realize that there was actually a base outside of Las Vegas and why that was. And it’s because the mountains around Vegas look very much like the mountains in Afghanistan so when they’re training they basically go like: “next week I’ll be actually flying over Afghanistan but I kind of know what to expect”. That was nuts to me. It makes me laugh how some people said I chose Vegas because it was an interesting contrast but I didn’t choose it. The military did. It was indeed an amazingly obscene contrast to see all this glitz and wealth in a desert versus the mud and brick houses Ethan’s character looks at on a screen. I can’t make that up.
Looking at your filmography, Good Kill seems to be the first film that it’s set in full on reality, since usually you’ve been dealing with sci-fi, dystopian worlds or a heightened version of reality like in Lord of War.
That’s absolutely true and this movie was very freeing in that respect. I said to the production designer that the philosophy for this film was no design and that we would make it look absolutely authentic. And that’s exactly what the military does, all those trailers lined up in the desert is how they do it and even though we had no military cooperation, we made it as authentic as we possibly could.
It’s actually cool how this film could be some sort of sci-fi in reverse since not long ago the concept of a remotely-controlled war would’ve sounded like science fiction.
Definitely, even though for me, since it’s set in 2010, when the greatest escalation of drone strikes took place, it practically makes it a period piece.
It felt like it, also from a stylistic point of view. Ethan’s look, his vintage car, his house and family came across like very old school America.
Sure and that was also part of his character since I always thought of him as a child watching Top Gun and wanting to become one and he did but then was ripped out of the cockpit. He has the cool car but it’s got an unpainted fender and with his military salary he can’t afford to fix it, so it’s kind of a shattered dream in some ways.
Your filmography so far is quite eclectic even within genre. Your previous film, The Host was young adult sci-fi based on a novel (from Stephenie Meyer) and you, being a writer/director, took on adaptation duties as well, whilst usually these books are assigned to screenwriters and directed by someone else. How did that come about? Did you want to reach out to a younger audience?
First off, truth is I don’t have control of my destiny. I can only make the movies that people finance. So if I could have all the money in the world and have it my way, my filmography would be very different and it would be longer. But what drives me inevitably is the story and there must be something about it that I love. So when Stephenie (Meyer) came to me with the book and I read it, I really liked her idea about coexistence. It’s difficult enough for us to coexist with other human beings, let alone imagine coexisting with an alien race. The biggest challenge for me was that if it’s my own story I can veer off in any direction but when you’re adapting a book you also need to be faithful to it, so trying to honour that was hard.
Going back to Good Kill, what’s the main thing you’d like the audience to get out of the viewing experience and how would you tickle their interest so that they go see your film at the cinema?
That’s tricky but mostly what I wanted to come out of it is that it provokes thought and is not instantly forgettable when you leave the cinema hopefully. Whether you’re against the drone program or support it, you owe it to yourself to see what is being done in your name. These things are being done in your name so you’re the one who can decide what to do about it because of course I have no answers, just a lot of questions.
Good Kill is released in UK cinemas on April 10th
Francesco Cerniglia – Film Editor