Interview: Ethan Hawke and Andrew Niccol talk Good Kill
It’s especially strange watching a war movie – really any movie – and witness a person or persons die in an explosion without the least bit of sound or fanfare.
“It’s absolutely amazing. Explosions go off and you don’t hear anything. It’s eerie and creepy,” says Ethan Hawke. He stars in Andrew Niccol’s new military drama Good Kill as a drone pilot who is technically at war while sitting in a metal box at a Nevada Air Force base, dropping bombs halfway across the world. Hawke, alongside director Niccol, his partner in the sci-fi film Gattaca, visited Toronto for the film’s premiere at TIFF.
Hawke’s Major Tommy Egan sits and watches in silence as bombs are deployed and supposed terrorists are murdered; it happens early and often, and never is it not poignant.
At the heart of the drama though is a man who loves to fly planes, but can’t, and wants to be a soldier who wants to be in the field, but isn’t; simply because of the changing nature of war. Instead he is a still a soldier, though one who isn’t risking his life yet still dealing with the traumas of war.
“They never put soldiers in this position before. There is no time to decompress: you go straight from war to home,” says Hawke. “They’re having this kind of PTSD knowing they are making decisions of life and death for other people, but with their PTSD, they have a huge sense of shame. Their life isn’t in danger.”
“It’s a warrior’s mentality that no matter what I did, I put my life on the line for the courage of my own conviction. When you’re life isn’t on the line, and you’re taking a life, it’s like you’re an assassin.”
Egan questions authority and lashes out at home and in public, grappling with a role that is unprecedented and has no real guidepost. He wonders not only about the morality of what he is doing, but feels the pressure of working in a claustrophobic environment where literally going through a door means you are entering and exiting the United States. The audience may have a tough time approaching his character too.
“Most people don’t know. They open the paper, see there is a drone strike, see a crater in he ground. They don’t know how it got there,” explains Niccol, who in 2010 started researching this topic.
“What I like about the movie and the subject matter, there is no black and white. There are some really beneficial things, and there are some horrific things,” he explained. At 2010, they were showing the tech really proudly. I could access lot at that time. Then they decided ‘oh, it’s getting quite sensitive and controversial, so let’s shut it down.’”
Hawke himself found the role extremely difficult, for multiple reasons.
“It’s so much more silent than I could ever pretend to be. It was really challenging for me, Andrew has written a really serious and accurate portrait,” explained Hawke.
“My situation is not nearly as serious as theirs, but I completely understand them,” he continued. “I like shooting movies, particularly if you’re playing a character like this, on location, so that it’s separate and not near my family. You basically trick your body into telling yourself all this stuff is real, you have to do. You internalize someone who is chewing himself out, and it’s not like you can stop; your body keeps doing that. You are tricking your brain into getting into that mindset of hating yourself.”
Niccol solicited help from a pair of former drone pilots. Not only was it hard to find people to talk to, as few as they are, but those available provided more technical help than anything else, telling Hawke things like how to sit and whether he could use his cell phone.
“I asked, ‘does it make you crazy?’” said Hawke.” And yeah, you just go nuts sitting for hours in these tiny rooms surrounded by these other people with video screens everywhere.”