One cannot criticize Andrew Niccol for not having a social conscience in his films, whether it’s his take on the genetically determined hierarchy in Gattaca, the reality TV obsession of The Truman Show (which he wrote and co-produced), or the arms trade depicted in Lord of War.
With his latest, Good Kill, the New Zealand native explores the psychological consequences of replacing ground troops with drones, thereby turning soldiering into a nine-to-five job.
“We have never put soldiers in this position before, where they have no time to decompress. They basically go straight from war to home,” says Niccol. The director attended the 39th Toronto International Festival in late 2014 (after an in-competition premiere in Venice) with his leading man, and frequent collaborator, Ethan Hawke.
“They’re making decisions that involve life and death for other people,” Hawke adds, “but if they were to go to a hospital and try talk to some doctor about PTSD, there’s a huge sense of shame—because their life isn’t in danger.”
In Good Kill, Hawke plays Major Thomas “Tommy” Egan, a former Air Force pilot now serving as a drone pilot in Las Vegas—a job he finds increasingly difficult to fulfill, frustrated by the unsettling ease of remote warfare and the callousness of the CIA. The role required much subtlety from the actor. “I phoned him up and said, ‘Ethan, you have this facility with language, but we’re not going to need any of that,’” says Niccol. “He plays a strong silent type, because the character is emotionally shut down.”
It helped that Niccol and Hawke had previously worked together on Gattaca and Lord of War—because, as the pair explain, this project was a little more run-and-gun than they were used to. “It was important for us to already have a shorthand, because we didn’t have any time,” says Niccol. “Our schedule was brutal and we had no money.”
Editing to Hit the Mark
Egan’s taciturn nature was captured in a number of close-ups, which, during post-production, lent themselves to “a different way of telling the story,” says editor Zach Staenberg (The Matrix), who has previously cut Lord of War and In Time for Niccol. “Instead of looking for nuances in a way an actor delivers a speech, you’re looking for the similar nuances in the way he reacts. It’s a little more subtle, but it’s a lot of fun.”
When the camera isn’t pulled in tight on Hawke, though, it lingers over some harsh landscapes. In the film, Las Vegas is placed in juxtaposition with the Afghanistan desert. “They are the same environments, except one is Western and the other is in the Middle East,” says Staenberg. The nighttime footage took advantage of the neon signs that dotted the Nevada desert. “Andrew got up in a helicopter and brought me back a boatload of footage. Everything they shot, they printed. It was fun figuring out where to use this footage in the movie. It sometimes became like punctuation.”
Good Kill deploys approximately 400 visual effects shots, most of which feature Afghanistan or flying drones. Niccol and DP Amir Mokri (Man of Steel) took a small crew to Morocco during pre-production and, for six days, shot “what were essentially detailed plates of what we were going to be using in the movie,” says Staenberg. “All of the explosions and extra information coming from the drone camera were added in as visual effects. I came in for about a week and edited all of those sequences in some fashion. Using some simple tools in the Avid, we simulated explosions so Andrew had something to show the actors.”
Staenberg also simulated camera zooms from a drone’s point of view. “I would often take a wider shot and a closer shot. We created a quick two-to-three frame snap zoom, which we believed would be close to what the drone would do. The camera doesn’t actually zoom, but has three or four swing lenses. We went through a lot of tests and iterations on the amount of distress you would see in the picture that came from the drone. It was almost like I was cutting two movies sometimes: the story of the drones and the story of what was going on in the Ground Control Station [GCS] trailer, where Egan works.”
Good Kill’s parallel plot trajectories of drone warfare and domestic unrest needed to be integrated so as to enhance one another. “We spent a lot of time on most of the home scenes,” says Staenberg, “trying to find the right balance between how those scenes worked by themselves and how they interacted with the body of the movie.”
A scene in the film in which Egan smashes a mirror with his hand, for example, took a while to find a home. “We moved that scene around, trying to figure out the right place for it. Sometimes editing is the process of being open-minded. You keep moving the puzzle around until you find where it all snaps together in the best way. You don’t want dramatic impact to come too early.”
The Big Impact of Restrained Sound Design
Using silence to punctuate the sounds of warfare, prevalent throughout the movie, keeps the audience on their toes—and offers a stricter realism than Hollywood often does. “One of the things I found amazing is that, in real life, an explosion goes off and you don’t hear anything,” says Hawke. “It’s creepy and eerie, but it’s the opposite of what movies are supposed to do. Michael Bay wants to rock you from the bottom of the sea.”
“There was impact in keeping the explosions silent,” says Greg Schorer (I Know What You Did Last Summer), who handled the sound effects editing and sound design. “It added to the dehumanization of the process. It helped to portray the industrialized mechanization of remote warfare. It made it impassive.”
Sound also served to anchor Good Kill in something real, making foreign environments more familiar to audiences less-traveled. “The wind and the bugs of the Nevada desert were prominently featured and became something of a metaphor for the buzzing that was going on in the main character’s head,” says Schorer. In fact, the workspace of the drone pilots presented challenges for the sound team. “The most difficult scene was to come up with the sound of the GCS trailer. I had up to 18 tracks of various fans and computer sounds. I was surprised as to how many of those tracks we actually used!”