INTERVIEW: Director Gavin Hood on Eye in the Sky , Drone Warfare, and Alan Rickman

With such films as Tsotsi and Rendition, director Gavin Hood has made a career out of tackling difficult subject matter and presenting them in a compelling fashion. His latest, the military thriller Eye in the Sky, which doubles as both a character drama and a meditation on the ramifications of drone warfare, is no exception. The film, featuring an all-star ensemble including Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, and the final performance Alan Rickman, is thoughtful and challenging, and unlike a lot of the films we tend to get out of Hollywood on this subject.

I had a chance to discuss the film with Mr. Hood recently, and we delved not only into the origins of the project, but also his own views on the difficult issue of drones, as well as his thoughts on working on independent films versus Hollywood blockbusters like X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and his memories of working with the late, great Alan Rickman. Read on for the transcript of our chat:

I appreciate that you're tackling a topic that a lot of, not just filmmakers, but politicians and journalists do not want to talk about, which is this very deep and wide gray area that is drone warfare. My question is: why do this story?

It's a great question. I was reading a lot of scripts, and I happened to read this fabulous script, written by Guy Hibbert, a British writer. And I had, I hope the same experience our audiences are having now, which is I began reading. I didn't quite know where it was going. I became hooked by the tension of the scenario that he created of, "Should we or should we not release a hellfire missile?", and I thought, at some points, that I knew what I would do.

No sooner had I thought that that I found myself turning the page and hearing an argument that made me question what I was thinking and wonder what I would do. The tension ramped up and ramped up. And at the same time, when I got to the end...I wanted to know what would happen next. I kept turning the page. Then, when I got to the end, I was left with so many questions. I wanted to talk to somebody. And of course, there was nobody to talk to. I'd just read a script all by myself.

So, I thought, "Well, if it's having this effect on me and it's encouraging me to..." I immediately went into the internet. I started researching and I called some friends who knew friends. I started talking to lawyers and people in the military and people in human rights areas. Before I knew it, I'd sort of spent three weeks researching, based on Guy's script, before I felt ready to actually declare that I was interested in directing the film. I thought, if the film is prompting this kind of questioning in myself, maybe it'll have that kind of effect on an audience.

What I liked was that it didn't tell me what to think. It forced me to think. I think what I like about Guy's script is that he approaches this from multiple angles, including the angle, and usually, of the innocent bystander, which, in film, is often tricky to dramatize. You have this little girl who's the innocent bystander, who has absolutely nothing to do with what's going on around her in the story, and yet, we see a world from a perspective that we would normally not see. We also see it from the point of view of the military intelligence officers, the drone pilot, all the usual suspects. And each of them is somebody who's facing the problem from a very different position and therefore has a very particular point of view.

And in dramaturgical terms, what's compelling is when your protagonist has to choose from two bad options.

Yeah, yeah. Well, I think that brings to mind Hannah Arendt's comment that when you choose the lesser of two evils, don't kid yourself that you're not still doing evil. I don't think she'd put it quite as glibly as I just did. But, the idea, the lesser of two evils doesn't mean you're not still having to choose something deeply immoral.

Right, there's a moral toll.

It raises a very difficult question. It doesn't present, I don't think, any easy answers. I mean in some ways it's really the trolley experiment or the trolley problem, most people call it which, if folks don't know about it, it's easy to look up on Wikipedia, but this idea of the train that's moving down a track and if you don't intervene, it will crush five workers, but if you pull a big lever, the train will move onto another track and only kill one worker: will you pull the lever?

And of course, that's the starting point. Of course, if your answer is yes, I would intervene and trade one life for five, the next step is that, if you're standing on a bridge, the trains gonna go under the bridge. It will take out five workers, and standing next to you is a large man. Will you put your hands on that man and push him off the bridge. It's still one life for five, but somehow people recoil because it's a little more intimate. You have to get your hands dirty.

And then the question...You can spit it out any way you like. Now you're alone on a bridge. Would you jump off the bridge and trade your life for five? And then the question is, well who are the five, you finally ask. Oh, they're your family. Maybe you would. Or they're not your family. These kinds of ethical and moral questions and scenarios, you can spin out and change the facts just slightly and it fundamentally changes the way individuals approach the problem.

I think you can change Guy's scenario in the film just a little and you might come to a different approach, which sort of begs the question, then, of the bigger themes that I think the film...raises the question, should I say? It raises the question of bigger themes. The broader themes are what you alluded to earlier, is what is this new form of warfare? Where we are, we are not putting the hands on the large man. We are pulling levers from a distance. We're firing from a distance. Our troops are safe.

Does that create a sort of detachment? Does that make it easier to pull the trigger? Many in the military would argue no, because now we have great intelligence and we can see better. We're not just firing a missile from out at sea or off a ship. We're actually looking at the target. On the other hand, that attempt to sanitize war, I think, can, if not carefully examined, make it easier to go to war if you're using a technology that operates at a distance. The next question that it raises is what is the effect on the civilian population? You're firing a missile out of the sky.

How does the civilian population react to that event? Are you ultimately, in attempting to take out one individual, losing the battle for the hearts and minds of the local population and creating more antagonism to your cause. And all of these questions are, you could pause the film at any point and spin off in a particular discussion because at each moment in the film, there's a slightly different argument being made by a different character.

Without spoiling anything, the ending of the film, there's an ambiguity insofar as where things go next. I think, for me certainly, the testament of a film being effective is when you're mentally mapping out what happens next.

That's wonderful. I like that. Thank you. What is the journey? What is the next step of the father of the child? Where does he go? That's almost a sequel, I suppose. [laughs] Because you're right. It is an important question. I mean, the thing with drones is people can get so hung up on the idea of the drone, but really a drone is a weapon in the way that a sniper's bullet may be a weapon or a tank.

The question is not what is the weapon, but what is the strategy behind the weapon? What is the strategically wise way to use this tool or not use it? One should not confuse tactics with strategy, or technology with strategy. I think the film addresses that as well because so much of the conversation is not about the drone, per se. It's about what are the implications of using this weapon.

The political.

Yeah, what are the political and the legal? What are the moral questions? What are the propaganda questions? There's a great moment in the movie. It's actually the moment I like best, when a particular politician, played by Monica Dolan as the undersecretary of state for Africa, says...Throughout the film she's been arguing against using the drone. The feeling...One is playing on stereotypes in a way. Oh, well this is a woman who just doesn't want to get her hands dirty and lose the life of an innocent child.

And then she makes the argument, yes, I don't want to use this weapon. But I'd rather that Al Shabaab took 80 lives and were blamed for that even than that we took one and were blamed by the local population. You go, "Oh my God." It's a very uncomfortable moment. You could spin off into a whole other movie about strategy and counterinsurgency and hearts and minds. That's why I say you could pause the film at that moment and have a whole conversation, not about drone warfare, but about any kind of warfare that is supposed to ultimately be aimed at winning people over from one way of thinking to another. Is this strategy doing that or not?

And, when we talk about the different points of view being expressed, at the end, we have Alan Rickman, who says, "The things that I've seen as a soldier, you don't ever want that..." I'm doing a disservice to what he says. My thought was: Do you feel like, just by virtue of the authority that he embodies onscreen and his persona: do you feel that that's sort of putting the thumb on the scale a little bit in terms of the film's point of view?

I think that's a very, very, very fair question, because he delivers that line, "Never tell a soldier he does not know the cost of war," with such authority and power that it's a winning line. Certainly if you're in the military, it's a winning line. But no sooner has he said that then he leaves and we go to consequence of war. When he says never tell a soldier he does not know the cost of war, well what is the real cost of war? The film ends with the loss of that innocent life in a hospital and the devastation on those civilian parents.

You know the cost of war, Mr. Rickman, from attending the aftermath of various suicide bombings? Well, here's the aftermath. The cost of war to these folks far exceeds the cost of war to you, but not necessarily to another soldier. I hope that the film both frustrates and appeals to both sides. That's a dangerous thing to try to do. I acknowledge that. One of the things that's so frustrating in the current political discourse, to me, is this extreme binary approach. I'm right! No, you're right. No, I'm right. We should have these difficult conversations.

A real democracy is about trying to find solutions by acknowledging the point of view of someone else and then presenting them with yours, and then hopefully A plus B leads you to C. It's not A or B. Somehow in this current climate, everybody seems to have to be in this sort of positional bargaining business. This is my position! And you stake it out and defend it with your life.

No matter what.

Yeah, and I don't think that's helpful. These are difficult questions, as the simple trolly problem illustrates. If you think there's one solution to the entire problem, I think that's either naïve or arrogant. We have to address these scenarios with intelligence and respect and a genuine search for a better way of doing things, as opposed to this perpetual positional argument...I think you know what I mean.

Shifting gears a little bit: This film has the unfortunate timing of arriving a few weeks after Alan Rickman passed away, this giant. It was gut-punch to me to read about his passing. I can't imagine what it felt like for you. I'd love for you to share some memorable story about working with the late, great Alan Rickman.

As you pointed out, the role of the general, I think it could so easily have been played in a fairly stereotypical way, a general with one position and this is his view. What Alan brings to a role that could easily have been played very simply is a huge degree of intelligence, humor, irony, wit. He makes you laugh in the film, at moments of extreme tension. He helps the audience just release that tension for a moment, just by a throwaway line that is dismissive of the politicians but in a very real way.

"I'm told that's important," the difference between the one doll and the next. [laughs] The way he just curls his delivery in that way.

Isn't he fantastic? Yeah, I know. He's just amazing. Alan has the ability to play just absolute emotional truth and yet with real humor and never taking it to the slapstick level. We talked about that. It's very awkward for me in a sense, that this is his last film, because I wish he were here to talk to you about the film. He was a highly intelligent man, an extremely kind man, and he had a lot to say on this subject. He would have said it in that wonderful voice.

I do wish he was here to talk about it. In many ways, it's not a flashy role, but he fills it with such nuance and dignity and authority, as you pointed out. When he delivers that last line, it's quite chilling because he delivers it with such authority. That's a credit to him as an actor. He doesn't in any way cop out and suggest, "I as an actor think differently, but here we are." He just gives that line and you must deal with it. Let the story and the points of view of other characters, because that would be that character's position. That is the truth of that character's point of view.

It's chilling to hear, and yet it's true for a man that is able to compartmentalize. I don't mean Alan. I mean the general, who has succeeded in compartmentalizing his life at war from his life at home, where he's clearly going to his granddaughter's birthday with some doll under his arm, so bitterly ironic. It's awful and chilling, and Alan doesn't flinch from playing the power and horror of that idea.

The performance just speaks.

He speaks. He's committed to his performance. He doesn't comment on it. I said to him, when we were starting out, I said, "Alan, do you have any thoughts or concerns or notes? I'd love to talk about." There's nothing worse as a director than getting onto the set and then having an actor shut you down for five hours while they debate a line. I'd rather get that done beforehand!

Talk all that stuff out in preproduction and make sure you're all on the same page. And he very graciously just said, "Gavin, I just feel my job is not to get in the way of telling the story." I mean, from such a great actor, it's a very humble thing. He's not searching for more lines for himself. He understands that this is an ensemble piece and yet he stands out because his presence is so powerful. I think we were very lucky to get the cast we got. Helen as well.

The frightening thing about Helen is that we really like Helen Mirren. When she starts doing things that twist us, it makes you very uncomfortable because you want to believe she's doing the right thing. Again, she doesn't flinch from playing the truth of her character. She plays it with total conviction as someone who's been tracking a particular terrorist that she truly believes is someone she needs to get rid of for six years, and that doesn't make her objective. She commits to that lack of objectivity, if you like, as an actor.

That's what the role of the military lawyer is, to step in and say I'm not sure you're being objective. The role of the audience is as jury. That's, for me, what it is. You present all these things with complete conviction based on the characters and the jobs that they do, and you say to the jury, what do you think? And hopefully it generates a conversation.

That's the idea, anyway. Ideally. And of course, ideally doesn't always come through. I accept that. I've been finding that, though. In the screenings we've had, eavesdrop on conversations after the screenings and sometimes you find people having some heated debates. I'd much rather people have a heated debate than just sort of left and said, "Well, that was nice. Should we get a pizza?" [laughs] Let's rather have a heated debate or a good conversation than no conversation at all.

With that in mind, thinking about how you've worked on smaller, more intimate films. Obviously you've done the Wolverine movie and Ender's Game: do you put them in different boxes, in terms of the big blockbuster films, the big studio films, where you're answering to the overlords?

Yeah, films made by committee. Yeah, I mean look, it's a great question and one that's obviously...Let me try and answer it as simply and truthfully as I can. I started off making small films. Because there was not as much, perhaps financially, at stake, I was allowed to do my thing. I perhaps came to Hollywood and the world of the blockbuster a little naïve. Certainly when I went into my first big studio movie, I had not experienced that degree of paranoia, the number of people involved. I shouldn't really say that in a cynical way because the stakes are the survival of a studio.

Hundreds of millions of dollars.

They really actually are. But I did not love that experience. I want to be able to go and make a film with people who are making a film because they really want to engage in a conversation about the questions the film raises. Fortunately, we were able to make this film at a price that didn't terrify the financiers, although obviously they still need to make their money back and hopefully make some money, but the motivation behind making a film like this from everybody involved is to make the very best version of this film that they can, because they're all engaged in the questions the film raises. That leads to a much happier filming experience, quite frankly. [laughs] And I think a better film.

And I think there's something counterintuitive about entering a situation where you've been brought in based on your resume and your skill-set and essentially being told, "Don't do what you do. Don't do the thing that we brought you in here to do.

Yeah, please direct the traffic. Then of course, as a young filmmaker, you push back against that and you push back. That's what makes the experience quite tricky is I hadn't yet figured out how the system worked. I learned a great deal, some good and some bad. But if you go to this movie and you don't like it, you're free to blame me entirely. I have nowhere to hide.

I think I started out with a great script from Guy Hibbert. I had wonderful producers in Ged Dougherty and Colin Firth. We were all trying to make the same film, which is a wonderful thing, and I hope that audiences will find it both a good thriller, keeping you on the edge of your seat, but also leave you with a great deal to talk about and discuss afterwards. For me, that's a reason to go to a movie, as opposed to good guy beats up bad guy and world is set straight. [laughs] That's just not how the real world works.

My partner on my show: he refers to the blue beam shooting into the sky, which is kind of his shorthand for the big blockbuster, where the stakes are so ridiculous that it's hard to connect. He says, "Oh, I'm just tired of the blue beam shooting into the sky."

Oh, I like that. The blue beam. I'm going to steal that. [laughs] Well this is not a blue beam. This is multiple beams shooting up into the sky.

None of them are blue.

None of them are blue and it's up to you how you orientate them, I guess. Wow, what an attempt at an analogy. [laughs]


Many thanks to Gavin Hood for being so generous with his time, and for a fascinating conversation. Eye in the Sky is now playing at a theater near you. For more movie talk, including an extended conversation about Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, check out the latest episode of the MovieFilm Podcast at this link or via the embed below: