With the world burning from new conflicts and wars, drone wars are definitely here as part of any military operation.
EYE IN THE SKY is a very intense edge-of-your-seat thriller that follows the dramatic debates between military officers, politicians and drone pilots on whether to eliminate a small group of terrorists while facing civilian collateral damage.
The film stars Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Barkhad Abdi and Alan Rickman in his last live-action role. The project is directed by Gavin Hood.
LRM had an exclusive phone interview with director Gavin Hood to discuss the details with the movie in promotion of the Blu-ray/DVD release in America. We discussed the moral obligations, ethical dilemmas, CGI effects, Helen Mirren and the late Alan Rickman.
EYE IN THE SKY is available on Blu-ray, DVD and digital download today.
Check out the full transcript of the interview below.
LRM: Just like any obligatory interview, please make a statement about Alan Rickman’s last project.
Gavin Hood: Sure. None of us knew on how Alan was ill. I’m not sure while making this film that he even knew. I’m just very sorry that he is not here to talk to you, because he was a delightful, highly intelligent and very witty man. All of that comes out in the film.
He did the film as we spoke [before production] that he found the ideas and morals of the film as generally interesting. It had a lot to say on the matter. I’m just sorry that he is not here to talk about the film. I know he is very proud of the film. I’m very, very proud to have met him.
He elevated the role rather playing a stereotypical general between politicians and the military people. Alan not only brought to the role with tremendous intelligence and gravitas, but with a sense of authority. So there is that wonderful trademark wit that he had. It’s wonderful to work with him. There were moments of humor during the tensions. I think there’s a fine line to allow the audience to laugh in an extremely intense drama. [One] can’t play too comedically and winking at them—it’ll take the audience out of the film.
What Alan does so well was to stay completely in character with just the roll of the eye or a slight twist of the line. It allows the audience to release the tension through laughter at certain moments of the film. And then it allows to ramp the tension again.
His performance is so wonderful, because he really modulates the flow of the film. I really, really miss him and I just wished he had a chance to talk to you.
LRM: Yes, I completely understand and the world will miss him. Now you previously worked on ENDER’S GAME, which is about children being trained to fly spaceships. And to this film EYE IN THE SKY, which is all basically flying drones. In its own way, both movies are very similar. So why were you attracted to EYE IN THE SKY?
Gavin Hood: Well, that’s a great question. Thank you. Just as an antidote, while we were promoting ENDER’S GAME with Harrison Ford, Harrison said that this was really about drone welfare. There are the morals and questions about running drone warfare.
I tend to gravitate towards materials that doesn’t have simple themes of good versus evil. The material should explore about you being capable of evil or transgression.
So when this script was sent to me by my agent and I read it—it was just fascinating. This is the stuff on what Harrison said about drone warfare, but in the present day. It’s where we are with this technology. I happened even have a law degree as a background so I’m fascinated with the moral and ethical questions surrounding drone warfare. I got very interested in it.
I just felt that this story found its way to me. We were able to explore some of the themes from ENDER’S GAME to young people towards more adult situations.
LRM: Did you have to do any personal research? And how did you make this so realistic for the audience?
Gavin Hood: Many, many months of research. On a film like this, you certainly don’t want to go in without knowing the subject. I have spoken with many people on both sides of the debate. We had consultants who we spoke to. We spoke to people for the drone pilot’s point of view. We had a drone pilot on set the whole we were shooting. He was also very useful with my art department and production design to make sure everything you see in that ground control station (GCS) is accurate. That’s the pod that the pilots fly in.
One of the things that is very helpful for an actor is to work closely with the drone pilot to make sure to understand on what every instrument did in that cockpit. So what you see in the GCS is as it should be. For example, there is something called, “Dash 34 checklist.” What you hear him saying. What you see him checking. All of that had to be correct. He was there to make sure that everything technically was correct.
I even spoke to people who was reprieved about drone warfare in the organization. I spoke to military officers in the military. I spoke to military personnel who worked in the geospatial analysis unit in Hawaii. So I spoke with people on all sides of the debate, including those in the human rights organizations.
We didn’t want an endorsement from anyone in particular. We want to make a film that allows the audience to make up their own mind. The idea is to present the audience with a moral ethical dilemma and not tell them on what to think. And hopefully we’re stilling giving them an intense entertaining thriller. It allows them to leave the theater with something to talk about without preaching anything to them.
We wanted to be most accurate as possible. For example, the hummingbird drone is real. It’s been around for a lot longer than you think. It’s been developed in California by AeroVironment. If you type in hummingbird drone on YouTube, you’ll find the first tests on that drone. I think that was about six years ago. So everything you see in the movie is very accurate.
LRM: Wow. Did you use all CGI drones or perhaps some real drones?
Gavin Hood: No, we used CG drones. I couldn’t afford to get up there to photograph real drones. We needed to see the drones from specific perspectives. For example, we need to see the drone from its camera lenses and what’s underneath. Many people heard of drones, but don’t really know on what a reaper drone actually looks like and where the hellfire missiles are attached. That is an absolute replica of a real reaper drone. It was accurate all the way to where the cameral ball is.
When you see the first shot of the drone and the camera view is above it, I needed the audience to understand on where those pilots were. Some people thought pilots were in the plane or under the plane. Surprisingly, the time it was shown in theaters—more people know about drones now. When we made the film, it’s already been three years. We shot the film around September of 2014.
Many people at that time didn’t really know what a reaper drone looked like. With the first shot above it, we can see on how it was above the Earth. You’ll see the propellers in the back. You’ll see the hellfire missiles. You will even see the camera on the drone, which sees all and operated by the pilot played by Phoebe Fox. And you’ll even see the targeting sensor up front. All of that is accurate. We wanted to design a very specific shot.
All of this would’ve been really impossible to shoot with a real drone. So to pass one with a helicopter would’ve been really, really difficult. One of the great things about CGI nowadays, it’s not just to project monsters and superheroes, but actually to create photo real images. To credit our CG guys, there are well over 400 CG shots in the film. About twenty-five percent of that film had some elements of CG. So whether it’s the air force base we filmed in South Africa on a runway to the bit plane flying into London. Even at the end of the film when you see the pilots walking away in the hanger with the drones, we actually painted all of those in.
It does create now more photo-realistic films on a budget considerably lower if we had to do this photo-real.
LRM: Now I read somewhere that you changed the script of Helen Mirren’s character to female from a male character. Was that basically trying to ground the moral obligations for the character?
Gavin Hood: That’s a really good question. Frankly, I felt the moral and ethical questions that guys faced were so interesting, so challenging, so riveting—I didn’t want to make a film that seems like an all-boys war movie. I thought men and women should be engaged in this conversation. I wanted to give this film more balance so that men and women would feel that it was a movie for them.
Thankfully, that’s been the case. It didn’t look like a bunch of guys sitting around and debating something. I wanted everyone to be involved.
And I couldn’t think of anyone better than Helen Mirren. She’s a wonderful actor and highly intelligent with real strength. And just like Alan Rickman, she could bring humor to a scene without taking the heart out of the moment. There are moments where she made sure not to overplay the character. She is so good with just the look. For example, in the scene she wanted a new estimate and she said, “Sorry to rush yourself, but we just don’t have that much time.” The audience laughed. You have these moments with all this tension with [her performance] just gives it nuances. It’s the nuances of intelligence. It’s just more balance.
Now there are more women doing these jobs today especially with the job that she is doing. Back when we screened the film in Britain, four military officers who did Mirren’s job were all women who came to see the movie. A lot of times we don’t realize that the military is more gender integrated.
LRM: I have one last question and I know you have a really tight schedule. If you were in this situation—would you pull the trigger or would you actually back off?
Gavin Hood: It’s an outstanding question! I am always reluctant to give you an answer and I’ll tell you why. I don’t want to tell my audience either. It’s not a cop out. What I love about attending screenings of the film and Q&A’s with the audience is hearing them talk. So if they go “Oh, this is what the director would do.” You kind of spoiled it for them.
I’ll tell you one incident. There were people debating this question in front of me during a Q&A. A very elderly lady in the wheelchair who lived a very long life including both world wars was there. Two people who were arguing and she said (Gavin Hood imitates an elderly lady voice), “You know, my dear, let me tell you. You think you know what you’re doing in a situation, but you really don’t. You’re not in that situation. You think you know, but you really don’t know.” [Laughter]
I liked about this film, certainly on to the beginning of the film, most people just want to pull the trigger and get it done. As the film goes, as exactly with me when I read the script, it changed my mind and then the next page gave me a different argument.
The argument that I think is most powerful in the film is with the character Angela Northman, the secretary of state. She is new to the job and first seems very irritating to many people in the room. She the women in the room with the politicians. They asked her if she would pull the trigger. And she said, “I wouldn’t.” You would figure it was the classical maternal instincts. And then she said, “I rather let Al Shabaab be responsible for the deaths of eighty people than our forces killing one innocent child.”
That was a good question. It stopped me in my tracks. It’s not about on whether would you or would you not pull the trigger in this particular moment—it’s more about the repercussions of pulling that trigger. The truth is that if you changed the facts just slightly, then your answer would probably change.
Would you kill five civilians just to save twenty people? This is such a wonderful film for me from Guy [Hibbert] who wrote it. It tells you that there are no easy answers. Before you think about pulling the trigger, look at every possibility before making that responsible decision. People will come up with different decisions, but don’t think about being so right about this decision. What’s going to happen after the film ends? What will happen to the parents or friends of that family? Will they go with us or will they start to work against us? People in the military discuss this. That’s the question. It gets quite tricky.
I’ll leave you with one more thing. Have you ever read about The Trolley Problem?
LRM: No, I have not.
Gavin Hood: It’s about a train and you’ll find it on Wikipedia. I remember my wife telling me that this was a film about the Trolley Problem on steroids. So the train is coming down the track and it’ll kill five people around the bend on this same track. In front of you is a lever. If you pull the lever, then it’ll divert the train into another track and it’ll kill only one person.
In my legal background, it’s a question that is always asked in the legal philosophy class, ethics and political science classes. Most people will say that “I would pull the trigger. I rather save five lives and take one. I’ll intervene.” Other people will say that “It’s fate and I’m not getting involved.”
Now let’s say you’re on a bridge and there’s no lever. Five people under you are about to be run over by the train. But, next to you is a large man. Would you push the large man off the bridge to stop the train to get run over by the train? Would you actually reach out and put your hands on a human to push him off the bridge to save the others? Is it still one for five? Now only about ten percent who gets this question will still do that.
The point is that clearly—it’s not all just about numbers. Clearly, there is something else going on with human morality.
So we can say what if there’s no one except for you on the bridge. Will you jump off the bridge to save five people? Now people will say, “No. No. No. No.” Then we can say what if the five people on the track were your children?
The point of this social experiment is to humble law students by saying that facts matter. You can change the facts slightly—you might come to a different conclusion. Don’t just generalize statements on what you would or wouldn’t do. All the facts will matter.
That’s what this film is all about. So go have fun! Look up the Trolley Problem. It’s kind of fun.
LRM: [Laughter] I will. Thank you Gavin for this conversation. I will make a note that you can make bread selling very exciting.
Gavin Hood: I like that. I hope that’s your headline. It’s really counting down the loaves. I really appreciate it. It’s nice talking with you.
EYE IN THE SKY is currently available on Blu-ray, DVD and digital download today.