"Eye in the Sky" Director Gavin Hood on Drone Warfare

Helen Mirren

The KCET Cinema Series launched its spring season on Tuesday, February 23 at ArcLight Cinemas Sherman Oaks with the British thriller "Eye in the Sky." Directed by Gavin Hood ("Tsotsi," "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," "Ender's Game"), the movie examines the strategical and moral questions surrounding drone warfare.

Helen Mirren leads the ensemble cast as Colonel Katherine Powell, whose years-long hunt for a British terrorist has led the British-U.S. team to Nairobi. The problem is that taking out the terrorists might result in the loss of innocent life. The film also stars Aaron Paul ("Breaking Bad") and beloved actor, the late Alan Rickman.

A stimulating Q&A followed the film screening, where director Gavin Hood and KCET Cinema Series host and Deadline columnist Pete Hammond discussed the making of "Eye in the Sky" and what it says about war in the 21st century. Listen to the conversation here and read an edited portion of the interview below. This conversation does contain spoilers.

The KCET Cinema Series gives attendees the chance to see critically-acclaimed films prior to their release and features Q& A sessions with some of the leading talents in the film world. It is sponsored by the E. Hofert Dailey Trust and will run at ArcLight Cinemas Sherman Oaks through April 12. For more information on how you can attend The KCET Cinema Series, call 747-201-5800  or visit kcet.org/cinemaseries.

Gavin Hood on his first reaction to the script for "Eye in the Sky."

I started reading Guy Hibbert's great script and I thought: "okay, this is interesting. Then, well, come on, fire the missile. Oh, maybe you shouldn't. Oh, what am I thinking? What am I thinking?"

Maybe some of you didn't have that experience, but I've screened the film enough times to know that many do and I certainly did. I thought, then I was getting really tense about what was going to happen. I finished it and was left sitting, "what do I think?" I wanted to talk to someone and there was nobody to talk to because I had just read a script by myself. I thought that if the script had that effect on me, if we could execute it well, find a great cast, maybe that would be the effect on the audience: That you would have a movie that is thrilling to watch and then leaves you with something to talk about.

On "Eye in the Sky" and the morality of war.

I think that one of the clever things about Guy's script is the fact that he shows a particular incident from multiple points of view, including the point of view of the innocent bystander as it were. One of the things that's so difficult in films to do is to dramatize someone who is essentially passive, which is what the innocent bystander is. The little girl, Alia, doesn't really do anything. She sells bread. You're never going to go to a bake sale again. You're going to be tense.

But, what it also does is it brings a profound humanity to the whole enterprise. What's brilliant, I think, is that every character Guy created is someone who you can empathize on some level. Helen's character, she has a particular job to do. She's been tracking someone for six years. I spoke to people in military intelligence and I remember that one colonel in particular said to me, "I don't pretend that I feel objective after 10 years of watching somebody do things that I want to stop and the frustration about wanting to stop that person doesn't leave me objective," which is what he really liked in the role of the lawyer, which is the military lawyers who have not been tracking someone for 12 years and might give him pause.

On the other hand, the Aaron Paul character, I spoke to a lot of pilots, some very experienced, some new, but all of them talk about that first kill. Some people in some audiences said, well, he should be tougher. Well, yes, but the first time a pilot pulls a trigger and takes a human life is a big deal. In his case, he's also taking an innocent life, possibly for a greater good, but that's huge pressure on any young pilot. Guy chose to show a pilot in that first moment of taking a life, as opposed to someone who has been doing it for 10 years, which is someone more like the character played by the wonderful Alan Rickman, who has been doing it for 50 years.

I think what is great is that I hope you're able to look at this event from multiple points of view and struggle with what you might do in that circumstance.

Pete Hammond.jpg

On the role of pilots in drone operations.

We had a drone pilot who had been particularly helpful as our technical advisor and he has been serving for many years. Before he flew drones, he flew F-16s. One of the things he said was, "When I was flying over Iraq in the first war, the first Iraq War, it was tense in the sense that I flew over and I dropped my payload and I got out of there. I was never asked to go back and look in detail and what I had done." He said that's what a lot of the younger pilots struggle with, as we see in the movie. The sensor operators can be as young as 19 years old. The pilots are usually not younger,  they're about 24 because they have to have a college degree. But, the censor operator played by Phoebe Fox, who I think does a wonderful job, can be very young. There's that moment.

I was in the military for two years. I was 17 when I was drafted. No matter what you think, no young person really understands what they are getting into. Some get through it and some don't.

On military involvement in "Eye in the Sky."

Let's be clear, we didn't get funding from the military. We didn't use the military's special office to film, which they have, because I didn't want us to be under the influence of any particular side.

We spoke to and had advisors. For Aaron Paul, for example, we had a drone pilot who advised Aaron because, what's so important when you're doing something like flying this drone, and he's trying to find his emotional center at certain moments, you don't want, as an actor, to be going, "Which button do I push here? Did I push the lever too fast?"

You bring in an expert to work with the actor so that all of that technical stuff is out of the way and he knows when he's doing certain movements and pushing autopilot that it's the right thing to do and he can get back to the job of acting and finding the emotional truth.

We had British military intelligence observe on set for Helen, so that she had something to reference. We had a drone pilot for Aaron and Phoebe. I spoke with, and so did Guy, with many people in the military because it is also a mistake to think that the military is in agreement about everything. They don't speak with one voice-- thank God, that's the best thing about a democracy. Generals and colonels within the military have differing views on the use of drones, when to use it, where they use it. In certain places, it's good. In other places, it is not. There again, you could have a whole other discussion.

I found that I learned a great deal from amazing people in the military. I also learned a great deal from refugee people. I learned from human rights organizations. I learned from Somali refugees who are in this movie, who are fleeing Al-Shabaab and are in Cape Town. There's an entire, huge community of Somali refugees and they're in the movie. All the extras are Somali refugees. The little girl [Aisha Takow] is a refugee. Her real mother has a little cameo moment with her real sister, when they buy bread. There's a woman and a little girl in a green hijab that buys bread. That's her real mom and it's her brother who plays the little boy who runs for the bread at the end. Their story is something, walking from Somalia all the way to South Africa, over many months through four or five other countries. So, by the way, is the man who plays her father. Armaan Haggio and his real wife [Faisa Hassan] are her parents in the film. They're Somali refugees. Armaan had lost his brother to Al-Shabaab militants who shot him because he liked music. It gets real sobering when you're working with folks like that.


Alan Rickman

On casting Helen Mirren as the military intelligence officer.

I don't know if you know, but the role was written for a man.

Guy will forgive me, that was one of the first things I asked him. At the risk of sounding like a pompous ass, I said, "Guy, the great thing about this movie is that it generates a conversation and I don't want it to be a conversation between a bunch of guys." I want men and women to talk about this because this is the future of warfare and more and more women are in these jobs. I did a lot of research. There are military intelligence officers who are women. There have been for a long time. As we know, women are moving into more and more combat roles.

On the job of politicians in drone strikes.

It's easy to laugh at the politicians, but I wouldn't like to be in their shoes either. That's what is so human about Guy's script. He humanizes it. A friend of mine who saw the film said, "I always thought that the person making these decisions was a 55-year-old genius scientist who just got all the information and made the right choice." It's all so profoundly human. It is. If we take anything out of this, there are human being's lives at stake, but there are also human beings making decisions. Whatever the military tells you, the one thing I learned was, please, Mr. Michael Hayden, don't tell me that this is a sniper-hood. It isn't. In defense of Mr. Hayden-- he's just written a new book-- he's admitted to that mistakes have been made and civilians have been killed. It's a messy business. War has always been a messy business. You can use that one way or another. SOmetimes, you might say, as this gentleman said, you're living next to a factory, this is war. I hope that by seeing Alia and all the human beings involved, we can at least eliminate that attitude of the "bugsplat" pilot, because that's the one thing I object to, because I think that leads to taking action to easily. At least, by considering things from many angles and then, maybe decisions will be made. I don't want to prescribe to the military how to do their job. I mean, it's a terrible job to be in a situation like this. I do think that we should seriously consider the blowback effect. I do think that we are not winning the propaganda war.

I come from South Africa and I travel to Africa a lot. South Africa is fine, we don't have drones flying over our heads, but, up in Somalia, I'm not sure that we'll be winning that war and not driving people to Al-Shabaab. I don't just mean us, the Americans. Frankly, I think Kenyans, there was a great podcast on this recently, I don't know if it was on KCET, a great podcast about a journalist and a Somalian refugee in Kenya who kept getting shaken down by the Kenyan cops. Eventually, people just go, screw this, I'm going back. If I go back, I'm going to land in the hands of Al-Shabaab. I'm rambling, but I hope that somewhat answers your question.

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