Gavin Hood dissects drone ethics in Eye In The Sky

FILM by Jorge Ignacio Castillo


Eye in the Sky
Opens March 25

Director Gavin Hood’s ears must have been burning all through February. Thanks to Deadpool’s smashing success, Hood’s single entry in the X-Men movie canon has been mocked and vilified all over again.

But it would be a mistake to judge Hood based on X-Men Origins: Wolverine. The filmmaker wrote and directed 2006 Foreign Language Oscar winner Tsotsi, and later tackled the war-on-terror drama Rendition and the adaptation of the seminal sci-fi novel Ender’s Game.

Hood returns to geopolitics with Eye In The Sky. The film focuses on one specific operation in Nairobi aiming to capture two terrorists. The mission involves British, American and Kenyan operatives, with political authorities just a phone call away. Soon it becomes clear the extremists are preparing a suicide attack, which not only raises the stakes, but places all those involved in an impossible situation: there is a 10-year-old child selling bread next to the kill zone. Is her death justifiable to save others?

Eye In The Sky takes us to every single room involved in the operation, from the foot soldiers holed up in a van (represented by Captain Philips’ Barkhad Abdi) to the heart of London, where attorneys and generals led by Alan Rickman discuss the legality of bombing the terrorists’ hiding place. The all-encompassing narrative also includes a steely operational chief (Helen Mirren), a reluctant drone pilot (Aaron Paul) and ineffectual political figures. Under time constrains, tempers flare and frank discussions about collateral damage take place.

Hood does a remarkable job fuelling the tension while presenting every position fairly. Eye In The Sky is also Alan Rickman’s final live-action role. I had the opportunity to discuss the movie with Gavin Hood at the Toronto International Film Festival last September. As luck would have it, Hood and I discussed Rickman’s performance specifically.

In Eye in the Sky, you have three war rooms and a conflict scenario going on at the same time. How hard was the film to edit?

It wasn’t easy, especially when you only have certain actors for a week. We started shooting with Helen Mirren (as the chief of the operation) and I didn’t have any other footage to support her performance. She is reacting to a green screen, instead of the little girl at the center of this conundrum. I had to plan the film editorially in my head, so I could explain lines and describe scenarios. Sometimes, because you don’t know how, say, Alan Rickman is going to react, I asked Helen to give me different responses. That’s the fun of editing: you can’t do it well if you don’t have options.

As the commander-in-chief, Alan Rickman has a line that he delivers exquisitely: “Never tell a soldier he doesn’t know the cost of war.” Gave me the chills.

He is brilliant, isn’t he? Because I was drafted when I was very young and lost a close friend in the war, when he did that line it made me want to cry. I didn’t know it would happen — I knew the line for months — but the first take hit me like nothing before. I was on a set! I knew it was a movie! It sounds rather pathetic.

Not at all. One of the reasons the film is interesting is because everyone — the military, the drone operators, the human rights lawyers — has valid arguments for and against the use of force. I imagine this was your intention from the beginning.

This is not a film that lectures the audience. It challenges you to think, makes you uncomfortable and reminds you of our common humanity. Among all this discussion about drone technology, it’s easy to lose sight [that] we are talking about human lives. Even if at the end of the movie you don’t know what you would do in this scenario, you are reminded of a Kenyan child that’s just like us, with her own hopes and dreams. In every war, each side tries to dehumanize the other. As soon as you encounter the enemy and re-establish your common humanity, then you have a chance to negotiate peace. Maybe it’s cheesy of me to say that.

It’s common sense.

And yet common sense leaves you when you objectify or dehumanize the other. It’s the big problem right now: few are having this conversation.

Of all the characters in Eye in the Sky, which one is the closest to your point of view?

I can’t give you an answer because I put myself in each character’s situation. To direct Helen Mirren, I had to imagine what it would be like having to decide if, when and how to kill someone. I met a guy who infiltrated a group that recruited suicide bombers. After seeing how adults persuaded teens to carry out these attacks, he wanted them dead. Because of the emotional connection with the person you’re tracking, you can no longer be objective, which is why you need a lawyer by your side. Consequently, I had to imagine what it would be like for Helen’s character to deal with that situation… If you push me and I had to relate to someone, I’d rather be the little girl who is about to lose her innocence. Can you answer that question?

It’s terrible to say, but it would be Alan Rickman’s. In scenarios in which no one can make a decision, I would be the one to do it.

That’s very honest.

Thanks. Eye in the Sky is an ensemble movie. Did you adapt to each performer’s style or did you expect them to adapt to you?

Sometimes I do lectures for film students and they ask me how to direct actors. It’s like asking how do you communicate with people. All actors approach their craft from a slightly different point of view. My job is to adapt to them and understand where they are coming from. When I was a young director, I wanted it done my way. I still know what I want, but I’m more subtle about it.