‘Good Kill’s’ Ethan Hawke, Andrew Niccol & Jake Abel on Drone Warfare, Creative Influences & Artless Art

Ethan Hawke, director/writer Andrew Niccol and castmate Jake Abel discuss tackling the new face of war in "Good Kill."
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Ethan Hawke, director/writer Andrew Niccol and castmate Jake Abel discuss tackling the new face of war in "Good Kill."

Fighting a war continents away from the battlefield with a click of a joystick seems like the stuff of science fiction, but the drone warfare at the heart of Good Kill, a drama written and directed by Andrew Niccol, is eerily based in present-day reality. New Zealand-born Niccol, who is known for his futuristic visions including Gattaca and In Time, meticulously researched the United States' drone program and consulted with ex-drone pilots (who were on set during filming) to weave together the plot line of Good Kill. The movie follows U.S. Air Force pilot Major Tom Egan (Ethan Hawke) who eventually suffers a crises of conscience when he starts flying drones instead of F-16s. From a base outside of Las Vegas, he pulls the trigger on enemy targets in the Middle East, missions that play out like a video game, anesthetizing the horrors of war and Major Egan's psyche along the way. 

Ethan Hawke Photo

Ethan Hawke plays Major Tom Egan, a U.S. Air Force pilot who becomes disillusioned when he starts flying drones instead of F-16s.  (Courtesy: TIFF)

Bio and our partners at Beyond Cinema caught up with Hawke and Niccol about their third collaboration after Gattaca and Lord of War, as well as Good Kill cast member Jake Abel, to talk about the takeaways from this movie, as well as the creative influences that have shaped their film careers. 

Andrew, some of your movies are cautionary tales about where we're going and what the future may hold. This one seems to have much more of an immediacy.  

Andrew Niccol: It's actually a period piece, ergo, it's set in 2010.

Ethan Hawke: It seems futuristic, but it's actually very dated.

Andrew Niccol: Yeah, it is the way war is now. We've never had war like this, where it's so schizophrenic that the character Ethan plays will fight the Taliban for 12 hours and he'll go home to his wife and kids.

Ethan Hawke: In Vegas.

The movie deals with the idea of remote warfare and its repercussions. Some actors and filmmakers don't go out politically and stand next to a candidate to make a statement, but may express their political opinions through the movies they make. Ethan, is that indicative of this movie for you?

Ethan: One of the things that I love about this movie, is it really just kind of presents the truth. You can make out of it what you will, and I think you'll end up struggling with it the same way the characters do. You know, whenever you try to anesthetize war . . .there’s hypocrisy there. One of the things that really started happening with the Vietnam War is when the public started seeing dead bodies, and saw what was happening; people didn’t like to see that.

There's something about the drone program which makes it seem very safe and very distant . . .I don't know about you, but when I used to read the newspaper, and read about a drone strike in Afghanistan, I had no idea really what that meant. I kind of imagined something from an animated Star Wars Clone Wars [episode] or something, where some ray came down. But I think the movie will give you some context of what's happening in warfare today.

You've got a stepbrother in the military? Was he a resource for you?

Ethan Hawke: He's been a resource for everything in my life, you know? He's a fierce patriot, and holds a lot of what people think of as kind of right wing beliefs to heart, and it's always been a real compelling force in my life for helping me understand . . . He puts his life on the line for his beliefs, and so, I've always had a tremendous respect for him.

Good Kill Photo

"Good Kill" producer Zev Foreman, actor Ethan Hawke, director Andrew Niccol and actor Jake Abel at the premiere of the movie at the Toronto Film Festival. (Courtesy: TIFF)

Jake, what did you come away with from playing your role in this movie?

Jake Abel: [My character] Zimmer is very much of one mindset about what this program means, and he's very decisive about good guys and bad guys. Each character has a different viewpoint with what they're struggling with. I have mine, Zoe Kravitz [who plays an Air Force drone operator] has hers and I think Ethan’s [character] is sort of ping ponging in between what's the right path. The drone program has been something that I researched on my own because I'm so interested in it. When Andrew told me that he was doing this movie, I immediately tried to impress him with my knowledge of DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) and the drone program . . . I just got lucky.

Ethan, we can't let the opportunity go without asking you to comment on the late Robin Williams who you appeared with in Dead Poet’s Society early in your career.

Ethan Hawke: My first real experience with acting was with Robin on Dead Poet's Society. When he wrote, “I sound my barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the world,” a Walt Whitman quote, [on the chalkboard in Dead Poet’s Society] it's one of the first times I felt the thrill, the buzz of acting. It was through collaborating with him. So, I think there's a particular sadness that comes home, when somebody who made so many of us so happy, was in such obvious inner pain. I think it's something that hurts all of us.

What was it like working with this cast?

Jake Abel: I try to learn from Ethan through osmosis with. He is definitely one of the guys I've always wanted to work with because I always wanted to know how does an actor become a published author, writer, director? Those are things that I always wanted to do.

Andrew Niccol: Fashion design?

Ethan: And the fashion...no, that's one thing I don't do.

Andrew Niccol: I don't talk to him. I just sit back and watch. 

Ethan Hawke: You know one of the first people in my consciousness who didn't delineate lines between art forms was Dennis Hopper. He kind of gave himself over to it. His eye in photography, his eye in the art world. He's one of the people who help discover Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol. . .I mean Hopper was a major mind about art in general.

Who were your mentors that got you started on this creative path?

Andrew Niccol: I don't think I'd be sitting here if it wasn't for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest [directed by Milos Forman]. So, that's one key influence.  

Ethan Hawke: That's the first movie I ever saw – Cuckoo's Nest. Yeah, my mom took me when I was like a little kid.  

It's a kid's film. (laughs)

Ethan Hawke: It's a kid's film. It's the only film, I swear, whenever, in my life, whenever I felt completely at sea or lost, if you watch that film, you somehow feel better after it's over. Or maybe that it's so depressing, that [it makes you feel better]...

Andrew Niccol: It's the lunatics running the asylum.

Ethan Hawke: Yeah.

Andrew Niccol: Look where we are.

Ethan Hawke: Yeah.

Ethan Hawke Seymour an Introduction

Seymour Bernstein, Ethan Hawke's friend and the subject of his documentary "Seymour: An Introduction."(Courtesy: TIFF)

And Ethan, a key figure of inspiration for you is Seymour Bernstein, a pianist and teacher who you made a documentary about last year. How did he inspire you?

Ethan Hawke: The reason why I made that documentary is because I think a lot of us actually don't have mentors especially when you become an adult – the people to kind of help you in your adult life to gain focus. One of the interesting things about a really specific art form, like piano playing, is it's very clear how to get better. People are better at certain stages, where as in acting it's harder to see how your growth and your development is going, you know, and I think, it’s not dissimilar to Zen in the Art of Archery, you know, this documentary aspires to say if you do anything well, it relates to everything.

Jake Abel: The artless art. 

Ethan Hawke: Jake said it.