Following its red carpet premiere Wednesday night, Gavin Hood’s white-knuckle political thriller Eye in the Sky officially opens in New York City and elsewhere this weekend. Helen Mirren slipped into military garb to play Colonel Katherine Powell, a UK-based commanding officer who wants to order a drone strike on a house in Nairobi, Kenya before the major terrorists who are inside depart. With time running out, her commanding officer, Lt. General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman’s last role), is elsewhere in a stuffy conference room trying to convince skeptical British diplomats of the legality of the strike. When it is obvious that one of the terrorists is about to go into a highly populated area wearing a suicide vest, it looks like the missile strike will get clearance from British and Americans at the highest level.
But when a little girl starts selling bread outside the house, Steve Watts (Aaron Paul), the drone pilot who sits in a bunker in Nevada, refuses to launch the missile until a new collateral damage assessment is done and there is less chance the girl will be harmed. When watching this exciting, provocative movie, you may find yourself rooting for something you were against when you entered the theater. And afterward, you will be eager to engage in healthy debate about whether drone strikes are ever justified. This is the rare recent movie that encourages thinking, and that’s surely a good thing. On Wednesday afternoon, I participated in a press conference at the Towers of the Waldorf Astoria in New York City. Present were Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, and Gavin Hood. I actually got the ask the first questions but since they were about the climax of the movie, I moved them and the responses by Mirren, Paul, and Hood to the end of the following (edited) transcript, as a SPOILER ALERT section. The questions that come before my part were asked by other journalists.
Q: Helen, you have many scenes in the movie where Colonel Powell is trying to convince Aaron’s drone pilot Steve Watts to deploy the missile on the house with the terrorists and scenes where you speak to your commander [Lieutenant General Frank Benson] played by Alan Rickman. But you were never physically on the same set with Aaron or Alan Rickman. However, since you all filmed in Cape Town, South Africa, did you get to see each other?
Helen Mirren: No, I didn’t get to see Alan and I hardly got to see Aaron. Gavin shot all of my stuff first, and then I went away and Aaron came, so at least we crossed paths for one night. And then Aaron went away and Alan’s general and the actors who played the politicians came in. It was in that order. And, Gavin, you shot the stuff on the ground last of all, is that correct?
Gavin Hood: Yeah, unfortunately, because it is completely the wrong way to do it. But because of budgets, shooting, and schedules go, in filmmaking you start with your perfect plan and then there’s the reality of “When’s Helen available?” You just get in there with your actors and to the credit of these two, they gave great performances although they didn’t have footage of the people they talk to, including each other, in front of them–they had green screens in front of them.
HM: But we had a director who knew exactly what he was going to shoot and had it very well planned so he could talk it through.
Q: It turns out that this is Alan Rickman’s last film.
HM: I think Alan would be incredibly proud of this movie. I think he is very proud of this movie, let’s put it that way. I think that if he looked at his canon of work, and it’s been great work his whole life, I think if he had the chance to choose what would be his last movie, I’m convinced he would point to this movie. What I love about it is that the Alan you see up on the screen is Alan. He was brilliant as Snape and in all of the character roles he often played. But that is Alan. The elegance, the wit, the formidable nature of him, the humanity of him. We have Alan up on the screen and I think that’s such a great thing for his last movie.
Q: To both actors: where you drawn to your parts because of what is happening in the world regarding drones?
Aaron Paul: This story took me there. The first time I talked to Gavin he had such a specific vision of the story he wanted to tell. He wanted to make it a very honest, human story, and that’s what this film is. It takes you to the front line of terrorism and drone warfare, but it gives you an inside look at these characters and really humanizes them. I wasn’t very familiar with the drone warfare. But when doing this film I talked to a drone expert. I did spend a lot of time with him from the moment the Nevada bunker was built on the sound stage in Cape Town. Before we started shooting, we would go there and spend hours a day in that bunker and I really learning how to fly these drones. He would call out orders behind Phoebe Fox [who played Watt’s sympathetic assistant pilot] and me and say to do this and do that. I mean, the pressure was on, because I didn’t want to look like an idiot. I wanted to feel like I was actually flying these things, and you really put yourself in that position. It is a crazy idea that you are in the safety of a bunker in Nevada, while flying something very dangerous in another country. He told me about how these guys can fly four drones at once. I had no idea that they can control more than one at once. At times he could have a drone in Kenya or a drone in Australia. I didn’t realize that part of it. He has seen the film and he is very proud of it.
HM: I was drawn to this film because of the amazing script [by Guy Hibbert, the writer of Mirren’s acclaimed TV series, Prime Suspect]. The film that you see, it’s so true in filmmaking. If it’s on the page, it’s on the screen, and with this movie it was absolutely on the page. It was a beautifully written, constructed, has an interesting issue that it deals with in a very interesting and humane way. Like Aaron, I didn’t really know very much about drone warfare but we were all on the learning curve with this one, and regarding the research that Guy had done, and then Gavin had done, we all learned a lot. I had no idea of the technology. I had no idea that these kinds of operations are conducted in the way that they are with all of these checks and balances, and I thought, “You know what? That’s a good advertisement for democracy.” It’s not bad that people go into these kinds of operations with their consciences and an awareness of legality and political issues; and I thought it was fascinating how so many voices are involved. Every second counts, which is how the film ratchets up with the tension.
Q: Colonel Powell fits in with the strong female characters you’ve been playing recently, so I wonder if you worry about type casting? Do people simply think of you whenever they need somebody strong and able to take charge?
HM: I love that. If that’s how I’m typecast, I’m very happy with that, thank you very much.
Q: Gavin, I understand Colonel Powell was originally a male character. Did you think that making the character female would add more feeling to the part?
GH: Yes. I never told Helen until after the film was made that Powell was originally a male. Helen, I think you only found out when I mentioned it in some interview.
HM: Yes. Yes. Yes. And I’m going, “You were so bad.”
GH: In the original script the character was written for a man and I don’t judge Guy Hibbert for doing that. There are many, many men doing this work and there are women doing this work, but frankly at this point there are more men than women doing military work.
AP: I’m not sure if that’s true for younger people in the military.
GH: Yes, more and more women are going into these roles. We did research, because I didn’t want to put Helen Mirren into a role that women wouldn’t be in. We specifically put her in the military intelligence branch. She could be commanding this operation if she was a Colonel in the Army, but military intelligence, we honed it so that it would be correct for a woman to be in this role. It could have been a man, so why change it to a woman? Well, a couple of things. I have twins, one’s a boy, one’s a girl, and I loathe seeing my little girl ever feeling that she can’t do whatever she wants. Also, frankly, I would like the ethical and legal and policy questions that this film raises to be discussed by all of us. We are moving into an age of greater automation in warfare. More and more women are in positions of power. We may have a female President, other countries do. So I didn’t want to make it a guys’ war movie and exclude or discourage half my audience from coming. So from a commercial point of view, I thought I could have it both ways. Helen Mirren is the lead and truthfully I flatter her but it’s true that while I’m reading the script I’m thinking, who plays this Colonel? As I did with the character played by Alan Rickman. Who plays this Colonel and gives the audience a fully fleshed out character despite the fact that it’s written so economically? We’re trying to drive forward with a plot. This is not a character-driven film, and yet every character has to feel fully human. So you just want the actors that can give you as much as possible. I’m glad, thankful really, that Helen and Aaron both agreed to do this movie.
HM: I agree with Gavin’s point that the discussion of the issues becomes broader with a woman as the Colonel. Would a woman make those decisions? I don’t think that’s in the discussion at all. It’s more that we are all in this together, so we women can’t sit back and say, “Oh, typical men, you know.” I think having it be a woman is a very good device just to broaden the discussion and bring us all into the discussion.
Q: Did you meet with anyone who helped you play your character?
HM: I didn’t meet up with an actual female Colonel, but we did have a military advisor on the set.
GH: A military intelligence officer who knows exactly what’s going on. He talked to us about targeting and he was in fact a military intelligence officer in a targeting unit that had targeted over Libya of all places.
HM: Yes, and he was with us all the time and he was absolutely invaluable. I think the thing that surprised me the most was how obsessed the military personnel are with what they’re wearing.
GH: Well, he felt responsible about making sure that we didn’t get anything wrong
HM: Like how your sleeves have to be rolled up.
AP: Oh, yeah. He was so specific.
HM: And your belt buckle has to be here, not there, it’s got to be here; and your cap has to be folded exactly like this and put here and only so much of it can show. They’re absolutely obsessed with the details.
GH: You once expressed why you thought that they did that. You said that if that’s what you have to wear every day and you’re not allowed to change it up, then you get very obsessed with it being just so.
Q: Could each of you say what was the key to understanding your character psychologically in terms of motivation?
HM: I never really think of motivation, honestly. If it’s on the page I do it.
AP: Exactly, if it’s on the page you have something great to work with. When you read this script, your heart starts to beat a little bit faster and you’re really just inside this world, and the moment you start watching this movie your hands start to clam up and you’re into it. And to repeat myself, it just humanizes everything. For instance, with Alan Rickman’s character, before he goes to work he’s buying a toy for his grandkid and after doing his work he completely forgets about work and thinks of the kid. This is just their day-to-day, and that’s what really drew me to this film.
GH: Alan’s character compartmentalizes. Will Aaron’s drone pilot be able to compartmentalize his life the same way Alan’s has? I don’t know what he will decide to do. It’s ambiguous. I don’t even know if he knows in that moment, and that’s okay. Alan Rickman’s character knows and psychologists know that only the drone pilots who learn to compartmentalize, survive. The other 30 percent don’t. Is it good to compartmentalize? Maybe it’s terrible. But if you don’t, you can’t do this job.
Q: Gavin, have you gotten feedback from Somalians or anybody that might have been a little sensitive to the subject matter?
GH: That’s a great question and I’ll give you the best answer I can, which is that all the actors in the movie that play the Somalians are Somalian refugees who were running from al-Shabaab, having come to Cape Town. For example, the man who plays the father of the little girl, and the woman who is her mother, are married. She’s a singer. His brother was shot by al-Shabaab, and they walked for three months. We think coming from Mexico to the States is far–try walking from Somalia all the way to the Southern tip of Africa, going through five countries. There are thousands of refugees in Cape Town, many of whom are applying for asylum in the United States. It begs the bigger global question of: “Do we take refugees in?” If we don’t, where do they go? And how will they feel about us? All of these questions are in the balance. The young little girl, Aisha Takow, is currently awaiting approval or disapproval of her asylum ratification to this country. The little girl selling the bread, and she’s not alone. The little boy who runs to fetch the bread, is her real life brother. Her real mother is a woman who buys bread from her, and the little girl with the green hijab is her sister. That little family has been through hell and is desperate never to be sent back to face al-Shabaab. In casting those roles, we went into the Somali community in Cape Town and we held open auditions. My wonderful casting director, a South African woman called Moonyeenn Lee, who has been there forever and who does an amazing job going into communities and looking for real people. I can tell you that we were in those communities. Many people, not just some, came in, looked at the script, looked at the pages we were talking about. I had to be honest with them about what the film was about, and when they heard it was in any way connected to al-Shabaab, boom and they were out the door. Mothers would take their kids and leave, not because they were pro al-Shabaab, but because there’s that much fear of him. The actors who chose to be in this film are brave. So we not only did we talk to Somali people, but also they’re in the movie. I don’t know if that answers the question.
Q: Helen, I know there is a huge refugee problem in the UK.
HM: Well, it’s a problem in many people’s minds, yes. Whether it actually is a problem is another matter. For millions of years, it seems to me, people have been traversing the globe and finding safety. That is the absolute natural human thing to do. We’re just obeying our perfectly natural human instincts and animal instincts if you like, but I mean, seems to me that, that is the history of human life, moving to a better place. My God, I’m part Viking, we’re all mixes–that’s the brilliance of DNA, isn’t it, that I can find–oh, my God–that I’ve got a little bit of Chinese in me. I think it’s exciting and wonderful, in a way. I know it comes out of tragedy and horror and that is something else, but there are beautiful things that come out of that.
GH: Some of us who were brought here came to a worse life, I hate to say. But we’re all immigrants in some ways.
Q: Helen, did your initial reaction to the moral dilemma raised in the film change as you got further into the process?
HM: Not change, but I got a deeper understanding of it. Definitely. I think when I first read the script, my reaction was that it was tough and I saw the Colonel as the villain of the piece, if you like.
GH: She may be, but not from her point of view.
HM: I agree. As I got deeper into it I started really understanding the issues and had a more global understanding of it. My attitude changed and I think now I would say that she does the right thing. It’s a terrible thing to say!
GH: And I’m not sure I would say that.
HM: It’s awful.
GH: There’s a great debate and that’s the point. What I love about Helen’s approach and Aaron’s approach is that they may not agree with me, but to me an actor’s job is to commit to the character that they are playing and get underneath that character’s skin. A director’s job is to try to understand multiple points of view. I need Aaron to get under the skin of that character, do the deep work. Helen, it’s fascinating to me. Helen has so studied this woman so that, Helen, you may be right about her.
HM: In terms of the world, appalling decisions that have to be made. I’m talking about the world rather than just her as a woman.
GH: I don’t want anyone to walk away with the impression that this film does represent what happens in every drone strike. Just so we all understand. This movie shows you how many players can be involved. It doesn’t mean that every time there’s a drone strike that many players are involved. Colonel Powell is compelled to go up a kill chain that you only go up and up if the situation is evolving in a way that is becoming more and more complex and has more and more political ramifications. So if you are in what we call a “defined conflict,” which essentially means Iraq, Afghanistan, the defined war zone where drone strikes are happening every day. A drone pilot, like Aaron’s Steve Watts, might be flying that mission tomorrow. He’s over Afghanistan, he’s watching with an eye. His on the ground forces are moving through an area of defined conflict and they’re being attacked by 25 Taliban and he goes, “Guys, guys, guys, I can see them over the hill.” And they say, “Can you take out the target?” And he says, “Yes.” So the rules of engagement already allow him to fire a missile. We’re in the conflict. We’re not in a friendly country with civilians selling bread. So he may only have to refer up to his Colonel, and someone like Helen’s Colonel Powell would say take him and be done without even picking up the damn phone. So that’s her instinct. She runs the show. But in our film, she’s thinking, “I’ve got this frigging complication. I was supposed to do this, now I’ve got to go talk to these policy wonks to give me permission.”
AP: That’s because it changes from a capture to a kill.
GH: A kill, but not just a kill. A kill in the divine set of circumstances. So what Guy Hibbert and I wanted to do was present the most complex scenario in order to push it all the way up the kill chain. Maybe all drone strikes should still go up the chain of command. But they just wouldn’t have time, I’ve got to think so. I think you can pause this film at any point and spin off into multiple discussions. I hope that this film is just a contribution to the discussions. We don’t profess to tell anyone what to think. Whether we should be there is a great question. To that point the question people ask me is, “What do you think of drones and should we have drones or not?” Well, let’s ask the question. The drone is a tactical weapon recently invented. At the time the long bow was invented people objected to that, too. You’re shooting people from afar? How dare you, you coward! Every time a new weapon is invented there is a policy discussion. We need that policy discussion. Should we be using drones over Tribal Pakistan? Should we be intimidating a local population with surveillance 24/7 seven and with armed attacks happening every few weeks? Should it be okay that kids are afraid to go out and play if it’s a sunny day because drones can’t see you only on cloudy days? Should we be using a big strategy that turns that population against us? The drone is a tactical weapon. Should it be deployed in this way? Are we using it to better our overall objective of winning the hearts and minds of the population away from the streams of ideology? That when it has political fallout implications. It’s very interesting because I hasten to say that not everyone in the military has one point of view. There are people in the military who absolutely agree with the suggestion made here that drones are a really bad being, deployed really in a bad way. But their argument is not is a drone good or bad, it’s “Are we deploying this new weapon in a way that moves us forward or backwards?”–and you have to assess that situation by the situation.
HM: I think in many ways this film reminded me of a courtroom drama, only the audience is the jury. And then when you come out of the cinema, hopefully you go and have dinner or you go to a bar and you discuss it, and you talk about strategy. Is it correct, is it incorrect, should we, shouldn’t we? It throws it out, the film throws it out to the audience. And what I love about the film is it makes no decisions for you. it puts decisions in your lap.
Q: Helen and Aaron, when you saw the final cut of the film, what surprised you?
HM: I think the thing that surprised me was the wit in. It was the funniness, and I thought that is what makes the film ultimately palatable, because it’s a tough, difficult subject. It’s very tense but the humor makes it watchable. I think it’s fantastic in that way.
AP: Watching this film, I saw that it is a very human story and it puts an audience in these characters’ shoes. I’m not surprised by that–I knew that was going to be the case.
But the simple fact that I’m sharing a screen with Helen Mirren, you know, it’s out of control–it’s such a beautiful dream of mine. So thank you all.
Danny Peary: Helen and Aaron, after what they do, will your characters be able to sleep that night?
AP: I think that there is an easy answer, no.
HM: And I would say yes. I think my character would sleep, absolutely. Sleep really well because: “Job done. Thank God we got our target. What happened was terrible, terrible that, but that was the price we had to pay, but thank God we got her.” So I think yeah, she’d sleep well.
GH: I’m glad Aaron says his character wouldn’t. I think that’s the point.
AP: Yeah, putting myself in that situation, I don’t know if I could sleep. That is the price you have to pay. I mean, you re serving your country, you are doing your duty, but for me I don’t know. I don’t know if I could do what he does.
DP: The next morning. if there were no ranks to separate them and they could actually talk to each other, what do you think they’d say to each other? I ask because they both might get some closure if they got to speak to each other–even though they probably never would.
HM: They might. I don’t know the protocol or how they’d find themselves in the same bar at the same time, but I think my character, Colonel Powell, would say, “Next time Lieutenant, you do what I say when I say to do it!” I suspect she’d say that. And then maybe five vodkas later they might get into the complications of the issues. I don’t know, but I suspect people like my character have to manage to put that behind and carry on, because: What’s next? What are we dealing with next? There will be possibly many more of those situations to come. Aaron, what is your answer?
AP: What you said. Yeah. I don’t think he’d want to reopen those wounds [by talking to her], but they experienced something pretty traumatic together. He did what he had to do. He was trying to buy some time in order to, hopefully, save this young girl’s life. But it is what it is.
GH: Can I just point out that the mindset that Aaron’s character has when he says, “I’m the pilot in command, responsible for releasing the weapon. I have the right to ask for the CD [assessment] to run again. I will not release my weapon until that happens.” That is a line that they’re all trained to say. We didn’t make that up. He was trained to say that not because of his own conscience, but from a war crime point of view, to ensure that he’s following a legal order. He suspects that she is bending the rules too much. He is not only allowed to, he is required to because he is the final person [to determine whether the drone is fired]. The trainer of drone pilots that I interviewed said to me, “It doesn’t matter if it’s the President on the line.” That’s why the drone pilot is given that line to say [to his superiors]. So when Steve says that [and questions Powell’s order], he’s actually doing the right thing. Now do all drone pilots do the right thing? Or are most intimidated by someone as intimidating as the Colonel? I did speak to drone pilots who have taken that route. And also to F-16 pilots who have declined to drop their payload. I spoke to one who knew that his target in Iraq was not correct. When he visualized it, when he was flying over it, he realized that they got the coordinates wrong and he pulled out. He told me, “I had a four-star General yelling at me, not very politely, ‘Drop your fucking load, Lieutenant!’” He said, “I just knew it was wrong and in that moment I didn’t give a shit about whether I stayed in the Air Force or not.” That doesn’t mean all pilots would do that, but that’s what he did, and that’s where we got those kind of scenes. I asked, “So what happened?” He said, “I landed my jet. They came and they took my black box, and for two weeks I thought, ‘Jesus, am I going to get court-martialed or not?’ Then it just went away.” Now the difficulty for a young Lieutenant in his position is if it is illegal, and he’s pushing back and pushing back, he could be court-martialed. Because if you follow an illegal order that’s a war crime–Nuremberg was about following orders that were war crimes. So these guys are in a really tight spot!
END SPOILER ALERT
Q: Helen, tell us about your kissing Stephen Colbert when you were on his show last night.
HM: The thing is, I’ve been deeply in love with Stephen Colbert for a long time.
GH: For real or were you just pretending?
HM:. No, no, for real. Oh, absolutely. I think I dreamt I kissed Stephen Colbert. And as I was walking out last night, I looked at him and thought, “You know what? If I don’t take my opportunity now I’ll never have it again.
AP: So you just kissed him?
HM: I kissed him.
AP: Good for you!
HM: Oh, gosh. This morning my husband was going off to work and as I saw him off, I thought I’ve got to tell him. I said, “Darling, I kissed Stephen Colbert last night.” So forget Stephen Colbert.
Note: I want to thank iHop publicity firm for inviting me to the press conference. And I want to highly recommend another film they are handling, Argentine director Pablo Trapero’s The Clan, which opens in NYC next Friday. It’s a wild, perverse political thriller based on a astonishing true story–and it has one of the most fascinating movie scoundrels in a long time, played chillingly by Guillermo Francella.
Note 2: For yourself or any baseball fan you know, please preorder my new book on Jackie Robinson: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/jackie-robinson-in-quotes-danny-peary/1123308452?ean=9781624142444