South African director Gavin Hood has created a great film out of a logistical quagmire both on screen and off with his latest effort Eye in the Sky. Scripted by Guy Hibbert, the film is a suspense thriller set amid the world of modern warfare. In a bunker, British Colonel Kathleen Powell (Helen Mirren) tries to conduct a targeted remote strike in Kenya on a former British national suspected of masterminding an impending suicide bombing. She utilizes Somali born intelligence operative Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi) as her eyes and ears on the ground. The drone pilot tasked with carrying out the order, Steve Watts (Aaron Paul), happens to be American. All orders between Powell, the pilot, and the operative have to be run up and down a never ending chain of command via Lt. General Frank Benson (the late Alan Rickman, in his last live action role) in a bureaucratic boardroom. When Powell confirms that an attack is imminent, she looks to change the operation from a capture to a kill. But Watts notices there will be a lot of civilian lives lost in the attack, including a young child selling bread innocently in front of the terrorist hideout, and demands that a check for acceptable collateral damage be run again before he fires, risking court marshal if he’s wrong. Benson has to deal with warring factions within the government who see a dead child caught on camera as a potential blow against their efforts in the war on terror. Farah has to try to discreetly get the girl to move so the operation can move forward. Powell has to make sure this is all done in a timely fashion or more lives will surely be lost.
In case one couldn’t tell from that sprawling description, Eye in the Sky features several different stories of people in different locations who never once interact beyond a computer screen or headset. It also features a cast of A-list actors, a limited amount of time to shoot, four vastly different locations, and not a large budget to do it all with. But for Hood (Tsotsi, X-Men Origins: Wolverine), the chance to make essentially four separate, but interlocked character dramas in a single film was part of the appeal.
“The fun of the jigsaw puzzle was part of the attraction for me,” Hood said during an interview shortly before the film’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2015. “I don’t know what Eye in the Sky is like for the audience because I know how the sausage is made, so it’s hard for me to see how people will take it. Hopefully, they see it as a work that sits with all these separate parts together. For us making it, part of the excitement for me was wondering as a director how we were going to make it in the first place. Every major character is in a different place. They never see each other. I won’t be able to afford on our budget to have all of these actors to come in and run the lines with the actors they interact with in other scenes. I got Helen for a week. I got Aaron and Alan for two weeks. I got Barkhad for a couple more weeks.”
“A lot of my job was made easier by a precise and intelligent script, and then you ask how you can do justice to that writing and help the actors deliver a range of different, but emotional performances, so that in the editing room you can modulate that story.”
Hood credits his talented cast and their imaginations for helping to fill in the gaps that time and availability couldn’t smooth out, and so his team behind the scenes could edit together a film that did justice to the script.
“It’s a credit to the actors that they were willing to go along with having me instruct and read to them what was happening when they actually had nothing on their screens,” Hood says about his leads. “A lot of my job was made easier by a precise and intelligent script, and then you ask how you can do justice to that writing and help the actors deliver a range of different, but emotional performances, so that in the editing room you can modulate that story. Helen is working on her own with a director that’s just reading her a scenario and all these other lines. But when you have that done, you have to ask, ‘Well, how is Alan Rickman going to deliver his lines now based on what Helen just did?’ Obviously, I had spoken to Alan and had a sense of what he will bring from having watched all his movies, but I don’t know exactly what he’ll bring. So when we started with Helen, I had her give me a few different options to go with, which was quite risky for an actor. They have to trust you completely that when you go into that editing room that her reaction to Alan isn’t going to make her look bad or like she’s giving a bad performance. Helen was the first person out of the gate, which was very bold for her, but it was also the only week we had her. She’s a very busy lady, and we were very lucky to get her. In a perfect world, we would have shot Barkhad and Aaron’s stories first about what’s happening in the air and on the ground because those are stories in and of themselves. Then I would have shut down production for a bit, gone away, edited those stories, shown it to Helen and Alan to show them what was happening. Instead, she really had to just create what was given to her by the script, direction, instinct, and trial and error. Even getting your eye-line right for that as an actor is daunting. I had to know where she would be looking at on her monitors and I had to stick with it, because she’s really looking at nothing. None of that stuff had been shot yet.”
But outside of the complex nature of the shoot, it was the complex nature of the real life jobs contained within Hibbert’s screenplay that Hood strove to get right. Hood, himself a military veteran, saw the story as a great moral quagmire that was difficult to unravel, and as such, very true to life. It was a situation that mirrored not only military history, but the life of someone close to him.
“This film is incredibly well researched. Guy [Hibbert] did a tremendous job, and I talked to people in all areas of this field. It’s important for pilots to understand that while on the one hand you swear to uphold all legal orders, you have the right to question if you think the order might not be legal or justified. That’s a hard thing for a young soldier to deal with and I know that from having been drafted myself. We should expect young people, especially young officers, to question. That’s an irony within the military that few people talk about because the military is supposed to be about following orders unquestionably. The onus and moral obligation is put upon the officer to actually take personal responsibility for what they are about to do, even if a four star general insists it be done. That’s a tremendous amount of pressure to put on someone like the character Aaron Paul plays. To courageously and, most importantly, legally ask a question like the one that sets the film in motion, is a truthful moment.”
“I was told stories by a number of pilots,” he continues, “one of whom was a friend of mine, who flew in the Iraq war. He didn’t fly drones, but he carried out bombing raids. He told me there were times where, once he got visual sight of the target, he knew immediately that carrying out the mission would be wrong. He would see civilian targets and refuse to carry out orders. He would have a general in his ear saying, ‘The coordinates are correct. Release the payload.’ And he said no. In that position, you will either be court marshalled for disobeying a direct order, or you’ll be proven right and you’ve stopped a major incident. And I asked my friend, ‘Were you ever worried about being court marshalled?’ He said, ‘I didn’t have to, Gavin. I knew it was wrong, I didn’t care, and I wasn’t doing it.’ Three weeks later his problems went away, and it never got brought up again. But for those soldiers who don’t question those orders, they pay a terrible price. If you unleash a hellfire on a target you know is wrong, as a human being, you’ll carry that with you the rest of your life. For most people with a conscience, rationalizing things by saying ‘I was just following an order’ doesn’t hack it.”
“The onus and moral obligation is put upon the officer to actually take personal responsibility for what they are about to do, even if a four star general insists it be done.”
And within such a situation with so many moving parts and differing ideologies, there’s a tendency towards the absurd. Many who have seen the film point out that, at times, the relatively apolitical Eye in the Sky has a naturally darkly comedic tone. That reading of the film certainly isn’t lost on Hood, who sees the sometimes farcical nature of the project as a way to illuminate the ethical issues at the heart of the script.
“There are moments that border on farce because real life often does. I remember discussing with people when they asked what the tone of the film was going to be. I said the only tone I knew of was the truth. There are moments in life where things feel farcical. We never push it too far into Dr. Strangelove territory – which is a movie I love, by the way – but there are moments where that rings true. By the third or fourth time something is questioned in the film, it’s hard not to laugh that every decision has to be run up the same chain of command over and over again. Yet, if you don’t go up the chain, you have handed full power to someone who may not be objective, which would be Helen. That chain of command is necessary, and it can lend itself to farcical situations, but it can also lead to mistakes. In that delay you can see in that chain of command, you could lose objectivity in addition to everything you had been working towards. I think the main thing that I loved about the script was that through this well researched chain of events that the script creates, I never knew what to think, and I liked that the script never told me what to think. You can’t take a smug position on this subject. If you talk to a pilot, an intelligence officer, victims, everyone’s point of view is valid to a degree. When you put all those pieces together, how do you find a right way of being? It’s an awful conundrum. Ethics are complicated, and it was harkening back to when I was a young law student and we learned about the trolley problem. There’s a trolley hurtling towards a split in the tracks and a lever that would take it in one of two different directions. In one direction there are five people tied to the tracks, and in the other there’s only one, and once you start adding depth to that one person or the situation on the whole, the decision becomes harder and harder to say ‘Of course I’d let the train hit the one instead of the five,’ but in any case someone, perhaps many people die or are affected by this. The film is like that hypothetical situation writ large.”