Eye in the Sky Director Gavin Hood on Drone Warfare, Alan Rickman, and Helen Mirren

Written by Lucas P. Jones

Helen Mirren Gavin Hood
Director Gavin Hood (left) talks with Helen Mirren on the set of “Eye in the Sky”

Recently, Pop-Break was given the opportunity to speak with Gavin Hood, director of the film Eye in the Sky.  Starring Helen Mirren, Alan Rickman, and Aaron Paul, the film tackles the complex subject of drone warfare. Gavin had a lot to say about the process of making the film, and the contributions of the acting titans on set, as well as his film crew. He was also kind enough to answer a question about his  Ender’s Game, the movie adaptation of the famed young adult novel.

Did you have any fears going into the project?

Sure, yeah. My greatest fear is that we wouldn’t be accurate. We should present, research the project, and speak to people on all sides of the debate. Present the film to the audience that would let you consider a situation from multiple points of view. Not tell you what to think, but present things as they are, and see what you would do or what you would not do in that situation. But also to make a good film, make a good thriller, something that people can talk about later. I didn’t want to preach to the viewer, I wanted people to debate amongst themselves.

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Did they process of making the movie change your perspective at all?

It deepened my perspective. It gave me a much greater respect for the complexity of the issues involved. It’s interesting actually. Have you ever read about the Trolley Problem?

(Note: The Trolley Problem is a hypothetical situation in the realm of ethics. Imagine that there is a speeding train that cannot be stopped, heading for five people tied on the tracks. You are standing near a lever that can change the course of the train, but by doing so, the train will hit one person tied to the tracks. What should you do? )

Yes, I was actually a philosophy minor in college

There you go, you’re in the zone. I was a law student, so it’s a similar thing. The thing I loved about the movie is that it’s the trolley problem on steroids. The problem for us as law students, is to inject a little humility into people who think they know the objective law and world. So many problems present good vs. evil and I think, now and then, a film that allows to make up your mind and present the world as something other than good vs evil are the films that stick with me. I learned quite a bit, and I want the viewer to have a good time, but also be able to think a little without being told what to think.

The movie debuted at the Toronto Film Festival in 2015. What was the early reception?

We did get a standing ovation, which was a relief because you never know how an audience will respond. We’ve been really blown away by the reviews and we’ve been very fortunate. You just try and make the best film you can and see what the audience and critics think. We’ve had wonderful reactions and audience interactions.

I imagine it’s a lot of holding your breath.

It’s terrifying. You put years of your life into a project. Then you have to wait until people watch it, and you can’t control how they think. Regardless, I was surrounded by such a great team of people, so I had such a great time making this film. We had good people, and the result is more than we could have hoped for.

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The film stars Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman. What did these actors lend to the movie? Did they have any input on their roles? 

The role Helen plays was originally written for a man. Early on I said “I don’t want to make people think this is a boys only movie so, why don’t we try to get Hele Mirren to play a role.” We had no idea if she even would! I want men and women to come see this movie, so let’s get some balance. And I hoped people would see the movie, but imagine if we had Helen!

Another thing is because of budget and location issues, none of the main actors were actually in the same room ever. It was her and I, and green screens to show where the children were, where the target house was. I was afraid she would refuse to work on the film under such conditions, but she said “I’m supposed to pretend, just tell me what I’m seeing and I’ll be fine.” Then when she saw what she’d be wearing and said, “Is this what I’m supposed to wear?” And I very cautiously said, “Well, this is what someone in your position would wear,”  And she said” Well, if this is what I’d wear, then OK, that’s what I’ll wear.”

She was amazing, and her, and Alan’s acting skills are phenomenal. They allowed seriousness to come in, but there are also moment where their acting allows the audience to laugh, to release some pent up energy. She makes herself more human, but still retains her authority. She is someone the audience likes, then turns dark and twisted on you, and it shocks the audience. And with Alan, he plays a general, and we could have found anyone, but only he could give it that dark, twisted, but very human edge that no one else can really do. It gives a character range, nuance, personality, and holds the audience by giving them range of emotions, not just dry debate. And I’m very sorry that Alan Rickman is not around to talk to you because he is just so intelligent and warm, and Helen even says, “That man on the screen is Alan.”

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I will say that with all the main characters not in the same room, my biggest fear at the end was, “Man, I hope this jigsaw puzzle comes together”, and it did thanks to a wonderful team of editors. They brought those performances together. Aaron [Paul] as well, he was acting based on what I was describing, not on anything he was actually seeing. Then you’ve got enough coverage to choose the best pieces to put together.

You chose to film in South Africa, your home country, was it interesting filming on home turf?

It was great, it was like a homecoming. I have so many talented friends here, and it was great to work with them. Especially with the low budget we had, to have all that talent, in one place that can save us money. If we plan it right, use photo-real CG on top of real locations. In many scenes, the only thing that’s really there are building sized boxes, and a runway, and the actors. You don’t want anyone to find CG, but there are 420 shots of CG in about 2,000 scenes. We had so many talented CG guys that worked very, very hard to get it right.

Switching gears for a moment, I’d like to ask a question about Ender’s Game. It’s one of those books that has always stayed with me, and most of it takes place inside Ender’s thoughts, his narrative. Did you face challenges trying to bring the special parts of the narratives to the screen?

I’m a huge fan as well, and I think that’s one of the reason that it took so long to bring the big screen. That’s the reason it took so long to get to the big screen. Books can deliver thoughts and narrative and descriptions very directly, but films have a much harder time doing that without some dry, clunky voice-over. So we tried to make you feel what he’s feeling with his expressions and acting, so we needed a very talented young man to deliver that.

Eye In The Sky

I so badly wanted to visualize that battle room, and that’s the part I think I’m most proud of in the film. I went to the producers with a budget for that visual and they said, “Do you realize how much that’s going to cost?” and I said “I know, but if we just use a black box it’s going to look so boring!” So it was a trick, how do you create scenes…one of the scene I love is when Bonzo is in the hospital and Ender confronts Graff. It’s a substantially shorter scene in the movie than in the book, because you can’t do 10 minutes of that in a film. But the audience can pick up on some thoughts and emotions because of the great acting involved. We tried to put as much work into the visuals to try and immerse the viewer.

The problem is that Orson [Scott Card]’s book is phenomenal, and I hope we honored the book by making a film for a younger audience, like the book was written for a young audience. But it has a character that is asked to confront his own capacity for evil, his own moral compass, his capacity for feeling betrayed. The book challenges readers at a young age, and so I think we were able to capture as much of that challenge as we could. It was a tricky one, but I’m proud of the film as a film that challenges young people beyond the good vs. bad, and forces them to think. I hope that answered your question.

Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky is currently available on Blu-Ray and DVD, and Video on Demand.