"The colonel tells you who to take out, and you do it. Just don't think too much." That's the advice drone operator Jack Bowles has for his new partner, Air Force pilot Sue Lawson, on her first day flying an armed Predator over remote Afghanistan. And it's the moral dilemma at the heart of a new film that follows the pair as they agonize over whether to kill a man who may or may not be one of the most-wanted terrorists in America.
Drones, which is available through iTunes and On Demand beginning June 27, may be the first feature film to explore this new frontier of warfare from inside the darkened trailers stationed in a Nevada desert, where pilots stare at video screens hunting prey who will never have a chance to shoot back at them. In the film, Lawson and Bowles think they've spotted a fugitive terrorist who's high on the U.S. kill list but miss their chance to take him out as he's driving alone in his car. When the man pulls up to a house -- presumably his -- and is surrounded by adoring children and relatives, the drone pilots have to decide whether the life of one wanted man is worth the death of his family too.
The mission gets more complicated as the drone runs low on fuel and Lawson finds reason to doubt that the man in her sights really is an al Qaeda terrorist. The pilots are faced with a seemingly impossible choice: ignore what their eyes and consciences are saying or disobey a direct order.
Drones eschews the explosions and effects that are standard for most modern military action films, instead drawing its tension from the basic uncertainties that underlie every drone mission. How accurate is the intelligence? Is killing one man worth taking other, innocent lives? And what does the act of killing do to the pilots? They may be firing their weapons by remote control but they see the damage they cause close up. Director Rick Rosenthal spoke with Foreign Policy about making the film and about how the experience shaped his own views on the efficacy and morality of drones. (A lightly edited transcript follows.)
Foreign Policy: Why did you want to make a movie about drones and drone pilots?
Rick Rosenthal: The screenwriter, Matt Witten, and I had worked on a project about 15 years ago about the FBI and corrupt politicians but we never got it off the ground. Then about two years ago, he called and said he'd just finished writing a play and that he thought there was an indie film in it. He sent it over and I emailed him back and said, "Not only do I think there's a terrific independent film to be made here, but I'd like to make it."
I'd made a film in 1987 called Distant Thunder, about Vietnam War veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. In a way, Drones revisits that set of circumstances because the level of PTSD is extremely high in these pilots. This is the first time that I'm aware of that the pilots operating their weapons stick around to survey the damage that their weapons have caused, in detail. That's a change. And the other thing that's radically changed is that in every war up until now, there's been a lot of risk for soldiers and airmen and suddenly -- I'm not saying this is a riskless war -- there are people who are now operating drones who are not taking the same kinds of risks. They're not facing weapons aimed at them. And to that degree, it changes the decision-making on a lot of levels. You might not make the same kinds of decisions when you're life isn't at risk.
FP: What kind of research did you do before making the film?
RR: We couldn't get clearance from the Air Force to go to a drone base. But we got clearance from the Department of Homeland Security to go to a base in Arizona. I told my team, "Let's not be Hollywood assholes. Let's go down there and listen." And we spent about four hours one day just watching and talking and listening to pilots.
It also turned out a filmmaker we were working with on another project had gone to high school with a guy who was a drone pilot in the Air Force. He read the script and then he came in to talk to the actors. And we were able to ask him, "Does the set look authentic? How does it feel to you?" The screenwriter doesn't have a military background. But he'd done research and then by working with a drone pilot, we could ask him questions. One of the first that popped up, in Arizona, was that the first trailer we went into was a three-man trailer. [The script had been written for a two-person team.] But they told us that the third position is a radar operator and for a lot of missions they don't need them. We were like,"Phew!"
FP: When you finished the film, how did you think differently about drones?
RR: I came out feeling like it's a little bit of déjà vu all over again. When I was in college during Vietnam, I was caught in this dilemma that when war is necessary, you shouldn't go to war not fighting to win. And then the question is, should you be in the war or not? To the extent that drones provide a superior weapons system and save American lives, then I'm obviously pro-drone. To the extent that it's really hard to gather 100 percent accurate intelligence and collateral damage occurs, and sometimes horrific mistakes are made, I wish there were a better way of doing it.
FP: Are you using drones in your filmmaking?
RR: We just did a film called 7 Minutes, shot in the state of Washington, and we used something called the Octocopter, a small drone with eight rotors. The shots that we were able to produce from that are breathtaking. It's more maneuverable than a helicopter. It's very quiet. We had a two-man crew, used it for one day. It wasn't a lot of money. And in shooting Drones, we used a small remote-controlled helicopter, maybe six feet long, along with a 100-foot crane to simulate the overhead shots from the drone. I have a lot of interest in where all of this technology is going to go.
FP: Do you think people in Hollywood want to make more movies and TV shows about drones?
RR: I think the idea of drones now is starting to permeate the creative collective consciousness. This season of 24 is all about a drone being co-opted. You have drone-like machines appearing in Edge of Tomorrow. There's a tremendous pressure on Hollywood, always, to come up with the newest, edgiest concepts. And drones have the feel of science fiction, particularly as they become sleeker and stealthier. And certainly Hollywood's hungry to try to find ways to engage an even younger audience that's grown up with new technologies.
FP: The characters in Drones are fairly young. Was it important to you to convey that familiarity with technology, as if to them flying a drone was like playing a video game?
RR: Yes. And in the movie, Bowles chides Lawson for not playing enough video games [as part of her training]. I don't really have a stand on whether violent video games beget violence or not. But I do think that experiencing violence firsthand is very different than through a video game.
FP: But you make the point in the movie that drone strikes aren't a video game; and the characters know that too.
RR: Yes; but it is confusing to people. And the point has been made that the more training you do on a video game, the more the mission resembles a game, the less morality is called into play. Cynically, people will say that's the military's way of dealing with morality and collateral damage. I go back to how complicated I think the moral issues with drones are. Saving lives is a very positive aspect of the drones and killing people is a very negative aspect. In the end, I think the film is anti-war. But war appears to be a necessary evil.