Spring 2015

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25 SPRING 2015 / CINEMONTAGE by Bill Desowitz portraits by Rico Mandel D rone warfare "is not only topical, or even controversial; it's something that many of us are ambivalent about. We see the good and the bad, and so does this movie," offers Oscar-winning editor Zach Staenberg, ACE (The Matrix), in discussing Good Kill, which opens May 15 from IFC Films. For an editor known primarily for heady action, it's the most character-driven movie of his 30 plus-year career, which includes five films with the Wachowski brothers (Bound, 1996; The Matrix trilogy, 1999, 2003, 2003; and Speed Racer, 2008). Good Kill marks his third collaboration with writer-director Andrew Niccol (Lord of War, 2005; In Time, 2011). But in Good Kill, with warfare becoming a first-person shooter video game, we enter a moral gray zone, which Staenberg enjoyed editorially. It dovetails nicely with his other two collaborations with Niccol. Indeed, both filmmakers are interested in advanced technology and the resulting disconnect from reality. "Andrew takes events that are actually true and synthesizes them into a movie script," the editor says. "He did this on Lord of the War, the first film we did together, about international arms dealing and how that works with the players involved. And he essentially did the same thing on Good Kill. Whenever we start a movie, he shows me all this research he's done — articles, YouTube material, etc. And everything in Good Kill is fact-based and reworked into the service of a dramatic narrative." To Staenberg, this is what gives the movie its dramatic power. "It presents, from one man's personal anguish, the whole moral complexity of drone warfare," he adds." What does it mean to be able to make a decision from 7,000 miles away to kill someone you really can't see? Whether it's in Afghanistan or Yemen — wherever they're bombing that day in the movie — the audience sees it from the drone's camera; we never get on the ground ourselves." Ethan Hawke plays Air Force Major Tommy Egan, who's in charge of directing drone strikes against the Taliban from the safety of a Ground Control Station (CGS) trailer outside of Las Vegas. Egan used to live to fly, but now spends eight hours each day fighting the War on Terror by remote control — and the remaining time at his suburban home, where he feuds with his wife (January Jones) and numbs his boredom, rage and guilt with vodka. When Egan and his crew are told to start taking orders directly from the CIA, which selects its targets based on patterns of activity rather than direct, on-the-ground intelligence, he becomes emotionally disconnected from everything, finally reaching a breaking point. "It's wonderful that a guy doesn't have to get in a plane and risk being shot down," Staenberg says. "People don't want to see the body bags coming home. But it's a very complex issue. By its very existence, this is a left-leaning film, but it tries to look at the issue very carefully. Tommy is conflicted because he no longer has his 'skin in the game.' And one of the things I personally like about it is that he makes a personal decision. I think that's where most changes in society come from." However, working on an under-$9 million indie with only 26 days from start to finish certainly has its editorial challenges. This was a far cry from Staenberg's last film, the $110-million Ender's Game (2013) for writer-director Gavin Hood. But he found it uniquely stimulating working at the Avid alongside a capable new assistant, Stewart McAlpine. (Tony Vacigalupi, the assistant on his previous two movies, was unavailable because he was working on the Ender's Game sequel, Divergent.) "More and more, the films getting made that are truly interesting tend to be the smaller movies," Staenberg states, "and I'm glad that I'm at a point in my career where I can be flexible enough to take those movies because they really provide me with fulfillment everyday going to work." Good Kill tells a number of stories at once and interweaves them. "We're looking at Tommy's home life and work life, and one of the conceits in the script is that both are set in similar environments," Staenberg explains. "Andrew shot many establishing and traveling shots of Vegas from a bird's eye view, which is very similar to what we see from the drone's point of view in Afghanistan and Game of Drones Zach Staenberg Discusses the Matrix of Aerial Warfare in 'Good Kill'

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