What if killing the real-life evildoers was as simple and harmless as playing a video game in the comfort of your own home wearing your own clothes? The 2014 film Drones, directed by Rick Rosenthal (Bad Boys, 1983, Russkies, 1987), explains that very personal predicament. The Hollywood Reporter describes Drones as: “A topical thriller about the ethics of remote-control warfare, Drones…explores the moral disconnect between USAF drone pilots playing high-tech videogames in Nevada and their defenseless human targets thousands of miles away in Afghanistan or Pakistan.” While the idea seems interesting in and of itself, along with the help of a screenwriter, Matt Witten, Rosenthal is able to create an intense and intimate world for protagonist Sue Lawson (Eloise Mumford) and her drone co-pilot, Jack Bowles (Matt O’Leary) as they debate whether or not taking orders outranks taking civilian lives.
Rosenthal said that the film’s budget was under $2 million. “On studio films, there’s a lot of politics… what’s exciting about [low budget films], you make the decisions collectively. You make them for reasons that are based on your experience in the trenches, and in making movies.” As far as low-budget films go, Drones was able to “resonate a clear moral message nicely, as well as [make] for a compelling and thought-provoking thriller with nuances of a well-developed drama,” said The London Film Festival Reviews, after screening the film during the 2013 London Film Festival.
Much of what contributed to Drones’ success is the fact that it was shot practically in real time. This allows the audience to get a greater understanding on the world that soldiers today experience and get into the protagonists’ heads. Using creative shooting and editing techniques allowed this idea to play out well on the screen. “We shot 20 pages a day. We shot from the door looking towards the monitors. We moved slightly in with no lighting changes, and then, we’d shoot the same 20 pages over the shoulder,” said Rosenthal. Over a total of three days this same technique was applied and facilitated both the actors and the editor the chance to deliver the best performances possible, shooting the closeups on the third day. By that point, “[Mumford and O’Leary] found the drama, and they are able to underplay it. They are allowing the camera in instead of trying to play to the camera. Tony Gibbs would do things as an editor that we swore couldn’t be done. It’s about the emotion – cutting to satisfy the audience’s curiosity.”
The London Film Festival Reviews also raves about the richly developed characters being one of the most impactful elements of this film. While both characters are driven and loyal to serving their country, Sue was raised in a military family, and thus feels duty-bound mostly out of obligation to her father as opposed to the pure love of country that Jack feels. The two have such clear identities, that the rollercoaster of their debates and moral convictions keeps the audience on the edge of their seats throughout the entire film.
However, the only thing greater than the acting, character development and creative shooting techniques is the mise-en-scène that carries over the duration of the film. Between Jack’s suggestion of taking off their military uniforms, in order to just wear civilian clothes, to the cozy and homey design of the “hang-out” spot where they operate the drones, Rosenthal’s ability to create such a normal world for these people performing abnormal tasks is breathtaking onscreen. Much of the sound is diegetic, and this helps to heighten the mode and allow for the audience to delve deeper into this world. The SBCC Film Review claims it to be: “effectively thorough dialog and production design. The conventional understanding we have of what it means to be a combat pilot in action is entirely diminished with killing made as easy as playing a video game.”
And thus Drones delivers the moral question at the center of the film: is killing really killing, if you are just pulling the trigger on a video game console? Rosenthal adds this about the film: “In micro-budget space, the only way to make them is [by having a] small movie with big ideas…when I read this [screenplay], I felt there was something here with big ideas.”
Drones from Khaos Films and Whitewater Films was released in theaters June 27.