Military Drama Unmanned Unmasks Drone Pilot’s Life
By LOU FANCHER
Being a soldier these days can mean driving your SUV to a joystick-ridden office full of gamer-generation co-workers and popping off enough explosives to eliminate a field of people on the other side of the planet. At the end of a day’s work, you hop back in the SUV to pick up the kid at school, grab a pizza and head for your Ikea-decorated home right here in the United States.
Fresh from an extended stint in war-ravaged Kosovo, and struck by many Americans’ detachment from overseas wars, filmmaker Casey Cooper Johnson was compelled to write and produce Unmanned, a short film about a drone operator and his attack-from-a-distance occupation.
Johnson is best known for his award-winning work on Life in Kosovo, a weekly current affairs broadcast he co-produced. It has become that country’s leading investigative TV news show — a 60 Minutes-style watchdog for uncovering crime and corruption.
“I wasn’t a kid who wandered around with a camera,” Johnson told Wired.com. “I went to Kosovo in 1999 to do a social film project with teens who were making films about their experiences. After the project ended, I got excited about our power to tell these stories and kept going.”
Unmanned‘s story is fiction, but the lifestyle it depicts — including the recruiting of young warriors-to-be with videogames — is real.
(Spoiler alert: Minor plot points follow.)
Rick Clayfield is an Air Force drone pilot, killing insurgents in Afghanistan by day, kissing his wife and removing the thumb from his toddler’s mouth by night.
One average afternoon, he inadvertently scores high points for a Predator strike — killing civilians and turning his remote control world into a muddy mental trench.
His inner turmoil rolls out like thunder, and suddenly this affable, hip dude is arguing with his spouse, screaming at his child and brushing off young men who admire his warrior status.
Johnson says serendipity had a lot to do with the film. Instead of rehearsing 3-year-old actor Austin James Rodriguez, he had the cast hang out together in his apartment, giving the “parents” an assignment to clean the kitchen, fix lunch and take care of the boy.
The young actor “didn’t actually suck his thumb, so we were teaching him how to suck his thumb,” Johnson said. “But he wouldn’t dance, so I rewrote that part so he could play with monster trucks and wrestle.”
Sounds cozy, but the climactic thumb-sucking scene is intense and the boy’s tears, like the gritty truth behind the film, demonstrate why Johnson chose fictional storytelling instead of a documentary format.
“When I first wanted to take on this subject, I was attacking it from a political-activist way,” he said. “Through the course of making the film, I learned sympathy for these guys and my political views became gray. The heart of my story wasn’t what was happening in the drone control room, but what was happening at home.”
‘The heart of my story wasn’t what was happening in the drone control room, but what was happening at home.’
Unmanned‘s authenticity is reinforced by the use of actual military footage (with an assist from on-set video playback company Intervideo, which donated and operated the drone console screens during the shoot). A light director’s hand with the script’s sentiment keeps the message from becoming dogma.
U.S. soldiers operating unmanned drones was a controversial and compelling topic Johnson could not resist. Enrolled as an MFA student in the American Film Institute, Unmanned became his thesis project when it was green-lit in May 2010. By December, he and his crew had a cast, a science adviser, plenty of open source military footage and a $25,000 Alfred P. Sloan Production Grant matched by an equal amount in private donations and grants.
Wrapped after seven days of shooting, the film has screened at AFI Fest and won the $60,000 Gold Circle Award from the Caucus for Producers, Writers & Directors.
At this point, Johnson’s film company, Crossing Bridges Productions, is working to produce a feature-length film based on Unmanned.
“I owe people,” Johnson said. “Now, it’s up to me to make big movies and pay them back for all the amazing help.”