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“Just a White Dot, Remember?”: An Interview with Justin S. Lee

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By Tom Ue.

Justin S. Lee is a Student Academy Award-nominated writer/director with an MFA from the USC School of Cinematic Arts. His storytelling roots began at an early age in childhood, when he grew up in the foreign cityscape of Taipei, Taiwan. Unable to speak its language and truly fit in, he took solace in watching movies, and writing soon became his expressive outlet.

He moved to California as a teenager and decided to become a filmmaker. He made movies on the side while studying business at UC Berkeley, and spent a year between schools working in the industry before enrolling in USC’s film program.

In 2015, his short “Drone” was nominated for a Student Academy Award, and he co-directed the feature film Actors Anonymous (2016), co-starring Oscar-nominated actors Eric Roberts and James Franco, the latter of whom was also executive producer. Since then, Justin was a semifinalist for the Academy Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting, Project Greenlight, and the HBOAccess Directing Fellowship.

Congratulations on “Drone,” a finalist for the 2015 Student Academy Awards! According to IMDB, this is your third short film: what inspired it?

Thanks! Our biggest inspiration was a GQ article featuring Brandon Bryant, a former US “drone” sensor operator. He was one of the first people to speak publicly about the program, which was incredibly brave of him since the program was—and for the most part, still is – kept very secret.

Our writer, Tony Rettenmaier, introduced me to the article when we first met, showing me a world I knew very little about. It was clear to us that this was a story that had to be told, so together with our producers, Abi Damaris Corbin and Jess Maldaner, we developed “Drone” into what it is today.

You had said, on your web site, that you “had a journalistic responsibility to tell the story the right way.” Tell us about your research.

We obviously took some creative liberties to better serve the story, but we tried to be as authentic as possible whenever we could. We spent a lot of time digging through any articles, documentaries, and interviews we could find. Even an AMA  (Ask Me Anything) on Reddit proved to be useful. My producers tried reaching out to the US Air Force as well, but due to the secrecy and sensitivity surrounding the program, support on their end for film projects was extremely limited.

Our research breakthrough turned out to be right in front of us all along: Brandon Bryant. Because his story was such a huge inspiration for us, and the fact that he kept popping up everywhere in the interviews and documentaries we found, it made the most sense to try to talk to him directly, if it were somehow possible. But there was one problem. I had no idea how.

I ended up finding him on Facebook, and I paid $1 dollar to have my message sent to his main inbox rather than the spam/other section. To my surprise, Brandon replied and was generous enough to speak to us over the phone. We got to ask him any questions we had. He gave us inside information on whatever we couldn’t find in our research, consulted on the script, and provided some very intimate details about his experiences that we implemented into the film. Brandon was such a valuable resource and a great help. Contacting him was the best dollar I ever spent!

Did the processes of researching for and making the film change your thinking about drone operators? How so?

drone-02Completely. I didn’t really think much about it much beforehand. I assumed it was an easy job because these guys get to sit back in the comforts of what’s essentially a computer room “cockpit,” often located on Air Force bases at home, completing their missions like video games without ever facing any real, immediate danger.

However, when you learn more about it, you realize that taking a human life for them is just as real as on the battleground. There’s a voyeuristic intimacy to it. A “drone” pilot can spend days, weeks, or months watching a target play with his kids or embrace his wife, but then suddenly gets tasked to launch a missile strike against him.

Others who serve usually get deployed overseas for a set period of time, and are then able to come back home through a gradual reintegration process to readjust. “Drone” pilots – on the other hand – are expected to go from taking down targets at work to having dinner with family within the time span of a drive home. Then the next day, they go back to “war,” repeating the whole process over and over again. Overall, it’s quite a stressful job, and it’s not surprising to learn that many of these pilots and sensor operators suffer from PTSD.

What were some of the challenges of filming this short?

To be honest, every aspect was challenging. This was an ambitious film to make and I have to commend every department for testing and pushing themselves beyond their limits.

As for challenges for me personally, I had beforehand only directed shorts with maybe 5-10 crew members on set, so going to a much larger-scale production with “Drone,” where on some days, we had almost 50 people, was really scary!

The visual effects for “Drone” were also incredibly ambitious, but I have to give a huge thanks to our VFX Supervisor Jeffrey Gee Chin and his team for helping us out with that.

For me as a director, the most challenging task was how to make two characters who stare at computer screens all day really interesting. Daniel Sharman and Michael Trucco’s performances definitely made that job a lot easier. And with our two cinematographers, Xing-Mai Deng and Xiao’ou Olivia Zhang, we made sure to never shoot a scene in the “cockpit” the same way – to ensure that the film would never feel stale.

“Drone” is beautifully shot! It makes good use of empty spaces to show how lonely, physically and emotionally, the two central characters are. How did you decide on the colour scheme?

Every visual choice in the film revolved around a key concept I shared with the crew: that the film is about a man who realizes the person he has to kill lives a fuller than his own. For our story, it was important to humanize Bob in every way possible, and to contrast that with the lives of the “drone” pilots.

So with that in mind, the color schemes became quite clear. We wanted Matt’s life to be lonely, empty, and monotonous, so we chose cool, less saturated colors for his military surroundings and his uniform. We wanted Bob’s world, on the other hand, to be full of life, so we went with warmer, saturated colors for his surroundings to humanize him, which was also a fitting palette for Afghanistan.

One of the most remarkable sequences appears when the satellite images were switched into the actual video ones and so the white dots were given human faces. Tell us about your filmic decisions.

It was such an important visual storytelling moment for me, which fit well with our color scheme too, so I’m glad you responded to it!

The infrared camera is very cold and distant. Brandon Bryant told me that they use this mode about 90% of the time because of its effectiveness. Areas of the screen glow hot white to indicate any sources of heat, including body temperatures, so it visually turns these targets into white dots.

It made sense for Hunter’s character to be the kind of person who prefers the infrared, adding to the “white dot” motif. Matt, on the other hand, who’s new, inexperienced, and curious about his target, would prefer the color “daylight” mode. The dilemma is, the more you watch the target in intimate color, the more you may realize it’s a human being. Of course, Hunter already knows this, which is why he prefers the infrared. It was nice to have so much storytelling and character development put into something so simple.

Most of the film is set in Indian Springs, Nevada. Where was it shot?

We shot the film in several locations around Los Angeles. The “cockpit” scenes were shot on stage at USC, the exterior military bases were shot at an airport in Chino, and the Afghanistan scenes were shot in Acton.

Indian Springs, Nevada is where the Creech Air Force Base is located, and we chose to set the story there because that’s where many “drone” pilots receive their training, including Brandon Bryant.

Tell us about the sound design.

drone-03Just like how it was important to shoot every “cockpit” scene differently with the camera, we also made them sound differently too. The hum of a computer, for instance, was made sonically distinct each time to tell a story, and to match the characters’ moods. The sound designers, Osahon Tongo and Bethann Morgan, did a great job using sound to influence how the audience subconsciously feels and reacts.

The film brings together excellent performances from both Daniel Sharman, who plays the inexperienced drone sensor operator Matt Collier, and Michael Trucco, his more experienced colleague Hunter Vance. How did you cast “Drone”?

Daniel Sharman and Michael Trucco are phenomenal actors, aren’t they? Casting “Drone” was quite a fortuitous journey, and I’m eternally grateful to them for lending us their talents.

Before attending film school, I interned for a director/actor named Paul Johansson on the film Atlas Shrugged. When I got the opportunity to direct “Drone,” I reached out to him for help on casting, and to my surprise, Paul opened up his whole “rolodex” to me. He gave me names and numbers of everyone he knew in the business.

Paul had worked with Michael Trucco on One Tree Hill, and I was already a huge fan of Michael from Battlestar Galactica, so when his name came up, Michael immediately shot up to the top of my list for the role of Hunter. Paul left him a voicemail to introduce me, and I cold-called Michael later that night. Fortunately, he picked up the phone, and I was able to pitch him the project. He read the script and loved it, and we soon met for coffee, where he then suggested I meet his friend Daniel Sharman from the show Teen Wolf for the role of Matt. They both turned out to be perfect for the parts!

Much of the film is communicated through silence. What kinds of direction did you give the actors in preparation?

They honestly just “got it” and needed very little direction. They were incredibly passionate about the material, and we were in complete sync throughout the entire production, which made the whole process very seamless and organic.

To help them prepare, I sent them the GQ article and a couple other things to read, and we met for a night beforehand to discuss the characters and rehearse a few scenes, just to get more comfortable working with each other.  I then introduced them to Brandon Bryant, who spoke privately to each of them over the phone, which I think really helped them prepare for their roles.

As for specific direction, aside from typical adjustments like discussing objectives, intentions, or action verbs, Daniel and I played with “substitution” quite a bit for some of the scenes. That’s a directing / acting method where I would ask him to visualize a happy memory Daniel may have had during his childhood with a family member, for instance, while he watches Bob bonding with his wife and son. Actors, of course, should interpret direction and use whichever method works best for them, but those are the type of adjustments I would give, and Daniel did an amazing job with his performance. Audiences could always tell what he was thinking or feeling just by looking at his eyes, which is a true talent.

For Michael, since his character was a veteran of the program who was supposed to have been doing it for many years, one assignment I remember giving him was to watch as many “drone” strikes as possible from clips found online. It was important to really ingrain and burn those images in his mind, almost to the point of numbness, and for that apathy to come across on screen.

Hunter is visibly less troubled than Matt, but we might think, he was once very much like Matt. Do you see Matt becoming another Hunter?

drone-04I very much see Matt and Hunter as two sides of the same coin. Matt is like Brandon Bryant when he first started his job in the program, and Hunter is more like Brandon when he left.

Matt definitely has the potential of becoming another Hunter. The question is whether or not that’ll actually happen. Every “drone” pilot likely faces this dilemma after his or her first kill, but the decision that ultimately gets made is far more complex than we can imagine, which is why we chose to end it the way we did.

What do you think brought Hunter back from retirement?

That’s a great question. I’m glad you asked because it’s an element we decided to leave unanswered in the film, but it’s actually based on a true story.

In real life, Brandon Bryant tried to get out several times and look for different jobs, but he would always end up coming back because he believed the needs of the Air Force came first, and because he was scared someone else would come in, take his place, and not take the job as seriously – where many lives are at stake – or do the job as well as he could. Brandon has said in interviews that he’s paid a spiritual and mental price for that, which is quite tragic, but also incredibly noble. This is the backstory to Hunter’s character, and why he came back.

I should mention that when Brandon finally did retire, he too received a certificate listing the number of his squadron’s kills, which was actually higher than the number portrayed in the film. His number was 1,626.

Is a feature in the works?

I can’t speak for the rest of the crew, but I believe we told the story we wanted to tell with the short, so there are currently no plans for a feature-length version. I did have an amazing time working with everyone though, so of course, I wouldn’t ever rule it out.

What’s next for you?

I just finished a sci-fi feature script I wrote called Reduct, and I’m currently working on a spec for a potential television series. I also recently co-directed a feature film collaboration between USC and James Franco called Actors Anonymous. It’s about two aspiring actors in the 90’s trying to make it in Hollywood, and it’s based on James’ novel of the same name. He taught our directing class, financed the film as executive producer, and also co-starred in it, which was pretty cool! Look out for it in 2017.

To view “Drone,” visit https://vimeo.com/185265101.

Tom Ue was educated at Linacre College, University of Oxford, and at University College London, where he has worked from 2011 to 2016. His PhD examined Shakespeare’s influence on the writing of George Gissing. Ue has held visiting fellowships at Indiana University, Yale University, and the University of Toronto Scarborough, and he was the 2011 Cameron Hollyer Memorial Lecturer. He has published widely on Gissing, Conan Doyle, E. W. Hornung, and their contemporaries. Ue is the Frederick Banting Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of English at the University of Toronto Scarborough and an Honorary Research Associate at University College London.

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