‘Drone’ is a subversive drama about the ripple effects of death
You’d be forgiven for glancing at the movie poster for Drone and assuming it’s an action thriller: after all, it’s got action veteran Sean Bean (Game of Thrones) front and centre, and it’s about a highly divisive form of warfare.
No disrespect to action thrillers like Eye in the Sky and Good Kill that explore the mass casualties and geopolitical ramifications of drone warfare, but Drone isn’t one of those movies.
Instead, Drone – which is one of several locally produced films screening this weekend as part of the 2018 Maple Ridge Festival of BC Film – is “an art house drama that’s subversive and political,” according to its co-writer and director, Jason Bourque, in a recent phone interview.
Drone is about two men: Neil Wistin, played by Bean, a CIA contractor who deploys hellfire missiles on Middle Eastern targets out of an office in the States, and Imir, portrayed by busy Vancouver actor Patrick Sabongui (Homeland, The Flash, The Art of More), whose wife and daughter are killed when Neil drops a missile on a target in Karachi. Mary McCormack plays Neil’s troubled wife and Maxwell Haynes turns in a stellar performance as Neil’s teenaged son. Much of the action takes place in the Wistins’ suburban home.
Drone is precisely what you’d expect from Bourque, director of the critically acclaimed 2014 sleeper hit Black Fly, about estranged brothers – one a shy kid, the other a serial killer – who reconnect in a remote house after years apart (If you’re looking for something unexpected and haunting with which to celebrate National Canadian Film Day on April 18, YVR Screen Scene is proud to recommend ‘Black Fly’. –Ed.).
“Ultimately, it’s about these two men with battling ideologies and they’re going to collide and something horrible is going to happen,” says Bourque. “It deals very much with the ripple effects of death.”
The idea for Drone grew out of a weekly brain trust that Bourque attended with fellow filmmakers where they’d discuss “how to pull off, in this market where it’s so hard to do independent films, something that could have emotional impact and resonate and find an audience.”
Drone fit the bill for numerous reasons, according to Bourque, not the least of which was because of its potential to provoke conversation. “Work that feels like you can have a panel discussion afterwards and promote discussion, that’s the kind of work I love,” says Bourque, who co-wrote the script with Paul A. Birkett
Some of Drone’s story points – like surveillance and the CIA’s drone strike program – have become acutely timely since Bourque and co. went to camera in 2016, largely due to the Trump administration’s moves to broaden the drone strike program. “It was almost like Drone took place a few minutes in the future,” says Bourque.
The film also explores larger themes like fractured families and Islamophobia. The latter of which is illustrated with a twist that challenges stereotypes about what it means to be a protagonist and an antagonist in Hollywood, where people from the Middle East are often vilified, relegated to caricatured terrorist roles, and deprived of their humanity.
For the central role of Imir, Bourque went straight to Sabongui, who has eschewed those aforementioned caricatured roles throughout his career. In 2015, he played a New York City lawyer who vigorously rejects his Pakistani Muslim heritage in the Arts Club’s production of Disgraced; he played an Iraqi architect who turns to smuggling when the war destroyed his career in Crackle’s The Art of More; he recurred on Homeland as a purposeful New York City law professor who runs a non-profit organization that defends wrongly accused Muslim-Americans.
Sabongui also produced the 2017 short film The Prince, which was written and directed by Kyra Zagorsky and stars Lee Majdoub as an actor who faces an existential crisis when he’s offered a racist role in a blockbuster film. The short is also screening this weekend as part of the Maple Ridge Festival of BC Film.
Bourque says this history of nuanced material compelled him to offer Sabongui the role of Imir as soon as he’d completed the script, and “once we had Patrick on board, he became the pillar of the acting ensemble," says Bourque. "He was also with the material the longest, and because of that, he really had been able to flesh out this character and come up with something that was so multileveled, which was incredible.”
“He was in character the entire time with his accent,” adds Bourque. “He never dropped the accent until after we completed shooting at the wrap party and it blew Sean Bean’s mind. He had no idea that Patrick had been putting on the accent the entire time.”
They worked with Los Angeles casting director Richard Pagano to cast Bean, who Bourque describes as “very introspective and very quiet on set. He is very much about the script. Interestingly enough, I was able to get Sean Bean because he loved Black Fly.”
As with all independent features, Drone faced a barrage of production challenges, beginning with the tight shooting schedule: 18 days to film, and Bean for only 13 of those days.
They filmed several key scenes in Mumbai (India standing in for Pakistan) that involved practical explosions, flipping a car, setting someone on fire, and all of it in a poor residential area with a thick river of garbage running through it and some of the hottest temperatures on record (“We were in some pretty harsh conditions as Canadian filmmakers, pulling off something which gave it a lot of scope with so little money,” says Bourque, adding that the well-oiled Bollywood infrastructure equipped his team with the talent and tools they needed to get the job done).
15 of the 18 shooting days were in BC. Bourque built the drone at his friend’s house, using marbles for the lenses and creating hellfire missiles on a 3D printer. “We couldn’t afford the full-on CGI, so we literally built that drone,” recalls Bourque. “We had very late nights. The next day is the shoot and we’re madly working on this huge drone model in my friend’s living room hoping we’ll get it done in time.”
Despite the challenges, Drone has been, as far as indie features go, a “wonderful success story,” according to Bourque. It mostly skipped the festival circuit and went straight into theatres in 10 American cities, and is now playing throughout the world, including on Netflix in the US.
Perhaps even more importantly, the film has accomplished what Bourque set out to do in the first place. “It’s certainly inspired a lot of discussion,” he says.
Catch Drone on VOD or iTunes, or at the 2018 Maple Ridge of BC Film.
The 2018 Maple Ridge Festival of BC Film runs March 23-25 at the ACT Arts Centre in Maple Ridge. Now in its second year, the festival celebrates short and feature-length films produced in British Columbia. Feature-length films on the schedule include 'The Prodigal Dad,' 'Primary,' 'Drone,' 'Hello Destroyer,' and 'Primeval: Enter the Incomappleux'. Short films include 'No Reservations,' 'The Prince,' 'Cypher,' 'The United Guys Network,' 'Send Us Smokes,' and 'Scattered.' Tickets and schedule information at www.theactmapleridge.org/FestivalofBCFilm.