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Director William Eubank on creating the drone thriller ‘Land of Bad’

"We wanted to make a story that got us out of where we’ve been these last few decades and throws it back to those 90s action movies."
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Liam Hemsworth and Luke Hemsworth in 'Land of Bad.' (Photo courtesy of The Avenue)

Writer-director William Eubank has made several thriller movies mostly built around the supernatural or science fiction. Movies like The Signal and Underwater used those elements to ramp up the tension. His latest film, Land of Bad, trades the supernatural for the military.

The movie follows a small Delta Force team sent into the South Phillippines on a rescue mission. An unlucky and rookie Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) named Kinney (Liam Hemsworth) is roped into the mission, with an eccentric stateside drone pilot Reaper (Russell Crowe) serving as their eyes and backup. When things go wrong, as they tend to do in these kind of action thrillers, Kinney must work with Reaper to navigate his way to safety. 

It’s been almost a decade since Eubank and his co-writer David Frigerio had the initial idea for what became Land of Bad, with the setting and initial focus of the film changing over time. Now the movie is set for release Friday, Feb. 16. 

Task & Purpose sat down with Eubank ahead of the movie’s release to talk about shooting in the jungle, learning from real JTACs and trying to recreate the feel of a 1990s action movie.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Task & Purpose: Having seen most of your films, you’ve done a lot of science fiction and supernatural thrillers, like The Signal and a Paranormal Activity. How did you end up creating a military thriller?

William Eubank: We wrote this film when we were filming The Signal, which is kind of crazy. At the time my co writer and I were trying to make movies that can get made. So much of your career is about pitching in the room, getting them behind your ideas. When we were making The Signal we thought “this is too crazy.” We had this idea for a military thriller; at the time drone warfare was becoming more mainstream. People were talking about it. We thought it would be exciting to see the viewpoint between the drone pilot and the operators on the ground. We thought that would be unique.

In the end, we wrote that film so long ago it kind of got shelved. Then there were a few drone moves like Good Kill. The more we got into it, the more we met real drone pilots, real JTAC instructors out of Fort Irwin, we found we had the story all wrong anyway. So we rewrote it and made it more about the guys and their relationship rather than the psychological disconnect the pilot could feel.

Q: You almost went into the Naval Academy yourself. But when it came to making this movie, what kind of research were you doing? Were you working with active-duty military to get a sense of special operations and drone warfare?

A: When I was a kid I really wanted to fly planes or be a director. My grandfather had gone to Annapolis, I realized I was a lot better at art than math. In terms of the research for Land of Bad, we were contacted by this JTAC instructor. He contacted us and said “Come out to Fort Irwin, I’m an instructor, showing them how it’s done, I’d love to show you guys.” We got out there, we were there for a few weeks, we saw wargames go up, talked to pilots. This was insane. It was fun, after we got to know the guys. We named Kinney in the movie after Kinney the JTAC instructor . We got into the nitty gritty, got an understanding on the day to day. 

On the drone pilot stuff, while we were shooting, Kinney was able to come out to visit us. We had a drone pilot with us who was working in Creech Air Force Base. Other than the windows, [the drone controller set] is built very close to how they really are. Russell was able to really sit there, learn from this actual pilot, learn the protocols, how you actually talk.

Q: The South Philippines setting was a bit of a surprise. The trend lately for a lot of these military movies is to set them in the Middle East or Afghanistan. Was the jungle always what you had in mind?

A: Way way way back when we wrote it for the sand. The more we got into it, we saw there are things that do happen in other parts of the world. I was desperate to get out of the sands. Going into the jungle — I’m a huge fan of 90s action, movies like Predator, that take place in the jungle. Land of Bad isn’t a true story but we took a lot from true things. We did some research with some people, asked them “theoretically how long would the travel time be if this drone took off from Guam?” They said “we can’t say but there could be places closer than Guam.” So we had some validation. We wanted to make a story that got us out of where we’ve been these last few decades and throws it back to those 90s action movies. 

Q: So let’s talk about that. This is an action movie, you’ve got explosions and shootouts but also the kind of classic “man on the run” type story. What were you looking at or drawing from to build that tension?

A: When you’re writing you’re always thinking “what happens next, what’s next?” You always want to be ratcheting the tension and you want to be developing the characters. You’re kind of playing in the sandbox, if he gets pushed to here, what’s the next plausible thing. I love making music, it’s the same thing, you’re heading to the end of the song, trying to get that push and pull, make them feel safe and then take them away. Fortunately in this case I’m a writer-director, I’m able to keep a big book alongside me. Keep notes about intensity and details that you won’t put in the script, but if I make those changes I can point to why.

William Eubank on set of ‘Land of Bad.’ (Photo courtesy The Avenue)

Q: Talk us through the shoot. You’ve got these big action set pieces and these actors as a Delta Force team. How did you guys go about staging all of this and preparing?

A: We shot for about just shy of 45 days. We shot all of the action first. You needed the action so Russell could respond to actual things happening on his screens. The guys did a bootcamp with retired SAS guys up in Brisbane, clearing rooms, doing target practice, working on reloading. They were getting it down to how fast you could hit a stop watch to test their reload. The guys really turned into a real brotherhood. There was some healthy competition. 

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In terms of the actual way we shot it, the action is so carefully planned out on paper. You’ve got to work out the variables. For me when you have major explosions, you’re trying to create different versions, trying to find the most robust version. It’s just a ton of time in the notebook, behind the computer. It sounds boring but it’s how you do it. There’s tons of prep. Then we shoot this crazy stuff, do the crazy explosions, the actors know where they’re going to be, the helicopter can only be so close to the explosion. It’s a lot to orchestrate this ballet of madness. We’d always put one little drone super up in the sky that shot in infrared, it would shoot everything that was happening. Later when we went to Russell’s scenes — and Liam is a few rooms away on comms so he’s acting with him — Russell had this sort of pseudo flight control over picture, his monitor showed the scene and he could move around. He technically could even zoom in on it. 

Q: Since your initial idea, drone warfare has a change a lot, especially in the last few years. Do you think it would rapidly change from what you have in this film?

A: Absolutely. Some days it will be dated. But the MQ-9s, they are still heavily used. It’s a small plane, it can carry heavy ordnance. Eventually someday this technology will be dated. Drone warfare in the last few years has evolved, people are using consumer drones. We’ve seen them dropping little ordnance. I know for now though, even with the time that’s past, a lot of it is still the bigger drones. 

Q: You did do one nod to that.

A: Yeah, I am glad we had that one shot of [Russell] in the grocery store and he sees the little commercial drone on the shelf. 

Land of Bad is in theaters Feb. 16. 

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