If you only know Joe Carnahan as the director of high-octane action movies like Smokin' Aces and The A-Team, his latest film The Grey, which opens in theaters on Friday, may come as a surprise. This spare, stripped-down survival tale follows a small band of men whose plane crashes deep in the Alaskan wilderness and are forced to battle the elements -- from the harsh weather to hungry wolves -- in order to make it back to civilization. Liam Neeson plays the crew's self-appointed leader, Ottway, who is still carrying the emotional scars caused by the recent passing of his beloved wife. More in the spirit of Grizzly Man than an uplifting man vs. nature story like Alive, The Grey was Carnahan's most challenging shoot, but it resulted in one of his most fully-realized movies. The director spoke with TWoP during a recent trip to New York.
TWoP: It's an interesting dichotomy that Liam Neeson's character is the one member of the group of survivors who has the least to lose, but yet is the one who fights the hardest to survive.
Joe Carnahan: Exactly, you hit on what's the central theme of the film for me. I'm interested in the audience coming away from the movie and extrapolating what it means to them. I think I learn more about my own movie talking to people and listening to their reactions, which oftentimes are smarter than anything I could come up with. I like that dichotomy and I think that contradiction exists in all of us at times. So that's the central thread for me, the idea of what you would fight for. And if there is a life after this one, how would you want to enter that? As important as how you lived is how you're going to die.
TWoP: How closely did you work with the actors to bring their characters to life?
Carnahan: I'm a very open and available director and I believe that you don't hire talented people only to put blinders on them and say "Just run straight." Liam asked me, "Do you mind if I do it in my normal tongue?" And I was like, "Of course man." And when Dermot [Mulroney] is talking about his daughter's long hair and how he's the only one to cut it, he's talking about his son. My friend Ben Bray plays Hernandez and when he says, "I have to make a phone call to Vanessa," that's his wife. I encouraged all these things, because you can't go out into that kind of extreme environment and not call upon the things that are vital to you as a man or a woman. As much as this was a filmmaking endeavor, it was also a really great adventure. We were always acutely aware we were living our lives in that moment as opposed to punching a clock and showing up.
TWoP: You shot The Grey on location in the Canadian wilderness. How did those surroundings impact the way you made the film?
Carnahan: I think it gave me an immediacy that I doubt I'll ever experience on another film. What you realize very quickly is that being in that kind of environment becomes something more than acting -- it becomes reacting. I saw it time and time again in the performances. These guys just wanted to get warm. That strips the veneer away from whatever preconceived notions you have about how you're going to tackle a particular moment or scene. You're completely at the mercy of the elements around you. I found that fascinating and, as a filmmaker, a great challenge. You were forced to go to Plan B and sometimes Plan C. The only thing that saved our asses was great preparation. If we hadn't prepared in advance, we would have been lost. I storyboarded scenes, but if I had to throw those out because the elements didn't allow us something, I did. With a movie like this, you have to be an absolute, brutal realist about what you can get done in the time you have. Where you get into trouble is when you can't let go of anything, like those people on Hoarders. You have to be an assassin and be able to say, "I know we were going to do it like this, but that's not going to work so we're going to do it like that."
TWoP: Where there any scenes that you had to lose due to time and/or production constraints?
Carnahan: The guys had a long discussion while walking along the tundra about wolves and wolf behavior, but it just became extraneous to me. It felt like you wouldn't speak in this moment, you'd just want to breathe and move and try to stay warm. I didn't necessarily hate to lose it, but on the day I realized it was an unnecessary appendage. Those moments could exist purely visually, because the audience can plug themselves in as opposed to you telling them what's going on. That was actually quite liberating.
TWoP: How was your working experience with Liam different on this film versus The A-Team?
Carnahan: On The A-Team we had what we wanted and could do what we wanted by and large. We were also warm and taken care of and looked after and fed well. On this, all the actors were sitting in a shared Snowcat with no heat. Liam, God bless him, understood that this was going to be a son of a bitch to shoot, but he said something early on: "I don't know if I could do it, but I knew I had to do it." And I thought, what a great way to look at it, because I felt the same way; I don't know if I can do it, if I'm capable, but I know it's something I must attempt. We looked at this like, we might fail spectacularly, but at least we gave it a shot.
TWoP: Llike most of your movies, The Grey is a male-oriented production. Do you ever see yourself making a film about women?
Carnahan: Someone asked me if I ever considered an all-female version of The Grey and I said I did -- it would have been 15 minutes long, the women would have all agreed on what to do and then lived. [Laughs] I think if I have an Everest or a summit I have yet to climb, it's doing something with women. They mystify and bewilder me and fascinate me and I'm no closer to understanding them now than when I was 13 and chasing them. I'd love to give myself over to that, because I think it would be a hell of a challenge. I loved doing the stuff with Taraji P. Henson and Alicia Keys in Smokin' Aces. I remember having so much fun with those actresses and it would be nice to do it on a bigger scale.
TWoP: I remember reading at one point you were attached to a remake of Bunny Lake Is Missing with Reese Witherspoon.
Carnahan: Yeah, that would have starred Reese and a six-year-old girl, which would have been completely out of my comfort zone and that's why it appealed to me. It was right after Smokin' Aces and I thought it would be a nice shift. Sometimes I think I exist as a contrarian; I was always a big fan of Bo Jackson -- if someone told him he should play baseball, he'd play hockey. If someone said he should play football, he'd play soccer. I liked that. I could have made dramatic films after Narc, but as much as I love Antonioni films, I love The Three Stooges and I think those things can co-exist. The guys I love and admire are Soderbergh and Ang Lee and the Coen Brothers -- they rarely do the same thing twice and I so admire that and am in awe of that.
TWoP: You're almost as well known for the films you haven't made as the films you have. Bunny Lake, Mission: Impossible 3 and A Walk Among the Tombstones with Harrison Ford are some of the movies you've been involved with that you didn't end up making.
Carnahan: Listen, the fact that I'm working at all in any capacity in this business is a never-ending source of amazement to me. I could be doing so many other things. The fact that I'm a working director and I can go out and still make movies and live this life, I consider myself in the best way fortunate and blessed. So I don't look askance at anything. It's all gravy, man. I could have been in prison or moving furniture, which would have been a natural career trajectory given where I was. At the same time, I don't have an ounce of regret about the stuff that's fallen apart. Like Mission: Impossible 3, I had one of the best times on. It didn't happen and didn't happen for a lot of reasons and I think my own naïveté and experience played into that, but I certainly had a great time. You'd be hard-pressed to spend five months in Europe on someone else's dime and not have a great time.
TWoP: You're also an outspoken director in a town that generally likes to paint a rosy picture about everything. Are you comfortable with that reputation?
Carnahan: I believe in transparency and disclosure. First and foremost, I'll eat the blame and I don't look to others to say why it didn't happen. I just think that's bullshit and it makes you dishonest. I've had ups and downs and everything in between, but I'm not a bullshitter. I'm not trying to lie to anybody and say it's been great when it hasn't been. That said, right now, this is a great time. It's great to have a movie that seems to be meaningful to people. But by the same token, if someone doesn't like Smokin' Aces, I'm fine with that. It's not meant to be everyone's cup of tea. I know plenty of people who hate my guts and that's all right. I'm not fond of me from time to time.
TWoP: The movie ends on a deliberately ambiguous note, but there's a short bonus scene after the credits roll. Why did you decide to include that moment?
Carnahan: That shot isn't meant to affect the ending one way or the other, it's just a bit of color. I did it purely for artistic purposes. We screened the movie and that scene got a great response, so it seemed to work for people. But it's such a small little piece; if someone asked me to define what it meant, I can only say that I loved it as a moment. Actually, it's really just an elaborate plot to strip you of another $12 to see the movie again if you don't stay through the credits! [Laughs]
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