Joe Carnahan

The first reaction of anyone coming out of The Grey probably won’t be, “I bet the director of The A-TeamSmokin’ Aces, and that BMW short Ticker made this!” Joe Carnahan prefers it to be that way. The director’s fifth feature film isn’t a full-blown action romp, but is instead a thrilling meditation on life, death, and survival. (Check out our review here.)

Similar to Carnahan’s breakout feature, NarcThe Grey shows all the trappings of a true personal project — the kind of story that a filmmaker had to tell. And, after speaking with Carnahan for 25 minutes, that was clearly the case. From White Jazz to Killing Pablo, when the personable man finds a story that comes from his core, he’s got to get it made.

Here’s what Joe Carnahan had to say about the life and death themes of The Grey, writing and portraying real men, and why he never wants to become a “one for them, one for me” filmmaker:

So, how are you feeling on opening day?

I feel good, man. Listen, my kind of thing is to be a hard-on and monitor everything, and I got to stop. Literally when I hang up the phone with you, I’m going to take a five mile hike and put on my Dr. Dre headphones to block out the world. At some point, you just gotta forget about it. I’ve done everything I can do, it’s going to go out into the world, and I’m extremely happy with the reaction it’s gotten. I’m content now to let the course be taken, whatever course that may be.

The reaction has been really strong. Does that ever affect your view on a film? 

Does it help when Roger Ebert says he couldn’t “watch” the film he watched after The Grey, because it did such a number on him that he didn’t feel he was fair to the next film? Yeah, dude — that’s huge for me. When they slam it… like when Smokin’ Aces gets slammed, a part of me just thinks it’s not really a film for you. I’m not making that movie for you. The other thing is, if you start making films for everyone but you, then you’re in a lot of trouble. [Laughs] Admittedly, I have an odd sense of humor and there are certain things I find funny that other people don’t find funny. Certain things I find dramatic and meaningful, but other people don’t find dramatically meaningful. Some people really like the film, and that’s always lovely.

I saw this interview where you got asked about why you wanted to put yourself in a bind making The Grey, with the technical challenges. Was that the reason why, the challenge?

Oh, I think so, brother. Again, I don’t like being deemed as, “Oh, this guy can do one thing. He’s going to do the crazy action and the wild stunt stuff.” I don’t even know where that stuff takes root. I guess beyond, yeah, I did a movie with stunts and Smokin’ Aces has guns. I guess I much prefer the path of the contrarian: the guy who goes against the grain a bit. The careers of the people who I admire deeply — like the Coen brothers and Soderbergh — don’t repeat themselves, and they make radically different films at times, and I think that’s wonderful.

The Grey does feel like Narc, though, in that personal way.

Very much so, Jack; it’s very much a deeply personal thing. It was something that was reflective of my world view, without being heavy-handed or high-minded about it. I think it’s asking very basic and simple questions, and you’re going to take them with what you will.

Yeah, and they seem like questions maybe the 25-year-old you, as a director, wouldn’t be asking. 

The 40-year-old in me is definitely thinking these things. You know, I think you have to pay attention to where you’re at in life — not only as you’re living it, but creatively and artistically. Like, how do you feel about the world? Is it enough to express it in a film or with your art?

One of the big questions in the film is faith. There’s the scene where Ottway is screaming up to God, and you don’t usually see that in films, since God is treated as such a taboo subject and gets taken out of a lot of stories. Did you ever get a note about that?

No, it would’ve been false, man. I think it would’ve been an empty exercise without that rant to the heavens, because I think we all do that from time to time. I don’t think we’re being honest with ourselves if we don’t say, “What the hell, man? Is anybody out there? Is anybody looking after me? Does anyone care?” I think that’s a very human response in that moment. To me, it seems very appropriate. I think it would’ve felt like I was ducking it, for reasons that weren’t good enough to duck it. Do you know what I mean? Like, “Oh, man, I don’t want to say anything about God, in the fear that I might offend someone.” I think that’s a pretty chickenshit reason to back away from something.

It’s interesting, too, because I got the sense that Ottway’s probably not a religious guy. But it is something you think about.

Right. Well, I don’t know if I’m the most religious guy, but I think I’m a spiritual man and these are the things I think about a lot. In terms of the film, I think The Grey is very much a non-denominational kind of film. I don’t think it’s something that relies on a particular religious bent to tell the story. I’ve said this, but if an atheist sees this film, there’s no way there’s a God. If a Christian sees it, there’s absolutely a God. There’s little contradiction along the way. Like, you mentioned the scene of Liam yelling away at the heavens, but in the next scene he’s making a very Christian memorial with the wallets. When he wraps a wallet in his hand, it’s like a prayer. I think, like I said, there’s that duality in all of ourselves.

When it comes to Ottway, I was surprised to hear Bradley Cooper was initially cast. I’m sure it would’ve been good, but I think Ottway’s age and tiredness plays a big part thematically — how he’s probably seen a lot of bad things happen. Did you initially think of him as a younger character?

I absolutely did, Jack. He was written as a younger guy. What I find interesting is that younger actors had a greater difficulty wrapping their heads around a man in the point of his life where he had no use for that life. I think with an older actor and older character — who would’ve seen life’s great tragedies and life’s great triumphs, and everything in-between — that transformation becomes much easier.

Did you see that as a happy accident, getting Liam? In terms of how the older presence played a thematic role?

Oh, yeah. I thank the movie Gods for that one, because I think I would’ve made a potentially fatal error to have another actor. [Laughs] You’re right, the error wouldn’t have been casting Bradley Cooper, and I think the movie still would’ve been great, albeit completely different, tonally. To have Liam was to have the trump card, as it were.

You mentioned natural responses early, and you even do that in small things. Like, characters actually say “fuck” in this movie.

This is how those guys talk, and that’s how I talk! I got a filthy mouth, what do you want? Like, I’m not going to clean it up for anybody. I’ll clean it up for my mother when she’s around. For anybody beyond that? Fuck ‘em.

[Laughs] It does remind me, though, that your characters are usually very manly.

Right. I mean, not like I’m the most macho guy in the world, but the guys I hang out with and spend time with use that word. It’s an action verb and a noun. [Laughs] The word fuck is multifaceted, multipurpose, and, for my money, it doesn’t get used enough.

[Laughs] I agree. I’d imagine you use those types of guys as templates for your characters. Does that have an impact on the writing process, using traits that you see in your friends?

Oh, absolutely. One of my best friends, Ben Bray — who’s in the film — that’s very much him. When Ottway finds him after the crash and he says he has to call Vanessa, that’s Ben talking about his wife. Anytime you can interweave the personal stuff and make it a color or an added thing, I think you do the movie and your art a service.

When you do something as massive as The A-Team, do you still try to find a way to infuse the personal?

Oh, yeah, man. I mean, that’s much more set up to encourage improvisation, encourage interaction, and to encourage them to have fun in the moment. I think it’s a different kind of personal, because it’s very much immediate, whereas The Grey is much more formal in that we had long discussions. I wanted what was in the script to be made without a lot of additional stuff. Structurally, I thought it was important to keep it that way, since it is essentially a plotless movie and a survival film. I didn’t want a bunch of working parts to suddenly gum it up. I thought, with The A-Team, that was a part of the fun: being out there and experimenting in the moment.

The structure is fairly simple, in the way Narc was. Does that make the writing process easier, sticking to the basics?

Yeah, I guess in a way. Listen, that was a tough script to write, too, because you start to deal with the idea of mortality, the metaphysical, and God. You know, you owe it to yourself to explore that, to slow it down, and to let it have its moments to live and breathe. It wasn’t easy, but it was certainly aided in that. It was just a much longer process, I guess.

Do you enjoy writing?

I love it, man. I love it, Jack. It’s one of my favorite things, and I think it remains the thing I’m the most comfortable with because I’ve been doing it for so long. It’s like, I’ve had this great left-handed ovation guitar staring at me for months, waiting for me to pick it up, and I don’t do it. I have no cool hobbies, dude — I can barely swing a golf club, my jump shot’s crap, and as you get older you’re reduced down to very simple tasks. Writing, for me, is very comfortable, and I feel really at ease doing it.

Do you stick to the script pretty thoroughly, or are you looking for new discoveries in the editing?

I think in both spheres, brother. I think you do a tremendous amount of exploration while writing, and I think you do even more in the edit. I think the things that seemed very precious and irreplaceable to you become things… I’ve always found it interesting, corollary, that the stuff while you’re cutting that is the spine and the backbone of the film becomes irrelevant, and the stuff you didn’t think would ever matter becomes the spine. It’s always this interesting kind of trade-off, and it happens all the time. I still really enjoy writing, and I look at editing as an extension.

Was there one scene you cut in The Grey that you saw as killing one of your babies?

You know, the camp fire scene where Ottway talks about his father’s poem, which I find hysterical, this pocket of jagoff reviewers who have taken that poem to task, not understanding it’s not meant to be “high-art.” I mean, it’s written by a guy who had never written a poem. Anyway, there’s an extended scene, which is seven minutes but used to be fifteen minutes, and I love that scene. I’ll probably put it, in its entirety, on the deleted scenes in the Blu-ray. I loved it, and that was a tough one [to cut]. But I understood I couldn’t stop the movie, where it couldn’t come to a full stop. It had to keep moving forward. It was necessary, at that point, to cut that out. That was one where I was really sad to see it go.

What about for Smokin’ Aces? I remember hearing that original script was massive.

Oh, yeah, I can’t even remember the stuff I took out of that. I think a lot of that was written to be continuous. You know, a guy extends his hand in one scene and a guy shakes a hand in the next. It was meant to be a bit of a continuous kind of process. Yeah, there was stuff I took out of that, and you have to. I think the biggest thing was a much longer conversation between Chris Pine‘s character and Martin Henderson‘s character at the end. It was probably three or four minutes longer, and I loved it. I remember having to cut it, and it was a bummer. Pine was just on another planet; it was great, man.

That movie feels like a director really unhinged. When you write something that wild, do you just think “anything goes”?

Absolutely, man. I think like a fighter: you gotta let your hands go, you just gotta punch. I knew that was a movie, to me, that was a catharsis coming out of Mission: Impossible III and having a long time where I wasn’t doing anything. It was very much an explosion of, “I’m just going to let it go.” I knew there were going to be people who hate the movie and love the movie, but I didn’t think there were going to be many in-between, which I quite like. I like it if something polarizes you, and I think those are always great. Nobody wants the middling, “Eh, yeah…”

I read your White Jazz script years ago when you put it on your website and, if I recall right, it was a dialogue-heavy script.

Absolutely, dude. Lots of voice-over, lots of intricate and interwoven… yeah, I love that script. I would love to make that film.

Yeah, that’s a great script. Is being so dialogue-driven — and a period piece, as well — proven a challenge behind getting it made?

Yeah, man. You know, something like that is really tough to get made, because it doesn’t lend itself to an easy — well, it’ll be interesting with Gangster Squad coming out. I’m hoping that gives out a nostalgic… I don’t mind drafting on that movie, because if it creates the ability to make White Jazz, I think it’d be worth it. If there’s a little kind of renaissance with those period films, it’d be really nice.

White JazzKilling Pablo, and The Grey have clearly been personal projects. When you completed those scripts, what made you say, “I have to make this movie”?

On the ones you really pour your heart and soul into, you come away from it and say, “I have to make that film.” Like, I recently wrote and stepped away from this thing called Umbra. Although I love that script — and I thought I did everything I could to make that thing really sing — it never felt like it was from the core of my being. As much as that was a work-for-hire gig — and I busted my ass on that thing, and it was a page-one rewrite — it never held me enthralled the way Killing Pablo and White Jazz do.

What’s that writing process like, where you are brought in as a work-for-hire? Is it just a different challenge?

I think so. I hope I can become a good enough filmmaker where I can take a script that I’m not “heart and soul” into, but I could still make something really great out of it. I don’t know how to do that yet. It has to be an “in for a penny and out for a pound” process for me.

But never a “one for me, one for them” deal, right?

I feel like you just go down a very dark road when you do that. I used to think that was a great idea, but I’m not sure now. But you never know, man. Whatever way the wind is blowing on any given day; I wouldn’t say I’d do a certain thing today, but then I could feel differently about it tomorrow. You never know. I think that’s what’s great about life when you’re given the opportunity to make movies: you never know. Right now, if I can stay in L.A. and be close with my wife and the kids, that’s what I want to do. I don’t want to trudge off to the far corners of the earth, but if that means somebody beats me to the punch on a Pablo Escobar film, then I’m going to make that movie.

[Spoilers for The Grey]

To bring it back to The Grey, I have to ask about the final scene. Can you discuss how it came about in its finished form?

There was another ending that was tacked on; not tacked on, but there was another, initial ending in the script. There was a fight, a shot fight. I just thought, for my money, it became very plain in editing: is this a movie about a man living his life and confronting death, or is it a movie about a guy fighting a wolf? That didn’t seem to be a question for me, as we were near to completing the movie. I knew it was about a guy confronting death, so that made it quite easy to end the film where we ended it. If you come out pissed off it didn’t happen the way you wanted it to happen, then you missed the point of the film, and you didn’t engage with the film the way you should have. That’s how I feel about that.

To me, his arc is done where you cut. 

You’re absolutely right. You know, it’ll be interesting to see the reactions of people coming out of the theater. I think it’ll be a commentary on where we are as filmgoers, in some weird way. Like, if people can’t accept something that questions, as opposed to something that provides you with perfect punctuation.

There is that nice hint at the end of the credits, though. Early on in the film, you see Ottway listen to that wolf dying, and that final shot could be interpreted as him doing the same thing.

That’s exactly what it’s intended to be. It was intended to be a small harkening back to that moment with him and the wolf earlier.

I think you love that character too much by the end to kill him.

Yeah, I don’t know, dude. I don’t show him being alive or dead, you don’t really see him. You’re not meant to make that connection beyond that one little image. That’s all I wanted to leave it with.

Have you seen a lot of people arguing about it?

No, but if people come out of a film arguing, you’ve done your work. You’ve done exactly what you need to do. Most people — and I’m certainly one of them — come out of a movie [thinking], “Alright, where did I park?” I don’t care if you hate the film; the movie will definitely stay with you.

Did you test screen the film?

I did early on. It was interesting — people were bitching that it was not what they wanted by the end of the film. There’s a vast difference between marketing a movie and the movie itself. You try to cast as wide and broad a net as possible. Even the people who were reported to hate the film, when asked if they would talk about it the next day, they all raised their hands. When they were asked if they’d talk about it the following Monday at work, they all raised their hands.

[Spoilers Over]

Another sequence I want to touch on is the plane crash. If I recall right, you don’t cut to the outside of the plane. When you think of a scene such as that, do you try to approach it in a way that goes against how it would usually be shot?

I think so. I think you have to, dude. I just wanted to make the experience of the whole film very subjective, and the plane crash is certainly a part of that. I think every time you set out to do something, you should try to, first and foremost, not follow what others have done. I think the only cue I took was… I love Fearless and Peter Weir‘s rendition of a plane crash, and I thought that was a good starting point. Certainly the violence that would follow and being at the mercy of that plane and what was going to happen to you was a lot more exciting.

I’m glad you mentioned Fearless. Not enough people talk about that movie.

Oh, it’s a great film. It’s great.

I love it. To wrap, I have to ask about Nemesis. It’s a cool comic, but it’s not exactly the most mainstream or audience-friendly material. If you make that film, how would you go about adapting that?

You know, it’s an interesting question. I think you have to… obviously this is a conversation Mark Millar and I are going to have in the next couple of weeks. I just love the idea of the anti-Bruce Wayne — the guy who’s not kind, but a menace and a malevolent guy. I don’t how, brother. Obviously you read that [comic], and the stunts in there are completely over-the-top. There’s a guy back-flipping over a motorcycle and firing an RPG into a helicopter, [Laughs] and right there is a $12 million stunt. It’s going to take some work and some thought.

The Grey is now in theaters.


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