Interviews · Movies

Behind the Wheel with Frank Grillo

Frank Grillo and Joe Carnahan launch their War Party production company with the new Netflix film, Wheelman.
By  · Published on October 11th, 2017

Frank Grillo and Joe Carnahan launch their War Party production company with the new Netflix film, Wheelman.

Wheelman feels like the perfect fit for Frank Grillo.  Occupying the same hard-edged, hyper-masculine reality that somebody like Charles Bronson once made home, Grillo traps himself behind the wheel of a red-trunked BMW and tears through Jeremy Rush’s film with a violent anger against the unprofessional criminals that dare to place themselves in his way.  Wheelman is a nearly micro-budgeted crime picture that relies heavily on its lead’s persona. If the audience doesn’t buy into his plight then the whole film falls apart. Grillo hopes that this is the beginning of a new string of harsh paced thrillers. The market is hungry for smaller, punchier stories driven by character rather than name recognition. While on his way to promote the film at the New York Comic Con, I spoke to Grillo over the phone about the excitement and promise of Wheelman.

Wheelman is THE Frank Grillo movie.  Did you simply will it into existence? 

Well, my friend and partner Joe Carnahan, basically he called and said, “Hey dude I got this script, and I’ve been working with this kid Jeremy Rush, for about a month on it. He was a PA, but you know, I think we got something here.” He sent it to me, and I read it and I was kind of blown away by it because I hadn’t seen anything – that original. We met with Jeremy and I really dug him, and I dug his vision and I know it could be difficult because I’m in a car the whole time, or it could be a cool experiment.

Within I would say even a month, CAA had sold it out in Cannes to Netflix, and then within another month, we’re actually shooting the movie. So it was kind of unheard of the way it moved it so quickly.

I mean, confining yourself to that BMW for, I don’t know, 99% of the film seems like a really…well, like you said a great experiment but also a tremendous pain in the ass.  How did you stay energized trapped behind the wheel?

You know, I’ll tell you, we shoot the movie, and Joe and I produced the film for a company we’re part of, the first movie we’re producing … so we were boots on the ground involved in that aspect. You know it was a seventeen, nineteen-day shoot, we shot it, I had to come really prepared. I had to know where I was emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, at every second of the film.

So it was a lot of homework, and then I came prepared and Joe being there, he kind of ghosted Jeremy Rush, and with the right team working, and hard work, but when I saw it I was relieved, I’ll tell you that. It wasn’t an epic failure, it was – I thought we pulled it off.

I saw it over at Fantastic Fest. It had the crowd amped.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’m glad that we got to show it at Fantastic Fest. A great place. A great genre festival. And they got to see it on the big screen, and that was the other thing we shot this thing on anamorphic lenses.  It was made to be seen on the big screen. And Kevin O’Connell, he just won the Oscar for Hacksaw Ridge, he did the sound design, so it really played well, and we got a lot of love at that show, so really, I’m appreciative.

So how do you feel about it finding most of its audience on the small screen with Netflix?

You know films like this have a tendency to make a splash at festivals and then you go to the theater. But there’s only so many weeks the film plays at the theater. If it connects with the zeitgeist – You know, I was in that movie, Wolf Warrior II in China and it made a billion dollars. Nobody knows that’s gonna happen, right? But this is guaranteed in 182 countries, and so I told Jeremy Rush I’ll take Netflix every day, all day. The great part, to launch a movie like gangbusters and you’re guaranteed eyes on the screen. So, would I like to go see it in theaters, sure. Am I upset? No, I’m just happy people get to see it.

This is not The Fast and The Furious, that’s you behind the wheel, right?

All the time. I never get out of the car. It’s always me, no stunt people. We pulled off … I’m really proud of everybody for being able to execute this because like I said … and I love Locke … I love Tom Hardy, I thought it wasn’t as suspenseful, kind of one note that really worked. So I’m proud that we got to do something where people are on the edge of their seat and we don’t leave the car. It’s pretty cool.

The film certainly harkens back to an era of action/crime drama that you don’t see too often these days.

Yeah, you’re right on the button. And that’s by design. It was really by design because the piece itself lends itself to the filmmaking of the ’70s. From the ’60s and ’70s. You know, movies like Bullet and French Connection. You know those gritty authentic, great acting but no giant movie stars except McQueen … but guys who you believed could pull the situation off. That’s kind of, that was the template for us. And so the way it looks, the way it sounds, the way it feels, the way it was shot, all does harken back to the ’70s film-making style.

Look, I am not a huge cinephile, I see a lot of movies, but I know the movies I don’t like. And those are big, glossy … I feel like I’m being force-fed an actor who clearly isn’t right for the role. And so, what Joe and I essentially are trying to do is make movies sub 20 million dollars, many times sub pennies on the dollars to have this feel. And that’s what we’ll be continuing to do with The Raid, another movie called Boss Level. All in that kind of same vein.

That’s a market that is pretty much untapped right now.

It is. It is. And you know, we stumbled upon it, because as soon as people around town started seeing Wheelman and that you could execute a movie for six million bucks in seventeen days with a first-time director, everybody from big studio heads all the way down to producers wanted to know how we did it. So there you have it, you kind stumble into this niche, where you’re right, it’s absolutely untapped.

It’s nice to remind people that film can cost less than ten million dollars, or at least a whole lot less than 300 million dollars.

Even 50 to 100, it’s crazy the way it’s set up now is find a couple of names pack them into a script, see what pretend value they seem to have globally, and then we’ll go make a movie. And if it works, it works, and if doesn’t don’t blame ourselves because we put these names in it. But it just doesn’t work like that anymore.

I have a twenty-year-old son, he wants movies driven by cool stories. Listen, this movie It that my kid loved – there’s nobody in the movie! Good story and everyone loved the feel. Now, Stephen King peeks and people show up. So that’s kind of what Joe and I are trying to do. Very similar. I did those Purge movie with Blum and his model is similar. We’re not copying his model, but it is similar in that world.

But Wheelman pretty much relies only on you as the face of it. That’s gotta be more pressure than one of your Marvel films?

Oh yeah, yeah. I mean look, I’ve had a good career. I’ve got a nice little solid fan-base of people who dig what I do, which I’m so appreciative of. This was an opportunity to say, “Okay, give me the ball, and let me run from the 1-Yard line all the way back to the other 1-Yard line, see if I can do it.” You know? So I knew the value of it, and I knew the gravitas of what it would be if I failed. I’m excited now to kind of do that again, continue to carry a movie, and pepper it with great actors.

You’re on the phone with a lot of great actors here.  Garret Dillahunt, Shea Whigham –  

Those are two of my good friends. Those are two of the guys that are in my group of peers, as far as actors are concerned. They’re New York guys, they’re serious actors, they’re character actors. Naturally, leading men, what they’d be doing is amazing character work. As soon as I read the script I said, you know, Garret and Shea are doing this movie I don’t give a shit what they say. I’ll pay them out of my own pocket but they’re … it’s small but critical roles and those guys killed it. Those guys made the movie feel like a ’70s movie. Because those also are actors who I think are throwbacks to the Hackmans, the McQueens, of those days when there were – when actors were men first, and actors second.

But, you know, the emotion of this film rests on you and your relationship with Caitlin Carmichael.

Yeah, and I’ll tell you, for me, it’s a story about a father and a daughter. And everything else is everything else. What I got out of it, without the duality of worlds, that kinship … I don’t think really works at all. The scene with her in the car, where I’m basically saying goodbye to her, without that scene, the movie … it’s 60% less interesting. You know, we knew how important that was, yeah. And we picked her out of a lot of young ladies, and she was twelve years old when she did that.

Yeah, that’s nuts.

I know right?

And then you know, without giving anything away, she’s not the damsel in distress.

No, no, no.

She is 100% your daughter.

An independent young lady who, I think I am intimidated by in some way. And all I really wanna do in this role is try to get close to her, and I don’t know how to do that. I don’t have the faculty to be a good father yet. So, that’s the story. That’s the true origin of the story: how do I get out of this and get back to my kid, and make like none of this ever happened! That’s what drove me as an actor, that’s what drove me from one side to the other side.

And Caitlin has all the elements that she needs including a good home-life, good parents, to keep her grounded. She’s a beautiful young lady and she’s open and smart, and I think she’s gonna have a great career.

With your production company War Party, you mentioned a few projects coming up, but what is the overall thesis statement? What do you hope to achieve here?

Our mission statement is to make genre, action-thrillers, we might dabble with – I don’t want to say ‘horror’ but more like things like Purge: Anarchy, which is kind of action … horror-ish I guess. Sub 20, also sub 10, keep stacking them with people we love and believe in, we have a nice group of people as far as DPs and technical guys that we’ve now assembled. We have a TV show that I’ve been doing with Netflix called Fight World, which is I travel around the world and I embed myself in the fight cultures. Very cinematic. It’s a docu-drama. Docu-series. We are producing that as well. So it’s things that are in our wheelhouse that we love, but we do it at a price so that we’re not spending people’s money that we don’t need to spend.

Wheelman is available to stream on Netflix starting October 20th.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)