I can hear Joe Carnahan from far outside the room. The boisterousness, the exuberance, the laugh. Here was a director who really wanted to talk about his new movie The Grey, a survivalist thriller starring Liam Neeson, and – as I was soon to discover – swears by it. And about it. Actually, he just f*cking swears. It was hard not to reciprocate, so I didn’t bother trying. The man who brought you Narc, Smokin’ Aces and The A-Team was a mile a minute the whole interview, which spanned from a defense of his last movie, an explanation of how The Grey would have worked with Bradley Cooper instead of Liam Neeson (which almost happened), how Pokemon crushed his spirit, and his next film, Killing Pablo.
There are some genuine SPOILERS ahead, but we’ll call attention to them so you can easily avoid ruining the movie for yourselves.
CraveOnline: I gotta tell you, I loved The Grey. I think it’s your best film since Narc, and I think Narc is the sh*t.
Joe Carnahan: Oh, I think you’re right, dude.
I personally love The A-Team, not everyone is as big a fan of it…
I don’ t know why, brother, I don’t know why.
It’s so fun! It’s not intelligent fun, but it’s smart. It works on its own merits. You look at like, the Transformers films, they don’t work on their own merits. A-Team at least works for what it is.
You know what it is, that I knew I was in trouble when I read it, when Roger Ebert started like, citing Newtonian law and taking me to task about the tank drop. By the way, is it such hallowed ground, the f*cking A-Team?
It’s not! I was a lot more p*ssed off about what happened to Miami Vice, because I loved that show as a kid.
I actually defend Miami Vice. I liked Miami Vice. It’s more of a tonal piece than anything else, and granted that’s not what anyone wanted or expected, but I think if you look at that film on its own merits, it’s just a sort of dry character piece with just a couple of action beats in it. I do think it works on that level.
I think the contrarian in [Michael] Mann loves to do that. It’s like, “Oh really, you want the pastels and the flamingos and the art deco? F*ck you. The palette is ‘bruise.’”
People were mean to that movie because it wasn’t what they thought it was going to be. And that’s kind of fine, I blame the marketing department for that. But what are you gonna do?
But let’s talk about you for a little bit, and not Michael Mann.
Your movies are interesting because it feels, in a way, like there’s two Joe Carnahans. There’s the fun, crazy, Smokin’ Aces, A-Team Joe Carnahan, and then there’s the f*cked up Joe Carnahan.
Right. [Laughs] I love that it goes from like, the fun to the fun to the fun, and then the f*cked up guy.
And The Grey, I think,was a very nice return to that, because you’ve done some fun ones lately.
Well I think I had to, and I only because I think I started to see myself as like, “Do people think you’re a schmuck? Are you an a**hole?” I felt that it was time to make this type of movie because I think, one – and not that I didn’t love The A-Team, and have a great time making that – but that’s not where my heart beats. White Jazz, and Killing Pablo, and The Grey – these are the kind of movies I want to make. And you know what? They’re difficult movies to make, dude. You can’t tell people you wanna make Killing Pablo and say that 80% of it is gonna be in Spanish, and have people go “Yay!” It’s just not gonna happen. So for me this was a great opportunity to do something like you said. Listen man, I love Antonioni films, and I love the Three Stooges. Just like if you look at my musical tastes, there’s Iggy and the Stooges right next to Barbra Streisand. I don’t want to do any one thing, and the careers of the guys I admire, like Ang Lee and Soderbergh, they deliberately take themselves out of [that]. Nobody says “Oh that’s a Steven Soderberg film,” beyond the execution, beyond whatever commonality the director’s hand…you know.
Yeah, although I do think that if there is something of a common thread in your work, you have a very masculine view. And The Grey is sort of like the peak of that.
Sure. Hopefully not a hollow one though…
No, no. You did a couple of things I thought were very brave, one of which [MILD SPOILERS] was that you resisted the urge to make Diaz [Frank Grillo] just “the guy who’s gonna get us all killed.” Like halfway through the film, he’s sort of enlightened a little bit and realizes that he’s just been puffing out his chest because he’s scared. [END MILD SPOILERS]
You make a lot of really intelligent choices about the characters. The entire film is told from Ottway’s perspective, and then there’s that one key moment – which was just f*cking harrowing – with Dermot Mulroney. And that’s the one time you shift the perspective, and that was a bold choice, and it got us really into his head…
And I’m sorry, I’m not interviewing you, I’m lecturing.
No, no, that’s okay! Those are great observations, and I’m always a hell of a lot more interested to hear what you have to say about it than I do, because I’ve prattled on about this f*ckin’ thing, as you can imagine.
Well, you’re really close to it as well. And I gotta tell you, it pleased the crowd, it pleased the hell out of me, but I have to ask some questions, otherwise why am I here? There’s something I read before, that Bradley Cooper was originally going to play Ottway?
I can’t imagine that movie.
Nor can I, brother. Not to discredit Bradley.
Right, but it would just be a completely different movie. How were you thinking that would play out?
Well, I’ll use another example. If I had my druthers, Mark Strong would play Dave Klein in White Jazz. And Mark would love to play Dave Klein in White Jazz. The economic feasibility… and even Mark knows. That guy’s a tremendously gifted actor. Can I get the movie made with Mark Strong? You know what I mean?
Right. He’s a character actor.
Exactly. So in the same sense, it’s like, Bradley Cooper’s gonna get The Grey made, and I will make the absolute best version of The Grey with Bradley Cooper. I think it would have been a radically different film. I think people still would have responded to it, but I think what’s happened in the casting of Liam [Neeson] – and again, this is not to be sh*tty in any way to Bradley – Bradley’s a thirty-five-year-old guy, and I founnd it difficult for them to conceive of themselves in their mid-thirties as being, like, life being so interminable that they’re going to have to end it. As opposed to an older guy who’s seen the highs and seen the lows and has a greater understanding of that.
Right, there’s a sense of regret and of wisdom to him, and experience, which I just think would have been hard to play off with Bradley.
I think you’re right.
So what do you have against airplanes?
I think you’re seeing my fears kind of writ large, man. Planes scare me, heights scare me, being torn apart by a wild beast scares me. I remember being in a plane a couple years ago, dude, and it felt like literally being on a f*cking clipper ship, with these big waves and turbulence. And I happed to look down, and on the service tray in front of me I saw a Pokemon sticker, and I thought to myself, “If that’s the last f*cking thing I see before I die, the triviality of life will have claimed me whole.” We had twenty-five million bucks to make the film, but if we had a hundred and twenty-five million, that sequence would be the exact same, because I thought it was an intimate, internal experience. The bottom line is, if we’re ever unfortunate enough – you know, knock on wood – that that would happen, that’s how you would experience it.
It is, and that’s what I feel makes this movie so harrowing. There are a couple of grand shots – that shot where Dermot Mulroney is going over the cliff, and the camera just sort of follows him over there – that’s truly thrilling. But the rest of it is played – it’s very stylish, but it’s played much more… You’re not trying to “entertain,” you’re trying to get people into the moment. And that plays really well. There’s a quote on the poster as the tagline – “Live or die on this day.” I thought it was “Live and die on this day.”
It is “live and die.” That’s a marketing choice. Because with a marketing person, they go “Well, wait, you can’t say he’s gonna die!” You’re the only guy who’s picked that up. They changed the poem, you’re absolutely right. They f*cked with my stanza, man!
Motherf*cker! Did you write that poem yourself?
I did. I thought about Ottway’s father, and I thought, “He’s probably a big Shakespeare fan. He’s probably read…” what is it, Richard III? “Once again onto the breach…”
That’s Henry V.
Henry V, I’m sorry. And I thought he would use that as the basis for this poem. That’s as close to the Bard as he’s gonna get, so he’s gonna kind of fake this, fake his way forward. And everything else, I tried to keep it simple, dude. I’m far from a Frost, or a…
But I like that you resisted the urge to make it a truly great poem. It’s a good poem, it’s a sincere poem. But it doesn’t have a lot of technical craftsmanship, it doesn’t even rhyme.
Right, it’s like a haiku. It’s not meant to be… This guy probably scribbled it one day when he was drunk and thought, “That’s really good, I’m gonna type that up, I’m gonna put that on my wall. That’s inspiration to me.”
MAJOR SPOILER WARNING!!!
I’m not sure if I’m gonna be able to put this in the interview, but I have to ask. There’s a moment in the movie – it’s late in the movie, so it’s kind of a SPOILER – when Liam Neeson is wrecked. He’s done. And he has that moment where he just gives in and he calls out to God. And you have this great shot where it’s his POV, and you have the sky and the clouds, and you’re waiting for the helicopter.
You’re waiting for the helicopter! And there’s no f*cking helicopter…
Oh, that’s great, bro!
And he says “F*ck it, I’ll do it myself!” Did anyone give you sh*t for that? Did anyone say, like, “We need a happier ending?” Because that was one of the most daring… because you had this talk about God and I was like, “Is he gonna learn about God? You’re gonna ruin this f*cking movie if you just have this be like, ‘Oh, there’s a God.’” No, f*ck that sh*t. This was a bold f*cking movie, and I wanted to know if there was any talk about changing that.
You know, brother? No, because I think that would have been an essential, fundamental betrayal of the film you’ve seen up to that point, to turn into this kind of chickensh*t rescue bullsh*t. It wouldn’t have worked at all. I don’t think in any way it would have worked. It’s funny, as you kind of progress in your career, you realize that control and autonomy are the only f*cking things worth fighting for, and in this instance, to not have somebody going, “Hey, you need to change it…“ It’s like, “F*ck you. That’s exactly how it’s gonna be.” And I think that’s great that you responded to that, because I think, again, hopefully the movie all along the way dashes expectations in a good way, and not in a way that…
It follows enough of the conventions that you’re not ever detached from it, and you’re in familiar territory. But you know when to f*ck with it. I was just spectacularly entertained.
That’s great, brother. That’s great.
I guess we gotta go… What’s the very next thing? I know Umbra isn’t gonna happen now.
I think [Killing] Pablo, brother. Pablo is probably where I gotta put all my eggs right now. It just feels like this undernourished orphan, that… “I gotta get this kid a meal, man.”
How far along would that be, if you…?
I would probably start that in the fall. Because I just want to spend some time with my kids. […] But honestly, you never know, man. You never know. I think what’s interesting right now is like, this is the time when you can strike, because this is the time before everybody’s perceptions or hopes are dashed. Everybody thinks [the movie] is gonna do one thing, and if the movie ends up tanking… The time that you have now, you should use it. You have to, because you never know.
I really hope this doesn’t tank. This is not a January release, by the way. This is too good for January.
Right. I hope, though… What did The Devil Inside just make? I think it made like thirty-four million dollars this weekend?
Oh yeah, and everyone’s saying that movie is bad, even.
But the materials on that were brilliant. That was a marketing job. That was a brilliant marketing job.
And everyone loves Liam Neeson, as well they should.
They do. They love him, and he’s traditionally been very good at this time of the year.