Joe Carnahan

The director of “The Grey” on how the failure of “A-Team” was ultimately a blessing

If “The A-Team” had been a hit, filmmaker Joe Carnahan doesn’t know if he’d have been able to make his acclaimed new survivalist thriller “The Grey”. The filmmaker says the failure of the popcorn blockbuster was his wake-up call.

Why “The Grey”?

I think there’s some of these ideas about masculinity and these ideas about spirituality. I guess because I’ve made films with guys, and some of them have been deeper and some more superficial, I just got to a point where I thought about my own mortality. I wanted to make something that confronted my terrible fear of heights, and my terrible fear of air travel, and my terrible fear of being torn apart by wild animals, my terrible fear of drowning—let’s just throw them all in one movie! I think there’s something very elemental to that story, and at the time, I was on Mission: Impossible 3, and I was coming to end of that process, and I read the story and it was just completely antithetical to what I was dealing with at the time. It was a very spare, stripped down, basic survival story, and it was very appealing for me.

How did this movie change when it switched from being a Bradley Cooper vehicle to a Liam Neeson vehicle?

Well originally the character was in Thailand… [Laughs] No, I think the reasoning behind the switch was that a guy in his mid-30s or whatever, I think it’s difficult to conceive of this notion that you would have no use for life, as opposed to someone who’s a little older and has seen the highs and seen the lows and seen everything in between, and I just thought that Liam embodied that much more easily than a younger actor would have.

I was drawn to Liam because of his strength and profundity as a man and as an actor. Liam has no pretense about him. He has a lovely kind of blue-collar work man’s approach to acting. All that wonderful stuff gets channelled into his craft.  Nor did I ever alter the story for that effect. It just happened to be one of those situations. I guess that’s why he is so effective and a younger guy wouldn’t be as effective. Because of all the highs of life, all the lows of life, all the wonderful things that happened in between, all the tragedies that happened in between, that’s etched large on his persona and subsequently in his performances.

How did you prepare? I feel like you couldn’t really do much until you actually got out there.

I’ll give you an example. I had boots that were rated for 25 below, and in ten minutes my feet were frozen, so I had to get boots for 60 below. you just made adjustments very quickly. And I remember I wore a balaclava for the first couple of days, and my physical effects supervisor just said, “Let your beard freeze.” And I didn’t believe him, and he told me it would insulate much better. So I did one day and it looked like someone took candle wax and just dumped it all on my face. I looked like an older version of my father, but it worked! I was warm. So little things like that you just adapt to accordingly. There’s very little you can do to prepare, you just have to go out there.

How did working in such harsh terrain dictate the filming?

Grand schemes or plans you had for things, and shots you were going to do, and how this and how that would change, and you have to be very brutal about it. I think that’s what creates. You have to be a really brutal realist like, what can we really get done? It’s like the hoarders, they can’t let anything go. I need that, I’ve got to have that old frisbee from 1964 that the dog chewed on.

This is an action movie with a spiritual side. Is that something you set out to explore?

I feel like it was something that was important to this film. I thought it would be a natural extension of their experience. Like okay, if I’m not going to make it out of here, what are the things that are meaningful to me, where do I think I’m going, and what is the afterlife going to look like, and what’s waiting for me? I think if you’re an atheist, you look at the film and think, he absolutely did not believe in God. If you’re a devout Christian, you look at it and think he absolutely did believe in God.

How much of this film did you need to do out in the wilderness oppose to a studio?

The walk across the tundra was a much more elaborate sequence, everyone was going to get how brutal this is. We made the film for about 25 million bucks so I knew going in I wasn’t going to be able to do everything. That plane crash had to have that intimacy and all the internal emotion. That plane crash was something that had to be executed in a certain way. With a 40 day schedule it’s amazing that you start to look at things and start to say that’s not that important. If anything it’s drawing away the simplicity of a plot less movie.

Did the movie change from first draft to final?

Editing for me is still a lovely process because it’s a writing process. There were a lot of things that changed. There was a sequence in there where Liam was in the tundra and there was a polar bear that was kind of threatening him and I came to so hate this polar bear because I hated the trainer so much. This trainer talked up this polar bear as if it was this robotic t-rex from the future, like it was the greatest polar bear that ever lived. I got so sick to death that I actually cut the scene out of the movie. It wasn’t the polar bear’s fault. I had a 2 hour and 20 min cut of the film and I showed it to producers and friends that I knew would not bull shit me and it went from 2:20 to and hour and 40 minutes in three weeks. We knew the work we had to do and went in and did it. I love the editorial process because it allow you to re-read and ask yourself do I really need that. The cut is quite a bit different but in spirit it’s identical.

You say you think this is your best flick?

It has the most of me in it, how I think and how I feel. All my fears and all my insecurities. I feel really, really fortunate and grateful that I got to make this film. It just doesn’t happen enough were you get to make something that’s actually meaningful to you. That you could look at people and say this is how I feel about the world, this is how I think about things that scare me, these are the things that are important to me. It also doesn’t fix itself in one type of genre.

Any ”A-Team” sequels on the way?

As much fun as I had making that movie, I don’t want to get tied up in that whole world of sequels and franchises. There’s too many movies I want to make. There’s too many other stories I want to tell. The good thing that came out of A-Team not being successful is that I would never have made The Grey, I’d be working on A-Team 2 right now. And that would have been a bigger bummer to me.

After A-Team if I was being viewed as a schmuck; I couldn’t make this film, or “White Jazz” or “Killing Pablo” if it wasn’t for “A-Team”. I also thought after “Mission Impossible 3″, again I left before I was fired, I felt I had unfinished business. With “The A-Team” I wanted to do a big popcorn film and see what that felt like. I think my bread and butter have always been with films like this or films like “Narc”. I’m not going to use this as a platform to suddenly make serious films. I won’t say I’ll never do this. I’m doing this thing with Fox called continued and it’s “Groundhog Day” as an action movie, and I think it’s funny as shit. From DNA to bone structure it’s completely different from “The Grey”. I think I made this film to prove to myself and to the people that are going to hire me in the future. If I can do a romantic comedy with all women, that’s Everest for me, that’s tough.

If I get any run off this movie, I feel like Killing Pablo is the undernourished orphan that I’ve been looking after. In a perfect world that would be the film that I want to make next. I still think it’s the best script that I’ve written. I see other things ramping up and I can’t get beat by these other movies. I’ve been to Colombia three times and Medellin and done all this research. What crystalized it for me was when I went to Los Alamos, where he was killed, which is a modest middle class neighbourhood and I was interviewing a 78 year old man. I said to him can you tell me about that day, because where he died was very, very undramatic, and the guy said to me, I’ll never forget this, he said the day it happened I thought it was an early winter thunderstorm. The level of gun fire was so constant he couldn’t discern individual shots, and I though I got to make this movie.

Otherwise you’ll be back in Canada doubling for Detroit, with movies like “Narc”?

Absolutely. I was talking to Ray Liotta the other night about a Narc sequel…I told him the opening…if I could do that movie for like ten million bucks and not be bothered and be left to do my thing I would do it in a second. Creative control means more to me than having my name on a big-budget thing.

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