Writer/director Joe Carnahan on Liam Neeson, filmmaking-as-adventure, and a possible sequel to Narc.
The already freezing movie theater feels just a little bit chillier when you’re watching The Grey. The latest film by writer/director Joe Carnahan (The A-Team, Smokin’ Aces, Narc) is a survival thriller set in the icy wilderness of British Columbia that pits a crew of macho oil riggers stranded by a plane crash against a pack of vicious wolves. Liam Neeson plays John Ottway, the toughest of them all with the darkest past, who tries to keep everyone alive the best he can. Neeson leads a stellar ensemble cast of criminally under-used actors like Dermot Mulroney, Frank Grillo, Dallas Roberts, James Badge Dale and Joe Anderson.
Joe Carnahan recently sat down with Tribeca to discuss his latest film, The Grey, the challenges of filming in a remote, inhospitable location, and Neeson’s appealing brand of masculinity.
Tribeca: You have such a versatile filmography with Smokin’ Aces, The A-Team and my personal favorite, Narc. Can you talk about your inspiration for writing and filming The Grey? It is such a departure from your other movies.
Joe Carnahan: I guess my fear was that I being perceived as this certain director that could only do this certain thing and I found that very marginalizing. You can’t react any other way but creatively. My kinship with the films I love and [that] are ultimately very meaningful to me has a lot more in common with Narc and The Grey than with Smokin’ Aces and The A-Team. The careers I admire are those of directors like the Coens, Steven Soderbergh, and Ang Lee because they don’t repeat themselves. They deliberately take shots that are outside this “comfort zone,” and I quite like that. Certainly, when I looked at The Grey, Liam and I both had the same reaction: “I don’t know if I can do this, I need to, but I don’t know if I can.” That feeling in itself, combined with all of these other concerns, was enough of an impetus to get me out to Hollywood to deal with it.
Credit: Kimberly French/Open Road Films
Tribeca: The Grey is one of the few scripts that you haven’t written completely by yourself. As a screenwriter, I think that you convey intensity extremely well. The opening of Narc, the iron and the baby scene in Pride & Glory…
Joe Carnahan: You know what’s funny? You mentioned the one scene in Pride & Glory that the studio never touched. From the time I wrote that scene back in 2001, it never changed. It’s probably my favorite scene, not because it’s my scene, but because of Colin Farrell. I just think he nailed that Egan character and was just so in the moment. At the end when he’s leaving, he says probably the most ruthless thing to say to someone after almost scorching their newborn with a hot iron.
Tribeca: Right, it’s something like, “You’ve got a beautiful boy here.”
Joe Carnahan: And that’s the contradiction! It’s funny you mentioned that scene because they never altered a line of dialogue in that scene, and I was quite proud that it remained intact.
Joe Carnahan: Right. Ian and I never sat in the same room and wrote. Ian had done a draft, which was an 80- or 90-page incomplete draft, just going off his short story. It probably springs from my own insecurities as a filmmaker that I feel I have to possess something entirely to understand it. So I spent the next four and half/five years rewriting the script. It was nice to not have a deadline built in, but I would always check back in with Ian to get his opinion. It’s not an ego thing. It’s more about being so woefully insecure about what I’m doing. I have great respect for filmmakers like Spielberg, Scorsese and Fincher who are able to take other people’s material and deal with it so beautifully. I wish I had that skill.
Tribeca: You have already mentioned Liam, and I know that this is your second time working with him. Was he always your first choice for Ottway?
Joe Carnahan: Ottway, as the character was originally conceived and written, was a much younger guy early on. An interesting point in development is when I started to see that these younger actors couldn’t see themselves at a point in their lives where life is no longer necessary to them. I think it took someone like Liam—who’s lived high, low, and everything in between—to bring the character to a natural fruition. There is a very quiet humility and civility to Liam. He has no pretense.
Tribeca: Also, Liam Neeson is at this really interesting point in his career, playing all these tough guy roles, but he brings different and interesting nuances to each character. Ottway in The Grey is so different from Bryan Mills in Taken.
Joe Carnahan: I think he’s one of our greatest living actors, to be completely honest. What I always saw in Liam, and why I was a fan of his prior to working with him, is great nobility combined with real masculinity that never feels forced. Liam doesn’t come across as a wannabe tough guy; Liam is a tough guy. Liam’s creation of Ottway is Liam at his most vibrant in this natural leadership role, even though John Ottway and Liam Neeson are radically different people.
Joe Carnahan: The reason I cast all those guys is that they are all very different men. They are unmistakably masculine as opposed to these vacuous kids in Hollywood right now. Those kids are going to get there someday, but Hollywood’s obsession with 17- or 18-year-old males is not one I share. Through no fault of their own, they don’t have enough dirt under their nails, they haven’t been rolled in enough ditches, and they haven’t had their hearts broken or experienced loss. For The Grey, I was interested in a very specific kind of masculinity. In particular, I wanted guys who were unafraid to let all that macho bullshit and all that unnecessary bravado fall away in that kind of environment. These guys understood that and didn’t resist it.
Tribeca: Speaking of the environment, this film was not shot in a sound stage but rather on a brutal location in British Columbia. Can you talk about the shooting conditions, and were you able to bring any of the comforts of a Hollywood set?
Joe Carnahan: Beyond the occasional thermos of tea, that was it. The cast sometimes went to sit in a communal Snowcat that was unheated, but it was a hell of a lot warmer than standing out in what we were standing out in. Those guys read the script. They knew the deal, and no one was delusional. We had to put ourselves out there and deal with this extreme weather with everything coming at us. It was an adventure, first and foremost, and then it was a filmmaking endeavor. That’s what was great about it. None of us were acting; we were reacting. It gave the film immediacy and propulsion that would have been impossible to achieve on a soundstage. We had to go out and earn this one.
Tribeca: What was the coldest temperature you recorded?
Joe Carnahan: Liam will say it was minus 40, but it was minus 37. Listen, that’s a whole other—you know, I’ll just say it—it’s shitty [laughs]. It’s not bad, it’s shitty. I think I would have been a lot colder if I hadn’t kept staring at my watch worrying that I wasn’t going to make my day. I was so preoccupied with the daylight ebbing away that I wasn’t aware that I was getting frostbite in my fingertips. We were completely at odds with nature. Nothing was more emblematic of that than when you’d come back the next day after shooting and within that 10 or 11 hours, we’d have to dig the wreckage out again. That’s how fast Mother Nature was trying to wipe us off that mountain.
Credit: Kimberly French/Open Road Films
Tribeca: The Grey also features a spectacular plane crash sequence, which reminded me of those terrifying crashes in Fearless, Alive and The Edge. Do you have a fear of flying?
Joe Carnahan: I don’t have a fear of flying; I have a fear of crashing [laughs]. A couple years ago I was on a plane with really horrible turbulence. You know, there is this really uncomfortable quiet in a plane when people are starting to panic. You don’t even want to ask them what they’re thinking. I remember looking down and seeing something like a Pokemon sticker on the service tray and thinking, “This is it? The last thing I’m going to see is Pickachu and then the afterlife?” It really got to me and that was my reason for putting in the goofy in-flight magazine that Ottway sees. What if the last thing you saw was the couple wearing reindeer ears, would that be it? Would the triviality of life claim me? Beyond that, I wanted the crash to be a completely subjective experience.
Tribeca: Can you talk about challenges of filming the crash sequence?
Joe Carnahan: I put those guys—God bless them—on a gimbal that rotated on a 30-foot fuselage that spun at a very high rate of speed. I fired flame cannons and debris cannons to give it that sense of inertia and movement and torque. I just felt you needed to see gravity being exerted on them. We did it in a very small amount of time. There is no CG in that at all except for the last shot where, of course, the fuselage comes away. It was shot fairly quickly, which is kind of remarkable. I always knew how I wanted that sequence to come together.
Credit: Kimberly French/Open Road Films
Tribeca: One of the most striking images of The Grey is the killing gloves that Liam fashions together. Did you consider any other makeshift weapons for him to wield?
Joe Carnahan: Beyond the shotgun spears, not really. That was a weapon of necessity. I think it’s funny how it’s become one of the most prominent images of the film. When writing the scene, I thought, “What does he have left? He has these empty bottles, so he has to deal with it.” Plus, it’s Liam Neeson putting them on. If it were Justin Bieber, it’d be a different story.
Tribeca: What are some of your upcoming projects?
Joe Carnahan:Killing Pablo is something I’m fascinated with and I’m absolutely determined to make. I feel that there are a lot of these lesser projects floating around out there. Mark Bowden wrote such a great book, and I’m very proud of the script that I was able to adapt from his book. It would be a huge disappointment if I couldn’t make that film. There’s another thing that I’m considering writing and directing but I can’t talk about at this time. It’s an old property from the 70s that I was able to, given the lack of a better word, re-imagine. It’s set in a different place and the powers-that-be are quite fond of it, so we’ll see what happens. Those are the ones I’m really excited about.
Tribeca: I also read on-line that you are considering a sequel to Narc. Given the events of the film, would it be a pre-quel?
Joe Carnahan: It wouldn’t be a pre-quel. It would be a sequel. A friend of mine told me recently that when all manners of resuscitation fail on someone, some hospitals will actually open up the chest cavity, take out the heart and manually massage the heart back to beating. That’s how I was going to open the sequel to Narc. Again, I don’t know if it would ever come to be. Ray and I were at dinner, and I mentioned it to someone and it just went from there. I think people are thinking, “Okay, where’s the script, Joe?” But I don’t have it and, if it in any way would sully the original, I would never do it. I would have to get the script to an exceptional place before I would agree to make the film.
The Grey opens in movie theaters nationwide Friday, January 27. Click here to find theater information and tickets in your area.