In 2002, filmmaker Joe Carnahan directed Narc, arguably one of the best police dramas of the last decade, but then he disappeared for a number of years, some of that time spent trying to direct Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible III. Earlier this year, his third film Smokin’ Aces finally hit theatres, and it was a very different movie, an action-packed ensemble comedy starring Ryan Reynolds, Ray Liotta, Jeremy Piven, Ben Affleck, and others, as well as singer Alicia Keys in her acting debut. The plot has a dozen whacked-out assassins being sent to Tahoe to assassinate Piven’s Buddy “Aces” Israel, a Vegas showman who gets into trouble with the mobsters that made him famous. (You can get some idea what that’s like by playing the Smokin’ Aces Card Killer Game.) Meanwhile, two FBI agents, played by Reynolds and Liotta, try to find out what Israel knows that has made him such a wanted man. It’s an insanely wild ride that falls somewhere between the Coen Brothers and Tony Scott, but it’s all Carnahan in terms of his dark sense of humor.
ComingSoon.net had a chance to talk to Carnahan about the movie as well as the other projects he has in the pipeline, all of which point to him being far more prolific in the coming years.
ComingSoon.net: Was this idea something you had in mind before the whole “Mission: Impossible” debacle?
Joe Carnahan: Yeah, yeah, this was something I really toyed with years ago, back in ’93. I was listenin’ to a lot to Frank Sinatra in college. I don’t know what it was. I was really into the old Capitol recordings, and I was basically running them into the ground and reading about Sinatra and his proximity to the mob at that time. All of this was fascinating stuff, and it ultimately led me to believe the popular myth that once the Kennedies were firmly ensconced in the White House, they had no need for Sinatra any more. Frank kind of made enemies and he was left holding the bag. They thought he could deliver the Presidency and of course that didn’t happen. It really kind of sprung from there, and I really started thinking about guys especially today in popular culture, there’s this idea through hip hop, there’s this gangsterism and thug mentality. These guys have confused persona with real life, like they really think they’re out there as thugs and crooks. Certainly, there’s a degree of truth to that, there’s no question about it, but there’s also a lot of hyperbole and press releases about trumped-up acts making these guys look like nefarious criminal types, which seems kind of laughable. When you really see crooks or see criminal activity or criminal behavior, it’s a lot more vicious and ruthless and abject, and it doesn’t conform itself to any kind of street cred in that way. I just let it kind of roll from there, and that’s where everything flowed from, the Buddy Israel character is in a similar situation and so on.
CS: Having had this idea so long ago, did you keep coming up with different characters over the years until it turned into this huge ensemble piece?
Carnahan: I always wanted to take one of those movie archetypes, then kind of contort and warp them a bit, but I purposely set-up something as extreme as the Tremor Brothers. I don’t think those guys could exist outside of a comic book and that kind of milieu, but I based them almost exclusively on the Hanson Brothers from “Slapshot.” I think they were extremely different kinds of criminals, and I also wanted to give myself a challenge. I wanted to write two young African-American women from Oakland, California. I grew up near San Francisco State in that area and my friends lived in East Oakland and went to Berklee, so I thought it was interesting to try to do that stuff, to try to do it well, and to have all these unique voices.
CS: How did you go about casting all of those roles?
Carnahan: The cast really came together quickly. It was really people that read and responded to the script. We developed a real quick dialogue, and it was basically, “Here’s the deal,” and I was purposely consciously casting against type. Ryan Reynolds and Jeremy Piven, Jason Bateman and Ben Affleck, trying to go against what their normal routine might be. But it was something that happened reasonably quickly. It wasn’t something that was this laborious drawn-out going out and seeing this person, seeing that person. Like I said, it came together quickly.
CS: Did you modify your script at all once you cast people in the roles?
Carnahan: No, I kind of made them modify what they did. I didn’t see the need to tear apart the script.
CS: Did you realize that Ben Affleck was such a bad pool player when you cast him in a role that required him to play pool?
Carnahan: No, I didn’t realize that, but he’s such a good card player so it made up for it. He’s admittedly a lousy pool player so he fessed up to that very quickly. There’s actually a thing on the DVD where he shot like eight or nine times in a row and couldn’t bury this 8 ball that was kind of set-up, so there was a little bit of anxiety working its way in one we found out he couldn’t play pool, but when he finally knocked it down, he knocked it down, so it all worked out in the end.
CS: I was surprised when I watched that, because I’m not very good but I could have made that shot.
Carnahan: I think most preschoolers could have made that shot, but Ben finally got there and that was all that was important, that we finally knocked it down.
CS: When you cast Alicia Keys, knowing she’d be the only woman in those big shoot-out scenes, what kind of assurance did you have to give Clive Davis that she’d survive the experience?
Carnahan: (laughs) There’s always the really precious part of that equation, the musical part, because at this point, it had been the first film she’d been in, and I think a lot of people thought this was Alicia’s little escape into acting, but she was such a gamer and came in with such great enthusiasm and this willingness to lay it out all there. I never once saw her as Alicia Keys, musician, she was always Alicia the actor. She hung out on set for hours at a time in the fake glass and the blood on the floor in that elevator. The crew really took a shine to her and was really protective of her. I think she’s a very beautiful and talented kid. She’s very young, and I had a very paternal bond with her. There never was a situation that I felt I could conjure that she hadn’t had some experience or exposure to. She never was wide-eyed, in shock or awe about anything. She’s a pro. That kid’s been doing it for a long time, and she’s kind of moved in the adult world a lot longer than most of us even at her young age. I always felt like she was in full control of her faculties and was just a willing participant in the whole thing.
CS: What about Common continuing your long-standing tradition of casting rappers? I actually didn’t realize who he was until the credits rolled and I was impressed that this was his first acting gig.
Carnahan: He is just such a wonderful spirit and really came in this thing with this amazing enthusiasm, amazing sense of himself and a great confidence, and he was willing to listen and learn and always wanted to push himself. They were both, in that respect, really great experiences as a director to have people that had that willingness.
CS: How long did it take to set-up that big shoot-out at the end and was that all shot inside an actual hotel in Tahoe?
Carnahan: That was all done on the stage, but all the Tahoe stuff like Taraji and Alicia’s parts in the hotels were all shot in Tahoe and when they had their conversation, I wanted to be able to link both those buildings. As much of that as we could, I thought it was very important to go to that location, go to Tahoe. We shot a lot of the action stuff, the windows blowing out, all that stuff, it was all done in Tahoe. Ryan Reynolds, his arrival was on location. Again, that was really crucial for us to be able to be in that space and have that particular vibe and atmosphere. I felt that was really important for the film.
CS: Did you actually build Buddy’s Tahoe penthouse suite on a stage, too?
Carnahan: We built that whole thing on a stage and the outside of the penthouse is a giant photograph and then we animated that in the back, but you’d never know since it looked amazing.
CS: That’s impressive. As far as setting up that shoot-out, did you actually storyboard it all as part of the scripting process?
Carnahan: Yeah, yeah. We only had forty days to shoot this thing. We only had a $20 million budget, which isn’t a lot of money, but yeah, I had to really rigorously storyboard that stuff, cause we had to know what we were doing. We couldn’t just show up and wing it.
CS: Did you have any problems with the ratings board, considering the amount of violence?
Carnahan: No, we were worried we wouldn’t get past them, but I was kind of shocked. I thought we’d have more problems with the ratings board, but we never did. A lot of the violence is really implied so it wasn’t graphic. We weren’t showing a guy physically sitting on a chainsaw. We were implying it. I think you can get away with a lot more if you suggest rather than overtly show. No, we didn’t have any run-ins with them. On the deleted scenes, the Tremor Brothers rampage, there’s a three and a half minute version of that. It’s complete completely ridiculous overkill, but yeah, it was very much the over-extended overblown and I think if that version got into the film, we would have had problems.
CS: I love all of those characters–Lazlo Soot has been my desktop picture for months–so do you think you’d use them again in another movie, even if it was just a small appearance or nod to this movie for those who saw it?
Carnahan: They had me write the comic and I felt like I kind of exorcised them, but who knows? There could definitely be a Tremor Brothers prequel or whatever, the sequel, who knows? It was always designed to be a one-off movie, but certainly those characters, Lazlo Soot and Acosta, they could live on indefinitely, but for now, I think it was always intended to be just a one-off situation. It would be nice to throw them back in there down the road, but as of right now, I have no plans to resurrect any of those guys.
CS: I also loved the music, probably because you used my favorite film composer Clint Mansell, working with music supervisor Nick Angel, who has really great taste in music. I read that you gave a soundtrack to each of the actors to get them into the mood of their characters, but how did you work with them on the music for the movie?
Carnahan: You know, we really spent a lot of time going through stuff. Those guys are a very knowledgeable bunch. You got Nick Angel, you got Jim Schultz, who is my music editor, we really just kind of combed through a lot of rare stuff and I think the soundtrack is phenomenal. If I had nothing to do with the film, I would say that it’s a tremendous movie soundtrack. We just really kind of went all out to find the more rare songs, even the John Cale stuff, if you heard “Big White Cloud,” you feel like you should know that song. Nick found that great song by the Bees and we found the del Castro stuff. I love that. That’s its own pleasure is going through and finding all this stuff, and you hear a song and you say, “Wow, that’s fantastic!” Then being able to get it for the movie was fantastic. The one I regret not being able to get “Spottieottiedopaliscious” by the OutKast, we couldn’t clear that in time to get it on the soundtrack and that’s the one thing that bummed me out, because that’s such a great song. It’s actually in the movie, the first time you meet Alicia and Taraji, but we couldn’t get it for the soundtrack. That’s my one regret, but other than that, I’m really, really proud of that soundtrack.
CS: You’re working on a couple other scripts right now, so will you be directing “White Jazz” next?
Carnahan: That and then hopefully “Killing Pablo” which we’re into pretty heavy right now. That one’s going to be a little while. I’m really focusing exclusively on “White Jazz” ’cause that’s going to require a lot of its own patience and tender loving care, so I’m really trying to limit my focus to that, but “Pablo” looms heavily behind that. It’s going to be a busy the year’s going to pick up pretty soon, and we’re going to jump into “White Jazz” hardcore, but I just kind of got an actor yesterday who basically committed to “Pablo.” It’s a big piece of casting that I can’t really talk about, but he’s kind of the first puzzle piece that everything’s going to fall behind him.
CS: What happened with “White Jazz” and the issues that the makers of “L.A. Confidential” had with it?
Carnahan: I was asked to change the Guy Pearce character, the actual character I had to change his name. My brother wrote the adaptation, and we had to change his name, but that was about it. What I’ve heard at least is that they’re proceeding with a separate sequel [to “L.A. Confidential”] and I wish them all the best. It’s a completely different story and I’ll be a big fan of all versions.
CS: Too bad. It could have been like “Out of Sight” and “Jackie Brown” if you got the same actor to play the character in both movies.
Carnahan: Yeah, exactly. Michael Keaton’s Ray Nicolette character might have been the one consistent element they had in both films, but they’ve asked us, we did it, it’s cool, so there’s no crossovers and no characters from “L.A. Confidential” will appear in “White Jazz.”
CS: I’m glad we’ll be seeing more movies from you soon since it was such a long time between “Narc” and “Smokin’ Aces.”
Carnahan: Thanks. I always like to keep busy. “White Jazz” will be much more of a return to that kind of form, so it will be interesting to fall back into the cop genre.