Smokin’ Aces Writer/Director Joe Carnahan

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It’s been a while since innovative writer and director Joe Carnahan has showcased his talent and after a long effort of working on projects that almost happened, but never did, he’s finally returning to the big screen with his new dark action comedy Smokin’ Aces. The high energy mob thriller follows a sleazy Las Vegas magician (Jeremy Piven) who has decided to tell the FBI everything he knows about the Vegas organized crime ring he once ran with. He’s sent to Lake Tahoe and put in protective custody. However, once word gets out about how much he’s worth dead, there’s a slew of hit men and women racing to be the first to take him out.

ComingSoon.net talked Carnahan about his new film.

ComingSoon.net: Tell us why it’s been so hard for you to connect with something and what came together for this?
Joe Carnahan: Well, people in this town don’t like me. No I’m kidding there! Somebody’s going to take that literally and be like, “This a**hole actually said no one likes him.” I had the fifteen months on “Mission: Impossible III,” which was a blast really, it was. I did that and then before that I had kind of this abortive process. You know, irony doesn’t translate into print. That’s what I realized. Jeremy Piven said that. It’s the truth man. When I came off of “Mission,” which is obviously a real incredible, kind of learning experience, the things that you pick up – things to do and then more importantly the things you don’t do. I went out of that, I adapted immediately to Mark Bowden’s book, “Killing Pablo,” which I was obsessed with and remain obsessed with. And it was a series. When I left “Mission: Impossible,” I thought, that’s it, man. I’ll be directing like, straight-to-video with like, the guy who played Potsy. Which there’s nothing wrong with that. Potsy if you’re out there? We’re down. So I think there was kind of a period of just re-ramping and you feel like, you know, when you’re in a situation like that, that long, it feels like this kind of straight jacket. And I think the first thing you want to do when you get out of a straight jacket is just stretch and move, and “Smokin’ Aces” is kind of my response to kind of being in a cellar, not being able to move for a long period of time. But it’s great because now it feels like things are really rolling and I’m actually glad to be working. And I’m sure my children are glad that I’m working as they have a roof over their head.

CS: How did you go about assembling this incredible ensemble of actors?
Carnahan: This is the other thing I learned really, from “Mission: Impossible,” because I don’t think we had a good experience in the scripting stage. I thought we had a great script that Dan Gilroy, who’s the brother of Tony Gilroy, he and I had written. But I realized, what that really taught me is like, you know, that’s the first brick in the building. And it’s so important and so kind of tantamount to making this thing – making it doable. I also write for a reader. I write so that you’re enjoying it while you’re reading it, and it’s engaging. I think screenplays too often are just this kind of bastard form of literature and you just toss it off and who gives a damn. But I didn’t approach it that way, and that’s what ultimately hooked a lot of the actors who didn’t do it for a lot of money. I think that they were doing it at some point for like, a case of beer. That was what they were being paid, and Doritos. They came to this thing because of the script, and also the ability. I told Jeremy [Piven], “this is like a shot for you to really go deep and to completely do a 180 on Ari Gold and the stuff that you’ve done in the past.” And I told Ryan [Reynolds] who is a brilliantly funny guy, both of them are, but, I’m going to strip you of your ability to be that guy, to be the comic relief and really hinge it on him dramatically, and I think he’s a fantastic dramatic actor. And both he and Jeremy’s funny. I have this theory about guys who are really funny, they understand drama and anger and violence in this really unique way and I think that both of them are certainly like that. And then you get somebody like, you know, [Alicia Keys] who just comes in and just kills it. But everybody responded to the script, and that was how we pulled people in. Because you know, the movie was made for under $25 million, that’s like almost nothing.

CS: Working with Ben Affleck, was that character originally conceived as sort of a Janet Leigh in ‘Psycho”? And where was he in this comeback trial that he’d been on while he was making the film.
Carnahan: Ben, just having spent time with him, he’s one of the funniest, brightest, he really is. Just got this incredibly, kind of acerbic wit… He just got it. He got that he was going to be counted on to kind of narrate it, and you’re thinking, oh man, okay, whatever your feelings are about Ben, see, I love Ben, and I think he acquits himself so beautifully because there is that world weary thing to him. And this idea of like the comeback. I wasn’t aware that he was ever – beyond being disparaged at different turns and who isn’t that he was on, that he needed to come back, because I think the guy is as vital and as viable now as an actor as he ever was. In fact I think even more so because he’s now a father and a husband and [he] just wrote and shot his own directorial debut. So I think that if anything, he’s even more kind of energized, I think. And I think that getting the nod in Venice was huge. The guy’s a great actor. I just don’t think he’s been really given his due. And I’d work with him again, obviously, in a split second.

CS: We’ve seen so much gun violence on film, how did you conceive of different ways to portray that?
Carnahan: This idea of the characters influencing the way that the film was shot and the way the violence that you depict. I think that it has been done so much, so I think doing it in a way that was appropriate for each section. To me it’s like having a thesis statement. I can be a pretty dim bulb, man. I mean, I’m not the smartest person walking the earth. So if I don’t have a clear mandate, or I don’t create something for myself, to let me guide the film by, then it gets very confusing and muddled. So when I went out I thought, well, for Alicia and Taraji [Henson] that is a very real situation as it is for Ryan [Reynolds]. I wanted it to be really raw and nasty and have the sense of just absolute chaos, kind of exploding. And in the same way that there’s a suddenness and a very violent, vicious thing between Ray [Liotta] and Nestor Carbonell in the elevator, and then you know, you get the Tremor Brothers and that spectacle in the hallway with them and the security guys. And then you have the Tremor Brothers early in the film with Ben [Affleck] and those guys. I’ve been lucky in my life that I haven’t really been involved in a tremendous amount of violence. I can count the fistfights I’ve been in on one hand. So I’ll never pretend it’s like some hardass that went into bars looking for fights. But of those moments, there’s been two of them that have been pretty extreme. Violence for me has this suddenness, and this immediacy, and then it’s gone. Very rarely is it something you linger on, or whatever. So, I just wanted the depiction of it to be that way. And it’s not, in a lot of ways it’s not dissimilar from the stuff in “Narc,” this very sudden kind of, you know, eruptions of that. And this is the first time I think I’ve actually consciously stylized a gunfight, or gun, you know, which I normally wouldn’t do because there’s part of it that I think can border on irresponsibility because we do have such a love affair with firearms. I think it can lead to bad things if it’s done with this overly glamorous-you know. But well, you say that, you say that you’re immediately a hypocrite. Well, I’m fully aware of that, you know. So, that’s a hell of a way to end a question. I’m a hypocrite. Next question!

CS: Can you talk about how the concept of the ADD crazy karate kid came about?
Carnahan: It’s funny; my brother is a screenwriter now. He’s actually becoming very successful. He wrote this film called “The Kingdom” which Jamie Fox just did for Universal and wrote a movie called “Lions for Lambs” which oddly enough Tom Cruise is going to be in. My younger brother. That was really based on a kid that we grew up with. I’m not going to name him for fear that I’ll get sued. But, no a kid that I grew up with and then my brother. My brother was an admitted freak when he was a kid. Listen, did he get an erection throwing punches at people, no. Was he on Ritalin? No. It was my need to kind of insert some desperate comic relief in there. Also, I was like what if this kid is throwing punches and he literally became aroused. That would be either really disturbing or really funny or both. When he’s walking away from Martin Henderson at the end doing that robot s**t, that was my brother when we were kids. That’s the kind of annoying stuff he would do when we were kids. I knew people would either go with it or really think it was funny as hell or it would bother the hell out of them and completely polarize people. That’s where that came from. When she calls him Boogie, that was actually the nickname of this kid that we grew up with that we knew was just a freak. I just remember him being a kid and always having nunchucks and his mother was nuts. I remember her running out one time, I’ll never forget, running out when we were playing street football and she yells to him to come inside and watch his brother because she’s playing Burger Time. Burger Time was the old video game. She’s playin Burger Time. “Get in here and watch you’re brother. I’m playing Burger Time.” It was mind blowing. They always encouraged him to get foam nunchucks. He never did. He always had wooden nunchucks and the kid had bruises all over his head. He never got it. You’d see him out there and he’d bust himself in the head. He’d have a moment where he’d kind of stumbled around and then he’d just go back into it. So I thought that was my way of honoring this freak show of a kid.

CS: This is the first movie for Alicia Keys and Common. How did you get them to take the part and were they fast learners?
Carnahan: They were really fast learners and really, really available and open to the process. I was a fan of Alicia’s obviously musically and I went to see her in Oakland at the Paramount Theatre. I remember going backstage and you know you see Alicia onstage and she’s completely self-possessed [and] beautiful. But, then you see her backstage and she’s this kid. I remember being struck like, “God she’s young.” We were sitting down with her and I said something along the lines of “don’t let people put you in some chicken s**t romantic comedy. Let’s go do something really interesting. Don’t do that for your first role.” And same thing, she really loved the written material. She loved this idea of this utter kind of deviation and departure from Alicia Keys, the Grammy winning hugely famous rock star. And Common, being such a fan of his going way back. Here’s a guy who held his ground in the face of every major kind of hip hop movement or gangster rap, where through all these different variations on hip hop, here’s a guy who held his own and remained true to himself throughout all of that. That’s why you talk to people about who they have great admiration for, especially in that world, Common is always at the top of everyone’s list because he’s such an incredible gentleman first and foremost. But, he came in like three or four times to audition and one time he flew back from Paris to audition. He never said anything. Never said anything about the trouble we were putting him through. Nothing. That’s how kind of beautiful his spirit is. That’s why I love him so much and that’s why he was able to take that stuff. What’s great about Common is that it’s all in his eyes. You watch him and he has something that actors who had come in and read didn’t have. He’s seen s**t. He’s seen stuff in his life and he’s experienced things. It just comes out through his eyes, he can just turn it on and I think both of them are kind of revelations for me. They held their own with some really, really strong really top notch actors. Alicia had the benefit of working across from someone like Taraji [Henson]. She’s going to make anybody better. She just is and the same with Piven. That Jeremy and Rashid had become friends before we were shooting so they were really working off this idea, this fractured kind of betrayal and this idea that this friendship was coming to an end. I let them riff and let them ad- lib and do their thing. They came to completely embody those characters and I couldn’t be more proud of both of them. It’s like a great treat and a gift tie into something so beautifully.

CS: The cinematography was great. Were the card tricks your idea?
Carnahan: Oh yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s also the kind of the idea that when they’re in that bathroom, Common and Jeremy, when those characters are in that bathroom having that kind of heart to heart. It’s the idea of this illusion and slide of hand and of what’s real. I always wanted to create this kind of impression that maybe what Jeremy’s character, what Buddy Israel, has to offer isn’t really that much. But, he tells him that, “but I can make it real.” I can kind of make it manifest. It’s long enough for me to make this deal and disappear into the horizon. I’m fine with that. There’s an overhead shot of Jeremy where he’s doing that thing where he drops all of those aces. That was him. He went through decks of cards like people go through chewing gum. He was killing every time. I’d always hear him anywhere on set (makes the sound a deck of cards make when their shuffled). I mean all the time. He really got proficient. It was a joy and I’d tell him, “the reason you have to be proficient is because I’m not going to cut this. You have to do this because I don’t want to fake it.” It’s a really elaborate con job. I definitely wanted to showcase that stuff.

Smokin’ Aces hits theatres on January 26.