Exclusive Interview: Director Joe Carnahan on The Grey

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Since his directorial debut Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane premiered at the Sundance Film Festival almost fourteen years ago, Joe Carnahan has only directed four other feature films, his fifth and latest being The Grey, a wilderness thriller that reteams him with his The A-Team star Liam Neeson.

This time, Neeson plays John Ottway, a loner working in the oilfields of Alaska as a sharpshooter keeping wild animals away. When the plane returning him to civilization crashes in the tundra, he and the other surviving men on board are forced to endure the tough elements and a pack of large and ferocious wolves.

Based around the Ian Mackenzie Jeffers short story “Ghost Walker,” this story gives Carnahan a chance to play with a couple different genres, and while there’s certainly action and thrills, it also shows off Carnahan’s skills with dialogue and intense drama, surrounding Neeson with a talented and diverse cast of actors including Dermot Mulroney, Frank Grillo, Dallas Roberts, Joe Anderson and James Badge Dale. It’s also a nice departure from Carnahan’s foray into franchise with The A-Team as in some ways, it returns him to his indie roots.

ComingSoon.net got on the phone with “Smokin’ Joe” a couple of weeks back to talk about the movie and other things he had circulating in his head.

ComingSoon.net: I really enjoyed “The Grey.” I think it’s my favorite movie you’ve done since “Narc” and I actually liked the two movies you’ve made since then.
Joe Carnahan:
I’m with you. Listen, it’s my personal favorite and I’m glad it’s being received… It’s just kind of a nice welcome change I guess (chuckles). It’s lovely to kind of experience it.

CS: I’ve talked to you a bunch of times over the years but I’m not sure we ever discussed this, so this was a short you’d been developing with the author for a couple years?
Carnahan:
Yeah, when I was on “Mission: Impossible III,” Ian had sent me his short story, and I think it was one of those things where it was just so antithetical to what I was doing at that moment – big franchise with a big movie star, a big studio and obviously huge expectations attached. Along comes this very spare, paired-down survival story, and I also think I was winding down my time on “M:I 3.” When I say “winding down,” I quit before I was fired basically and this just held this really great appeal for me. I read it; Ian did kind of a partial 80 or 90-page draft, and then I took what he had written and spent the next kind of four and a half, five years working on it over time and kind of cultivating it and developing it, and as my own ideological, intellectual mores shifted, I would kind of plug it into the script. It’s great in that way in that’s it’s just a plotless process, this movie–you’re gonna live or you’re gonna die–and that allows you to put a lot of inner personal stuff and a lot of emotional content without it getting in the way of mucking up the velocity of the story and plot moving forward.

CS: This could have very much gone into genre territory–and it kind of does–but roughly halfway through the movie, it starts getting serious and it’s more about the characters and their philosophies. Once you introduce the wolves, you kind of expect the movie is just going to be wolves killing someone every ten minutes or so and it’s not that at all. (SPOILER WARNING: A lot of people die in this movie, but Carnahan gives away one of them in this response.)
Carnahan:
No, I wanted to move away from whatever someone’s expectations for the film were going to be, and I was hoping to kind of dash that at every opportunity because I didn’t want this to kind of fall into this very kind of mappable – like, “Oh, okay, I’ve seen this movie before and this is what’s going to happen.” I don’t want to go down that route. I thought it was more impactful to kind of avoid those things. Even from the first post-plane crash with James Badge Dale’s character, that scene with him and Liam. You see a lot of people killed in the movie, but you don’t see a lot of people die. To kind of show that and have an audience live with that, I wanted them to know that there was a very different movie from that moment forward. That was important to me. That was something I kind of strove for and hope we got.

CS: At what point did Liam come on and was he older than the character was originally written?
Carnahan:
Yeah, Ottway was always written as a much younger man, so it’s nice that Liam overheard a conversation I was having with Jules Daly (chuckles), who produced “The A-Team” and who produced “The Grey” for me. She and I were talking about actors. I think Liam has said as much that his ego got the better of him, and he started to ask us, “What’s this about and is there something in it for me?” I showed him the script and he really flipped out, and it became something where Liam’s name was going to get this thing made, and the rest is history. We were able to kind of move forward very quickly.

CS: Was Bradley Cooper also involved at some point?
Carnahan:
He was. Bradley and I had a discussion. He was very interested. He loved the script, but I think he had prior commitments, “The Hangover” sequel being primary among them, so he had to move on to that film. It’s funny, because I can’t even see or conceive the film as anybody but Liam playing Ottway.

CS: I also liked the casting around Liam, because I knew many of the other actors, like Dallas Roberts, but I didn’t even recognize them and watched this not knowing who anyone was.
Carnahan:
You know what? Honestly, Ed, I think we took great pains, even like Dermot Mulroney, I tried to cast the film in a way where you’d avoid having recognizable actors bringing what I thought would be a lot of unnecessary baggage to these roles where you’d go, “Oh, that’s the guy in that movie” or “That’s the guy in what have you.” I just didn’t want there to be a lotta history with these guys. I wanted the audience to kind of discover them. Even though these guys have all worked for years, I wanted them to be kind of discoveries.

CS: Well, it worked. Until the end of the movie, I didn’t know who half of them were and even once I saw the cast at the end, I couldn’t tell you which one played which character, including Dermot Mulroney. I’ll have to go back and see the movie again.
Carnahan:
Oh yeah.

CS: Frank Grillo is a friend of yours, and he’s absolutely amazing. That must’ve been a tough role to fill, so did you gear the character more towards what Frank could do?
Carnahan:
I geared it towards him as much as… listen, Frank geared himself toward that, and I always make fun of him, but if you ever saw Frank’s script for “The Grey,” it looks like a serial killer’s diary. It’s like, there’s all these little kind of margin notes in this micro handwriting, and all these things that would only make sense to him, but all these great observations he was making about the character. Frank had that ability to completely kind of vanish inside of Diaz, so when I look at the film I never see Frank, I always just see Diaz, that character, and that’s really a testament to how much that guy invested in that role and how deep he went.

CS: I assume everyone, once they read the script, knew they’d have to commit to being outdoors in the elements, so did you get them together before and have them do indoor rehearsals?
Carnahan:
You know what? Yeah, it was important. Listen, I made everybody eat wolf meat, we all ate that.

CS: Oh, great. (laughs)
Carnahan:
Everybody was in Smithers and we all went out into the elements together and got a sense of where we were going to be, what we were going to be doing. I never felt like I was selling a bad bill of goods because if you read the script you knew exactly what you were in for. In that respect, I thought, “Listen, if you feel like I fooled you, you weren’t paying attention to what was on the page.” (laughs) But yeah,I think the amount of time we spent together and the fact that I screened a lot of films for them, which then we were able to kind of have these conversations and get into one another’s heads and see what made the other guy tick, I think that was very important.

CS: How’d you end up filming in Smithers and go about scouting for all those amazing locations?
Carnahan:
Well, John Willett, my production designer, he’s an absolute nuts and bolts brilliant kind of blue collar guy. He had done a film called “Eight Below,” and they basically used a similar area of Smithers for the mountain as a stand-in for Antarctica. So we went back there, because also John knew logistically, as much of a pain in the ass it’s going to be, if I’ve got to haul a disassembled 737 up this mountain and create this set, it’s doable. Boy, did he ever do a hell of a job with that, and that’s how we wound up there. But the desolation in that place and the cold and the foreboding is pretty extraordinary.

CS: Is it near any sort of city or town at all or is it just in the middle of nowhere as it looks?
Carnahan:
You know what? It’s about an hour and a half from Smithers proper. You have to drive down the mountain to get to that, and it’s 40 minutes from the nearest kind of cabin. There’s a mountain there and there’s a resort and a ski place, but it’s fairly distant. We had to build basically a little settlement on the side of this mountain and kinda put ourselves at the whim of mother nature, which we did.

CS: When did you actually shoot this? Was it in January or February?
Carnahan:
It was funny. This coming Tuesday the 10th will mark the one year anniversary of our start date.

CS: Wow, okay, so that’s gotta be the coldest time of the year up there, too.
Carnahan:
Yeah, oh yeah, yeah. We weren’t going in a balmy, tropical (Laughs) portion of that season. We were in the teeth of winter.

CS: How did you get all these actors to not just go completely nuts while doing that?
Carnahan:
Well, I think it was Liam, man. I mean, Liam very early on in the rehearsal kind of stated his case and said, “If you guys will trust me, I’ll trust you, and let’s go. If we all love this script, let’s go kind of prove it and do this material proud.” That was huge because without Liam’s kind of rock-like reliability, the movie doesn’t happen. It’s just, we would’ve derailed the first week if there had been any kind of a flux in the behavior of the cast. He really set the stage and created this great pace car, you know, “This is what we’re going to do, and this is how we’re going to do it,” and it made my job a hell of a lot easier.

CS: When you have a project you’ve written and have been developing for years, how flexible are you when you bring on these actors and they start developing the characters and they start going away from what you had originally envisioned?
Carnahan:
I think as a filmmaker and as a director you shortchange yourself if you inhibit the ability of your actor to bring their own personal experiences to the characters. Liam actually read it early on and was like, “Do you mind if I do this character as an Irishman?” I thought about it and said, “You know? No, I don’t mind that. I think it will be very liberating in ways that aren’t necessarily kinda presenting themselves right now, you know? It’ll be freeing.” In the same way that Dermot’s telling this story about his daughter’s long hair and how he was the only one that’s allowed to cut it. Well, Dermot’s talking about his son Clyde, and that’s a real story. So, I always felt it’s very restrictive to say, “You can do this, you can’t do that.”

CS: Let’s talk about the wolves, because they’re a big key to the movie working. I know you worked with Howard Berger and Greg Nicotero of KNB who do amazing work…
Carnahan:
Oh, incredible.

CS: How did you decide how much you would be able to do on-set with real wolves and animatronics and how much you’d have to do later in post?
Carnahan:
I think when you’re working with live wolves that you have to start shooting and provoke them as much as you can. But listen, wolves, they’re not domesticated animals. It’s not like a dog where you can say, “Hey Fido, roll over, play dead, sit up.” It’s like, they’re going to do whatever the f*ck they feel like doing. In this instance, I think the wolves were a bit skittish and a bit unpredictable. I think they were very good and functional if you got them to go from A to B, but if you asked them to do anything more than that, I found it created problems, so we had to be very specific. Also, the wolves become a kind of elemental force, and there’s a lot of the movie you don’t see them at all. You feel them and you hear them. I think that was absolutely purposeful. I didn’t want to constantly have to show the wolves.

CS: But you did use some CG as well?
Carnahan:
There’s CG in there but it’s very minimal, man. It’s just us being very specific about the way we shot it and positioning these wolves and putting them on the right place at the right time. A lot of it’s mapped out. We were very fortunate that they kind of acquiesced and they behaved the way we needed them to.

CS: You actually put the live wolves and the actors all together?
Carnahan:
No, no, they were always separated, and they feel like there’s times when they’re together, but they were always very carefully kind of cut off from one another.

CS: This movie seems to take you back a little to your independent roots since you made it without a studio and just had Tony and Ridley (Scott) financing it. Was that something very deliberate, that you wanted to do the movie that way?
Carnahan:
It was one of those things where I didn’t think it was… and I had kind of made the rounds at the studios. No one was really interested in making the film, and I don’t blame them. Listen, it’s a tough sell and if you’re talking about something that’s purely a survival film, initially when I was going around with it, the movie “Flight of the Phoenix” had come out, so I think it was an uphill proposition. As it stands, I’m very grateful and I’m glad that we didn’t go with a studio because I can’t imagine what they would’ve made of that film (laughs) of everything, of the spiritual aspect of the film, the theological aspect of the film. It’s some of the more uncomfortable moments in that movie, my fear was they would have ended up on the cutting room floor if you’re going for a classic, broad, mainstream release.

CS: The theological musings were really good, and I imagine Liam must’ve brought some part of his own life to that.
Carnahan:
Well, I think it’s unavoidable. If you’re going to start plugging into a scene where you’re ranting against God, you’re going to invariably get a larger portion of the individual outlook than you would in another scene. It’s almost a fait accompli at some point that you’re going to get the deeper reservoirs of someone’s feelings about that. I think Liam just happens to be a world class actor and can give those things in spades. I think that’s interesting.

CS: Absolutely. The movie is really elevated by having him in that role.
Carnahan:
Absolutely. I couldn’t agree more.

CS: I read Harry Knowles was petitioning that the movie should have had an Oscar run for Liam’s performance, and though it’s a genre movie, it definitely has dramatic qualities that would warrant it. I have a feeling this may have made some Top 10 lists if released last year.
Carnahan:
Listen, it’s going to come out this year and then we’ll see. Open Road is going to do a reminder campaign for Oscars in October, which is brilliant. They certainly didn’t have to do that, but I think hopefully it’s a testament to how much they believe in the film, which is always nice to hear.

CS: What’s your take on the studio system and working with studios now? One thing I like about talking to you is that you always call things as you see it.
Carnahan:
Right. No, Ed, I think there’s a place for it. I certainly wouldn’t rule out… listen, there are studios I love. I love Universal. I love Fox. A guy like Tom Rothman, we need more of that kind of guy in this business because it’s just boring without him. As much as I know he’s reviled in certain circles (laughs), I had a great time, and it was a huge learning experience for me making “The A-Team.” As I get older and as my career kind of progresses, two things–control and autonomy–are paramount to me. They really are. I’m getting less and less patient. There’s friends of mine like Neill Blomkamp. I don’t think Neil would ever do a film that he doesn’t have 100 percent say in where it’s going and how it’s going, so I think that there’s certainly a place, and I would never rule out making a studio film, but I would prefer to do my own thing.

CS: Tom’s definitely upped his rating among the genre set with “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and “X-Men” last year.
Carnahan:
Oh, absolutely, man. I liked both those films quite a bit. They both worked really well, but again, when I think about had “The A-Team” been a success, I’d be working on “A-Team 2” right now, and therefore, “The Grey” wouldn’t have happened, and that would’ve been to me, personally, a great travesty.

CS: You’ve been working on “The Grey” for the last year, but you also had other projects you’ve been developing over the years. Do you have any idea what you want to do next?
Carnahan:
I would love to do “Killing Pablo.” I keep saying that it’s this under-nourished orphan and this kid needs a meal. (Laughs) I need to fatten this kid up and go do it. I’m hoping that that would be the next one. I don’t know when, but it’s going to be sometime this year.

CS: I think the last time I talked to you, someone else was doing a Pablo Escobar movie, and their movie isn’t happening now.
Carnahan:
Yeah, I think I’d read that the guy that did “The Lincoln Lawyer” was developing one, but I’m so confident in the script that I have, and I think it’s such a great piece of material that even if they mounted one before me, it wouldn’t stop me from making mine.

CS: Are you still interested in doing a superhero movie or a comic movie sometime?
Carnahan:
You know what? I would rather develop my own stuff. There’s a couple of things I’m working on that are kind of in that genre of that, that I’m a lot more fired up about then taking on someone else’s property, you know what I mean?

CS: Sure. If you did one of those, you wouldn’t have any of the control or autonomy and you wouldn’t be open to do your own thing.
Carnahan:
Yeah, listen, it’s important that as much as the destiny you control and take, I just want to take as much ownership of that as I can.

CS: A question I’ve decided to ask all filmmakers this year: What movie did you see in 2011 you wish you made, and what movie you haven’t seen are you looking forward to the most?
Carnahan:
Oh gosh. There’s probably two films I saw in 2011. I wish I’d made “Warrior” and I wish I’d made “Drive.”

CS: That’s funny. I probably would have guessed those two movies.
Carnahan:
Yeah, those are great. But listen, I loved “Tree of Life,” man. I love that film. I loved “Midnight in Paris.” What else did I really like? God, I’m trying to think of the films. Those are primary among them.

CS: What movie that you haven’t seen yet that’s the one you’re looking forward to?
Carnahan:
That I’m looking forward to? Jesus… oh goodness. It’s funny, I really want to see “Hugo.” I’ve not seen “Hugo.” Yeah, I want to see that.

CS: Have you had a chance to play with 3D or see if that’s something you want to explore in the future?
Carnahan:
Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve not made peace with 3D yet. To me, still my favorite 3D film is “Dial M for Murder.” I thought that was great. Hitchcock used it, could put you in the room, which I thought was fantastic, but I’m still not a devotee of 3D.

CS: “Hugo” will either make you want to do something in 3D or put you off 3D since what Scorsese does in the format is so great.
Carnahan:
You know what? No, I don’t think it would put me off it. Listen, why I’m so intrigued to see “Hugo” is because I think 3D in the hands of someone like that, I’d be really interested to see what it looked like, you know what I mean?

CS: Right, but it might put you off doing it, since it may be hard to use 3D as creatively as he does.
Carnahan:
Right, or Ridley did “Prometheus” in 3D and I’m kind of really interested to see that.

The Grey opens nationwide on Friday, January 27.

(Photo Credit: Juan Rico/Fame Pictures)