It’s been almost twelve years since filmmaker Joe Carnahan made his debut with Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane, beginning his history of making humor-filled bullet-flyin’ action movies that made him seem like the most obvious choice to direct a movie based on the popular ’80s show The A-Team.
Like the show, the movie follows the exploits of a former group of Army Rangers on the run after being framed for a crime they didn’t commit. Clearly, the most important part of making a movie that would work for the show’s diehard fans was casting the right roles. With that in mind, Carnahan put Oscar-nominated actor Liam Neeson in the George Peppard role of team leader John “Hannibal” Smith, The Hangover‘s Bradley Cooper as Templeton Peck aka “Face,” Sharlto Copley from District 9 as “Howling Mad” Murdock, a role made famous by Dwight Schultz, and ultimate fighter Quentin “Rampage” Jackson taking on the Mr. T role of B. A. “Bad Attitude” Baracus. The movie’s cast is rounded out by Patrick Wilson and Jessica Biel, representing the CIA and military respectively trying to catch the guys.
We believe in fairness, so knowing we would be talking to Harald Zwart, the director of Carnahan’s competition with The Karate Kid, ComingSoon.net got on the phone with “Smokin’ Joe” last week and we were quickly reminded why we love talking to him so much, because his outspoken no-bull tendencies makes you think he could easily have been a member of The A-Team himself.
ComingSoon.net: Earlier today I spoke to Harald who directed “The Karate Kid,” the other movie opening next weekend, and he passed on his regards and wished you luck. Joe Carnahan: Harald, wish him well as well because I think there’s gonna be room for both of us.
CS: I think so too. It’s kind of funny that two popular things from the ’80s are being revived on the exact same weekend. It’s a strange coincidence. Carnahan: I think it’s gonna get a lot less coincidental in the years to come. (laughs)
CS: Obviously, you must know there’s a double-edged sword making a movie called “The A-Team” because you have all these expectations from people who love the show. Were you a fan of the show? What drove you to go after directing this movie? Carnahan: You know what? I was not a fan of the show. I was a fan of the culture of the show. I remember being a kid and everybody just loving that show. I was more kinda taken with that, how much attention that this show managed to generate. At the time, I was like 13, 14 when that show came out on the air, so I was more worried about getting laid and chasing girls. (Laughs) I wasn’t sitting at home and watching television, but again, I know it really well and I’d seen a bunch of episodes. Obviously, I had my favorites . Murdock was my favorite as a kid. But, I wasn’t like, what I’d call like I was a gigantic “Miami Vice” fan, that sucked up all of my time. I felt like this is something where if you could identify the things about the show that people loved and make sure that you were inclusive and that those things were kinda 10 to two, that you could kinda get away with… not murder, you could certainly make a movie that was not the sole province of the fanboy set and do something that was a bit more broader appeal. I have a 14-year-old daughter and a 12-year-old son. I wanted to make the movie for them as much as anybody who grew up on that show and loved it, so yeah, that was a very important thing. Again, understanding that there is a huge fanbase and I think we serviced that fanbase but also made a movie that is a standalone product.
CS: Did you go after the movie, or did they come to you and say, “Hey, what about doing this?” Carnahan: It was a conversation. Alex Young and I are very good friends and he was the President of Production at Fox. We’ve talked about doing something for a long time and there’s a couple of things that he was interested in and things I was interested in, and then “The A-Team” would always come up in conversations. He said, “What do you think of that? What do you think of ‘The A-Team?'” I said, “I don’t know. ‘The A-Team,’ it’s a cultural touchstone and we obviously have to be very careful with that because you can get into some choppy waters pretty quickly.” The more we talked about it, the more I was thinking maybe it was worth a shot. It’s funny that Brian Bloom and I just said, “Let’s do a little four-page treatment.” We came up with something that was kinda cool and we found kind of the central plot device, the idea, in about five minutes on Google. We found a story that Saddam Hussein had successfully robbed the Central Bank of Iraq about 48 hours before Shock and Awe and was able to literally steal a billion dollars from that (laughs) bank. I don’t know what it was, 600,000 Euros, $400 million in US dollars, so that bodes well for us if it was that simple to get initial point of departure for the plot, we should probably keep going, and we did. I gotta say, from there it was a very expedient accelerated process.
CS: Considering this is going to be the biggest budget for a movie you’ve made. I don’t know how much time you had to make it, but it seemed like a fairly quick turnaround. Carnahan: You know what? I think the start to finish of this one has been less than 18 months.
CS: After writing the script, how did you work on developing some of the bigger action scenes which are being featured so much? Carnahan: Well, a big part of it was identifying what I thought would be interesting. Reading some of the old scripts (for the movie), I felt that some of the stuff was very trite. They weren’t trying to stretch the game for lack of a better phrase, and do something unique and do something original. I thought, “If we’re gonna make an A-Team movie, we should kinda shoot for the moon and really go for it and not hold back.” So that was obviously a big part of it and again, knowing that we’re gonna have the support of the studio, we’re going for something really cool and really fun and interesting, that we’re gonna be able to go and execute that. That’s kind of what it came down to. But I was really looking forward to, particularly the action sequences and the stuff that I hadn’t seen because I think that I read a draft of the script where they had a Black Hawk helicopter and a plane and they wound up falling in the Black Hawk helicopter. I said, “Well, the helicopter flies, what about something that doesn’t fly?” It would be in the belly of a C-130 because a Black Hawk helicopter, it’s too big to fit in that, so already the chopper’s way too big, but an M8 Buford Tank is an airdropped tank and has parachutes. I thought, “Well, if you got in trouble with that, what would you do?” That’s where it’s fun. I said to people, “Listen, if you don’t like the concept of these guys trying to fly a tank, ‘The A-Team’ is probably not the movie for you. If you didn’t like a guy trying to curve a bullet, ‘Wanted’ probably wasn’t your cup of tea.” So it’s a similar… you go with it or you don’t or you go see a documentary. This is a summer action comedy, and so I wanted to check off all those boxes, but doing it the way I thought would be unique and fun and original.
CS: Did you have any contact with Stephen Cannell or anyone from the original show? Carnahan: I did, a lotta contact with Stephen. He was the guy that we were very concerned about making happy. Steve’s such a lovely guy and in his core, he’s still a writer. Steve’s still banging out like two novels a year. The guy’s so prolific and for all of his wild wealth and success, Steve still loves sitting down with his typewriter and his computer and his word processor and getting after it. When Stephen tells you something and is like, “Listen, you need to make B.A. a white woman, do it. Do your own thing.” When you get that kinda latitude from the guy that created the show, it’s a wonderful place to start from.
CS: Not having been a big fan of the show, what was the one thing you wanted to make sure you got right for the movie? Carnahan: I think the most important thing of all was the chemistry of the four people. If we didn’t get that we were f*cked. I mean, if we didn’t get a real sense of why… it’s so funny man, you can talk to the most avowed A-Team fan, an aficionado, and I submit to you at this point in time they have not seen as many episodes of that show as I have because I’ve seen all of ’em, by now in particular. So by extension, I’ve become a fan posthumously I guess, but you can ask any of ’em, “Give me your favorite episode,” and they will not be able to name an episode, but they will be able to name moments that were recurring like the time they broke Murdock out of a psych ward. They broke Murdock out of a psych ward almost every episode! The time where they tricked B.A. to getting on a plane… they always tricked B.A. What I think what was so wonderful about that show was that you absolutely loved those guys, their chemistry, and I knew we’d have a very short period of time in this movie to establish that because we don’t have four years and 88 episodes of a show, we’ve got two hours and we’ve gotta make everybody click and kind of fit in and function very early and very quickly. The trick was to make a show that those guys, you fell in love with ’em.
CS: Brad and Liam are obviously great actors, you can put them with anybody and they’ll have chemistry. I think Sharlto, it’s only really his second acting gig since “District 9.” You said you’re a fan of Murdock, so did you see “District 9” and immediately think, “Okay, this is the guy to play him”? Carnahan: Absolutely. I saw “District 9” and I fell in love with Sharlto and then Sharlto and I began communication because he was the hardest one to get approved. If I told you some of the names for Murdock, you’d shudder and critics really think, “Oh my God, if you made that movie nobody would be as excited as they are about this film right now.” But Sharlto and I started communicating, he and his wife Mel, at the time they were doing press for “D-9” and he started sending me all these little short films of Murdock moments in a hotel room, Murdock on the toilet. I mean, it was hysterical, hysterical. Then I brought him to Vancouver and auditioned him. He was so far and away Murdock as soon as he put that hat on, as soon as he sat down. The first thing I shot, he’s talking to the two psychiatrists about why they were the ones with the problem and he was fine. It was brilliant. It was brilliant and you just knew. Sharlto was a fight worth having. I think he’s so wonderful in the movie. If you see him it’s like, he’s the absolute embodiment, plus he was such a huge Dwight Schultz fan as I was. To me, Dwight was the best of that group, so he had that same thing about wanting to honor the origins and the history and the nomenclature of that show and not step all over it. He was hugely respectful toward that.
CS: He went after the part. Carnahan: Oh yeah, he absolutely went after it and the results speak for themselves.
CS: What about Quinton? Even more than Sharlto, he’s probably more unknown as far as acting and making movies. Carnahan: I mean, listen, Rampage, he in the film, the first scene we shot was with Liam and you’re across Liam Neeson and what an unbelievably daunting, intimidating thing you have to do your first time out. But Rampage has such a great willingness and such a sweet nature that all he wanted to do was nail it and all he wanted to do was to do right by as a kid growing up, his dream was to play B.A. Baracus. So he wanted to make sure that he was kind of abiding the legend of that and not doing a lesser version, not doing the radical departure from and I think he did so really brilliantly in the film.
CS: In “Smokin’ Aces,” you really showed off your sense of humor, but how can you have these guys joking around like on the show without losing the sense of danger? Carnahan: I think that those things, listen, when something works really well all those things, comedy, drama, action, everything, it’s a confluence of those things and they all work together. It becomes kind of a single organism and that was something that we really strove for in the film that it wasn’t just action for action’s sake or comedy for comedy’s sake, but it was something very definitive and special and specific and that’s what we went for. I don’t know if you’ve seen it…
CS: I haven’t, no… Carnahan: Wait till you see the tank drop in that film. The tank drop, to me, it epitomizes what I just talked about which is when you’re in peril like that and you feel like you’re gonna die, what’s really gonna happen? You see each one of those guys become kind of the quintessence of themselves at that moment because they feel like this is it. You’ve got Murdock saying something to Hannibal like, “It’s been an honor gentleman. The greatest ride is the last ride.” It’s like, but it’s funny as hell because he really believes that he’s gonna go. This is it man, he’s ready to die. It was just that wonderful moment where it was just these four guys in this box plunging to their death that you think, “There can’t be anything funny about this.” But there is. People laugh their asses off at that scene and think, “What would I do if I was on my way down? What would I do?” So, that was something where I thought the humor that would be a part of that, you couldn’t ignore it.
CS: I don’t know if you knew this, but this is the first movie since “Avatar” that Fox is giving a full-on all-media screening in New York City in a big theater with a large audience. Carnahan: Listen, I should tell you that they’ve got great faith in it, and they should. And I’ve said this, I feel about this the way I felt about “Narc,” where I knew with “Narc,” I knew we had done something really interesting and I knew the movie was good. I never knew with “Smokin’ Aces.” It was always an experiment. I mean, I love that movie to death, but I always knew it was a bit of a platypus with wings that film. I didn’t know necessarily how it would crossover who would get it, who wouldn’t get it, who would love it, who would hate it. With this movie, I understood from jump what it needed to be and then set about creating that. As much as this has been–like I said–a kind of accelerated propulsive period of time from prep to shooting to post, it’s still been with great care and it’s still been with a tremendous amount of hours spent thinking about these things. Also, listen man, I’m tired of going into a movie feeling somebody just scammed me, somebody just took my money. I didn’t want to do that. So if you’re gonna go see a summer movie, you’re going to leave with a big smile on your face, then you’re gonna leave thinking nobody’s gonna leave “The A-Team” saying, “That sucked,” I guarantee it dude. I think it’ll have various levels of fans, but I think by and large, Fox’s decision to do that is a reflection of how they feel about the movie.
CS: I’m sure the studios and producers want to set this up as a franchise, so how did you feel about that potential? Do you feel like you had enough fun that you’d want to do another one later? You’ve never really directed a sequel at this point. Carnahan: No, I mean, listen, I produced the “Smokin’ Aces” sequel for Universal and PJ and that was a lot of fun. I mean, I had the best time on this movie and I would never rule it out and I think that in a great way, you do something like this you have a franchise in your hip pocket that lets you do a lot of other things, lets me do my little million dollar movies with six people. It’s like, you have to kinda strike that balance and I would certainly not rule it out. I had a blast and that’s the best group of people I’ve ever worked with and we just had a fantastic time.
CS: It’s a great time for an A-Team movie, because there’s something in the air with other male-bonding action movies inspired by the show like “The Losers” and “The Expendables” which is kind of wild. Had you felt that there was some sort of resurgence in the air as you were making this? Carnahan: I don’t know. I think that we missed those “Beverly Hills Cops” and “Lethal Weapons,” you know? There’s no cynicism in “The A-Team,” you know what I mean? Cynicism is for the bad guys. It wears its heart on its sleeve and that’s why I think so many people have responded to it. You know as a filmmaker if their reactions are genuine or whether it’s not. I think maybe it speaks to something… we’ve gone through a really sh*t time in this country, man, and I think people – maybe escapism at this point is more important than anything, but good escapism, you know what I mean? Escapism where you feel like, “Thank god I got to check out for two hours and don’t feel like that was the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen. What the hell was that? Why did they do that? I feel scammed. I feel ripped off.” I just didn’t want to do that to people man. You know what? Money’s tight enough. If you’re gonna take your family out to the theater and plunk down north of $100 bucks for tickets and popcorn and everything else, f*cking hell, I’m gonna show you a good time and that’s what this movie does.
CS: You talked about making another million dollar movie. Any thought on what you want to do next? Carnahan: Listen, “Killing Pablo” and “White Jazz” are never far from my… and “The Grey” I may do with Bradley. That’s a completely different kind of themed film and more of a horror-action film. I don’t know, man, but there’s something that I’ve been writing for a while that literally would cost me next to nothing. You never know. I think when I no longer want to do those films I’m in trouble because I think filmmaking for me… People have asked me, “Is this the hardest film?” No, “Narc” is still the hardest movie I’ve ever made and then second on that list is my first movie, which took a tremendous amount of effort. This was like a breeze by comparison because you’re surrounded by the foremost professionals in their fields. At some level, you literally do have to be a moron not to get through that because you’ve got really great people around you and you have an unbelievable support system. The endemic parts of filming are things that are really important to me. I never want to lose whether I’m doing something for next to nothing and take no money, which I’m gonna do, or we do something like this. The careers I admire are the Ang Lees and Soderberghs, especially Soderbergh. He’ll disappear and go make “The Girlfriend Experience” and who cares? He does it because that’s a part of him he needs to express which I think is lovely.
CS: Of course the hardest part of making movies is financing them. If a movie like this is even remotely successful, it’s going to be easier to make one of those other movies as well I would assume. Carnahan: No, I think so man. No, you’re right, you’re absolutely right. That is the single most difficult part of the process is the financing. There’s no labor. There’s no actual act during the prep, production, post that even equals how tough it is to round up a couple of bucks to make a movie.
CS: I know you were gonna do “Mission: Impossible” back in the day, so were you able to bring any of the things you wanted to do in that to this movie? Carnahan: You know what? I think what I brought was the great lesson I learned on that thing which is kind of what to do and maybe more importantly, what not to do on a big movie. I always felt that was kind of an unresolved piece of business, my relationship with “Mission: Impossible.” I think this kind of thing expelled or exorcised whatever kind of demons I had lingering after that process. So I felt good about it. I had the experience that I knew I was gonna have at some point. It just happened a couple of years later.
You can also read what Carnahan says about his planned Taskmaster movie and his interest in directing the movie based on Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Preacherhere.
Joe Carnahan’s The A-Team opens on Friday, June 11.