Interview: Joe Carnahan Discusses 'The Grey' & His Directing Career
by Alex Billington
January 30, 2012
"You suffer for your art; we're going to suffer on this one." Now playing in theaters is The Grey, a survival thriller directed by Joe Carnahan, of The A-Team most recently, as well as Smokin' Aces, Narc and Blood, Guts, Bullets & Octane. The film, starring Liam Neeson, Dermot Mulroney, Frank Grillo and Dallas Roberts, is about a group of Alaskan pipeline workers who crash in the wilderness and try to survive being hunted by wolves. I've seen the film a few times and it's awesome, I love it, so I jumped at the opportunity to speak with Joe Carnahan a few weeks back. We talk about his career and the incredible realism of The Grey.
I am a very big fan of the movie and wanted to talk to him more about the darker themes, the realism, how they pulled off such a fantastic character piece about this kind of survival, which is the focus of my interview along with Carnahan's career and how/why he got to this point. I'm very glad I got to speak with him, he's an amusing guy and loved talking about making this film. Without further ado, let's crash right into this…
I first want to ask what brought you to this point in your career. Following Smokin' Aces and The A-Team, how did you then get to this intimate survival thriller…?
Joe Carnahan: I think I started looking at how I may have been perceived or how I was thinking… Listen, you always think of yourself differently than how you are portrayed, I guess. So I thought, "Wait a minute. Am I turning into an asshole? Am I like the guy that's out doing the A-Team?" I thought, "Well, that's not really who I am…"
But listen, it sounds kind of… It almost sounds chicken-shit, like I'm backing away from it. I adore, I loved making the A-Team. But that's fun. That's not… Somebody said, "well it must have been difficult film to make." The A-Team compared to making Narc was a breeze. There's a whole other skill set and whole other kind of bone structure that goes into making a movie like Narc versus the A-Team.
So my kinship with The Grey and with Narc, that's much more closer to who I am as a man. But at the same time, it's like, I love the films of Antonioni or Kurosawa. I also love Three Stooges' shit. I think the careers I admire: Ang Lee, and Steven Soderbergh, even the Cohens, man. Look at Raising Arizona. Then look at No Country For Old Men. I love that!
So I don't try to back away or shy away from a movie like Smokin' Aces, which I adore, man. But The Grey certainly kind of emanates from the core of I guess who I am as a man or what's important to me, or the questions I ask. And often, dude, they're vagaries. I don't know. They're open-ended. People say to me, "Well, what does this mean to you?" I say, "Well I'm a lot more interested in what it means to you as opposed to my thoughts on it." My thoughts are up on the screen. You tell me what you think.
Is that what specifically attracted you to The Grey, being so much of a survival, questioning life and morality?
Carnahan: Yeah, man. You know, brother, when you have a largely plotless film, you can afford to do things like that. You can afford to ask questions like, "Is there a God? What will happen to me when I die? Am I going to make it out of here?" You know, the things that I think in a lot of these movies, I think that Hollywood has this way of… everything has to be kind of 'machoed up' and made so masculine that it becomes false. What I wanted was these guys… how I would be, man. I don't know. It's like I want even something as kind of profound as the ending, however you view that. I hope, bro, that I would have the guts to get on my feet, when, in reality, I'd probably be like soaked in my own tears and frozen to death.
Yeah, I think all these things in concert, all these things that are meaningful to me at this time in my life, I think what's great about it is that The Grey became the platform for that, I guess.
What I love about the film, what makes it work so well is how grounded it is in terms of how realistic the characters are and the approaches, and how realistic everything plays out. Hollywood could punch up any old story like this and make the elements seem unnecessarily overbearing on them. But everything about it is real and gritty…
Carnahan: Well I think again, man, this is one of those instances in your career, and I hope to make a lot more of these, where you really have to go out and earn it. You really have to go out in hip-high snow, minus-25, minus-30 degree weather, and you gotta fuckin' earn it, man.
Cause honestly Alex, within the first couple scenes of this film, if I had shot this in Glendale on a sound stage with Styrofoam snow, you would have outed me in a second and said that's fake. Dude, I love The Thing, Carpenter's version. But I can tell that Kurt Russell takes a drag off of a cigarette and walks into a scene… watch how many times that happens in that movie, where he exhales… [laughs] and it's brilliant, it works! It does, it works. But it wasn't that… this type of film had to be an absolutely gut level visceral assault on the filmgoer and not a cushioned, patterned… I just think I would have been betraying the amount of years it took me to put it together, finally, and just the very basic essence of the film to do this kind of bullshit version and not make not only the cast suffer, but myself as well. You suffer for your art; we're going to suffer on this one.
How much of it was shot realistically like you're talking about, especially with the actors. How much were they brought into that real environment?
Carnahan: When you see Liam discovering everybody post-plane crash and you see that wind hitting him, there's not enough Ritter fans on the planet I could bring up to create that. When they're walking across the Tundra, that's all real, man. All of that is real. Listen, the movie has that effect on you. I remember watching a test screening and I saw a woman…You know, dude, we're sitting there in the theater. It's probably 75 degrees in the theater. She puts her coat on! I thought, "That's great! That's great!" There's some subliminal thing that's saying she's cold. I love that. So it was real and I think it was necessarily so.
How much of this is Liam's movie as much as it is your movie? What did he contribute to it and bring to it?
Carnahan: Oh, brother, I think it's equal parts. I think it's all of our… I think what you're seeing is kind of a co-op or kind of a group effort when people. I wanted them to kinda bring their own personal experiences to bear on this and I wanted them to color it with their own life experiences. I think the movie only works because they're like… A perfect example is Dermot [Mulroney] talking about his daughter's long hair and how his ex respected the fact that only he could cut her hair. Well, he's talking about his son Clyde. That's a true… That's Clyde! Nobody was allowed to cut Clyde's hair but Dermot. I love that. It added a nuance and it added a meaningfulness that, to me, is emblematic of the film as a whole. It's influenced by the people in it, and not just as the characters, but as the men portraying them.
You pretty much explained why I love the characters so much, because there is that sense of realism to them. Speaking of how brave this film is, watching it, how deep each person's character is and how there's so much to each of them, in addition to just being the guys who are trapped out there…
Carnahan: Right. And another instance of that, brother - Liam doing it is his actual accent. He's an Irishman! For Liam actually to be able to play an Irishman - immediately, dude, you've liberated parts of his life and parts of his personality that were kinda heretofore unexamined if you just said to him, "Hey, I need you to do this in kind of a flat Midwestern accent. You're from Kansas City…" He had asked me early on, "Do you mind if I do this in my own native tongue?" I thought, "Of course." Because there's going to be a naturalism. There's going to be a relaxed quality to it that I couldn't capture if I had said to him, "Oh, I need you to do a regional Alaskan accent." You know what I mean? I thought that would have been a mistake.
I heard that there is a good mix of animatronics versus CG wolves.
Carnahan: There's a lot more animatronics than there is CG, yeah.
I was wondering where you found a balance. Did you use animatronics as much as possible?
Carnahan: I did, because I thought, the last thing I wanted was one of my actors wrestling with a tennis ball. Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger of K&B, who are, in addition to being lovely artists, directors, and creators of their own standing and merit, are also wonderfully… they understood what I was going for. They understood that I wanted realism and yet a slightly heightened sense. You're talking about two gigantic fans of Jaws and the idea of the creature movie.
But also, what's great about those guys, they understood we didn't want to deviate so much that it became almost a supernatural film. We wanted to keep the dimensions close enough to reality: "Goddamn, those wolves are big," but not, "Oh, that's like a dinosaur." Yeah, I think it was important to me that… Listen, when they had that Alpha head up, and Howard did almost all the puppeteering, when that thing would snap at you, it's a weird, primal like: "Fuck me!" So yeah, I didn't want there to be… I feel like CG is so overused nowadays. You don't get a sense of…
And listen, we shot so much motion capture stuff with the wolves themselves. To get their real movements we built… like the wire frames we built were all based on their movements… and basically taking it and transposing it into the digital realm so that the movement was all natural and the musculature and everything moved in sync. So I'm glad that thus far no one's kinda poked holes in it and said, "I know where that was CG." It just seems uniform. I love that. Because I'm telling you, if you knew how much spit and bailing wire was actually involved it would blow your mind. It really is. There's a lot of… but it's primarily animatronic and real. And we were very, very fortunate that we were able to do that.
I love the shots of when you see the breath of the wolf howling. I love all of those elements working together so well.
Carnahan: It's the proof of their existence and their vitality and their robustness, I guess, of these wild animals. They're there. And that scene in particular that you are talking about, it's like the notion that Diaz thinks that he has the requisite power to howl at nature. When they howl back they really show you kinda who's boss and who's in charge. I think just doing it that way as opposed to showing a ridgeline filled with 30 wolves, I didn't think that would be as effective.
To wrap up and bring it full circle, what kind of films do you love to make?
Carnahan: I obviously love The Grey, that was a pleasure to make. It was also very difficult. Listen, I love Smokin' Aces. That was a lot of fun to make. Completely different part of your brain, I guess. Some would argue the part that they don't want you to use. I think stuff with great stories and colorful characters and unique situations. It's like I don't have any one genre, I guess. I think you'd be hard-pressed to get me into a rom-com, but who knows? We're in a pretty tough economic situation right now. You never know? But no.
Listen, Killing Pablo is the next film I want to make. And that's obviously hugely different from The Grey in that It's like a manhunt; it's a pursuit film. And it's a different language. I always look for… hopefully look for a challenge. And you're always looking for the next summit to hit. Even if it's a personal one. It needn't be some great sense of monumental… It just has to be important to you and big enough, and special enough, and individual enough that you get up for it. And that can be anything.
Cool. Thanks for your time. I appreciate it.
Carnahan: Nice meeting you, Alex. Thanks a lot, man.
Thank you to Joe for the interview and Open Road Films for arranging. The Grey is currently playing in theaters and I highly suggest seeing it if you haven't yet. You can participate in a discussion on our Sound Off for the film. I hope you enjoyed my interview with Joe Carnahan - to read more interviews, click here.