Writer/director Joe Carnahan has no regrets. The twists and turns many up-and-coming directors face during their first brush with a big budget studio project could leave anyone bitter and jaded. Instead, Carnahan took his ill-fated experiences on “Mission: Impossible III” (which was ultimately directed by J.J. Abrams) and began looking to the future. After proving he could blow stuff up with the best of ‘em on 2010's “The A-Team,” Carnahan finished an adaptation of the short story “Ghost Walker” by Ian MacKenzie Jeffers and began casting.
Originally set to star Bradley Cooper, “The Grey” is a return to Carnahan’s roots, a gritty project close to his own heart with a production plan not for the faint of heart. Shot in British Columbia with temperatures dropping to 20 degrees below zero and winds zipping by at 60 miles an hour, the director had no interest in sound stage sets or snow machines. “You know, it’s tough to fake cold weather,” says Carnahan. When scheduling conflicts forced Cooper to step aside, the director didn’t have to go far to find a replacement. “The A-Team” cast mate Liam Neeson overheard discussions of the project and expressed his interest.
Neeson portrays Ottway, an oil worker who becomes the de facto leader of a disparate group of men when their plane crashes in the Alaskan wilderness. Shortly after escaping from the burning wreckage, the men discover they are being hunted by a vicous pack of wolves protecting their den. As the men struggle to stay warm and find food, the watchful eyes of the hungry wolves study their every move.
The Playlist sat down with Joe Carnahan at the Four Seasons in Los Angeles at the beginning of the new year to discuss “The Grey,” an intriguing departure the director hopes to follow with his long-gestating passion projects “Killing Pablo” and “White Jazz.” Here are some highlights from our discussion:
The pre-production period leading up to “Mission: Impossible III” was not a particularly happy time for Carnahan. Once it became obvious his days on the big budget spy thriller were numbered, he began looking for other material. “I read ‘Ghost Walker’ when I was on 'M:I 3' and I was coming off that process, and when I say coming off that process, I mean I was going to quit before I got fired,” Carnahan tells The Playlist. “I learned what to do and what not to do, so I don’t have any regrets about that time. The bottom line is, I had no right to be 33 years old and in charge of a $150 million dollar movie. It’s kind of absurd.”
So Carnahan set out to find something that would challenge him and reignite his passion for filmmaking. “ ‘The Grey’ was kind of a breath of fresh air because it was a complete departure. You look for stuff that pushes you or challenges you. It was an adventure and it was something I wanted to do when I was young enough that I still had steam in my legs and I could get out there and not be old and fall over and die," Carnahan explained about his enthusiasm for the material. "You have this really acute sense that you were living life at the same time you were making this thing and that doesn’t happen enough, man. There are movies in your career that you have to go out and earn, like this or ‘Killing Pablo.’ Or a movie like ‘White Jazz,’ which is difficult to shoot because it’s a period piece and it’s very tricky and kind of a mine field, but I prefer movies like that. I couldn’t ever see myself doing, like, a trilogy of films because I’m too anxious. I have great respect for guys who can. Goddamn, the discipline it takes to do that, to lock in and say, ‘We’re doing three of these.’ ”
Having seen “The Grey,” it’s quite hard to imagine Bradley Cooper as Ottway. Surely the casting change resulted in some rewrites, but even Carnahan admits it’s hard for him to imagine that version of the movie. “I can’t even conceive of it now because Liam is now so cemented in my conscious and subconscious mind," Carnahan told us. "If you don’t have a real paternal kind of galvanizing figure like Liam, I think it would have been tough to sell the audience on the idea that these really disparate personalities would have ever kind of congealed behind one man. And again, that while kind of mirroring the alpha relationship with the whole pack of wolves. It’s the same thing.”
“The Grey” offered Joe Carnahan an opportunity to explore deeper, darker themes
As Carnahan plotted this tale of men fighting for their lives and, in many cases, coming to terms with the inevitable, he wanted to explore the questions of mortality we all must face. “I just wanted to ask open-ended questions that I didn’t necessarily have the answers to,” says Carnahan. “The existence of God or your own personal investment in faith. What does it mean to you? I really hope that whatever you believe in your heart and soul is waiting for you after you die. But in the absence of having an answer, some of the atrocious shit that happens and the tragedies that befall innocent people, you’re left asking, ‘Where the fuck are you, man?’ Listen, we’re given the ability of abstract thought so we should be thinking these things. It’s also the basis for drama in a very real and extendable way. I think you can posit these kinds of questions with a movie like this. I hope that they don’t feel like a 25-pound sledge on top of your head, I hope they’re just there.”
Joe Carnahan likes to pump his cast up as he gets working on a film. He enjoys playing music on set to set the mood for a take, and before production starts, he always likes to screen a few classics to put his cast into the right mindset. “I showed the cast ‘Deliverance’ and the Cornel Wilde film ‘The Naked Prey’ that a lot of people haven’t seen, a fantastic survival film. ‘Touching the Void’ was another one that we watched," Carnahan revealed. "There are other movies I showed that always inspire me. I always watch ‘Raging Bull’ before I shoot and they happened to have a print in Vancouver. And I gave everybody the book of ‘Deliverance,’ which is actually better than the movie. It’s the same way with playing music on the set. I just think you’re able to reach people in a very basic way.”
Frank Grillo took things a step further to play the jaded and dangerous John Diaz by checking into Riker’s Island for the night. “Frank and I have been friends for a number of years and we’ve been trying to work together,” says Carnahan. “I thought he was extraordinary in ‘Warrior,’ which was one of my favorite films of the past year. We spoke after that and I said to him, ‘This is you kind of going to this place where I’m going to ask you to disappear. When I see Diaz, that character, I don’t see Frank. He really does vanish and that was Frank’s need to completely and utterly inhabit this guy that he wasn’t.”
After Carnahan completed his cut of “The Grey” in 2011, strong buzz began building around Neeson’s performance, so much so that Carnahan considered scrambling to push out a short qualifying run before the end of the year.
“If we’d been able to launch in Toronto, which was our initial plan, but we wound up six weeks behind because of effects,” Carnahan explains. “Combining that with the fact that Liam was doing ‘Taken 2’ and wouldn’t be available for all the events you have to go to. It’s like an election. You’re running for office. So since we didn’t have those things set, we said let’s just release it when it’s all ready. And let’s ignore the fact that everybody says January’s a dumping ground. They make too many movies these days for any one month to be a dumping ground. Obviously ‘Taken’ was a January release for Liam that did quite well. Honestly, it’s nice to even be mentioned, the idea that people even think it’s awards-worthy. That’s flattering. Open Road has said flat out and sort of scrawled it in blood that they’re going to release the film in October 2012 for a qualifying run, which is great.”
"The Grey" opens nationwide this Friday, January 27th.