Director Joe Carnahan’s The Grey held on to the number three spot at the box-office and continues to gain critical praise (read our review). Open Road has already outlined plans to re-release the film in October to remind the Academy of its potential (or at the very least Liam Neeson’s potential) as an Oscar contender.
After the release of his sophomore film, Narc, Carnahan had a highly publicized exit from Mission: Impossible 3 (the directors chair was taken over by J.J. Abrams) and went on to helm the action flicks Smoken’ Aces and The A-Team. When Face himself, Bradley Cooper, dropped out of The Grey due to a scheduling conflict, fellow A-Team alum Liam Neeson expressed his interest, much to the benefit of the film. Neeson is the embodiment of the alpha male in The Grey and the story hinges on our ability to believe in his strength and leadership.
The Grey uses the circumstances of the film (an oil drilling team crashes in Alaska and must face a pack of territorial wolves as they struggle to make their way through and survive) to explore the emotional, psychological and spiritual consequences of confronting death. We had the chance to sit down with the man behind this metaphysical exploration, Joe Carnahan, to talk about what inspired this return to his grittier, rough-edged and introspective roots.
Screen Rant: You looked at the wolves as mythical and metaphorical creatures in the film. The animatronics were purposefully larger than actual wolves. How much of this movie did you mean to be literal and authentic and how much did you mean for it to be an emotional terrain?
Joe Carnahan: “The emotional content/quotient of this film is much more important to me than an ethnographic. I’m not making a nature film, it’s not an Attenborough film. I think the wolves are a facet of and thereby a force of nature, but they’re no different in my mind than the river, than the blizzard, than the cliffside. They are component parts of a whole, which is nature. And for all of its beauty there’s equal parts hostility. This is why I think the knee-jerk reaction from quote-unquote ‘the wolf people’ and the protesters [shows they] don’t even understand the movie that they’re criticizing. If anything, the wolves do pretty well in the movie. They kick a lot of ass. I never set out to demonize wolves; I love animals, I love dogs. If you look at a wolf long enough, it’s a dog. So there’s empathy. But if you crash-landed in a very territorial spot, in a really sensitive territorial spot, and you don’t think these things are going to come for you, you’re naïve and stupid and I’d like you to go out there and take your best shot.”
But it also brings man down the level of nature, and the wolves are more sentient and cognitive than the river or the mountains. They kind of have a plan and they execute it…and the humans revert back into their primal core.
JC: “Right. But I don’t think the wolves ever had a plan so much as there’s a threat, and we need to eradicate it. And you know there’s a moment in the film where the D.S. character (Frank Grillo) kind of howls up at these creatures only to have the alpha wolf say, ‘I’ll show you how to howl, pal.’ It’s also man’s intrusion on the natural world and industry, and the fact that we’re always encroaching on this thing (nature). So you’re right, they’re brought down to a primal level but at the same time, I think, are woefully incapable and unequipped to deal with that threat.”
What made you want to make this movie?
JC: “A lot of things. I think I realized, especially after ‘A-Team,’ ‘Wait a minute – am I being viewed as a schmuck?’ There were a number of reasons I did the ‘A-Team,’ not the least of which was I couldn’t make this or ‘White Jazz’ or ‘Killing Pablo.’ I couldn’t make those movies. And after ‘Mission Impossible III’ – which again I left before I was fired – I had unfinished business. With The ‘A-Team’ it was like, ‘Alright I’m going to do a big popcorn movie and see how that feels. But I think my bread and butter has always been with films like this, or films like ‘Narc.’ So I’m not going to use this as a platform to suddenly make serious films. As much as I love Antonioni films, I love the ‘Three Stooges.’ I’m doing this thing right now at Fox called ‘Continue,’ and it’s ‘Groundhog Day’ as an action movie. I think it’s funny as shit. It’s completely, from DNA to bone structure, different from ‘The Grey’ but that doesn’t mean it’s something I wouldn’t do because now [I’ve] got to make serious films. I think I made this film to kind of prove to myself and whatever people are going to hire me in the future and the public at large that there’s a lot of different things I can do. If I can do a romantic comedy with women, that’s Everest to me.”
Had you always envisioned Liam in the lead as Ottway?
JC: “No, you know what’s funny – it was always a younger Ottway and in various iterations early on, the younger actors couldn’t really conceive of themselves at 35 wanting to end their lives, or reaching critical mass where you’re like, ‘To hell with it, I’m out of here.’ So what was interesting was that it took a guy like Liam. And Liam was a happy accident; it was kind of wonderful that I was talking with him at a restaurant and I think both of us were half in the bag drunk, and I mentioned it and he said, ‘You think there’s something in there for me?’ He read it and it was one of those great moments. And now I can’t even conceive of anybody else playing him because he’s so brilliant and so spot on. And his character of Ottway, this is a guy who’s lived life, man. Who’s seen the highs and seen the lows. I don’t think you would have gotten that with a younger actor. If you’re not a guy like Liam, who’s this galvanizing presence who would lead those men, it would have been a much more fractious kind of undertaking, to try and bring all these disparate personalities together. It wouldn’t have worked.”
Screen Rant: The film is kind of open-ended with what happens to Liam. What’s your interpretation?
JC: “I’m more interested in your interpretation. The very basic thesis is, ‘As important as it is how you live, it’s equally important how you die.’ People say, ‘What does the title mean?’ That’s it, it’s the grey. It’s the grey area. It’s between life and death, this nebulous thing that you don’t really understand. There’s an Easter Egg, there’s one shot at the very end, post-credits. So what does this mean? You tell me. I have one word; I think it’s harmony. That’s what that shot is, and whatever you want to extrapolate from that is up to you. It’s something my wife said early on: They thought that everybody died in that crash and all those guys were just facets of Liam’s personality, and that all those conversations were imagined. He’s the only one that lived. I thought, that’s brilliant. Great! [Laughs] When people start making their own attachments, that’s brilliant. My only hope for the film is that it plays beyond the two hours it takes for you to watch it.”
How much did you actually write and shoot that final sequence? In the trailer you have this sequence where he’s putting the bottles on his fingers and preparing to do battle with the wolf, and there’s an interesting absence of seeing the fruition of that in the film itself.
JC: “Oh, I shot it. It’s funny, because Roger Bart, this very fantastic and brilliant editor who cut ‘The A-Team’ for me and ‘Transformers’ – Roger comes on from that background, the big action, but he also did some of his best work in his career on this film. We were all talking and we all sort of came to the same conclusion. He was like, ‘The emotional conclusion has already happened. If you now attempt to do this other thing [the wolf fight], I think it’s going to feel superfluous. It’s going to feel like you’re trying to hard.’ We did a test screening and there was this really kind of enraged group of guys in Woodland Hills. One guy’s like, ‘Goddamit this movie was building up to that fight and I want to see it!’ and the guy’s like, ‘I hate the movie because of that!’ Then they asked, ‘Show of hands, how many people would talk about this movie the next day?’ This guy’s hand goes up. ‘How many people if you saw it on a Friday would you still talk about it on Monday?’ This guy’s hand goes up. Like, that’s it right there, man! There doesn’t need to be any more than that, and I felt it would be a cheat. And the worst thing you can do is get to that point in the film and suddenly show something where you have to involve CG. If it doesn’t work you’re done. So that became a very conscious thing early on.’
On the metaphysical level, my read was that whatever these guys thought was going to happen with their death was what happened.
JC: “You mean your faith, whatever you think is waiting for you? I’ve said that, that is absolutely a spot-on assessment. I love that you said that, because I said that too. That’s what I’m hoping for in real life; I hope that whatever you are – Buddhist, Muslim, Christian – whatever you hold in your heart, I hope that’s what’s waiting for you. I swear to God, how great would that be? That’d be the greatest, man. If you believe that there’s a place where you can go and jam with Jimi Hendrix and have lunch with George Washington, I think that’s fucking great. I really do. I hope that that’s what it is, and I’m glad you made that connection.”
You’ve said that you believe The Grey is your best film. Why so?
JC: “I think it’s the most complete film. Mature isn’t the right word; it has the most ‘me’ in it, I guess. How I think and how I feel, and all my fears, which are considerable, and all my insecurities, which are even more considerable. I feel really, really fortunate and really grateful that I got to make this film. It just doesn’t happen enough where you make something that’s actually meaningful to you, that you can look at people with and say, ‘This is how I feel about the world. This is what I think about things. These are the things that scare me. These are the things that are important to me.’ I think that’s why. And it doesn’t necessarily affix itself to any one genre. It just… it is. I’m very proud of it.”
The Grey is in theaters now.
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