Starring Oscar-nominee Liam Neeson, The Grey isn’t really a typical film about a group of rugged men fighting against the forces of nature. The movie’s marketing may make it look like a film about a pack of wolves devouring a group of plane-crash survivors, but the story is about something more than survival of the fittest. It’s about a group of men coming to grips with who they are, and their own mortality. In a recent interview, we spoke to director Joe Carnahan about his new film and why some people are so riled up about it.

Most of The Grey takes place after a plane crash leaves a few men isolated in the harsh world of the Alaskan wilderness. These characters each have their own archetypical personalities: One is sensitive, another is religious, etc. – and the alpha male of the group (Neeson) is mournful about a woman he still loves.

When asked which character he related to the most, Carnahan suggested that he related to all of them, and that is why the film carries such significance.

“You’re all those things.” he said about the qualities embodied by each character. “The part of me that’s sensitive is the Henrick character. The part of me that loves my kids is the Talget character.” He added, “I don’t think you’re capable of making a really great film unless… you can invest [in] all the characters kind of who you are as a man.”

The film (which is based on Ian MacKenzie Jeffers’ short story, “Ghost Walker”) was co-written by Carnahan and Jeffers. The partnership worked for both men. “Ian and I have been friends for a long time,” Carnahan said, noting that the story had a “raw-based simplicity” that appealed to him. Of course, some things about the short story were changed for the film adaptation.

Liam Neeson as 'Ottway' in 'The Grey'

The original story, Carnahan said, features “quite a different ending” but the director said that he found a “real emotional climax in that film and anything that came after it would feel… tacked on.”

Not everything was changed, though, and the director sought to ensure that the film felt real for viewers. He did that partially by having most of the film shot outdoors in Smithers, British Columbia. In regards to the shooting location, Carnahan says that he was trying to make the film say “something about survival and something about the human spirit and I just didn’t think we could accomplish that if we were on a soundstage in 80-degree weather…”

In addition to the brutal cold weather that the characters face in the story, a pack of wolves confronts the characters and several fight sequences occur between man and nature. In the process, both men, and some of the wolves are killed. Of course, some animal activists are a little bit upset about the depiction of wolves in the film.

Carnahan said that he’s received some pushback from activists but said “to what end, I don’t know.” About the protestors and those who have signed online petitions not to see the movie, the director said that it would be “really nice if you’re boycotting something you’d seen.”

We also spoke about the Irish-born Neeson, who starred in Carnahan’s big-budget blockbuster, The A-Team. Recent news accounts have suggested that the studio may re-release Carnahan’s film later this year to try to snag an Oscar nomination for the star of Schindler’s List.  As the director noted, Neeson is “remarkable” and “saves everything for the screen.”

You can see for yourself when The Grey opens this Friday, January 27th nationwide.