The title of Joe Carnahan’s independent 1998 feature film debut says it all: Blood, Guts, Bullets And Octane. There’s no better way to describe the action movie director’s output thus far, a string of trigger-happy and adrenaline-pumping films that have earned him a reputation as one of Hollywood’s go-to filmmakers for unabashedly masculine cinema. In 2002, Carnahan followed his aforementioned first picture with the critically applauded Narc, a thriller about crooked cops, starring Ray Liotta; in the wake of Narc’s minimal box office impact, the filmmaker opted to go even bigger. Five years later came the supercharged, action movie by way of Looney Tunes flick Smokin’ Aces, proceeded by 2010’s summer tentpole The A-Team.
So how does one follow-up a glossy, mega-budgeted blockbuster in which a tank shoots down fighter jets while suspended in mid-air? In Carnahan’s case, he’s done a complete 180, reuniting with his badass A-Team star Liam Neeson for the new survival-of-the-fittest, genre-bending thriller The Grey (in theaters today). Seeped in profound spirituality and naturalistic action, The Grey is the bare-bones story of oil drillers stranded in the wolf-infested and secluded woods of Alaska. When the four-legged beasts attack, the carnage and intensity are ferocious; the resilient, increasingly doomed characters, meanwhile, led by Neeson and co-stars Dermot Mulroney and Frank Grillo, are fully realized and genuinely sympathetic.
Working tremendously on both visceral and emotional levels, The Grey is hands down Carnahan’s best film to date, an unexpectedly poignant human drama that’s, understandably, being sold as “Liam Neeson scraps with a bunch of wolves.” Complex spoke with the director about just that, the movie’s subversion of expectations, as well as what makes Mr. Neeson such an effective action star, the importance of questioning faith in The Grey, shooting in bitterly cold conditions, and, randomly, salsa-dancing canines.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
I have to say, The Grey really caught me off-guard in a way that hasn’t happened in quite a long time. I tried not to read too much about it beforehand, and, come to find out, it’s much deeper, more spiritual, and more profound than I expected from a movie that’s being touted as “Liam Neeson fights a bunch of wolves.”
That’s great, man. Dude, honestly, I’d say that’s the best way to enter the film, to not have a lot of preconception about it. And I hate that, too, when I go to see a movie after hearing all of these fantastic things, because inevitably you’re going to be let down. So it’s nice if you have a clean slate. I’m glad that it had the desired effect on you.
Is that a response that you’ve been hearing a lot in regards to this film?
Yeah, what’s great about the movie is, again, I’d like for you to go into it with reasonably low expectations. [Laughs.] I’d like to grab the kind of casual Liam Neeson fan, or the casual action fan, or the casual horror fan, and let them experience it for two hours. You’re going to come out of the theater feeling a lot different from when you walked in. So far, it’s been really universally positive. Listen, man, when you spend that much time working on something it’s hugely gratifying when that’s the reception.
In terms of where The Grey falls into your career’s progression, what made you want to make this leaner, grittier film after the massive production of The A-Team?
Nobody likes to think of them selves as only being able to do one thing. I hate labels, because labels, by their very nature, are marginalizing—“This guy can do this,” or, “This guy can do that.” The people I admire, the careers I admire, like the Coens, Steven Soderbergh, and Ang Lee, they don’t ever repeat themselves. So after The A-Team and, before that, Smokin’ Aces, I figured that maybe my love of Saturday morning cartoons and The Three Stooges needs to take a backseat now. [Laughs.] I felt the need to get back to something that’s a bit more substantial, like a Narc.
My heart is a lot closer to films like The Grey and Narc because it’s not the 12-year-old kid in me—it’s the 40-year-old man in me at that point. I was just concerned that I was being perceived in a way that I was uncomfortable with.
I had been trying to make The Grey, and a Pablo Escobar film, and White Jazz, which is the sequel to L.A. Confidential, for years, but I just couldn’t get those things off the ground. And while I love The A-Team… I take nothing away from that experience. I had a blast making that film, and I think it’s massively underrated and misunderstood. But there’s a time and a place for all those kinds of movies, and I didn’t feel like it was time for another. I wanted to do this kind of movie; I thought it was a different expression, artistically, and a different career path.
All of your films, even The Grey, have the predominant action elements to them. Is that just a byproduct of what you enjoy as a fan of movies?
Yeah, I don’t see myself doing a Sarah Jessica Parker rom-com anytime soon. [Laughs.] I gravitate toward those types of movies because it’s what I grew up watching and loving. As much as people shoot action, I don’t think there are a lot of people who put action together effectively. If you look at classics like Raiders Of The Lost Ark and what Spielberg did for the genre, and then what John Woo did, I just love those types of films.