So I don’t think I’ll ever get away from that, but I’m also proud of the fact that there’s a single gun shot in The Grey. [Laughs.] That’s gotta be a record for me! At the same time, though, I think The Grey is still very action-oriented; I hope that people don’t think it ever comes to a full stop. There’s always this threat lurking, so therefore there’s always a level of tension and suspense on the corners of the frame. Even when they’re having discussions and just talking to each other, I wanted that sense of the audience still being pushed along.
The Grey is based on a short story written by the film’s co-writer Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, called “Ghost Walker.” How’d you first come across his story?
I was on Mission: Impossible II when he had sent me that story. At the time, knowing that I was on the end of my rope with that film and my experience on that film, I found the story to be very appealing, because it was the diametric opposite of what I was dealing with at the time, which was a big franchise, big star, big studio, lots of opinions, and lots of working parts. I read this really wonderfully spare, stripped-down survival story, and I was quite taken with it. It was such a simple response on my part; it really felt like an antidote for what I was doing at the time. So I decided to option the short story, and then I began working on it for a period of several years.
The film’s plot is very bare, which is a direct byproduct of its source material being a short survival story, I’d imagine. But The Grey runs two hours long, so was it difficult to expand upon the story to make it work as a longer, more involving film?
You know what, it was difficult, yeah, because the film had to take on more character complexities that would drive it, in lieu of a plot, or a “MacGuffin.” And the MacGuffin in this movie is life. [Laughs.] Are you going to live? It’s very straightforward. I thought that without the ability to invest in these guys emotionally, you wouldn’t have much to hang it on. You’d just have a series of ciphers, you know? Like, here’s the macho guy, here’s the naïve guy, and here’s the sensitive guy.
There’s an inevitability with movies like this—you know what road it’s going down, I think. It starts bad for them and it never looks like it’s going to end well. But I just thought we needed that diversity of character and interpersonal stuff to weight out the story itself.
Does the short story have less characters in it?
It actually starts with more, and the number of characters gets reduced very quickly. Guys buy it in more of a group situation. It was a sketch, the short story, and it needed to be expanded and brought out. It needed to not feel like it was moving from set-piece to set-piece, but, rather, definitely a character-driven progression. By the end of the film, the scenery starts to become green, so you think that maybe there’s salvation ahead, and maybe he’s finally left that tundra behind. That was a very basic guideline for the progression of the story.
You mentioned earlier that you’ve had difficulties getting a number of projects off the ground. Being that The Grey is an action movie with heavy spiritual and philosophical themes, which isn’t an easy sell, was it tough to get this one made?
Listen, I hope audiences will be able to wrap their heads around it. I don’t think it’s a hopeless movie; I think what it does say, and very succinctly at the end, is the question of, How have you lived your life? How do you want to die? How do you want to end it? To me, personally, it’s a very idealized version of how I’d like to die: in a blaze of glory, Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid style, on your feet fighting until the very end. In that way, I think the film is very hopeful. I just hope that we haven’t strangled the subtlety out of today’s movie audiences by kind of plate-feeding them everything, and not letting them leave the theater thinking about it.
I think what’s interesting is, even when I talk to people about the film right after they see it, they’ll say, “I don’t know, it’s really grim,” or, “But what’s the point?” And then I’ll talk to those same people a couple of days later and they’ll say, “You know, I really loved the film.” [Laughs.] “It really stayed with me.” That’s great to me. I like that the film asks the questions but doesn’t necessarily give you the answers. Because, dude, by the way, none of us have those answers in the end. None of us really knows; we have beliefs, and we have ideas and our faith, but beyond that we don’t know a thing.
There’s a great line that Liam Neeson says in the film that speaks directly to that point, when he yells at the sky, and presumably God, “Fuck faith… Earn it!”
Yeah, and you know what it is? We always hear that whole “He works in mysterious ways” rationale, but I don’t want mysterious ways—I’d like a cause-and-effect relationship for once. I’d like to know that you’re there. I love the way Liam empowers that particular line; it’s like, if I’m required to get on my knees and show my devotion to you, then you’re required to give it back and reciprocate, and show me that you’re very real. I think that’s a very real, relatable thing, man, something that people go through. If you deny it, it’s only because the particular way that you choose to worship won’t allow it. We’ve been granted the ability to have abstract thoughts, so we owe it to ourselves to ask these things now and again. I certainly do.
It’s interesting, the movie has been embraced by the Christian community in a very wonderful yet unexpected way, in that it posits these questions. But again, without answers. It’d be foolish for me to say one way or the other what’s out there beyond what you hold in your heart. Whatever you hold in your heart, wherever your true faith lies, I’d hope that’s what’s waiting for you. That’d be beautiful.
That line also puts you directly into the mindset of someone who’s seemingly in a hopeless situation. What good is faith and intangible thoughts when you’re inching closer and closer to a lonely, painful death?
Sure, sure. If an atheist sees this film, they’re going to think that there’s absolutely no way that there’s a god. But if a Christian sees this film, they’re gonna think that there absolutely is a god. It’s like my wife said to me: “God helps those who can help themselves.” You can read Ottway’s “Fuck faith… Earn it!” line as just that, you know?
Listen, I can say, hand on heart, that it’s a completely non-denominational film. It deals as much with spirituality as it does religion, and any time you can even get that debate going, fuck, man, that’s fantastic. It means we’ve cut down all of the bullshit “My god is better than you’re god,” and “If you don’t believe in this, then you’re wrong.” Look at all of the lives we’ve lost and the wars that have been fought over dogma—it’s terrifying.