It’s fascinating to think that most people will go into The Grey expecting a campy genre movie and will unexpectedly be presented with all of these deeper, heavy questions. That’s rare for a movie of this kind.
And you know what? That was never my intention. I wasn’t trying to, like, sneak a knuckleball into the corner to strike you out. [Laughs.] I was trying to frame this within the understandable, comfortable confines of a genre picture, whether it be an action-horror film, or an action-drama, or a thriller—whatever you want to call it. I wanted it to be a representation of the genre things I love. Anybody can go see this film; anybody can take their girlfriend out for a date night and see this film. I just want it to play a lot longer than the two hours it takes for you to watch it.
If somebody watches Smokin’ Aces and then they watch The Grey, they shouldn’t think that the same guy did it—that’s the goal for me.
When Liam Neeson signed onto the project, how much did the character change from the original short story and your earlier drafts, if at all?
It became more dimensional. It came to life a lot more than it would’ve had I gone with a younger actor to play Ottway. Liam brings all that great experience in that face—you see it. It’s very difficult to try to act that, because it just is. I can’t imagine anyone else in that role. He just embodied it so perfectly.
The idea of being able to see the experience in Liam Neeson’s face is interesting, because it seems to explain why audiences are loving his newfound penchant for kick-ass roles in tough-guy action movies. It’s much easier to believe that, through tons of life experience, he’s earned the right to kick so much ass than it is with most other action stars.
Yeah, definitely. You’re seeing that this is a life lived; this is a man who’s been touched by tragedy, who’s been made buoyant by happiness. Again, all those extremes are etched on him, and he brings that to these roles. And here’s what I think is key: I’ve always looked at the making of this film as, first and foremost, an adventure. I was acutely aware that we were out there living our lives and having these experiences while making the film, as opposed to just, “I’ll punch a clock and I’ll be out by the end of the day.”
We very much carried this day to day, what we were going through, with the cold, the weather, and the emotional ups and downs. And you see it, man. There’s just nothing inauthentic about the film, because we were really out there. [Laughs.] We were definitely out there earning it. We shot it in Smithers, British Columbia, in really hostile conditions. The coldest day we had on Hudson Bay Mountain was about minus-37 degrees.
How did you get the actors to prepare for the harsh shooting conditions?
My fear was that I’d lose them in preparation. What I was looking for, as opposed to them acting, was for them to be reacting, and that’s what happened. It was so cold out there, and so nasty, that whatever ego or veneer you brought into that process, Mother Nature very quickly stripped that away. All you could do was react.
I don’t care how good of an actor you are, or how much you prepare—as soon as you get out there in the level of weather that we had, your mind will start to short circuit. It just wants to get warm, so you start getting this feeling of desperation in the line deliveries that I don’t think would have been there otherwise. If I had prepared them beforehand, I would have been cheating the actual experience a little bit. I couldn’t be like, “OK, let’s go out there for two weeks ahead of time and get used to everything.” To hell with that, these characters in the movies didn’t have that time to prepare before crashing, so I looked at it that way.
Another thing that really struck me about the film is how the cold seems to come off the screen and really hit the viewer.
From the beginning of the movie, you’re really stuck to Ottway’s hip, right? It’s the same thing with the plane crash sequence, I really wanted it to be subjective. That’s how you’d experience these things, from the first-person perspective, and I wanted that sense to stick with the audience throughout the entire film. People always talk about, “I want to put you inside that experience,” but you have to work at that.
It’s so funny, I’ve seen it at various test screenings and press screenings, and I’ve seen a lot of people put their coats on during the movie. [Laughs.] I can see that they’re physically affected by the film, which I think is wonderful.
All of the film’s action set-pieces greatly benefit from that sense of first-person, up-close-and-personal immediacy. Even when the wolves attack, it’s not like we’re watching it from 50 feet away—we’re right there by the guy’s side.
Yeah, and I don’t think I would have been taking advantage of how brilliant those animatronic puppets were, too, and how the puppeteers could really make them snap. Listen, when you have an actor working against that, man, with a puppet of that size… I don’t care how long you’ve been performing, or if you know that it’s being puppeted, it’s still a big head with huge, sharp teeth snapping at you, so you’re going to have a visceral reaction to that. You’re going to have a psychological reaction to that. So I found it very helpful to take that up-close approach.
Are the majority of the wolves animatronic?
It’s a lot of animatronic, it’s some real wolves, and it’s some CG wolves.
How difficult was it working with the real wolves?
You’re aware very quickly that they’re not domesticated animals. It’s not like, “Hey, Fido, roll over, and sit up.” [Laughs.] I found it to be very binary—you could get them to move left to right, but anything else, like getting them to howl, was very, very difficult. But I’ll put it this way: My pitbull is eight years old, and if I put a wolf costume over him and have a refrigerator just off-camera, I could get that fucking dog to do anything. [Laughs.] Have you seen that dog that can salsa dance? I guarantee I can get my dog to do that!
Man, that’s both the funniest and most unbelievable animal video I’ve ever seen. How in the hell did they get the dog to do all of those choreographed moves for such a long period of time?
[Laughs.] Oh my god! Dude! Bro, you and I could have another half-hour conversation about that dog. How the fuck did they get that dog to do that? I don’t know what the hell is going on there. There’s something really creepy and uncomfortably romantic going on with that animal.
And it goes on for over three minutes straight!
I know! I didn’t even think a dog could stand up that long, but not even that—it’s in a dress, and it’s spinning around! It’s doing that hoe-down shit—it’s freakish, man! That dog should run for office. [Laughs.]
It’d get my vote.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)