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.
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.
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)