January movies are usually terrible. It’s a time studios generally reserve for films that are either not good enough to compete during awards seasons or not exciting enough to play during the summer. Every once in a while, though, a really great one slips through the cracks and that happens this month with Joe Carnahan‘s The Grey. In a way, though, it does fit the January mold though because it’s not quite an awards film, but too heady for the summer. Plus it’ll make you feel really cold.
The Grey follows Liam Neeson and a group of blue collar workers whose plane crashes over Alaska. They’re then forced to survive in the freezing wilderness along with a pack of vicious wolves. The film blends elements of action, horror, drama and even romance in an all-together satisfying and bad-ass package. I mean, did you not see the trailer with Neeson fighting wolves with broken bottles on his hands?
/Film spoke to the film’s writer/director Joe Carnahan about the origins of that scene (hint: Wolverine) as well as parallels between the film and Neeson’s real-life tragedy, working with a small, up and coming distributor and how online media is changing the way filmmakers make movies. Read about it all after the jump.
/Film: Hey Joe, Germain Lussier from Slashfilm. How are you?
Joe Carnahan: Hey Germain, how are you man?
/Film: I’m great. I’m really a big fan of the movie, so thanks for speaking with me.
JC: Oh come on bro, didn’t you Twitter about it? I think I saw that.
Probably, yeah. I saw it at Butt-Numb-A-Thon and I thought it was awesome.
Oh, that’s fantastic. So you saw it with a good crowd. That’s great.
I did. I want to get to that hopefully, but we will start at the beginning here. The trailers for the movie all end with what’s becoming an almost iconic image of Liam [Neeson] putting the bottles in his hands ready to fight a wolf. Where did the idea for that come from? Also, without spoiling the thing, why the difference between the trailer and how that plays out in the movie?
Well I think what’s funny is, it was always that way in the movie. I think often times, as a marketing campaign cranks up, you have that image, and it is an iconic image I guess for what it is, and I think a decision was made “How do you not include that?” Because it’s an awfully cool moment, I guess. (Laughs)
And the idea came from, as I was nearing the end I kept thinking, “Well what does this guy really have left? How would you defend yourself?” I thought, “Boy, the old bottle between the knuckles” and I think it might have also been my homage to Frank Miller and Chris Claremont who did that first WOLVERINE issue years ago and he’s at this bar and he takes this glass mug by the handle and pushed it into this guy’s face and I always thought that was great. That might have had something to do with it. But I just thought it was… You know, again “What do you have that’s kind of a blunt object or a sharp object?” And “How do you plan on combating these wolves?” So that made sense for him to use the bottles this time as kind of claws.
The trailer also hints at a much more action packed movie than it is. I mean in actuality the action is very well balanced with a poignant and beautiful sort of character study. But when you were adapting the short story did you struggle with balancing the action with the drama whereas your other last few movies like The A-Team and Smokin’ Aces were just balls out action?
Right. You know what? I think the action was not an issue for me. I think what you mentioned, which I’m glad you feel that way, is that it’s nicely interwoven. I think that’s what I was going for. I didn’t want it to feel as though the movie was grinding to a halt when we were going to have a dramatic scene and I thought it would be advantageous to play these things against one another. I think the struggle was always “How do I make it interesting? How do I keep it moving forward?” And again, “How do I avoid what is ostensibly kind of TEN LITTLE INDIANS that these guys are going to be picked off?” “How do I make it seem as thought there’s an inevitability to it, but it’s also part of the overall theme of the film with nature is this kind of all encompassing, all consuming force?” So yeah, it didn’t feel like a struggle, it was more… I didn’t want obviously… You mentioned SMOKIN’ ACES and THE A TEAM, which I gave radically different approaches to action, at least in my mind. It was interesting… That made THE GREY more of a challenge; it’s certainly more of a drama and more dramatically… Nobody is sitting on a chainsaw or dropping a tank out of the back of a plane, so you know. (Laughs) So I think it was a nice change of pace in that way, but I love directing action, it’s where my heart beats, but with this the drama had to support that more than the other way around.
Speaking of the drama, the main character is heavily weighed down because his wife leaves him and of course in real life Liam experienced something horrible and similar [Note: His wife Natasha Richardson died in a tragic skiing accident in 2009]. Was that experience you guys talked about or did you just leave it to him? Did you think he used it at all in his performance?
You know, I don’t know. I think whatever discussions he and I had about it were very, very brief and I think that… Listen, I think in all areas of this film I encouraged people to bring their life into it, their actual life. That extended to even Liam using his own accent, using an Irish accent, and when Dermot [Mulroney] is telling the story about his daughter’s long hair and how nobody could cut it but him, he’s talking about his son, Clyde. So yeah, to kind of answer your question in a roundabout way is I don’t see how it couldn’t. Do you know what I mean?
I think there was an inevitability with what you are dealing with and I think Liam has been very open about that. He had this tremendous tragedy in his life, but for me to specifically use that or cite that I feel would be very kind of cheap and exploitive. It just wouldn’t have felt right to say “It must be this,” because then it gets you away from… This guy’s name is John Ottway and he has a completely different life than Liam Neeson and I think again Liam’s portrayal of him is unique and its own creation, so I want to keep it that way.
****THE NEXT QUESTION DEALS WITH THE END OF THE FILM AND SHOULD BE CONSIDERED A SPOILER. THE INTERVIEW GOES BACK TO NON-SPOILER AFTER THE PHOTO.****
Okay and I’ll label this as a spoiler, but I just have to ask. At the beginning of the movie Ottway believes the wolves are drawn to the plane because it’s close to their den, then at the end of the movie after miles and miles of walking he ends up at the den. Was that your way of saying they sort of went in a circle and they were never going to get out or was it just a nice convenient place to climax the movie?
I think it was one of those things that’s going back to the inevitability of it. You were… It’s also whatever behavior the wolves exhibited throughout the film are certainly justified in the end given where he’s at, but also think again… The movie deals with mysticism and a kind of mythical aspect of nature at times and I think there’s… I don’t know if it’s so much “going in circles” as it was there was an inevitability and I think if you go back to that first moment early on in the film when he’s about to end it all and it’s the wolf calling from the distance that stops him. I always use that as like they’re calling him out, man. They have unfinished business and he stares into that mountain with the mist in front of it and it’s meant to be very mysterious in that that moment is coming. Do you know what I mean?
“You killed one of ours. We have got this to deal with.” So I always intended it to be that it was always heading that way. This final confrontation was always going to take place.
****END OF SPOILERS FOR THE GREY****
Cool. As I said at the beginning, I saw the movie at Butt-Numb-A-Thon and that was awesome. You seem to have really embraced the online film world with Twitter and things like that. How do you think sites like Harry’s [Knowles] or ours are changing how filmmakers make and market their movies?
Listen, I think it’s a connective process and I enjoy that. I enjoy the discourse. I enjoy… Years ago I did SMOKIN’ ACES with Harry and did a big elaborate birthday greeting for him and I just had fun, man. It’s like it’s nice to do that and it’s certainly nice when something works, when something really connects with that group of guys and girls. I think that it’s become a very necessary component and you know this, a movie can open on Friday and be dead on a Saturday, because the online community goes “Alright, the jigs up. The word’s out on this thing, it’s a bomb. It stinks.” (Laughs) Having not seen THE DEVIL INSIDE man, it dropped off like 80% and I know that’s… With horror there’s a typical drop off that they encounter, but I think when the community rallies behind you it’s really wonderful. What I think it does is it just sparks people’s interests and imaginations. Certainly Harry including it in his “Best of Year” end thing was gigantic and [during the Golden Globes] he said something about if we had been nominated, Liam would be up there giving a speech. (Laughs) Man, when you have that kind of love and it’s coming from a pure place, it’s not a publicist, it’s not somebody out there kind of ringing the bell for you, it’s real people, real film fans responding. I think that to me is the most satisfying, the most gratifying response to get.
And you are being released by a sort of new distributor, in Open Road. How has it been working with a smaller outfit like that? Is there any reason why you guys didn’t get picked up by a bigger distributor? It seems like a no-brainer.
Well listen, I had a history with Tom Ortenberg. Tom released my first two films. I really trusted him and I thought while most people look at it as a disadvantage, I look at it as a huge advantage, because we’re the only game in town with them. Do you know what I mean? They’re not releasing five films, they are releasing THE GREY. So to have that kind of attention to detail, and furthermore they are owned by Regal and AMC Cinemas which are the two biggest exhibitors in the country, so just your in theater presence is gigantic and I think it’s great that both AMC and Regal have skin in the game as opposed to just paying a licensing fee to the studio. They have ownership, so to me versus like a bigger studio there’s a risk you get lost, the risk that they are not putting the kind of muscle and the kind of marketing behind the film that you want and that’s certainly wasn’t the case here. They have been brilliant to work with and they have been very, very savvy in the way that they have marketed this film and I think you’re seeing it. I think there’s a great buzz on the movie, which is worth its weight in gold.
For sure. One last thing as my ten minutes are about up. Is it too early to ask… Have you settled on KILLING PABLO for sure? Or is it going to be WHITE HEAT? Are you still up in the air?
I’m still up in the air and there’s been something brewing that I’m very excited about that I can’t talk about that may pop up here, but if I had to, brother, I think it would be PABLO just because I’m just absolutely determined to make that film and I have it in my bones and I can’t see me doing something after this that’s not a drama unless its something I could shoot in LA, like you mentioned with WHITE JAZZ although you said WHITE HEAT.
I’m sorry, I meant JAZZ. (Laughs)
“Who plays Cagney? Who do you get for that role?” (Laughs) So I think for now that’s kind of where I’m heading, but you know it could change. I just feel like PABLO is the one that needs the TLC right now and if I get any kind of love visa vi THE GREY, I want to put all of my chips towards PABLO.
Alright, cool. Joe, congrats about the movie. Good luck with it.
Thanks a lot.