Beliefnet’s Senior Entertainment Editor, Evan Derrick, had a chance to talk with director Joe Carnahan (NARC, SMOKING ACES, THE A-TEAM) about his latest film, THE GREY, starring Liam Neeson, about a group of men struggling against an arctic pack of territorial wolves following a violent plane crash. Discussions of God vs. fate; filming a death scene the right way; and why Antonio Banderas’ name should be both bolded and italicized were all on the table.
BELIFENET: You know, I wasn’t expecting the film to be what it turned out to be. It was a very subtle film, in many ways, and you’re directing oeuvre isn’t exactly filled with subtle films.
JOE CARNAHAN: (laughing) I think the notion that anyone will only [make films] a certain way, THE GREY is part of my response to that. I thought, well shoot, I can make a film like THE A-TEAM or SMOKING ACES but my kinship is a lot closer to films like NARC. So I thought it was essential to have this deep, emotional pull and draw for the film to really work, and not just be something you can easily dismiss. To be honest, most of the time you leave the theater, and you’re like, “Well, that was nice but where did I park?” It doesn’t really stick with you. My ultimate goal for this film, for anyone that sees it, is that it will stick with you a lot longer than the two hours it takes to watch it.
BN: I did not expect a lot of the spiritual discussions about the existence of God, God vs. fate, who’s really in control.
JC: It was something I was interested in putting in there because it seemed to me it was subject matter in a format that would lend itself to those types of discussions, those types of concerns. The idea that when these men are facing death, a great many things can begin to occur to you at that point. The film for me wouldn’t have any real meaning if I couldn’t delve into that stuff, and have these guys ask those questions, and have different points of view about it. I wasn’t making, say, a very basic survival film without anything that people could really hang on to… It’s very important for me, man, that the movie not just be, “Ok, lets create some bizarre artificial scares.”
After the plane crash lands and the survivors band together inside the wreckage, it becomes clear that one of them is not going to live for much longer. Liam Neeson’s character takes the man’s hand and comforts him as he slips away.
BN: How difficult and important was it for you to get that initial death scene right?
JC: You see in movies a lot of people being killed, but you rarely see a man die. I just wanted there to be this tremendous sense of how fragile the human existence really is. It was very difficult to shoot because it was an extremely emotional scene, and at the same time I think there’s a great simplicity in the way that we shot it. My only driving, fanatical motivation was to not let the audience off the hook. What I mean by that was, I wasn’t going to play music to tell you how to feel. What I really wanted was for you to experience the very real and uncomfortable last moments of a man’s life, and him slipping away and leaving this earth and transitioning to wherever that is, wherever we’re going. Heaven, the afterlife, you can leave that open to interpretation. And to watch that and to watch those characters have to deal with that, to me that moment was really the thesis statement for the rest of the film. You’re fighting for how important this is to you: your life and what’s come before it and what you hope will come after it. [That scene] was critical, man, and that we nail it and that it not be trivialized or oversimplified or by saying, “Well, let’s not make the audience uncomfortable.” I absolutely wanted you to be uncomfortable, because that’s the only way I’m going to pull you into that experience, is to put you right in that plane with them.
BN: Following that scene I realized this movie was going to be quite different from what I thought it was going to be. The only comparable death scene that I can think of, in my mind, was in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN…
JC: Brother, I knew you were going to say that, when Giovanni Ribisi dies. I wasn’t necessarily channeling that scene but I remember that being so effective. They’re hitting this guy with morphine to kind of give him his final send-off, and at one point he calls for his mother, which I thought was just heart breaking. And in [my scene], I purposefully left it quite low, so you don’t necessarily hear it, but James Bastille’s last words are “Wait for me,” and those were my great grandmother’s last words. I always thought to myself, “What did my grandmother see? Who did she want to wait for her?” It was part of the very personal thing that I, that we all put into that film. The cast and crew alike, we’re all put in our own personal lives and experiences.