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.
Near the end of the film, when Liam Neeson’s character is desperate and at the end of his rope, he turns his face to the sky and screams for God to listen to him. He begs and pleads, asking for a sign that He is out there.
BN: Tell me what the film is saying, or even what you were saying, when Neeson’s character is shouting at God and kind of demanding that He show Himself.
JC: We all have inside of us this anger at times, [but there’s a] contradiction that exists in all of us: are you adamantly aware of and involved in this idea of God, this creator, this larger presence within yourself, or is it only when you need him that you call on him, when the chips are down? So I wanted it to be kind of two-fold. I think that exists in us, that fury and that anger and at the same time, the idea that God helps those who help themselves… In the following scene, where Liam is kind of building this memorial, I never told him, Evan, to lay out those wallets as if they resembled a Christian cross, or hold [that one character’s] picture in your hands as if you’re in prayer. That duality, for lack of a better world, is in all of us all the time, and I wanted to explore that. Here’s a guy praying who a second ago was yelling at the heavens, ranting at God and I thought it was very important to show those very contradictory things.
BN: I know other actors were considered before Liam for the role, but having seen the film I can’t even begin to imagine anyone else even coming close to doing what he did.
JC: That’s where I really got bailed out, it was very fortuitous, because Liam read it at a time where I was really kind of between actors, and he really responded strongly to it and really bailed me out, man. Because I think with a younger actor, it would have been very different. And I think what you see in Liam, you see a life lived, you see an old man who’s experienced great tragedy and great happiness and all points in between, and I think you really needed that, to give it that sense of depth and experience for the character to really work.
At the very start of the film, before the plane crash occurs, Liam Neeson’s character seriously considers committing suicide.
BN: You know, I find it interesting that the one man who appears to have the least to live for is also the one who seems the most driven to survive.
JC: Absolutely, man.
BN: I’ve thought about it, and I don’t know if I really understand what that paradox means.
JC: You know what, and I’ll be honest with you Evan, I don’t really understand what it means either. I think the fact that you picked it up, and the fact that I intended it to be there, might be enough. Because I don’t know. I quite love the contradiction of a man who doesn’t seem to have any use for his life at the beginning of the film, but is fighting violently for that same life by the end of the film. I think in keeping with that idea of these various viewpoints and how we sometimes get to the point where we say, “I can’t do this anymore,” and other times you say, “I can’t wait to do this, I can’t wait to experience [life].” It just felt like so right to me.
BN: Switching tangents, did James Cameron’s ALIENS serve as any kind of influence on this film?
JC: No, but Ridley Scott’s ALIEN did, the first one. The nature of this band of people being pursued and hunted by this unseen threat. It was more ALIEN then ALIENS.
In the ALIENS films, the faceless corporation that shows no remorse for the deaths of its employees, is called Weyland Yutani. In THE GREY, one character wears a hat and jacket adorned with the initials WY throughout the entire film.
BN: Was the WY on the one character’s cap and jacket a shout-out to the ALIENS films?
JC: (laughing) I can say you’re only the second person, brother, that has even noticed that. God bless you man. And I will say this: I will neither confirm nor deny that. It could also stand for Wyoming, I don’t know.
BN: What do you have coming up that you’re excited about?
JC: I don’t know because I’ve spent so much time away from my wife and kids, I really want to spend some time with them. My daughter’s going to be a junior in high school and my son’s going to be a fresher in high school, and I’m kind of anxious just to be a dad for a little bit. But there is one story I’m fascinated with, about [infamous Columbian drug lord] Pablo Escobar, and I think it might be my best script. It just needs to be cast.
BN: Is it based on KILLING PABLO by Mark Bowden?
JC: Yeah, it is brother, it’s adapted from the Bowden book.
BN: Who’ll play Escobar?
JC: I want Edgar Ramirez and I want Antonio Banderas to play Martinez, you know the guy hunting him, but we’ll see. That’s kind of an ideal. Edgar’s aware that I want him and he and I have been talking and we spent some time in Columbia together, this has been going on for a few years now, but Antonio will probably find out about it through interviews like this (laughing).
BN: Truly enjoyed talking with you Joe, really enjoyed the film as well. Oh, and I”ll make sure Antonio Banderas’ name is in big bold letters when I publish the interview.
JC: Yeah I appreciate that, if you could bold and italicize that for me that would be great.
BN: Bold and italicized, sold!