Back before I joined Ain't It Cool News at the end of Februrary, I had a chance to talk with director Joe Carnahan in my old stomping grounds right around the theatrical release of THE GREY and what really struck me the most about him is how candid he is. Joe Carnahan isn't going to feed you lines or bullshit. He's going to speak from his gut and tell you exactly what he thinks, good or bad.
So when I was offered up another chance to talk with Carnahan about a film I love so dearly, I was all for it, even though I'd just spoke with him about THE GREY a few months earlier. For one, I'd have the opportunity to get into more spoilerish territory with him about the fate of certain characters as well as the post-credits sequence that I'm not even sure a lot of people were aware existed. However, it'd also give me the chance to get the latest on his take on DEATH WISH.
I'll always take advantage of the chance to speak with someone who isn't so careful with their words and just speaks with honesty, so enjoy a rather revealing talk with Joe Carnahan.
The Infamous Billy The Kidd: Hey, Joe. How’s it going?
Joe Carnahan: Hey, Billy. How are you doing, man?
The Kidd: I’m doing alright. It’s good to talk to you again.
Joe Carnahan: Good to talk to you, brother.
The Kidd: So I’m sure you are excited now that THE GREY is finally on home release. It’s been a long process for you.
Joe Carnahan: Heck yeah. I’m thrilled that it’s out there and doing its thing now.
The Kidd: So let me start actually really early in the process, because I was curious to get your thoughts on this. When THE GREY was first coming together Bradley Cooper was attached to it and the film was kind of developing around him at the front of it in that lead role. At what point in the process did he leave and Liam Neeson step in? Did you have to make any changes to the overall script to kind of tailor it more towards Liam than what was for Bradley previously?
Joe Carnahan: You know what, Bill, I didn’t really do any work at all. I thought it was… I wanted Ottway to kind of stand on his own. I think we were very fortunate that we got Liam in that way and even Bradley with it being very magnanimous said the same thing to me. He was like “Thank God you got Liam in that,” because it’s very much a different film. But once we kind of knew that Bradley was going to have to do THE HANGOVER sequel it kind of became something that we didn’t… I knew at that point that I was going to have to make a change and listen, just having come off this experience with Liam and just thinking about him for the role and what he could do with it, it’s like “My God…” I mean really, we are so lucky that that happened and went down the way it did. I just can’t imagine anyone else kind of embodying the character the way that Liam did.
The Kidd: How important was it for you to kind of stay away from doing a typical Hollywood ending for THE GREY? You know, because any other… not any other, but I think in a lot of cases to make a film like this, there would be some suggestion or pressure to kind of have a happy ending or a hero coming out on top. Did Open Road kind of leave you alone to do this the way you wanted it to be done so that it feels a little bit more grounded in reality?
Joe Carnahan: Here’s the thing, it was a blessing that we didn’t have the traditional studio mechanism looming over us that would have encouraged us to do something differently than what we did and I think… listen, there’s the movie that you write, the movie that you shoot, and then there’s the movie that you release and often times they are radically dissimilar from one another and I think in this one it’s like as we went along and as we were putting the film together it starts to tell you and you begin a dialog with the film about what it wants to be and for me the movie at the end was always about a guy making a choice and less about a guy fighting a wolf, you know? So that was always my philosophy and listen, I think there’s a fare number of people that felt burned by that, but I also submit to you that that’s also because we’ve had a steady diet of that shit for years and I don’t think you find that… When I did the European arm of the promotional tour for the movie, that question wasn’t nearly that prominent. They loved that, (Laughs) that that’s the way it ended, but I also think it’s because it’s a different kind of… Their cinema is a lot different and…
The Kidd: And I agree. Some of it ties into the marketing and there were some people who I have talked to that absolutely loved the film and I’m on board with that…
Joe Carnahan: Fair enough, Billy, but again I think that their job as marketers is always to bring as many people into the theater as possible and I understand that if people felt burned because they thought “I’m going to see this fight between Liam Neeson and a wolf,” but at the same time I wonder if we would have gotten those people to begin with had we not. Do you know what I mean?
The Kidd: No, I agree. It’s a Catch-22 situation, like “If we just show it the way that we want to show it, are they going to show up to begin with, as opposed to if we show it now, then we may not get those people coming in.”
Joe Carnahan: Sure and I’m hoping that the people that would normally have not seen a film like this, because they were lured in that way might have enjoyed themselves more or gotten more out of it, because it didn’t deliver the standard set of expectations and didn’t cross the T’s and dot the I’s in a way that they were accustomed to. I think listen, too often when we go into movies we know exactly what we are going to get before we sit down and I think it’s interesting to at least bash those hopes once in a while (laughs) and mess with it a little bit. I mean certainly I thought it was worth the stretch.
The Kidd: Even to go with the wolves scenario…. I mean I saw the film three times actually when it got released theatrically and now revisiting it on DVD and Blu-ray, you kind of forget the fact that the wolves are there to a point, because not all of these guys get taken by the wolves. They are so focused and concerned with the wolves, but really there’s no escape from anything once they get out of this plane crash, whether it’s the elements or a cliff, so almost the wolves take a backseat and they are not driving the action of the film any more.
Joe Carnahan: No, I don’t think so. I think the wolves are always meant to be a component as what you are saying; it’s always meant to be a component part of nature itself. I was never positing this film as like a JAWS like experience where it was a shark against these guys, it was the whole of nature against these guys. The cliff side, the river, the blizzards, it was everything teaming up to beat these guys and nature will do that, it’s kind of merciless and it’s equally beautiful as it is absolutely hostile and these people that will focus in on “Oh, these poor wolves,” it’s like “Okay, you go out in the wild and see if you bed down near a wolf den and see how they treat you and if you think it’s going to be a big cuddle-fest and everybody is going to cuddle up near the fire, then you are out of your mind.” I just find that incredibly naïve, but I also think a lot of these people, the same people that kind of took be to task, which I include PETA… those morons and this particular group… To me it’s like they would step over a starving kid to get to a wounded squirrel, so that’s the difference… (Laughs) I have a healthier sense of my relationship to the world and particularly to wild animals and not encroaching on that and not tempting or acting as if it is… “Yes, we are an ecosystem and we are different species” and I think that gets lost a little bit.
The Kidd: Let me ask you this, does Ottway know that he’s going to die? Because the first couple of times watched it with these kind of slow reveals of the flashbacks and the visions of his wife and these memories, that’s what it felt like, this kind of reveal of his past, but in watching it again I think there’s room for this other interpretation that ties in with Talget’s daughter or Burke’s sister where they are recalling these things right before their ends. Is there a definitive way, one way or the other, that he knows he is going to die? Or is it just kind of that reveal?
Joe Carnahan: Listen, I think you could make… You could certainly make an argument that Ottway is aware of or feels as though fate is drawing him out. Do you know what I mean? That he is… there’s some sort of fate accompli at works and I don’t think you would be wrong if you made that kind of assessment, but at the same time I think its also… you’ve seen it now certainly a number of times and certainly enough times to know the nuances and stuff that’s at work that on a first viewing it may not be as obvious, you know? I think there is a sense… Early on when he’s going to off himself and that wolf kind of calls to him from the mountains, it’s almost as if to say, “We’ve got unfinished business, pal. If you’re going to go, you’re not going to go like this. We’ve got some shit to discuss.” It’s kind of that whole thing, so I think when he finally gets to the den, he has that kind of realization that he was being led there all along and it was inevitable that he was going to wind up there, so yeah I think to some degree “Did he know he was going to die?” Yeah, and I think the reverse of that is a guy who has no use for his life at the beginning is fighting like made for it by the end, to the point where he makes this kind of BUTCH AND SUNDANCE mad dash into the mouth of doom, you know?
The Kidd: Let me also ask you about the stinger, because the first time I had seen the film I wasn’t even aware that there was a pot credits scene. I was kind of told in subsequent viewings and really I was curious, because the first time I saw it I thought it ended rather poetically and didn’t really need anything extra. So why is the extra footage attached at the end?
Joe Carnahan: I’m the same way, Billy. I don’t think that the film ends any differently and I think it’s the only time I’ve ever put anything in a film purely for artistic purposes, purely because I wanted to do it. You know what I mean? And that image was very harmonious to be and it very much felt to me like… To me it’s like when the film ends, the film ends, but it was the smallest little afterthought. You could chalk it up to whatever… I also did it just as, again without any real… Someone asked me what I thought it meant and I just thought to me it felt harmonious. It felt like these two creatures breathing, you didn’t know the outcome of the fight, if they are alive, if they are dead, or whatever it was. It was just a breath, that was it. So I didn’t feel the need to defend it beyond that. Do you know what I mean? The movie ends where the movie ends, but I just wanted it in there and didn’t want… And when we did it, I thought I’d show it to Tom Wartenberg and “Whatever happens happens, I just kind of like it.” And he loved it, so that was that man, but by no means is it meant to color the ending of the film. I simply did it as my own enhancement to that experience I guess, for lack of a better explanation.
[The two are interrupted and told there is only time for one question.]
The Kidd: Let me ask you about DEATH WISH then, because that seems to be I guess where you are moving. One, is that definitely going to be next? And then beyond that I know Frank Grillo had said you were writing a part for him and it’s kind of going to be a two hander as opposed to just Kersey by himself. Do you have someone in mind already for the Kersey role? Have there been any talks or discussions?
Joe Carnahan: I do, but to share it would jinx it, so I wouldn’t. Yes, I do and it’s very anti what you would expect in terms of what Bronson did with that part. It’s a more… I said this in the past, that material was originally intended for Sidney Lumet and Jack Lemmon. That’s who was going to make DEATH WISH and that fascinates me, the idea of those two guys making that movie. So that’s what I’m kind of interested in revisiting and not so much the novel as so much the notion of vengeance, the notion of what it’s like to take a relatively or completely peaceful man, not necessarily a pacifist, but a peaceful man, a guy who has not known violence in his life and introduce it in such a horrific fashion that it fundamentally alters you, you know, genetically, it does something to you that you can’t undo. So it’s much more of a psychological attack on DEATH WISH and at the same time it’s very much an action film. It’s L.A. as a walking city. It’s L.A. by bus and cab and train and in a way that you haven’t seen it and I just spent the last week with Gusmano Cesaretti who is Michael Mann’s locations guy and kind of set photographer. Everything you saw in HEAT and COLLATERAL and for Tony Scott’s MAN ON FIRE, that’s all Gusmano going and finding these thing. (Laughs) And I had the most extraordinary tour of the city I live in that I’ve never seen. So I’m really interested in that. L.A. is going to play a big part of what that movie is and I’m kind of excited about that.
The Kidd: All right, Joe. Thanks a lot man. I really appreciate it.
Joe Carnahan: You got it, buddy.
The Kidd: All right, thank you.
I get the feeling we're not getting Liam Neeson for DEATH WISH, which may disappoint some who felt it was the obvious choice given their work together in the past. However, bringing up Jack Lemmon, who is the opposite of Neeson and/or Bronson, shows we may get someone a bit more reserved and unexpected when it comes to being pushed to violence... think Dustin Hoffman in the original STRAW DOGS.
In any event, THE GREY is now available on Blu-ray, DVD and digital download. I highly suggest grabbing yourself a copy if you haven't already, because it's truly some emotionally powerful stuff.
"The Infamous Billy The Kidd"
Follow me on Twitter.