Director Joe Carnahan Talks Death, Drama and Wolves in The Grey
If we’re to believe director Joe Carnahan, his commitment to Open Road Film’s new action thriller The Grey ran so deep that even his diet reflected the film’s man-versus-nature theme.
“I’m eating raw wolf!” he joked, picking up a plate during a recent lunch with reporters.
Opening Jan. 27 nationwide, The Grey stars Liam Neeson as Ottway, a sharpshooter who protects oil-rig roughnecks from predators as they work in the wilds of Alaska. When their plane goes down in a particularly desolate region, Ottway and the workers have to band together to survive the elements and a pack of ravenous wolves whose territory they’ve violated.
Carnahan, known for action movies like Smokin’ Aces and The A-Team, revealed that after leaving Mission: Impossible III during pre-production, he was drawn to a short story by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers called “Ghost Walker.”
“It was so antithetical to what I was dealing with at the time, which was a big-budget, flashy spy thing,” he said. “This was just a stripped-down survivor story. Something about it really appealed to me, so I optioned the story from him and then spent the ensuing five and a half, six years writing the script.”
Citing the “simplicity” of the story as one of the biggest draws, Carnahan said that after auditioning younger actors to play Ottway, he realized he needed an older star to pull off the character, particularly considering the sharpshooter begins the film extremely depressed.
“It was hard for them [the young actors] to conceive of a moment of their life, as young men, where they would be willing to end it, whereas an older actor, if you’ve seen the highs and you see the lows, it’s a little easier to wrap your head around, ‘Well, maybe I don’t need to be here any longer,’” he said.
The director cast Neeson after the actor overheard him talking about the film, and asked, “in his understated way,” Carnahan joked, if there might be a role in it for him.
Although Neeson had experienced the death of his wife more than two years ago, Carnahan didn’t ask the actor to exploit that loss for the dark role, calling such tactics “cheap and exploitative.”
“The story was exclusive of anyone’s life or anyone’s personal tragedy,” he said, expressing his sympathy for Neeson.
Lightening the mood, Carnahan quipped that he limited the film’s release slightly by adding a realistic plane crash.
“I don’t think Delta or United will be showing this one [in flight] any time soon!” he laughed. “Every time I get on a plane I’m waiting to read the headline, ‘Asshole Who Made Film About Plane Crash Dies in Plane Crash!’”
Carnahan said he filmed most of The Grey during a 40-day location shoot in British Columbia, camping out in a cabin at the top of the mountain while the actors were ferried back and forth from a hotel about an hour away.
“I had partial frostbite at the tips of my fingers,” he admitted, explaining that while all the cast and crew suffered from the cold the reality of dealing with freezing temperatures added to the performances.
“The most basic things, moving from here to there in that weather, is the most Herculean task because you have to pull your legs out of the snow,” he said. “It was extremely difficult, but at the same time it was kind of necessary that we went up and earned it.”
Along those lines, Carnahan said he was committed to a realistic depiction of how men survive, and how they die. “You see a lot of people killed in films, you don’t see a lot of people die,” he said. “This movie has a lot more kinship with my [previous film] Narc. I didn’t want it to be gratuitous, but I wanted it to be effective.”
This idea also reflected in Carnahan’s casting choices as, outside Neeson, the majority of his actors were lesser-known performers. “I didn’t want people coming with a bunch of baggage, and people going, ‘Oh, that’s the guy from The Hangover,’” he said. “They’re all men, they all feel like they have lived and had a life outside of this moment.”
With a grin he added, “This is a more mature, dare I say, film.”
While Carnahan acknowledged The Grey is radically different from his big-budget action films, he doesn’t think of it in terms of a career change. He admitted, however, that he did want to challenge himself as a director.
“I wanted to do this film to prove to myself that this is every bit a part of myself,” he said. “I don’t disown anything — I love Three Stooges movies and I love Fellini films. … If something interests me or I fall in love with something, I do it regardless.”
Revealing his desire to direct a film with female protagonists and a completely female cast, Carnahan laughed and added, “Someone asked, ‘Why not do The Grey with all women?’ And I said, ‘The movie would be 15 minutes long — everyone would agree on what to do and they’d live!’”
Touching again on the physical aspects of shooting, Carnahan said that for the on-screen wolves he used a combination of wolf puppets and CGI. He also used a couple of real wolves for long-distance shots, but admitted that was tricky because their shooting days were so short.
“We had eight hours of light, period, and you had an hour up the mountain and two hours to break out gear, and you had five shooting hours, that’s it,” he said, adding that he stayed camped out on the mountain because, “I thought the solitude was very good. I’d go out in the middle of the night and there is a stillness and a quiet you cannot describe. You feel the earth … there’s a sense of being very content and very harmonically linked to what’s going on.”
Despite the solitude Carnahan said he never saw any wolves, something the director joked was good as, “I think they would have had a bone to pick with me!”
On a more serious note, the director defended The Grey’s portrayal of wolves, saying he thought the protestors who announced they would picket at the premiere are missing the point.
“I treated the wolves in this movie as a facet of, and thereby a force of, nature. But I don’t think they’re any different than the blizzard or the river or the cliffside the guys encounter in the film, that’s simply nature,” he said. “For all their beauty, and wolves are extraordinarily beautiful, there’s hostility, and this idea that wolves never attack people — I can give you dozens of stories and accounts that are completely contrary to that. Every time an animal behaviorist or someone who is an ‘expert’ says this is what they do, I’ll show you a 400-member super-pack in Siberia that tore through 30 horses in two days, so don’t tell me that nature is completely benign.”
“For the people protesting this film, go up to the trap lines in British Columbia and prevent these animals from being euthanized — do that,” Carnahan continued. “Don’t attack this movie, because it’s not going to exacerbate or encourage people to go out and shoot wolves.”
He said he ultimately hoped the movie will touch people in a deeper way than most thrillers, and described The Grey as a film for people, “who love great films.”
“I think we live in a day and age of disposable films, and I’ve certainly contributed to that crisis,” Carnahan said, “but to have movies that are meaningful — I want people to go into this film and seeing a really great action thriller that scares the hell out of you, and then you get a whole other slew of things out of the movie.”
The Grey opens Jan. 27 nationwide.