Director Joe Carnahan Discusses 'The Grey'

Jan 27, 2012
Originally published on February 1, 2012 12:02 pm

On first glance, The Grey looks like familiar Hollywood territory: A group of roughnecks finds themselves stranded in the Alaskan wilderness, hunted by a pack of vicious wolves. Liam Neeson, star of recent action movies like Taken and Unknown, plays the leader of the group.

The movie is directed by Joe Carnahan, also known for directing actioners like Smokin' Aces and a recent reimagining of The A-Team, but Carnahan says the experience of directing The Grey was different. Uncomfortable with being perceived just as "this schmucky action director," Carnahan says he wanted to be taken seriously this time around.

So while The Grey may start out as a survivalist thriller, Carnahan shifts the focus from generic action to something more real. For starters, the men don't exhibit the qualities one might expect to see in this kind of movie. At the outset, they're tired, scared, and afraid to die.

Carnahan says this aspect of the film is partly a reaction to his getting older.

"I think the things I thought about when I was 20, I think about differently at 40," Carnahan tells NPR's Audie Cornish. "You have a different set of ideals and personal philosophies that begin to emerge, and I thought it was important to get at these things in an honest manner."

Carnahan explains that he wanted to portray masculinity differently from the way much of Hollywood sees it.

"So much of Hollywood is this kind of overly machismo, nonsensical view of masculinity, which I just don't find honest," Carnahan says. "I think it's this idea of — you know, we're told, well, be a man, be a man. But what does that mean, exactly? Does that mean you can't carry yourself with any fear? That you can't acknowledge that you're scared? You can't acknowledge that 'I'm not sure what's waiting for me beyond this realm?' I think these are all things that played upon me, and I wanted that to play upon these characters."

In one scene, the men sit around a campfire and delve into those very questions about life after death. While Neeson's character, a pragmatist, says he's only concerned with the air in his lungs and the wolves stalking them, another character — played by Dermot Mulroney — says he's relying on his faith to get pull him through.

"We hear, 'Well, the Lord works in mysterious ways,'" Carnahan says. "Well, these guys — some of them — they don't want it to be mysterious. They want to know what's going to happen, and they want his help. They want this idea of a deity that could grant them — 'Can you save me? Will I survive?'"

Neeson's Performance A 'Catharsis'

Carnahan isn't the only person for whom the film is a more personal effort. John Ottway, Neeson's character, is grieving the loss of his wife. Neeson's loss of his own wife, Natasha Richardson, just a few years ago was something Carnahan says he was conscious of in his approach, but wasn't sure could even be avoided.

"We touched on that, and Liam was very forthcoming with the other actors and myself," Carnahan says. "He looked at [the role] as a catharsis. ... Liam was always very open and sincere, and he was able to liberate from his own personal life what he needed to make Ottway's situation work."

What kind of things, Carnahan isn't saying.

"What those things were are exclusively the province of Liam."

At the same time, some moments in the film may be haunting precisely because it's Neeson the actor. In one scene in particular, Ottway has a conversation with God:

"Show me something real. I need it now, not later. Now. Show me and I'll believe in you 'til the day I die, I swear. I'm calling on you."

Carnahan says that scene still hits him on an emotional level because you can hear a great desperation and sadness in Neeson's voice.

"When you have an actor like Liam Neeson, you have to take advantage of his talent and his ability to bring that off and make you believe and give you that great sense of dread and desperation," Carnahan says.

What They Leave Behind

With death facing all the characters in a very real way, they also ponder what memories they will treasure in their final moments, and the minutiae of what they find in their wallets comes to symbolize their lives.

Carnahan says these details were inspired by his own experiences of grief.

"A guy I worked with, a very dear friend of mine, we had a mutual friend and a very young guy. He was 24 at the time, and he passed away rather suddenly and rather dramatically. He just ... had too much to drink one night and walked out of this house, and instead of going left, he went right, and that was the end of it. He wound up being killed by a passing car.

"My friend remembers going to his home, going to his apartment after that and seeing there was still a Led Zeppelin LP on his turntable and still the signs of life and still these little notes he had written to himself," Carnahan says. "And I always thought, it's just so heartbreaking to me, you know, that's the measure in the end."

Paying tribute to that idea, Carnahan insisted that audience see pictures of the actors and their families. The photos, that play at the end of the film, are real, Carnahan says, and that makes for a greater emotional impact on the audience.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

I'm Melissa Block. And we end this hour with a trip to the movies courtesy of our co-host, Audie Cornish.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The new movie "The Grey" stars Liam Neeson as the leader of a group of roughnecks who find themselves stranded in the Alaskan wilderness, hunted by a pack of vicious wolves. Now, if you own a television, you've no doubt been subjected to the trailer. It's been on near-constant rotation.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE GREY")

DERMOT MULRONEY: (as Talget) How are we going to deal with this?

LIAM NEESON: (as Ottway) We take them on, one at a time.

CORNISH: And if that trailer is to be believed, this is familiar territory. Monsters chase men, men die and, occasionally, things blow up. Except, having seen this movie, I can say it's no more about wolves than "Jaws" is about a shark. It's about how we live our lives - the choices we make, and the mistakes and regret that can stalk us all. Go figure.

Joining me now is the man behind this little sleight of hand - the movie's director and co-writer, Joe Carnahan. Joe Carnahan, welcome to the program.

JOE CARNAHAN: Thank you, Audie. Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: It starts out this kind of survivalist thriller, only the men are - exhibit qualities that you don't see in this kind of film.

CARNAHAN: Right.

CORNISH: Number one, they're scared.

CARNAHAN: Yes.

CORNISH: They're tired. They're afraid to die. And that is the kind of thing which seems pretty obvious, given the situation, but is so not usually what you see in a movie like this.

CARNAHAN: Right. Well, I think while – listen, I think part of the film, I think, too, is my reaction to a lot of things. I think the things I thought about when I was 20, I think about differently at 40. You know, you have a different kind of set of ideals and personal philosophies that begin to emerge. And, you know, I thought it was important to get at these things in an honest manner, in a truthful way because I think so much of Hollywood is this kind of overly machismo, nonsensical view of masculinity - which I just don't find honest.

You know, I think it's a lot of nonsense. I think it's this idea of - you know, we're told, well, be a man, be a man. But what does that mean, exactly? Does that mean you can't carry yourself with any fear, that you can't acknowledge that you're scared; you can't acknowledge that, I'm not sure what's waiting for me beyond this realm?

You know, I think these are all things that played upon me, and I wanted that to play upon these characters.

CORNISH: At one point, there is a scene around campfire where the men do delve into those questions about life after death.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE GREY")

NEESON: (as Ottway) I really wish I could believe in that stuff. This is real. The cold, that's real; the air in my lungs; those bastards out there in the dark, stalking us. It's this world that I'm worried about, Talget, not the next.

MULRONEY: (as Talget) What about your faith?

NEESON: (as Ottway) What about it?

MULRONEY: (as Talget) It's important.

CORNISH: That was Liam Neeson playing John Ottway, and I think...

CARNAHAN: Yeah.

CORNISH: Was that Dermot Mulroney?

CARNAHAN: That was Dermot Mulroney playing Talget, yeah.

CORNISH: Talk about that scene.

CARNAHAN: You've got a guy that is a pragmatist and feels only what is in the immediate vicinity - you know, the cold, and the air in his lungs. And then you have a guy telling him, you can't abandon your faith because what's going to pull you through in a really rough spot, but that? And I think that's the contradiction we all carry within ourselves. You know, this idea of - is there a God and if so, is he going to take care of me?

And then we hear, well, the Lord works in mysterious ways. Well, these guys - some of them, they don't want it to be mysterious. They want to know what's going to happen, and they want his help. They want, you know, this idea of a deity that could grant them - can you save me? Will I survive?

And then beyond that, the larger questions about - well, what's going to happen to me when I die?

CORNISH: And, in this, you get a sense of grief. You get a sense of - the characters ask themselves...

CARNAHAN: Right.

CORNISH: ...what are the memories we would treasure in our final moments?

CARNAHAN: Sure.

CORNISH: And for these characters, I mean, a huge totem of it are the men's wallets.

CARNAHAN: Yes.

CORNISH: And who knew that a man's wallet could symbolize him in his life, you know?

CARNAHAN: Well, I think, again...

CORNISH: I thought it was a pretty touching thing.

CARNAHAN: Yeah. I think it's - I guess it's - in the end, it's the minutia. And it's interesting because a guy I worked with, a very dear friend of mine, we had a mutual friend and a very young guy; he was 24 at the time. And he passed away rather suddenly and rather dramatically. He just - he happened to be - had too much to drink one night and walked out of this house, and instead of going left, he went right and that was the end of it. You know, he wound up being killed by a passing car.

And my friend remembers going to his home, going to his apartment after that, and seeing - there was still a Led Zeppelin LP on his turntable, and still the signs of life, and still these little notes he had written to himself. And I always thought - it was so heartbreaking to me, you know, that that would be - that's the measure, in the end.

And that's why I kind of insisted on all those pictures that you see at the end of the film. Those are all of the actors and their real families, you know.

CORNISH: So they gave you their own home photos?

CARNAHAN: Yes. They gave me their own photos. And I think that's why it has this great emotional impact - because it's real.

CORNISH: The character of John Ottway - he is grieving the loss of his wife. And how do you ask an actor like Liam Neeson, who just a few years ago lost his own wife, to play a character like this?

CARNAHAN: You know what, Audie, we never had the conversation, per se. I mean, we - obviously, we touched on that. And Liam was very forthcoming with the other actors and myself about - he looked at this as a catharsis. I don't know how, in the approach that I took and that he knew I wanted to take, that this was a subject that could even be avoided. I mean, I think it was inescapable, at a certain point, that he was going to touch on what had had happened to Natasha. And - but I think...

CORNISH: And this is Natasha Richardson.

CARNAHAN: Natasha Richardson, who he lost, yeah, rather tragically. But again, Liam was always very open and sincere, and he was able to liberate from his own, personal life what he needed to make Ottway's situation work. And what those things were are exclusively - kind of the province of Liam.

CORNISH: And at the same time, there are some moments that are really, really very haunting, and I don't know if it's because it's him as the actor.

CARNAHAN: Right.

CORNISH: I don't know if I could picture another actor doing it. One scene in particular, where Ottway is sort of having this tough conversation with God.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE GREY")

NEESON: (as Ottway) Show me something real. I need it now, not later. Now! Show me, and I'll believe in you till the day I die, I swear. I'm calling on you.

CARNAHAN: It's funny to hear it. In the disembodied way, it actually - emotionally, kind of gets to me because you just hear that great desperation and sadness. And when you have an actor like Liam Neeson, you have to take advantage of his talent and his ability to bring that off and make you believe it, and give you that great sense of dread and desperation.

CORNISH: Did this feel like a very different experience for you, in terms of making the movie? Because I look at what you've done in the past; you know, a movie like "Smokin' Aces" - I definitely saw that.

CARNAHAN: Right.

CORNISH: There was the kind of reimagining of "The A-Team."

CARNAHAN: Yes.

CORNISH: Those seem so different from this.

CARNAHAN: Yeah. I mean, I think, again, it's important for me, at least, I guess artistically, to not - and I think part of – maybe "The Grey" was a bit of a response to that. I started getting concerned that I was being viewed or quantified in this way that I was uncomfortable with and...

CORNISH: What were you uncomfortable with? Like...

CARNAHAN: I was uncomfortable with...

CORNISH: ...what's the characterization of you out there?

CARNAHAN: I was uncomfortable being perceived as this - is this - are you kind of this schmucky action director that doesn't really have anything meaningful to say? You know, I think - I guess for lack of a better word, are you going to be taken seriously or not? And so, yeah, I just thought it was high time I made this film.

CORNISH: Joe, thank you so much for talking with us.

CARNAHAN: Thank you, Audie. That was lovely. I really appreciate it.

CORNISH: Joe Carnahan - he's the director of the new film "The Grey," starring Liam Neeson. And I'm Audie Cornish.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.