Politics at the Movies

(Ed’s Note: The interview contains some mild plot spoilers for “The Grey”.)

Recently, in San Francisco, I had a chance to chat with co-writer and director Joe Carnahan and actor Frank Grillo about their new release “The Grey” which opens this week.  The film, which is reviewed in a separate column this week, tells the story of a group of oil workers whose plane crashes in the Alaskan wilderness, and where they find themselves stalked by a pack of almost mythically large wolves. Joe is a Sacramento native and we’ve known each other for several years through the local film community and the Sacramento Film and Music Festival (which I co-direct).

As we were setting up for the interview, Joe happened to make a self-deprecatory joke about his own intelligence, which led to an interesting opening:

Tony: You see I would counter that right away. I watched “The Grey” a few weeks ago – I don’t like to read production notes before seeing a film and I knew virtually nothing going in – but I knew it wasn’t going to be “Alive” meets “Cujo”… [they both agree] … because I don’t think you’re capable of writing a script that’s that one dimensional.

Joe: Right. You may hate it for its other dimensions but it won’t be mono-dimensional.

Frank: [laughs]

Tony: The other things you’ve written – even a film like “Smokin’ Aces” which is a ‘shoot-em-up’ has a very intricate story.

Joe: “Smokin’ Aces” to me, the construct, was Iraq.  I based the movie on Iraq.  It starts with misinformation, it leads to this kind of heedless violence, a bunch of people who shouldn’t die do, they make a better deal at the end, and it’s over – that’s it. 

Tony: Let’s come back to the war topic later.  As I said, I watched “The Grey” knowing nothing about it and had to write my comment for the studio, and I said this isn’t a film about men and wolves, this is a film about life and death, and going out on your own terms.

Joe: Yes. 100%.

Tony: So, I was intrigued as to whether when you read the short story if it came out of nowhere and grabbed you or if you were already thinking of this as a subject you wanted to tackle.

Joe: No, you know what Tony, I responded to the short story because I was on “Mission Impossible 3” and I was going to quit before I was fired.  I had run my course on that and here I was presented with this very simple, spare, kind of bare bones survival story – versus where I was at that moment which was a big star, big franchise, big studio, with a big budget at 33 years old and feeling I didn’t deserve any of that….

Frank: No, by the way you do.

Joe: …at the same time “The A-Team” represents me finishing that business on “MI3” – doing a big popcorn movie.  So it [“The Grey”] appealed to me in every way that it could, because its simplicity was beautiful to me. But then Ian [Ian Mackenzie Jeffers who co-wrote the screenplay and wrote the short story “The Ghost Walker” on which it is based] did a draft of his own short story and I took that, and over the next 4-5 years rewrote it, fashioned it, and fine-tuned it.

[Joe continued by describing how, with the passage of time, topics which might not have developed quite so readily in a more rushed circumstance, including religion and spirituality, evolved as the story became more polished.]

Tony: So, you guys met on “Pride and Glory” [for which Joe co-wrote the screenplay]?

Frank: A little before that.

Tony: [To Frank] When this first came to you, did you see the script first or was it still an idea? How close was it to the final script?

Frank: I think it was fairly close to what we actually shot by the time I saw it.

Joe: Yes, I gave it to you in September and we were shooting in January.

Frank: Yeah. He had seen some of “Warrior” and I had said to him “I want to work with you, just whatever it is, find me something, I’ll do anything – I’m a huge fan” and he sent me this script. He said to me “January we’re shooting this movie and that’s the role!” And he could have had anybody he wanted for the role, obviously, and he said “It might take me some time but you’re doing the movie – January – don’t take a job!”  And I said “Joe, I can’t…” He said “January, don’t take a job! Go gain some weight, beef up, this is what we have to do.” And there we were in January.

Tony: Although underneath something like three parkas…

Joe: Yeah – I had three parkas on but Frank didn’t!

Frank: [laughs]

Joe: You said you wanted the role pal!

Tony: It’s such a neat story and neat characters. I was interested in what drew you to it. The Ottway part [Liam Neeson’s character] is interesting – he’s watched somebody who didn’t have the opportunity to go out on her own terms and he respects that opportunity when it arises.  There’s a scene in the wreckage where a guy is dying and the others are saying “You’ve got to do something” and he goes over and says “You’re going to die – but that’s OK”  You don’t see that often.

Joe: No. You see a lot of people killed but you don’t see a lot of people die.

Frank: In the original script – and at first I was kind of upset that we took it out – but when he says that to him, my character says “What are you doing?” But there was such a rhythm, there was such a gorgeous poetic rhythm to the connection that these two guys had that if I had interjected, interrupted, and taken it away from that, it would have destroyed the scene. And that’s my favorite scene in the movie.

Tony: It reminds me – and I don’t think this is a comparison you’ll dislike [to Joe] given that you say you don’t see people die very often – it reminds me of Giovanni Ribisi in “Saving Private Ryan.”

Joe: Which is a brilliant death scene.

Tony: It’s the best scene of the movie.

Joe: And he says “Tell me, tell me what’s wrong” and the blood is almost black and he’s asking for his mother.

Tony: And he basically instructs them to overdose him on morphine. He’s a medic….

Joe: Right, he’s a medic, he knows he going to die.  But that’s … anytime there’s a Spielberg comparison, I am firmly in your camp.

Frank: I got a chance to work with him [Spielberg] and he said when he saw that scene he actually went back and wrote more for Giovanni earlier in the movie, so there would be more of him in the movie.

Joe: Oh, wow!

[The three of us then went off on a tangent for a minute or two about Giovanni Ribisi’s career starting as a child actor in the sitcom “My Two Dads.”]

Tony: In “the Grey” it seems to me that there were at least quadruple threats: There’s the location that they’re in, there’s the lack of any kind of supplies they would need to survive in that location, the climate obviously, and the wolves.  But this isn’t about the wolves, the wolves are just part of that.

Joe: Tony, you see that – but you’re literally one of the only people that has ever said that, right there.

Tony: It’s an obstacle, of which part just happens to be the wolves. They could have just been eyes in the distance and myst
eriously, every now and then somebody dies and you never know how they die.  It’s almost a MacGuffin.

Joe: Right – they’re as close to a MacGuffin as a traditional film like this would have. Because essentially it’s a plotless movie.

Tony: In fact, to some extent, the whole bundle of obstacles: location, supplies, climate, wolves altogether are a MacGuffin.

Joe: Absolutely.

Tony: It’s just there to cause these people to think about the meaning of life.

Frank: Exactly. That’s an accurate reading of the script. You asked what attracted me to the film. As a middle-aged man – this is what I think about all day.

Joe: And also that the wolves are just a force of nature – like the cliff, like the blizzard, like the river. 

Tony: Have you been following the news – the timing is really interesting.

Joe: Oh – OR7 – the wolf that’s crossed into California.  Yeah, I invited him to the premiere.  It’s a very elaborate joke, a very elaborate stunt when he shows up and around his neck he’s got a little pass, a VIP pass.

Frank: It’s a great story

Tony: You clearly wanted something more profound than an action film and you succeeded. But do you worry about the apparent dichotomy between what films are and how films are marketed?

Joe: You know what, Tony, I don’t because what I would like, in fairness to an audience, this is something where I’d like them to cast as wide a net as possible – to get people who are even casual genre fans, who are casual Liam Neeson fans into the theater. Because I swear to God it will become the water cooler talk for days to come. I really believe that. What I’ve said about this film, my ultimate goal, is that it plays for you for longer than the two hours it took to watch. That’s what I want – because I think so much of movies today are just disposable experiences.

Tony: I guess my question is that we’re sitting here saying this is a profound movie about life and death and the human experience….

Joe: Right.

Tony: …so do you worry that the people who do in fact want to see a profound movie about life and death and the human experience are not going to come and watch “The Grey” based on the trailer somebody’s cut of the film that makes it look like “Alive” meets “Cujo”?

Joe: No. Unfortunately, if those people you just described were in the majority, we wouldn’t all be about to speak Mandarin in the next ten years. You know what I mean? If we had that level of engagement or that level of high mindedness, without trying to sound snobbish or arrogant about it, if those kinds of people were in the majority then I think it would be a radically different marketing angle.

Tony: If you think of film classics like 1936’s “Modern Times” or 1957’s “12 Angry Men” – those were mainstream films because you didn’t have studios, indies, direct to cable, and all those kinds of things, so those were films people were going to watch. They were deep films – but they were either social satires or social commentaries. We’ve had this conversation before – now you see things like “Lions for Lambs” [written by Joe’s brother Matthew Michael Carnahan] which is a brilliant piece of writing and “In the Valley of Elah,” and films like “The Company Men” about unemployment and layoffs.  I’ve heard it said that folks on the left don’t want to go and see these stories and be reminded of what they already know and folks on the right don’t want to go and get lectured by Hollywood.

Joe: Yes.

Tony: So, do you think there’s a political divide – is it that we’re telling the wrong stories or are we telling the right stories but telling them too soon?

Joe: Well listen, you mentioned “Lions for Lambs” and “In the Valley of Elah” – those are movie about hot button issues. My brother had written “The Kingdom” which in a lot of ways to me was a knock on the Saudis and the Saudi royal family. It was meant to be, not a condemnation but he was certainly taking a shot – it wasn’t just this kind of prosaic look at a different culture – he was going after them. But if you don’t mix in gunfights it becomes this almost geopolitical…whatever.  I found, and I got this from my benefactor Ridley [Scott] – I loved the filmmaking in “Black Hawk Down” but it became very jingoistic. And the part about the Somalis and what they were dealing with … and I understand why that was jettisoned. I get it, but it was also a case of looking at how much more money that made than a film like “Lions for Lambs” which was more about talking points.

Tony: If you get me on “Black Hawk Down” we’ll be here all day. But “The Kingdom” and “Lions for Lambs” are an interesting comparison because they’re both good scripts and they both have a lot to say politically….

Joe: Yes.

Tony:  …and I don’t remember the box office….

Joe: “The Kingdom” made a lot more money.

Tony: “The Kingdom” has a lot of shooting and action and “Lions for Lambs” is more like a play.

Joe: Yeah, it’s a three act play. It’s a play.

Tony: So if you want to have political content and you want to get something out there and you want to hit a mainstream audience….

Joe: Good luck

Tony: …do you have to disguise it as something else?

Frank: I think you do.

Joe: Oh, absolutely.

Frank: You have to, not sneak it in, but you have to….

Joe: It’s everything short of sneaking it in. It’s very difficult to come straight at somebody with that kind of argument being that political, spiritual, whatever it may be that you’re trying to tackle. In this country more so than any other in the world – we love to slap labels on as quickly possible.  And if you’re doing that it’s a “specialized” kind of film.

Tony: [To Frank] In the film, you’re the tough guy’s tough guy. It reminded me of this kid I knew at summer camp who was tough and would never let his guard down – and then I saw him break down completely riding a roller coaster.

Frank: That’s a great analogy.

Tony: Did you know those guys growing up or were you that guy?

Frank: I wasn’t that guy – I was on the other end of it.  But I did know those guys and I also spent some time visiting some jails around New York because I wanted to talk to some guys on the other side of that reality.  And they all seemed to be the same – you’re right – it’s the big bully who goes on the roller coaster and that was my jump off point. It’s such a cool journey that this guy makes and we all know those people. And how did I get to the point where my hands are always up and I’m threatened all the time.  When you’re afraid you get angry and Diaz [his character in the film] is angry all the time. Why? Because he’s afraid all the time. And it was a gift to me as an actor to get to explore this character.

Tony: The amazing thing about “The Grey” is that I don’t think there’s a weak link in the film. The problem with an ensemble movie is that there’s often a character that you want to get eaten by a wolf early on in the movie just so that you don’t get to see him for the next hour. And this movie doesn’t have that.

Joe: I think you really do come to fall for those guys and you appreciate those guys and you pull f
or them. And that’s as it should be.

[At this point we discussed several characters and their unusual paths in the movie, including specific outcomes for some of them.]

Joe: But there’s bravery and heroism that isn’t always obvious and that you don’t see coming from a mile away

Frank: But we can talk about this all day – this guy [his character] finally got a chance to be part of something. That’s the beauty of it.

Joe: Yeah – absolutely man.

Tony: What’s next for you Joe?

Joe: If I get any real run off the Grey, if it allows me to do something else, I’d like to put all those chips toward “Killing Pablo.” For me that particular project is like this vastly undernourished orphan and I need to get this kid a meal.

Tony: That’s Pablo Escobar?

Joe: Yes. I’ve been to Colombia three times, I’ve been to Medellin three times and I love it – as attrition goes it getting pretty close. Somebody asked me why do you want to make that project so badly and I was interviewing this 78 year old man who was there at the time it happened, and I asked him if he remembered anything that day, when they got Pablo. And he said “I was sitting in my house and I thought it was an early winter thunder storm” because the level of gunfire was such that the guy couldn’t discern individual shots and I thought “I’m ****ing making this movie!”

Tony: And anything back in Sacramento – are we going to see you back in town?

Joe: Tony if I could just get, and I’ve said this before – what you need is a full time film commissioner and we need to quit dicking around. And in that City which is one of the great untapped shooting locations – in two hours you can be in the snow, you can be on the river….

Tony: And the neighborhoods can be anywhere.

Joe: Dude, the Fabulous 40’s – all you have to do is switch the cars out and you could be in the 1950’s. I would love to do it. I think the City has to get a lot more aggressive about what it wants to do. You know Kevin Johnson kept the Kings – and that would not have happened with Heather Fargo, they would have been gone. So if he can apply that kind of determination to getting movies shot there….

Tony: You know the “For Arts Sake” manager just left, this week.

Joe: Really? Well you know I’m looking for a job!

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