“The Grey,” starring Liam Neeson, pulled in over $50 million earlier this year, but its theatrical gross only tells part of the story. Chronicling the fight for survival by a crew of oil rig roughnecks after their plane goes down in the remote Alaskan wilderness, director Joe Carnahan’s metaphorically hefty movie belied conventional wisdom about early January releases, winning overwhelming critical praise that has distributor Open Road pondering a re-release in October timed more to awards consideration. For ShockYa, Brent Simon had a chance to speak to Carnahan one-on-one recently, about the movie, swapping in Neeson for Bradley Cooper, getting in trouble for eating wolf meat during production, and the remake of Charles Bronson’s iconic “Death Wish” that he’s currently penning. The conversation is excerpted below:
ShockYa: First off, I’m so thrilled that “The Grey” is spelled in the manner that conforms with my preferred spelling of the word.
Joe Carnahan: Yeah, me too! I think gray with an “a” is off-putting. With an “e,” it just gives it more weight, and heft. Maybe [gray] is the color of a polo shirt, maybe — but you swap out a vowel and suddenly it seems mystical.
ShockYa: Given that the title of the short story (upon which the film is based) is “The Ghost Walker,” and the poem that Liam’s character (John Ottway) recites so frequently ends with “into the fray,” was “The Fray” an original title for the movie, and just (held up) by the band of the same name?
JC: You know what, it was not. I remember sitting at my desk racking my brain, and as much as I loved that (original title) I thought it … had to be something more distinguished. I’m a fan of making things simple, and if you can find a one-word title, I think those are preferable. The poem came out of a different place. For me, it was always like that Ottway’s dad read “Henry V” and took a crack at Shakespeare one night while drunk, and that was as lofty in his prose as he was ever going to go. I think the grey came to embody the idea of the unknown. Plus there was the grey wolf and a lot of things that I thought worked well in that. And once I saw it in print, the font, I thought it worked, and looked good. But that’s an interesting question — no one’s asked me if it came from (a twist on) the poem, but it didn’t.
ShockYa: What was it like working on an adaptation with the author of the source material, Ian MacKenzie?
JC: Ian had initially written the short story, which I obviously loved. He went off and did a partial draft, I think it was 75 or 80 pages. Then I proceeded to sit on it. Over the ensuing four-and-a-half years I kept returning to it and returning to it until I built enough momentum where I felt like, “OK, now I know what this film is and I know how to finish this.” I’ve never had luck sitting in a room with another writer — beyond my brother Matthew, because he and I grew up together, and it’s like being with another me only he’s a hell of a lot more talented — but it’s not that I’m averse to it. I just get anxious, I get happy feet, and I need to do my own thing. It probably comes from rank insecurity, but I felt like in order to understand it I had to remake it, and Ian, god bless him, was incredibly generous. When I gave him the script back, he loved it, and never had an unkind word about it. He just gave me some brilliant little suggestions. And that was it, that was the process. It was pretty painless, and all credit goes to Ian because he could have kicked up a fuss and he never did once.
ShockYa: Bradley Cooper was at first attached to star, and the film seems a very different animal with Liam. I think back in particular to the monologue calling God a fuck-face, where there seems an unfortunate parallel to the tragedy with his wife Natasha [who died in 2009]. Was there a shift in the tone of the material, or any other changes made after he came on board?
JC: No, there never was. I think Liam was very good about staying — well, with all things, I think Liam saw it as a measure of catharsis for himself. I don’t how you couldn’t if you read that script. The parallels were never intentional, but they were certainly present. But at the same time, I think Liam was focused. It’s an absolute gut-wrenching scene when he’s calling out to God, and yet I remember on the day, when I called cut, within five seconds Liam was like, “OK, where are we going to have dinner?” There wasn’t this active spiritual paralysis, or something that was weighing heavily on him. Yes, I think it would have been a radically different film with Bradley. But to his credit, he’s such a generous guy that when he saw the film he gave me this gigantic hug and said, “Thank God you put Liam in this movie!” That’s the kind of guy Bradley is — there’s no rancor, there’s no remorse. He doesn’t live with regret. And listen, it wasn’t going to work out, he had to do the “Hangover” sequel, and that’s perfectly understandable. But I’m very fortunate that Liam wound up portraying Ottway, because I can’t conceive of the film any other way now.
ShockYa: You shot in British Columbia, on location. Were the surroundings [as] authentically punishing as they seemed?
JC: They absolutely were. Somebody had a Facebook video they put up recently, and I clicked on it and had this moment of, “Jesus Christ, did we shoot in that?” You’re not really aware of it until you’re removed from it. We were getting blown off of this mountain, shooting in these absolutely miserable conditions, but I think that’s also what gives the film its great sense of place — that we weren’t shooting on a soundstage. We really went out there and pursued it and earned it on the day. It was constantly snowing and the coldest day we shot was minus-37 degrees. But you can see it, and the results speak for themselves. You can’t fake that level of misery.
ShockYa: I was reminded of Steve Coogan’s character from “Tropic Thunder,” when he tells his actors he’s taking them out “in the shit.”
JC: Exactly! [laughs] It wouldn’t work in Burbank, California, with snow flakes.
ShockYa: So did you actually sample some wolf meat while filming?
JC: We did, and I think that was actually the grave mistake that I made on the publicity front. Because this was a previously deceased wolf, and so they said this means that the wolf was trapped or something. OK, yeah, the wolf was on a trap line because the wolf was slaughtering cattle and livestock. This wasn’t like the wolf from the Warner Brothers cartoon that hasn’t done anything. [laughs] People forget that these are predatory animals, they’re not going to cuddle up with you at night. But that became, because I had [the cast] sample wolf meat, that I’m now the advocate for the genocide of the lupine species, which is not the case. But yes, we did [eat it], and I found it to be quite gamey and greasy. But I wanted the guys to know that this was the movie we were in, and these are the things that we’re going to encounter. That was [misread] by whackjobs online. When PETA came out after me, I was like, “Are you kidding me, man?” I found that to be laughable. Let’s give Michael Vick a big get-out-jail-free card, but come after me because we ate some wolf meat? It shows how knee-jerk and trigger-happy this country has become on social issues. It was completely misguided, this rancor directed toward me.
ShockYa: In characteristic fashion you have several projects on the stovetop, but what’s up next for you?
JC: Well, there’s this film “Continue” with Fox that may go, which I’m awfully fond of. The litmus test is that I gave it to my wife, who would normally never like something like that, and she read it and loved it, which I was shocked by. It’s kind of like “Smokin’ Aces,” only it has this great heart and soul, it has this great emotional core. It’s not like I’m being outright dismissive of my own movie, but as much as I love “Smokin’ Aces” it was very much an exercise in style. This is that, but it has this wonderful emotional weight to it, and that’s what at least gives it its allure to me, and [makes me] think this might be a lot of fun and something really interesting. But I’m also knee-deep in writing “Death Wish,” and I really, really love where this thing’s going. It’s L.A. repositioned as a walking city, less by bus, and I just spent the last week with Gusmano Cesaretti, who’s Michael Mann’s guy — everything you saw in “Heat” and “Collateral,” he was responsible for those locations. He and I went all over L.A., to the Jungle and Crenshaw, East L.A. We took the most incredible photo essay of the city, places I’d never seen. So I’m pretty excited about that one, we’ll see how it shapes up. The trick now is to just make sure that the script is as good as the pictures we took. [laughs] That’s what I have to sweat now.
Written by: Brent Simon