Opening January 27, 2012 from Open Road is director Joe Carnahan’s (A-Team) The Grey, a thriller that stars Liam Neeson (Unknown, After.Life), Dallas Roberts (Joshua, The Factory), James Badge Dale (The Departed), Dermot Mulroney (Zodiac), Frank Grillo (My Soul to Take, Mother’s Day), Nonso Anozie (RocknRolla), and Joe Anderson.
I recently sat down with Neeson and Carnahan for a frank chat about the themes behind the film and the challenges of making it. It’s nice to love a movie as unabashedly as I do this one, so this conversation was definitely a treat for me. Also, it was late in the day so Carnahan was nursing a scotch while Neeson opted for wine – and the conversation flows freely accordingly.
“In ‘The Grey,’ Liam Neeson leads an unruly group of oil-rig roughnecks when their plane crashes into the remote Alaskan wilderness. Battling mortal injuries and merciless weather, the survivors have only a few days to escape the icy elements – and a vicious pack of rogue wolves on the hunt – before their time runs out.”
Hit the jump to check out the interview! The film is really intense and visceral. But it’s surprisingly touching.
Joe Carnahan: With a lot of marketing, their job is to cast a wide of a net as possible. So hopefully you get the casual action fan who just wants to see Liam in a kickass movie. But my hope is that they come out and tell all of their friends, “you gotta f*cking go see this movie.”
Liam Nesson: It’s got more levels to it. It’s got more layers to it.
And it does have so much action that you won’t disappoint people who have only seen the trailers, it doesn’t disappoint in that regard. There’s just so much more to it. But it’s a tricky balancing act, how much back and forth was there on it?
LN: We connected on The A-Team to an extent. And on that film’s publicity tour I heard Joe and Jules Daly, our magnificent producer, talking about “The Grey, The Grey, The Grey” and “Bradley Cooper, Bradley Cooper, Christian Bale” and I was like “what are they talking about?” Anyway, Joe gave me the script because I asked him if there was anything in this for me. And he said, “there might be.” And [the tone of the script] was right where I was in my life, emotionally and the rest of it. I was like, “Oh my God, I’ve got to be a part of this.” I asked if I could do it and he and Jules obviously spoke and thought I could “open the film” – all that bullsh*t. Get it financed. And then it happened. It read to me like a 19th century epic poem like the “Ancient Mariner”. And there’s no computers, no iPhones, no televisions. It’s just man vs. man, man vs. inner man and man vs. nature.
It has a Jack London kind of vibe to it.
JC: It has a throwback quality to it I guess.
LN: Big time.
JC: It’s certainly what appealed to me in doing it. I don’t think there’s any other film that could encompass my fears, as a man, than The Grey. And that’s why it’s so close to me. It represents a lot of what scare the sh*t out of me. My own mortality. My faith, or my lack thereof. My belief in God, or my lack thereof. These things are all prominent I guess. The movie feels like a poem to me, not in a way like I’m jacking myself off like some jerk-off, but there’s a lyrical quality to that film that I don’t even necessarily think I can take credit for. It just is what it is. I think everybody that worked on the film understood and nurtured it to it’s fully realized fruition in a way that seems very organic and sincere.
I was impressed that it explores so many facets of masculinity without resorting to ‘machismo’.
LN: Here’s the beauty of the script. I’m from a generation… I’m 60 this year. My father’s generation… we’re not really in touch with out feelings. And if we are, we have real trouble conveying those feelings to another male. Leaving aside female. What Joe did with this script was take the flotsam and jetsam of society and they’re in a situation where they have to confront themselves first, and then try and articulate to each other what they’re feeling. I thought he did that beautifully. That for me is the most beautiful thing in the script and it comes across in the film. Guys trying to search for themselves. Feelings they’ve never encountered before, and trying to express them.
And they’re not always able to do it in the most eloquent of ways.
LN: No, of course they can’t.
JC: The sheer force of nature strips the veneer of whatever bullsh*t and whatever kind of chest puffing or bravado you want to exhibit. Nature, by its very nature, will steal that from you. It will wear that down very quickly because the reality of what you’re faced with –
LN: You’re against ice and wolves! You have nothing, no back wall, no security net.
JC: And I’m of the mind that, as much as industry is encroaching upon nature and the natural world being defiled by the hand of man – I absolutely see that. But when nature’s done with human beings as a race, it will dust us off like a f*cking mantlepiece. Look no further than when that tsunami hit Japan, that’s only a fraction of the power that this planet is capable of.
LN: The Antarctic? A quarter of it has disappeared.
We’re having 80 degree days in Los Angeles.
JC: In January! In early January!
George Carlin had that quote about how it’s not the planet going anywhere, it’s people.
JC: Exactly. Exactly. You’re right, it’s people. The planet will adapt and change accordingly. And even people who want to take the film to task for whatever its portrayal of wolves is, it’s like listen, wolves to me are a component of, a fact of, part and parcel of nature. The wolves in the movie are the blizzard, they’re the river, they’re the mountainside. They’re all a part of nature which has tremendous beauty and tremendous hostility at the same time. And anyone who would argue to the contrary is either naive or hasn’t ventured out past the block they live on.
I kind of see the wolves as a cinematic shorthand for all of that. Sometimes it’s hard to sell an audience on the extremity of a blizzard because they haven’t experienced it and can’t relate to just “the elements”. Wolves are a great metaphor for communicating that primal threat.
JC: Absolutely. They also function as a metaphor and allegory for the men themselves. This idea of a pack. Who is better suited to survive this situation? If someone were to ask what my favorite scene in the film – it’s where Diaz howls out at the wolves. As humans we feel like we have dominion over everything, especially this planet. And then you hear the wolves kind of grieving. And then you hear the alpha – almost like an orchestra conductor or a drill sergeant howl back. And it’s like, “Don’t let these f*cking guys get away with that. This is how you howl. And then the symphony of nature that comes out of it. You see it in Diaz’s face, “I f*cked up. I f*cked up.”
LN: I love it. I love it.
JC: When faced with the awe inspiring nature of what those wolves are – I just wanted to see their breath. Showing them along the ridge line I felt would have been a little “eh”. It wouldn’t have been as powerful as this expulsion of air – like “F*ck you!” And you feel it I think more intensely. In the screenplay it was almost my favorite passage. I got f*cking lucky that day. I took my vitamins that day.
As far as the wolves go you use a combination of real trained animals, CGI and -
LN: Joe told me – excuse me – that he was going to use minimal CGI. And in regard to the weather, that’s all real. The snow, the blizzard there’s no CGI at all.
JC: With the wolves, were you able to spot what was CGI and what wasn’t?
Well, I was looking for it. But it wasn’t anything that took me out of the movie.
JC: I think that’s key.
LN: So you were never taken out of the movie?
JC: Now did you stay to the very end? Past the credits? (There’s a brief shot after the credits).
I didn’t know to, but I’ve been filled in on it. Last question, what was the most intense day of filming for both of you?
LN: First day. I have to sit up in the snow after this airplane malfunction. And I was just in a sweater, and Arrico Watanabe – my makeup lady – is throwing real snow in my face. It’s the first time in my life I’ve ever called her a “b*tch”. And Joe’s saying, “Now sit up!” And it’s like, “f*ck. We’re never going to finish this film. We’re never going to finish this film. And my legs weren’t functioning. I got up like a puppet. And I was looking to the left and looking to the right and trying to do what Joe wanted but trying to do it really f*cking fast because I’m dying. I’m dying. My knuckles were purple. That was a bad day. It was minus 40 degrees.
JC: There’s a shot where you see the guys on a tundra in the distance. That was a motherf*cker of a day because I had to have them walk that six or seven times. That deep in the snow, I might as well have had them run 13 miles. It was brutal. And we got kicked off the mountain because we got hit with a whiteout. We got hit with 70 mph winds and it wen white, and I’ve never experienced the condition of being snow blind. But what happens is your eyes can’t focus, there’s no depth of field. So your eyes start going nuts and you start getting starbursts.
LN: What you think is 3 feet away could be 60 feet away.
JC: I got into a snowcat. And we were driving off and there were these yellow-blue neon poles to mark the road.
LN: You you could find the road, find your way home.
JC: We were driving right into one, which meant we were about to drive right off the side of the f*cking mountain. So that was a rough day!