Director Joe Carnahan On ‘The Grey’ & Filming His Worst Nightmare

Joe Carnahan has always been a Hollywood wild card.  But with his latest film, The Grey, he dives a little deeper into the psyche of man. Starring fellow go-to guy for action, Liam Neeson, the film follows an unruly pack of oil-riggers stranded in the Alaskan wilderness after a disastrous plane crash. A survivalist film of the highest order, the guys must battle nature’s brutality as well as the vicious and bloodthirsty wolves that surround them. With the tag line, “Live and die on this day,” the film showcases Carnahan’s affinity for the fight as well as Neeson’s career as a leading man of force. We caught up with the director to discuss his primal attraction to a film like this, seeing Pikachu before death, and allowing the audience to walk away with questions.

Why was this a story you wanted to tell?
I think there’s some of these ideas about masculinity and these ideas about spirituality. I guess because I’ve made films with guys, and some of them have been deeper and some more superficial, I just got to a point where I thought about my own mortality. I wanted to make something that confronted my terrible fear of heights, and my terrible fear of air travel, and my terrible fear of being torn apart by wild animals, my terrible fear of drowning—let’s just throw them all in one movie! I think there’s something very elemental to that story, and at the time, I was on Mission: Impossible 3, and I was coming to end of that process, and I read the story and it was just completely antithetical to what I was dealing with at the time. It was a very spare, stripped down, basic survival story, and it was very appealing for me.

Did you know you wanted Liam Neeson from the start?
I did not. I had young versions of Ottway. And I think the reasoning was that a guy in his mid-30s or whatever, I think it’s difficult to conceive of this notion that you would have no use for life, as opposed to someone who’s a little older and has seen the highs and seen the lows and seen everything in between, and I just thought that Liam embodied that much more easily than a younger actor would have.

How did you prepare? I feel like you couldn’t really do much until you actually got out there.
I’ll give you an example. I had boots that were rated for 25 below, and in ten minutes my feet were frozen, so I had to get boots for 60 below. you just made adjustments very quickly. And I remember I wore a balaclava for the first couple of days, and my physical effects supervisor just said, “Let your beard freeze.” And I didn’t believe him, and he told me it would insulate much better. So I did one day and it looked like someone took candle wax and just dumped it all on my face. I looked like an older version of my father, but it worked! I was warm. So little things like that you just adapt to accordingly. There’s very little you can do to prepare, you just have to go out there.

Did things change as you were working in that environment?
Oh, absolutely. Grand schemes or plans you had for things, and shots you were going to do, and how this and how that would change, and you have to be very brutal about it. I think that’s what creates. You have to be a really brutal realist like, what can we really get done? It’s like the hoarders, they can’t let anything go. I need that, I’ve got to have that old frisbee from 1964 that the dog chewed on.

This is an action movie with a spiritual side. Is that something you set out to explore?
I feel like it was something that was important to this film. I thought it would be a natural extension of their experience. Like okay, if I’m not going to make it out of here, what are the things that are meaningful to me, where do I think I’m going, and what is the afterlife going to look like, and what’s waiting for me? I think if you’re an atheist, you look at the film and think, he absolutely did not believe in God. If you’re a devout Christian, you look at it and think he absolutely did believe in God.

Did you confront your own fears and beliefs while making the movie?
As someone who has a great fear of flying, the plane crash scene kind of killed me. There’s a totality to that sequence. I didn’t want to cut outside and show the wing being shorn off, because that’s not what you’d experience. But if you ever had to experience it, it would be purely subjective, and years ago, I was on plane and we were having some really bad turbulence, and I remember everyone was kind of green at the gills and doing that nervous laughter thing, and I remember looking down at a service tray, and it had a Pokemon sticker on it. And I remember just staring at this thing thinking, “Fuck, is that the last thing I’m going to see? Is it going to be Pikachu and then eternity? Is that going to be it?” So I wanted there to be a real sense of, “My god,” and I wanted to put the audience right in that.

Why did you opt for an ambiguous ending?
For me, the emotional climax is the real ending of the film, and I think whatever the surprise is, or the little twist at the end with Liam’s relationship with his wife is something that should play out in that moment. But the movie for me was always about a man living and man dying, as opposed to a man fighting a wolf. And I think it’s a hell of a lot more interesting if you come away from the film with your own questions, rather than me spoon feeding you everything. I think it would have been an essential betrayal of the material.

What are you working on now?
I’m going to work on being a dad and a husband for a while, because I’ve been gone a lot and working. I just want to be around. But beyond that, I’m going to do Killing Pablo. But there’s another thing, an old property from the ‘70s that I kind of re-worked, and people seem to respond to it.. But right now it’s Pablo.

And is there anyone cast in that yet?
No. But the guy I really want for Colonel Martinez is Antonio Banderas. I just think that guy is so goddamned good, and he’s been so good for so long, and I can’t think of a bad performance he’s ever given. He’s at the age now where he can play that guy, and I’d just love to work with him.

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