Thursday, January 26, 2012

"So much of life scares the shit out of me, and it’s reflected in this movie": Joe Carnahan and Frank Grillo on The Grey

A plane crashes in Alaska. The survivors are left to fend against merciless cold, hunger, and unusually hostile wildlife. This is a story of manly men in a manly place, bearded men without women, fire-lit bloody faces sticky with snow, and man-eating wolves. Resourcefulness, persistence and solidarity are their only hope for survival. But survival itself seems unlikely.

After many years of torture-laden horror films that encourage audience delight in their characters’ mortal terror, there’s something refreshingly noble in The Gray’s insistence on depicting the ways in which fear works on the psyche with a certain rugged empathy. It’s a bracing film of fast violence and existential angst, from that initial plane crash to the first wolf attack, from the crossing of a gorge along a flimsy improvised cable to the final alpha-on-alpha showdown.

Filming in Smithers, B.C., director/co-writer Joe Carnahan, finally making good on the promise of his 2002 film Narc, immerses us in the frigid milieu and ramps up tension through the pulling in and out of sound and disorienting shifts between tight and wide shots. Carnahan may prove to be that rare thing in contemporary movies: a devoted genre filmmaker, inventive but not ironic.

Carnahan’s enthusiasm for his work in certainly infectious. I spoke with both he and actor Frank Grillo last week in a Toronto hotel about the film’s themes, their process, and working with Liam Neeson, The Grey’s smartly cast star. Carnahan and Grillo are old friends. They finish each other’s sentences. Honestly, I didn’t have to do much. Most I just sat back and enjoyed the wine they kindly offered.

JB: From the outset The Grey works nicely as a visceral thriller. Then there came a point where I realized that this entire movie is going to be about facing death, preparing for death.

Joe Carnahan: When did that occur to you?

JB: Maybe it was that campfire scene where the guys are huddled round, talking about faith. I thought that if Ingmar Bergman made action films without any women in them they might look something like this.

[Carnahan gets up]

JC: Brother, that’s one of the highest compliments anybody’s ever paid me.

[Knuckle taps all around]

JB: [to Grillo] This also has much to do with the way your character develops. As we get to know these guys we see how each deals with fear differently. And gradually we start to understand that Diaz’s gut response to the terrifying situation he’s in is to act like an asshole.

Frank Grillo: Right. Angry. Very angry. It’s the way that I dealt with fear for a long time. Bluster, you know? As men, these are issues that we deal with on a daily basis. I’ve said this before and people laugh, but it’s tough to be a man in this world. We grow up with that phrase: “Be a man.” My father used to say that to me whenever I was afraid of something. But what does that mean? I’m afraid. But what does that mean? I’m afraid. Who do I tell?

JC: From a very early age we’re meant to stifle that. But you know what? So much of life scares the shit out of me, and it’s reflected in this movie. What these guys are dealing with is real.

FG: Death.

JC: Neeson says it in that campfire scene: “What’s wrong with being afraid? I’m scared shitless.”

FG: And I say to him, “That’s ’cause you’re a punk.” I went and stayed in some prisons in New York to prepare for the movie. I felt like Diaz was a guy who had his own creed, this thing that he lived by. The prison thing, where it’s about respect. If you’re afraid in jail, you’re a punk. And you’re going to get punked. It’s a survival mechanism. That’s all that Diaz is going on. As soon as he’s called on it, as soon as he realizes that these guys are going to save his life, it turned him around.

JB: I haven’t read the source material. How much of this meditation on the fear of death was in the short story?

JC: What was great about the short story was that it was an introduction to what the world could be. The prose style is very punchy, staccato. It took me four and a half years of revisiting it to get where we got with the script. Which was great. There was never a deadline. So time passed and you have this little epiphanies that life brings you and very slowly you find little things you can add. The process was like sculpture. Just working away at it, shaping it.

JB: It’s tempting to place The Grey in the tradition of Howard Hawks, but in Hawks’ films guys don’t really lose their cool. In The Grey just about everybody loses their cool.

JC: It’s more like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, except that the characters are simply clinging to life. But, brother, evoking Hawks in any way with regards to this movie, I mean, put that on the fuckin’ poster!

FG: It’s interesting to consider this in light of this terrible tragedy that just happened with the Mediterranean cruise ship. Not just the captain, but all the officers jumped ship! They were afraid to die. They didn’t care about who was still on the ship. So I’m thinking to myself, Wow, those storybook endings about heroic men—it doesn’t always happen that way.

JC: And it’s not like these guys were stranded in the middle of the North Atlantic. They could see the shore! That’s a level of cowardice that, well, God help me if I ever experience that.

FG: But, you know what? You don’t know. You just don’t know.

JC: But dude, did you hear about this Mark Wahlberg quote?

FG: He said that if he were on the flight from Boston on 9/11 things would have panned out differently, that he would have killed the terrorists and landed the plane safely. It’s that hubris of a guy who’s read too many action movie scripts.

JC: In retrospect we’re all heroic geniuses.

FG: We’re more afraid to be killed than we are to die. Dying doesn’t seem so bad. Being killed is awful.

JC: There’s some part of us that eventually makes peace with the fact that we’re not going to be here forever. To be killed is to have death imposed on you.

FG: And there’s pain involved.

JC: And there’s pain.

JB: But it’s also easier, right? If someone kills you then you don’t have time to come to terms.

JC: Right. You’re not left with your final thoughts. That’s why I wanted to put that first death scene in The Grey, the guy bleeding to death, the one Liam presides over. Because a lot of people are killed in movies, but not a lot of people die.

FG: You’re watching him die.

JC: It’s a moment where a guy shakes loose this mortal coil, and that’s that, man.

FG: In combat, in serious situations like that, friends have to watch other friends die. I thought Badge did a beautiful job of dying, of conveying that, that...

JC: Something just slipping away.

FG: Yeah.

JC: Yeah.

JB: Frank, you were signed on long before production, right?

FG: Joe just called me and said “Don’t take a job in January. I don’t care what your agents say, you’re doing this job.” Which is risky. I’m a working guy, a blue collar actor. But the advance notice afforded me time to work things out very thoroughly. I was a pain in the ass, constantly emailing and calling Joe with ideas.

JC: But also, what are you right now, brother, like, 170?

FG: 165.

JC: He was up to almost 200 pounds. He built himself up, preparing himself for this film. That’s the level of engagement I knew I’d get from Frank.

FG: But I could barely keep up with Liam Neeson. 58 years old, this guy never stopped.

JB: And he looks like a wolf.

JC: He looks like a wolf!

FG: Doesn’t he look like a wolf?

JB: After doing this project do you guys feel a little closer to knowing how to meet your maker gracefully?

JC: I think so, brother. If there’s any kind of pacification that can arise from an experience like this it’s hopefully the presence of mind to believe that whatever you hold in your heart, that’s what’s going to shepherd you through.

FG: I have three sons. I don’t mind dying, but I just want it to be pleasant. I want to know my boys are okay. I don’t want to be taken from the Earth in an instant and not have the time to do it in a way that would be beautiful.

JC: That’s great, brother, because as we sit back and admire this horrific plane crash we just put on screen we both got to get on a fuckin’ plane tomorrow!

[Both laugh]

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