There are certain directors who could easily be a character in one of their own movies. Joe Carnahan is one of those filmmakers. He’s got an energy and personality that would feel right at home in his more fast-talking, adrenaline-fueled movies. Of course, Carnahan starred in his first movie, Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane, and appeared in his bombastic popcorn movie The A-Team, as well as his one night-gone-wrong in Los Angeles film, Stretch.
When you talk to the director, you hear the same voice we hear in his work, including his latest movie, Boss Level. It’s an action movie set in a time loop in which Carnahan gets to kill his latest movie’s producer, Frank Grillo, over and over again. Last year, the director behind Ticker reunited with Grillo for the already-in-the-can, Copshop. Recently, we talked to the filmmaker about his latest movie, both his madcap and dramatic work, streaming, and collaborating with Grillo and, controversially, Mel Gibson.
Just before you were about to shoot, you had around a 42-day shoot slashed to 27. How did you all pull that off?
Yeah, man. 27 days, and you wouldn’t even know it. We had this thing we called the Jam Room, which is short for the Jamiroquai Room where it’s a big fight. There’s an old Jamiroquai song, “Virtual Insanity,” which is where the set moves around him. It’s just really cool, and it’s an old video, but I thought it was really cool and an interesting way to stage a fight scene. We had this whole thing built out.
Jon Billington, the designer, had mocked up this whole set and then thought, “We just can’t do it. I don’t have the time to do it.” I had to make a creative decision, and you’d never know what it is in the movie because it works beautifully. It’s the equivalent of our version of Indy pulling the gun on the guy and shooting him, instead of having to fight with the guy with the sword. So, beyond that dude, you got to be disciplined, and you have to plan and shoot, and you have to stick to that. I like that because it puts you on the spot. If you’re prepared and you prepared properly, it makes you able to test-fire what these things will look like.
Certainly on Copshop, man, I have a plan, a really rigid plan. I get to say, “You know what? Let’s do this now. Let’s alter that slightly,” because it was better. In my mind, it was better, even though we started with a basic strategy, and a game plan of how you’re going to shoot something, what your angles are, what your shots are, what the movements are, so on.
So, that was the same on Boss Level. I had to be very rigid about what I was shooting, what I needed to make the sequences work, not restricting the ebb and flow of creativity between the actors, between myself and the actors. You couldn’t say, “Oh, don’t worry guys. We can shoot this 20 times.” No, we can shoot this four times, five times max, and we got to move.
You got to dial it in. It was a very technical film to dial in, but I think we’re very fortunate to have extraordinarily creative people around me. Jon Billington, the production designer, Jayna Mansbridge does wardrobe, and they’re very, very highly skilled, very intelligent people. They are able to bail me out and save me from my more base instincts. And I had Frank, who’s my first collaborator and a guy that understands shorthand and knew what we were going for, and the vibe we were going for. He and I had lived with it for almost a decade, trying to get this movie made.
The short answer to my now long answer, Jack: if I didn’t have this movie in my bloodstream for that amount of time, I don’t think I could have done it. It was so wired into what I was doing because I’d spent so much time contemplating it, pontificating what would I do? How would I do this? How would I do that? A lot of these things were ingrained. These things are in storage already. So, that helped me a lot.
You mentioned your base instincts. There are the instincts that produce movies such as Stretch and Boss Level, and then your instincts behind dramas like Narc and The Grey.
Are there just certain times in your career where you say, “I just want to go nuts”? How are stories like The Grey and Narc born?
I think it just depends on where you are at that period of your life and there are things you want to say. I think sometimes you want to have a very serious discussion with yourself, and those serious discussions become serious artwork, or serious music, or serious movies, or whatever it may be.
It depends on what that discourse is. My first movie was this little movie called, Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane that I’m actually going to re-release because I redid it all in 4K. It was a goofy little movie that gave me my start, but I always thought that there is any number of things I really enjoy in the film, and it’s not just the madcap, although I love to laugh. I love to laugh, and I love funny stuff, and I love action stuff.
Something like Narc, it’s a very interpersonal product. At that time, I was going through a divorce. So, I think I was thinking about that. And then on The Grey, I just come out of The A-Team and I thought it was this overly jocular… I wanted to go in a different direction. I think that’s always a good thing when you step outside of your comfort zone and really step outside.
In the next film I do, I don’t want it to be anything like what I just did on Copshop, which is much more akin to Smokin’ Aces. Although it’s very Smokin’ Aces, it’s not nihilistic. Smokin’ Aces was a nihilism that I thought was appropriate for that time and place. Copshop is much more of a heroic neo-feminist western. Like, a neo-feministic saloon western. I love the movie. I’m obviously biased.
It just depends, man. I’m lucky I can still do it, Jack, honestly. I’m lucky that I’m still able to go out and make a movie. A lot of people don’t have that good fortune, and I’m very grateful for it.
What happened to your financing with Boss Level, as well the release of Stretch and other instances, you’ve been dealt a few raw deals.
How do you stay resilient when situations come to a crash?
Well, I don’t know that you have much of a choice. I’m not really cut out to do anything else unless it’s manual labor or an English teacher. I could probably do that. It’s not as though you were given a lot of choices. Everybody gets tested, and you have to rise to that occasion. Ultimately, that’s the whole process creatively, just overcoming obstacles.
You don’t really give yourself a choice. It’s simply you got to go and do it. What is the flipside? It’s not something you can ever entertain, and there are producers and filmmakers whose names I won’t mention, who do more, I don’t want to say, “populist,” but who’ve figured out those gear changes, and had these kinds of franchises and have this, and have that. I would say this, I want that money, but I don’t want that career. My career I’m very happy with.
I think my career is pretty cool, and it’s an old-world, in some regards. Now listen, I’d probably be a lot richer if I had gone down that more tried and true kind of studio whathaveyou, but that wasn’t for me. So, it simply is what it is, and I’m fine with it.
Could you ever see yourself making a hundred, or two hundred dollar movie again?
Honestly, Jack, unless it was something really special that I had a lot of creative control over, and I felt like I can do it, I can say something new at that budget level, it just doesn’t interest me, dude. Nor is shooting a movie that exceeds 40 days in shooting days. I like propulsion. I think under 40 days you can develop a great steed, get in late, and get out early.
I think that that’s honestly, dude, where we’re going. I don’t know what right now the future of cinemas are. I know that they’re going to come back. There’s no question they’re going to come back. In what configuration, I don’t know. I’m hearing Elon Musk is going to buy AMC, or Regal, or one of these big chains. Is it going to be revamped? I got that Oculus, that Quest, I put that thing on. I go, “What the hell do we need movies for? Look at this thing.”
You’re going to have Disney. You’re going to have Marvel. You’re going to big musicals. I can see the spectacle, but just for posterity, at those levels, that amount of money, is just nuts. It’s nuts to me. It doesn’t interest me. It just doesn’t interest me.
Do you think movie theaters will have to step up when they return? Like, more consistent quality control over sound and image?
There has to be a reckoning. There has to be a fundamental change in the way that they do things. I don’t think you’re going to have people sitting chockablock as they’ve done in the past. Again, this is a generation pandemic. So, it’s really difficult to foresee a time or place where that’s going to be cool. It’s just not. I don’t know again how we do that. I love going to IPIC, but it’s also 25, 30 bucks a ticket. I don’t want to go to a traditional chain. I’d rather stay at home.
I got, whatever the hell I got at home, the 85 inch Samsung with the Sonos Arc. I watched Wonder Woman 2 with my girls. I loved it. I could show my girls, day one. There’s Wonder Woman. Fantastic. We had a blast. There’s no. “Oh God, I got to get a babysitter. I got to…” You have all these upgrades, all these amazing kinds of upgrades to these home systems. Why wouldn’t you stay at home? Why would you even take the chance? I don’t know, brother. I’m hoping. I really want them to come back, but I don’t think it will look like what it looks like now. I think it’s going to be a minute. I think the hope was that Tenet would bring people back.
That was a weird decision.
Well listen, man, it’s one of those decisions that’s a corporate decision, and Chris Nolan’s a powerful guy, and a great filmmaker. And so, you roll the dice. I’d rather they were still taking those shots than not take those shots. And listen, I blame the former asshole administration for not really having it together. We should not be sitting in this situation right now. We should be a lot further along. The vaccine should be a lot further along, in terms of distribution
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