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Director Joe Carnahan on The Grey, Casting Liam Neeson Over Bradley Cooper, and Starting Twitter Feuds

Joe Carnahan. Photo: David Livingston/Getty Images

Director Joe Carnahan made his mark on the film world with the action-packed movies Narc, Smokin’ Aces, and The A-Team, and even spent fifteen months in preproduction on Mission: Impossible 3 before getting axed right before shooting. With his latest, the man-against-nature vehicle The Grey, Carnahan hopes to show he’s capable of much more than just stunning action sequences; he believes his films have a soul, thus his second team-up with Liam Neeson, an actor he hopes to work with in many more films. Vulture checked in with Carnahan about surviving sub-zero conditions as well as misunderstood tweets.

It’s freezing outside, but it must seem like nothing to you.
It’s not bothering me that much. [During our shoot], I had shoes that were rated for minus-25 degree weather, but within ten minutes, it came right through my boots. I ended up having to get shoes that are for negative-60 degree weather. I still got a touch of frostbite, though, on the tips of my fingers. It was kind of tingly and not something I was always aware of. I thought it was kind of cool, especially when it went away. [Laughs.]

Given your experience on this shoot, would you be able to survive in that environment? Did you pick up any survival tips?
You’d think, huh? My nightmare after making this movie is the headline would be, “Asshole who makes movie about plane crash dies in plane crash.” [Laughs.] I think for that level of weather, it’s impossible to prepare for it. Obviously body heat is a big thing, so bring someone to cuddle with — hopefully someone who survives the crash — and layers, layers, layers. I told the cast, “Now imagine this with no craft service showing up with hot tea.” All the creature comforts stripped away. Because in that extreme weather, any idea you had before of who you were, nature will strip it away.  

And then come the big bad wolves. Was there ever any thought about having the men try to be submissive to the wolves, to get the wolves to accept them? Because you always hear these stories about how wolves supposedly don’t really eat humans.
The animal activist community, they’re entitled to say wolves don’t eat men, because that’s their purview, but to me, that’s as silly as saying humans won’t eat other people. In certain situations, they do. You can’t say humans will only do these things, and it’s empirical and immutable and beyond reproach. I think that’s nuts. For every story about OR7, the wolf that just crossed into California, there’s a story about the 400-member super-pack in Northern Siberia which went through 30 horses in a few days. OR7, by the way, was supposed to make it to our premiere, but it didn’t work out. [Laughs.]

Bradley Cooper was originally slated to play the lead, Ottway. Did you swap him out for Liam because Bradley already has a wolf pack?
Yeah, exactly! [Laughs.] He’s got the Hangover wolf pack. I didn’t even think about that. Bradley would have been an interesting choice, but it would have been a very different movie. I just saw him at the premiere and he gave me the greatest hug. He’s just such an unselfish guy. None of this actor-bullshit ego, no “I wish I had done that.” He was just profoundly affected by the film, and I thought, What a champ, man.

Liam does bring a certain gravitas to the role, especially with his letter to his late wife. You told him to write it to Natasha Richardson?
Yeah, so he could draw on real grief. I can’t imagine another actor playing it with such depth. He’s lived it. He’s breathed it. There’s nothing fake about that. My whole thing was that your personal life, what happened to you, is going to be a huge part of the movie. Liam asked me if he could do the movie in his own accent, so he wouldn’t have to fake a Midwestern twang. Dermot Mulroney, when his character is talking about his daughter’s long hair, and how he’s the only one that’s allowed to cut it? Well, Dermot’s actually talking about his son Clyde. All the pictures in their wallets, those are all real photographs. To me, that was the necessary glue that was going to make the film not just a disposable horror-thriller. This is more than fighting off wolves and jumping off cliffs; this is guys talking about what it means to live and die.

With The A-Team, this, and other projects to come, it seems like Liam is part of your wolf pack now. You’re thinking of him for parts in Nemesis and White Jazz?
For White Jazz, I would want Liam to play the Dudley Smith character. When L.A. Confidential came out — and I loved James Cromwell in that film and Liam would have been a tad too young then, at that time — but Liam is absolutely 100 percent the Dud. He is that guy. So to play him now —whoa. For Nemesis, I think he’d be a great Blake Morrow.    

Yet when you were talking to Mark Millar on Twitter, you caused a panic: People thought Nemesis was called off.
I wish you could have seen the private messages between Mark and me — it was a hell of a lot more entertaining! But it’s interesting that it was seized upon right away. How that started, how we even began to correspond, someone sent me Nemesis, and Mark had said, “I loved The A-Team so much, I named one of the Black Ops guys Carnahan.” And I thought, What the hell?! So then I reached out to Mark. I’m still very much interested in making the film, but it was kind of interesting that it passed the fanboy quadrant and made the news.

This isn’t the first time your tweets have gotten you in trouble.
You don’t even know. I’m an idiot with social media! I’m on a ski trip with my wife, and I remember, I was drinking Jameson’s, which, being Irish, is not a good idea, and I look up at the television, and there’s the ad from Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol. And so I wrote, “Can’t help noticing that the MI4 stunt of Cruise running down the building looks exactly like The A-Team gag we did. The difference being about 350 million in overall box office. Besides that, identical.” Meaning, Mission: Impossible was a huge success, and A-Team was not, but irony does not reprint. It shows up on “Page Six,” and I’m like, “Are you kidding me?” Does anyone give a shit what I say? Apparently, there are tiny pockets of the world of the Internet that do.

You’ve had a lot of testosterone in your films so far. What about some estrogen?
I’m going to do Sex and the City 3, I’m just going to say that right now. [Laughs.] I didn’t want to let the cat out of the bag, but SGP — I mean, SJP! Jesus, my wife would lance me for getting that one wrong.   

Director Joe Carnahan on The Grey, Casting Liam Neeson Over Bradley Cooper, and Starting Twitter Feuds