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. It’s not. I’m not going to get political. I do that enough, but I’m hopeful, brother, but I’m also hopeful for change, some sort of paradigm shift, where we’re seeing it go in a different direction.
When we talked for El Chicano, you were a little coy about the idea of making movies for streaming. Now, do you feel differently?
Jack, I think that’s where we’re at right now. That’s where the business is. The differentiation now between Netflix, and Sony, or Paramount, or Universal, or streamers in general… I watch Hulu all the time now. So, I went to Palm Springs at home. That was the movie that I wouldn’t have gone to the Laemmle Theaters to see that film. I don’t have that kind of time.
Did you enjoy it?
I did. I dug it. It’s also given people during the pandemic ease of use, and an easy touchstone for, “Okay, you got kids, you got this, you got that.” It’s difficult to go out. It’s difficult in general, forget about the pandemic. Now, DiCaprio is going to be on Netflix. Everybody’s going on Netflix now. So, what are you going to do? I don’t know the day and date aren’t going to be the same for every movie. For those of you who want to see it in the theater, it’s out there. For those of you who want to see it at home, it’s available there, as well.
I still think people want the social interaction and the communal experience of going to a movie. So, I’ll give them that experience, when things are safe and the smoke clears. But, I don’t think that that should immediately once again negate or nullify the streamer. That’s, “Okay, you’re our second option now.” I think if anything, that that field is absolutely wide open and dead even.
I think streamers have a tremendous advantage, but in the near term, or whenever we get through the shitstorm we’re in right now, I think that will be something that is taken into consideration. It’s no longer going to be, “Nobody wants to go streaming. We don’t want to go streaming.” I think everybody’s like, “Great, great. Whatever means or methods I can utilize to get my work seen, that’s what I want.”
The HBO Max news blew people’s minds a month or so ago, but now, it seems like the inevitable accepted.
Yeah. Listen, I was going to watch The Little Things. I’m like, “This is awesome.” The new Denzel movie. I’m a huge, huge Denzel fan. I think that here’s the deal too, Jack. You think about the economics, right? Two days after Wonder Woman 2 came out, Warner Bros. comes out and they’re rushing a Wonder Woman 3 into production. Do you think that’s accidental, that they didn’t do numbers that were astronomical, that suddenly they’re not paying 45% to an exhibitor, so that’s nearly half their profits they’re holding onto? They’re not jetting Gal Gadot and Chris Pine and Patty Jenkins all over the globe to do all these various premieres, red carpets, with a traditional marketing model, which is hundreds of millions of dollars in its own right. You’re not doing any of that.
So, when you start looking at a profit like that, why would you not do that? I think their subscriber-base quadrupled over one weekend when Wonder Woman 2 came out. So, why not? Again, it’s not accidental that they green-lit that so quickly. I think that was absolutely by, “Wow, this thing made a lot of money. This thing made some dough.”
Again, brother, I don’t think the genie’s going back in the bottle, not on that stuff. And once HBO Max does it, how long before Sony does it, or Paramount does it. I don’t think the genie’s going back in the bottle, not on that stuff.
I know you don’t want to get political, but admittedly, I did get a laugh from the line, “Fucking liberals.”
Fucking liberals, yeah. I thought it was great. Hang on two seconds, I’m just going to get a Starbucks, man. Don’t mind me, but hang on.
[A Moment Later]
I’ll pour some tequila on that, Jack, it’ll be right as rain, baby. I think that Mel’s line to Selina Lo, too, I thought was good. The whole, “Is that a Japanese, Chinese blade…” “Let’s not make this about race.” I just thought it was funny these little fleeting jabs, I thought were great.
I was going to ask, do you take joy in knowing you’re pushing someone’s buttons?
Oh, dude. By the way, if we stop pissing off those people, we’re going to lose the battle altogether. We got to piss off the uptight people. We’re getting a little too sanctimonious and secular in our thought process, and that’s troublesome.
Not long after that scene, Clive’s (Gibson) motivation is revealed. Was that in Chris and Eddie’s original draft, that idea of him wanting to stop 9/11 and Adolph Hitler?
I think that the boys achieved that, and I think I just brought it out. I think that that whole speech about 9/11, the idea to reverse these horrible things, and that would be justification for basically doing what you’re doing. I think it was something that they had, and I just teased it out to greater detail.
Did you see, brother, the ending, the real, the ending jar ending, or the one that’s international?
What’s the difference?
The international one is in the machine and it ends. The other one, he wakes up back in his bedroom. You got to repeat the loop one more time. He’s dying, he’s dying, he’s dying. That’s the director’s version for better, more or less.
How did that happen?
The international people got sick of waiting around, because of the financing on this. I say this now, obviously, it’s a mixed blessing, because we never would’ve been able to make this film with Frank in the lead, in the traditional model with your foreign sales and all this kind of bullshit that the industry is built to hedge its bets on making movies. So, we were able to make the film we wanted to make.
It was under tremendous duress, but it wouldn’t have happened in the traditional model. So, as much as I bitch and moan about the finances of it, ultimately we got to make that movie. Now, would I ever want to repeat that process again? Absolutely not. I think they just got tired of waiting around, and I don’t blame them, and they wanted to get that version of the movie out there because they had bills to pay, and guarantees to honor, and so on. So, that’s how that happened. The version people see on Hulu is the version that I intend them to see, which is the one that I want, that’s my part of the movie. So, that’s the big difference
Frank Grillo is a guy who looks like he could easily fit into a movie with Charles Bronson or Lee Marvin. Does he have a certain old school quality that appeals to you?
There’s a certain grittiness and a hard blow quality about Frank that I think is certainly attractive to me in the kind of movies he and I both like, and respond to, and we’d call our favorites. We grew up in the same era, so those were all of our heroes too. Although, Boss Level has all that stuff, when he had that time with his son, it gets very serious. And that gear change is difficult.
I love Bronson, but Bronson was not a nuanced actor. Frank is, and can do those things and yet in turn, then do those very nuanced gear changes and give you something that’s a little more layered and offbeat. I think those are very difficult things to do, but tremendous attributes to have as an actor. So yeah, he’s very much a part of that of the bloodstream of the movies again, that we both responded to, and are part of our youth.
The movie definitely has a throwback vibe. Did Mel Gibson feel right for it for that reason? What does that bring to the table given his experience as a director?
Oh, dude, you’re talking about a guy that won an Oscar in directing. He was so generous, so lovely, and so supportive, and by the way, worked his ass off. He really worked hard, man. So, it was great to have a guy who’s world-class in that way, and a world-class filmmaker is his own right. To be there, and also just to tell these tremendous stories about Apocalypto and Braveheart, and talking about George Miller in Road Warrior and Mad Max, I could just sit there and talk to him all day about that stuff. He was so generous with his time, and with his energy and everything. He was great, man. He was a joy to direct, and we’ve become good friends. I really enjoyed my time with him.
I have to ask since he is a polarizing actor, do you have to consider how some audiences perceive him in a role or movie?
Listen, I believe in redemption. I believe in forgiveness. I believe in all these things. I think that the guy has done nothing but good things in the last ten years. I think if we’re going to hold on to these types of things, we can’t really preach this idea of truly forgiving someone. Listen, I would want that for anyone, no matter the situation.
I thought that Mel was very upfront with me about everything, and was very contrite and solemn. I just thought, “Okay, what do you want from this guy? What do you want, blood? What do expect him to do?”, other than what he’s done, which is leading an exemplary life. He’s put that business behind him. Again, “Those without sin, cast the first stone.”
I’ll leave it at Mel was a joy. We’re either going to embrace this notion of redemption and forgiveness, or we’re going to be hypocritical. American society, in particular, excels at the latter. So, let’s knock that shit off, and really give people their due, and their second chance, and their redemptive gesture.
Boss Level is now available on Hulu.
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