"There will always be a revolution. There will always be a renaissance. They just may not happen as quickly as we want them to."
Unlike some directors who might throw vague, esoteric answers at you (Read: Hollywood BS), Joe Carnahan is straightforward, concise, and tells it like he sees it. He shoots from the hip, and it's easy to respect him for it. It also makes him great for interviews!
Carnahan's currently busy in preparation for the Maryland International Film Festival-Hagerstown (MDIFF-H) on May 1st and where he will be awarded this year's Mendez Award for his contribution to film, but luckily for us even amid all the impending hustle, bustle and ceremony Joe Carnahan still made time for me, and it was the farthest thing from a perfunctory interview.
We discussed his struggles as an amateur director trying to make it in one of the toughest industries on earth, his ambitious plans for the Daredevil trilogy that was THIS CLOSE to getting made, and what's wrong with Hollywood! In other words, it was Joe Carnahan, uncut and unrated...
...and it was awesome.
***WARNING: SPOILERS FOR THE GREY AND NARC FOLLOW. ALSO, SOME PROFANITY. I TOLD YOU IT WAS UNCUT.***
JabberTalky: One thing that I’ve always found compelling about your movies, you have this method of turning things on their head, and unraveling an audience’s perceptions of events. What is it that compels you to craft your stories in this way?
Carnahan: I like a constantly shifting narrative. I like to keep things tilting and swaying. That approach, creatively, requires an audience to remain on their toes and actively engage in the characters and in the story. Part of that need probably comes from my own belief that there is one face we play for the crowd and another face for the curtain. No one is ever just one way about any one thing and our truth is often totally subjective and shifts with the moment. There was no reason, in the The Grey, for Ottway to share with the others or the audience for that matter, that his wife had passed away. She did ‘Leave Him’ just not in the conventional sense and that was something worth holding back and allowing the viewer to experience at the end. At the moment Ottway makes the decision to die fighting and ‘join her’…The same can be said of Narc. It’s not until the end that you realize that the Oak character isn’t really a bad guy. He’s just heartbroken and pissed off and frustrated and trying to salvage a really shitty situation through near-psychotic means. Even faced the insurmountable, his character can’t see the futility of his actions. He’s a fatalist trying to fight off that condition and he of course, fails. You could look at both of those endings as having a grim world view but I think it’s the exact opposite. I think it’s two men fighting for their own undeniable truth, regardless of how skewed that truth may be to you or I. There’s a purity of purpose there, whether it’s wrong-headed or crazed is irrelevant. It’s meaningful to them.
I understand you’re attending and being honored at the Maryland International Film Festival-Hagerstown (MDIFF-H) and that you were also there to support them in their inaugural year. What draws you to independent film and to give back to the community in this way?
It’s where I began my whole journey. Film festivals and independent film is what transitioned my world from that of an amateur, trying to get his work seen, to a professional, where people actually started paying me for this nonsense. And I think as overwhelmed and as cluttered as the independent film world has become, the cream still rises to the top and it’s still really exciting for me to go to a festival, like Hagerstown and experience something new.
So, I’m just going to ask: What happened with the Daredevil project? I remember seeing your sizzle reels and they conveyed a very unique, 70s tone. Where did you want to go with the character of Matt Murdock?
What people don’t realize about the DD project is that the producers of the film, got to me very late. They had a script that I read and I thought that while the action was wonderful, the story didn’t really have any additional bite. There was nothing I suggested a trilogy as follows. ‘Daredevil ‘73’ ‘Daredevil ‘79’ and ‘Daredevil ‘85’ where I was going to do a kind of ‘cultural libretto’ and make the music of those eras a kind of thematic arc . So the first one would be Classic Rock, the second one would be Punk Rock and the third film would be ‘New Wave.’ The problem was, the option was almost set to lapse so we made an eleventh hour bid to Marvel to retain the rights for a bit longer so I could rework the script. Unfortunately, it just didn’t happen. Marvel wanted the rights back. I don’t blame them.
(Note: I included Carnahan's original sizzle reels for the Daredevil projects, they convey the tone he was shooting for with the first film.)
(Note: And for those of you "ready for a bit of the old ultra-violence.")
What is the status on Stretch?
The thing is, Stretch is such a great, funny little film and I think what started out as an experiment, attempting to do a really low budget action-comedy, became this much larger ‘is it a major, wide release?’ as if that was the only metric for a film’s perceived success and truthfully, that was our fault. The script was always really funny but also dark and edgy and maybe 10 or 15 years ago, a studio can get behind something like that but I think that time has passed. They want really broad, mass programmable movies or what they call ‘four quadrant’ films that appeal to the biggest possible audience and I get that. It’s really smart from a business standpoint, it just doesn’t allow for something as cool as Stretch to go out on 3,000 screens. Smokin' Aces would never be a major studio release in this day and age. It’s way too weird and dark and convoluted. I consider myself fortunate that that film went out on 2,700 screens. It would likely be VOD today.
We have 4DX Theaters now that implement motion, light, scent, wind and water. Variations whether it's 4DX, 3D, Virtual Reality, or 360-degree 3D movies. What potential do you see in this new technology for storytelling in film, and what would you do with it?
I’m a purist. I don’t think turning theaters into roller-coasters is good for the medium. I think it helps further dilute the product because it becomes all about this fake experiential thing that detracts from the simplicity of sitting there and watching a great film unfold before you, as they have for over 100 years. Technology is only as good as its most basic implementation and no amount of gilding the lily in the form of ‘motion seats’ is going to turn a shitty movie into a masterpiece.
What is the status of Nemesis? What challenges are you facing with the project right now?
I think the biggest challenge with Nemesis is that it’s just a motherfucker of screenplay in that it pushes a lot of buttons and does things that both expand and violate the traditional mores of the ‘comic book adaptation’ and that’s a scary conceit when The Dark Knight is considered the socio-political lynchpin of that particular universe. I think Nemesis fucks with the genre in such a thumb-in-the-eye fashion that it might simply be something for another time and place. It’s incredibly topical and remains infuriatingly so. I chalk it up to another really wonderful script that my brother and I wrote that simply may be too smart-assed for its own good.
(Note: Mark Millar's Nemesis asks the question: "What if Batman was evil?")
What do you find compelling about Nemesis, and is the script pretty close to the graphic novel? Are you diverging in any ways?
My brother and I took our real inspiration from Nemesis in the fact that only one character, the bad guy, wore a costume. From their it deviates from the source material in a number of ways but what remains alive and well is Millar’s simmering disdain for the status quo and the relentless violence that characterizes the graphic novel.
Dream casting for Nemesis, who would play Det. Blake Morrow? Who would you cast in the titular role?
I never think of any particular actor. I think if you understand that script in its entirety, then you fight to play that part.
If you had free reign to pick any comic book that you aren’t already adapting, and translate it to the big screen, which would it be and what would be your spin on it? Where would you take that character?
I think what I detailed earlier with the Daredevil stuff would still be my dream. I think Todd McFarlane’s Spawn is so ripe to redo. It’s such a great premise and unfortunately the film adaptation sucked and robbed an otherwise great property of a proper translation to the big screen. The animated series that aired for awhile was far superior.
With The Avengers popularizing franchise universes, and The Dark Knight and the recent Captain America sequel brining socio-political commentary into the fray, where do you think comic book adaptations need to go next to evolve as a genre?
This is the core of what Nemesis is. This question is the reason I’m so keen to do that film.
What’s next on Joe Carnahan’s plate? What will you be filming?
I just finished this pilot for NBC with Katherine Heigl and I love it. It seems to have a lot of fans so we’ll see if that translates to a series pick-up. Then I’ve got to get back in there and finish Stretch properly.
You’ve proven yourself to be a guy that’s not afraid to take chances, push the envelope, and speak your mind while doing it; whether that makes you friends or enemies. I’ve read about the work you were doing on Daredevil and Death Wish and word-of-mouth was really, really good for these projects. Nevertheless, they just didn’t work out. These are great ideas and great scripts, so what is it in Hollywood that is handicapping this kind of creativity? What does Hollywood need to learn or how does it need to grow in order to fully realize its potential?
Hollywood is always going to follow the money. The business is now largely the dominion of accountants. That might sound disparaging but it’s a reality and like any business, the film business needs to turn a profit. So what you’re seeing is an aggressive move toward more tried and true franchises: Superheroes. Monsters. Robots. These things traditionally make money. So you can either lament the loss of the 30-40 million dollar drama or you can accept things for the way they are, knowing that these things will eventually change. There will always be a revolution. There will always be a renaissance. They just may not happen as quickly as we want them to.
Thanks for your time, Mr. Carnahan, can’t wait to see what you have in store for audiences, next.