In October I went to Lake Tahoe, Nevada, to see Smokin’ Aces, Joe Carnahan’s follow-up to the great crime film Narc. I stayed in the hotel where the movie was shot, and after the screening I, along with a couple of other journalists, had dinner and then went gambling with Joe. We played blackjack until well into the night; Joe started weak, but ended up gaining back all his losses as the night wore on.
The next morning it was up and at ‘em early – everybody had a chance to get some one on one time with Joe. I was feeling a little groggy – there had been plenty of beers the night before – but Joe, who had still been in the casino when I finally packed it in, was brimming with energy. That seems to be the natural state for Joe Carnahan – the guy’s just bursting with friendliness and laughter, and he has more hilarious and unprintable stories than just about anyone I have met.
This is the first of two interviews that we’ll run this week. The follow-up was conducted in January, during the Smokin’ Aces junket.
I said to you that this was like the bloodiest episode of the Love Boat. But the more I think about it, it’s like all your favorite movie genres showed up at a casino for a shootout.
It is. Absolutely, brother. The thing that will piss me off more than anything… I love Quentin [Tarantino], but I’m not influenced by him. If there are two movies that influenced it, the bones beneath the surface, they’re Barton Fink and Raising Arizona.
I see Raising Arizona. Where does Barton Fink come in?
The claustrophobia of the hotel. John Goodman as Mundt, the sociopath with the head in the box next door. Running up the hallway that’s on fire. Then with Raising Arizona, you have Tex Cobb – he’s the fucking father of the Tremor Brothers. Then you have everybody after the baby, everybody wants the baby.
But it was my attempt – and however it turns out, it turns out – to see how the individual personas of these characters could affect the way it was shot. The Tremor Brothers, when you first see the Tremor Brothers, when Lester stands up, that’s the shot from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly when the guy stands up in the beginning. They believe themselves to be bigger than life, they watched The Matrix a shitload of times, so everything has to be in slow motion, they’re impervious to bullets. But you’re asked to go from that fantastical freak show to a guy trying to give mouth to mouth to his dying partner.
It is, dude – it’s all those things colliding. All I was worried about is that you care for these people, I don’t give a shit who they were. And I didn’t want it to be glib. When Nestor Carbonell kills Matthew Fox, what he says to him – ‘Don’t look at my face, heaven may hold it against you.’ – that’s real, man. He’s not being flip. He’s saying, ‘I wish I didn’t have to do this, but you forced it. You’re going to asphyxiate, you shouldn’t be feeling any pain right now.’ Fuck man, to me that’s what I want it to be. Then you can have the boner kid, and the grandma with the hysterectomy and the sodomy-torture-bad-check-writing deadbeat dad…
It was really my attempt to… it’s a drive-in movie, man. But I want this to be a refined drive-in movie, an action film where the wires are used to yank guys across the room and not float them. We were doing deadman pulls in that. Denny Pierce, the guy who took that hit from the .50 cal went from standing still, dude, to fucking 20 yards in the other direction in a second and a half. If you slow the film down, his body does a horse shoe.
You mention Tarantino, and I don’t think it’s the same thing that he does. The only thing that this film has in common with Tarantino is that this film is aware there have been previous films.
We’re cinephiles. Guys like you, like me – guys who really love movies. There’s as many homages to Bergman in that fucking movie – in Hour of the Wolf, there’s a shot of Max von Sydow talking to Liv Ullman, and you know he’s going fucking nuts. She’s just hung laundry, sheets, and it’s this two shot and the sheet just starts to rattle more and more. The shot of Common in the bathroom is my favorite shot in [Smokin’ Aces] – the shot of Common talking to Jeremy Piven’s reflection in the mirror. You’re not there, dude – you’re duplicitous, you’re gone. The gunfight between Nestor and Ray [Liotta] in the elevator – it’s Citizen Kane, the minute he knows you’re full of shit, it’s all reflections.
So yeah, absolutely aware. But to say that, ‘It’s exactly this’ or ‘It’s exactly that’ you cheapen the whole experience. That’s my biggest bitch with the critical establishment right now: stop bitching about derivative films, what about derivative criticism? How about having a frame of reference pre-92. I love Quentin, but sliced white bread and the internal combustion engine did not spring from Reservoir Dogs. I love that guy, I love his movies, but my Tarantino movie – the one I love, that I adore – is Jackie Brown, his least successful film.
What’s funny is that when Jackie Brown came out I didn’t like it, then I got it on DVD, and I watched it again… and again… and again. I think that’s the Tarantino film I’ve watched the most.
Dude, it’s so nuanced and lyrical and beautiful a movie. What the unfortunate thing is that, at the end of the day, nobody gave a shit about a relationship between a 60 year old white guy and a 45 year old black woman. And that’s the crime, because it’s so beautiful. Behaviorally it’s like, fuck man – Samuel L Jackson is genuinely menacing in that film. Bridget Fonda is wonderful. Find me a DeNiro performance that’s anything like that in the last 15 years. There’s no caricature, he’s not satirizing himself.
I love movies, man. I fucking watch all over the place, everything, like you do. We come from that culture. There’s nothing I love more than watching a movie and saying, ‘Wow, how did they do that?’ I remember watching Persona when I was 19 and thinking, ‘This is the biggest piece of shit on the planet.’ I watched it seven years later and it’s one of my favorite films of all time. I take those things seriously, and for critics to say, ‘It’s like Tarantino…’ Come on, man. You have to invest more. You have to. You gotta look for it or it’s pointless, don’t even bother. If you see a gun and there’s a hit man in it, don’t even bother, because it’s fucking Tarantino. I feel like there’s a correlation in this country between our comfort with things and our ability to brand them immediately.
We were talking last night about Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, a movie which just got trashed at the time even though it’s a masterpiece. Besides the Tarantino thing, are you worried that this is the kind of movie that critics will not get?
Here’s where I am very confident: this movie will wear very well over time. This movie will be – no matter how dismissed it is – I defy you to watch the movie a second time and not see new shit. If that’s the case, listen, the fact that Universal let me make this movie and let me end it the way it ends, which to me is the only thing it has in common with Narc – the ambiguity of the ending – whatever critics’ or audiences’ ambivalence towards the film, you can’t do anything about that. You fall reaching. I would rather try something and have it be a complete wipeout than to say, ‘Let’s trim this back.’ We do that too much. So yes, this kid gets a boner while he’s throwing punches at this guy.
I was glad you went back to that a second time, because the first time I was like, ‘That kid didn’t really have a boner, did he?’
[laughs] It’s a freak show, man! Mixed in with a nice salad and some prime rib there’s some cotton candy. There’s room on the table for everything. So yeah, you’re right, it may be one of those things where it polarizes people because you have to think. If you check out of this movie, don’t even bother – you have to keep up. At the end of the day, that’s the movie I wanted to make. Whatever it does, it does. But I’ll never apologize for it.
The cast in this film is great. Not just people who are great and you expect them to be great, but people like Alicia Keys, who really surprises. She’s killer. How did that cast come together?
There’s such a dearth of interesting screenplays knocking around. I like writing for a reader. If you’re going to take two hours out of your life to read this, I’m going to give you something that’s entertaining. The script drew a lot of attention, and I had a lot of people, from Ryan Reynolds to Alicia to Jason Bateman, saying they want to do this. Nobody got paid any money. The budget on this was 21 [million], it was like no money – in terms of a studio movie. 21’s a lot of fucking money but not in terms of a studio. And at that budget level I didn’t get messed with, and I had Working Title, who are extraordinary producers. They bulletproofed me. They’re used to doing Bridget Jones and Love, Actually, these very high-minded, droll British comedies – although they also did Shaun of the Dead, which I loved. And they did Hot Fuzz. They have an eye for this, but they bullet-proofed me.
But that cast, they all just got down, man. They got down and went with it. Alicia, I told her we’re going to train you. You can’t look like you’ve never been in gunfights. Ryan Reynolds was so goddamned fast – he had an HK and he was so fucking fast with that gun. You’d see him be BAM! BAM! BAM! and then drop [the clip] and be firing within two seconds. Unbelievable. And Alicia’s the same way – we were going to have a contest between them. She does what’s called tap, rack and bang – we deliberately put a jam in her gun, in this case a snap cap that won’t cycle, and the gun won’t fire, so she literally had to retap the mag, get rid of the bad shell and keep firing. I didn’t speed up any of that shit – that’s them moving that quickly. When you see Ryan drop that reload when Nestor’s about to put the gun to her head and shoot her, I didn’t take any frames out of that – that’s how long it takes him to get a gun up.
And it’s the best kind of artistic collusion, because everybody’s in on it and they all want to bring it. We had the Tremor Brothers – Maury Sterling, Chris Pine and Kevin Durand – they really hung out, they really became brothers. They talked in character, they always addressed one another by character name. They were really into it. Because it was something opposed to some douchebag romantic comedy they usually get offered.
Like Ben [Affleck], I said, you don’t mind playing this guy who’s going to get punched out in the first twenty minutes? He got the humor in that, he saw the reason for that. I think it was all those things that contributed to having the greatest cast.
When this comes out, it’ll have been five years since Narc. Why so long?
We had a couple of non-starters. I spent a couple of months on A Walk Among the Tombstones at Universal, and we couldn’t make that mesh. Then I spent 15 months on MI3. I made lifelong friends on that movie, we’ll be bonded forever by our experiences on that movie. It’s tough man, when you see your contemporaries and guys like Chris Nolan making a bunch of great films, I think he’s really gifted. The closest compatriot to my experience is Darren [Aronofsky] and what he went through on The Fountain. Then you have people like Kim Pierce – people who you really love who you’ll wait for. I can’t wait to see Stoploss, this Gulf War thing. It’s the process, and as much as I was pissed off about MI3, I’m glad it happened because I wouldn’t have been able to make this. I wrote my adaptation of Killing Pablo after I left, so a lot of stuff… it was like a confluence. I look at that film and I say, do I wish I made that? No. I’m glad I made this. And listen, brother – I don’t want to go another five years.
When you spend 15 months on a film like MI3, a big film that doesn’t happen, what’s the lesson you learn?
That there’s something to be said for brevity. There’s something to be said for expedience and pure purpose. Stripping something down to its most elemental, what you need to make it work. And I’ll put the action in this movie up against the action in MI3, especially at what we spent, and with that cast. At the end of the day what that taught me was, in a lot of ways, what not to do. The script is the first block in the building, and sometimes in Hollywood we treat it like something to endlessly work on. Maybe it can endlessly evolve, but do yourself a favor – have 120 pages to evolve. Don’t have 50. Don’t have a handful. It becomes diminishing returns. You have the rare instance of Die Hard, where you start out with a script of 30 pages, but it’s so rare. In my relatively short experience in this business, it’s never yielded a good film, or anything close to a masterpiece. Those come from hard work, being solitary and cranking it out. I will never start a film again without a finished script. And also a collective understanding of how we’ll approach the movie – too much of that changed during the process.
It seems like it’s a bad idea to start a movie with only a date and sequel number.
I love the X-Men movies, but I wasn’t crazy about X3. I know the situation behind that – they were rushing for a date. I think Matt Vaughn saw that and said, forget about it. Do I have fundamental problems with that movie versus the other two? Sure – and I’m all for the great summer entertainment, but I’m all for Raiders of the Lost Ark. And I don’t think that’s too much to ask for, that it be smart. Raiders is still a brilliant series of stunts pieced together, but it’s the energy and the grace and the beauty behind it that, to me, remains pure. Now it’s like let’s blow it all out, do it day and date, get all the money first weekend, fool everybody and run off to Brazil. To me that model has to change. I would love to be able to make movies in this kind of budget range, because this is where you have the most freedom.