Joe Carnahan Interviewed – ‘Smokin’ Aces’

     January 22, 2007

I’m sitting in a Chinese restaurant outside the press theater at Sundance as I write these words. Why am I doing this? Because they have free wi-fi and mediocre Chinese food. Clearly this is the place I want to be updating Collider from….

Anyway. Arriving this Friday is a crazy action ride and it’s called Smokin’ Aces. It’s the first film from Joe Carnahan in almost five years and it’s a welcome departure from all the Oscar fare and award bullshit going on right now. Smokin’ Aces is pure and simple a roller coaster of action and entertainment.

The premise is pretty simple. Jeremy Piven plays Buddy ‘Aces’ Israel who is the target of a mob hit. The film is about all the people who have heard of this great payday to whack him and are racing to do it first. At the same time you have the federal government who are desperate to get him into protective custody so he can testify about what he knows. The race is on.

What Joe Carnahan does differently and what will either make you love or hate this film is have the movie take on the personality of who is on screen while you are watching their character. When you have a someone serious on screen the film acts like a typical movie, but when you have some of the crazy hit men racing around, the film takes on their personality. He accomplishes this by altering the camera work and editing to reflect their personalities. For me it works, but I’ll admit it was a bit jarring at times.

If you want to see a fun action flick I suggest checking out Smokin’ Aces. Solid performances and a hell of a cast will keep you entertained and amused. Also it has one of the funniest bit parts I’ve seen in a long time, you’ll know it when you see it….

Now for that interview…

Most of the studios do roundtables, but Universal is famous for their press conferences. What that means is instead of eight or so people asking questions we have twenty or thirty trying to get their voice heard. And each person usually has an agenda. That’s why when you read a transcript of a press conference the questions can be extremely varied. Thankfully with Mr. Carnahan they gave us a lot of time so everyone was able to get at least a question in.

He talks about all the important stuff – like how he was attached to MI3 for awhile and how that went, how his brother is now an up and coming screenwriter, how he put this crazy cast together, what he’s doing next, all the usual stuff.

You can either read the interview/press conference or you can listen to it by clicking here. The file is an MP3 so it will be easy to put on your iPod or portable player.

And before reading or listening to this interview please know that spoilers are discussed.

Joe Carnahan: Gees, I feel like I’m at the Watergate hearings. Yes, I was one of the original five! Do I do anything?

No, you’re all set.

Joe Carnahan: Okay, all right man.

It’s good to see you again.

Joe Carnahan: Good to see you too man.

Almost more interesting than this project are all the ones that almost happened [along the way].

Joe Carnahan: That didn’t happen? Ha ha! What are you talking about? I don’t know—

Just tell us about why it’s been so hard for you to connect with something and what came together for this?

Joe Carnahan: Well, people in this town don’t like me. That’s one—no I’m kidding there! No, that’s going to go on, somebody’s going to take that literally and be like, “This asshole actually said no one likes him.” No, you know what? It was, you know, I had the fifteen months on Mission Impossible 3, which was a blast really, it was. No, I had—no, I did that and then before that I had kind of this abortive process. You know, irony doesn’t translate into print. That’s what I realized. Jeremy Piven said that. It’s the truth man. You know, it was, you know, when I came off of Mission, which is obviously a real incredible, kind of learning experience, you know, the things that you pick up—things to do and then more importantly the things you don’t do. You know. I went out of that, I adapted immediately to Mark Bowden’s book, Killing Pablo, which I was obsessed with and remain obsessed with. And it was a series of kind of, you know, it was going through the—I mean, listen, when I left Mission Impossible I thought, that’s it, man. I’ll be directing like, straight to video, you know what I mean, with like, the guy who played Potsy. You know what I mean? So, which there’s nothing wrong with that. Potsy if you’re out there? We’re down. So I think there was kind of a period of just re-ramping and you feel like, you know, when you’re in a situation like that, that long, it feels like this kind of straight jacket. And I think the first thing you want to do when you get out of a straight jacket is just stretch and move, and that, Smoking Aces is kind of my response to kind of being in a cellar without—not being able to move for a long period of time. But it’s great because now it feels like things are really rolling and I’m actually glad to be working. And I’m sure my children are glad that I’m working as they have a roof over their head.

It won’t be another five years.

Joe Carnahan: It won’t be another five years, I promise you. In fact, I’m doing—if things go well, I’m going to do something almost immediately with Reese Witherspoon, which will be a lot of fun. And then I do White Jazz at the end of next year with George Clooney, which is again, my brother adapted it, I got to work with him on it. So, no, if this business will have me, I will continue to make films and not wait so long in between them. So, it’s a long-ass answer. That was really long, I’m sorry guys.

Joe, when you were writing the script, did you have the editing in mind? And then after—or while you were directing, was there something in the editing process that you saw?

Joe Carnahan: Yeah, I mean, Rob Frazen who cut Smoking Aces had come off of Nicole Holofcener, who I love, who, you know, like he had cut Lovely and Amazing and Friends With Money, so Rob is like a behavioralist, which is what I love, because I’m not. So I knew, you know, a lot of sequences were designed—they had to be because we shot that film in forty days. So if you go in there, and kind of go, “Ah, I’m not sure—put a camera up there in the corner,” you’re dead. So I was really—I had a real strong sense of what I wanted to do, because necessity kind of makes you. I’m by nature, kind of lazy. I mean, you know, I’ll sit around for a long time if I can. So, I’m going right back to this question over here, but no, I really did approach it with kind of knowing the way I was going to put it together. And also, which is what makes the movie either good or bad, or interesting or not interesting, I was really going for shooting characters and editing sequences according to the persona of those particular characters. You know, you look at the Tremor brothers, those guys watched The Matrix fifty times. So when I shot them—and they watched [Sir Guillioni] movies. So when I shot them I made them like this kind of like slow motion, and kind of overwrought, and you know, they want to shoot guys who are on fire. It’s this cartoonish—but you’re going from that back to Ryan Reynolds trying to resuscitate [Ray] and Taraji Henson in this tearful kind of—so it was a conscious decision knowing that it was going to require an audience to go from first gear to fifth gear without necessarily feeling this big speed change, you know. But at the same time it’s like, well, I’d rather do that than like go right down the middle and play it safe and say, “Well, you know, I’m worried because people may not connect.” So there was a lot of those decisions made. And certainly that fell into—I knew how I was going to cut it, you know, that some stuff that I would hold on because of the character, and other things I wouldn’t. Good sir?

So let’s talk about how did you go about assembling this incredible ensemble of actors? And can you follow up telling us what you’re doing with Reese?

Joe Carnahan: You know, the actors—I mean, listen, you know, this is the other thing I learned really, from Mission Impossible, because I don’t think we had a good experience in the scripting stage. I thought we had a great script that Dan Gilroy, who’s the brother of Tony Gilroy, he and I had written. But I realized, what that really taught me is like, you know, that’s the first brick in the building, you know, that really is. And it’s so important and so kind of tantamount to, you know, making this thing—making it doable. So for me, you know, and I also write for a reader. You know, I write so that you’re enjoying it while you’re reading it, and it’s engaging and it’s—you know. You know, like you should, I guess. I think screenplays too often are just this kind of bastard form of literature and you just toss it off and who gives a damn, and you know. But I didn’t approach it that way, and that’s what ultimately hooked a lot of the actors, you know, who didn’t do it for a lot of money. I think that they were doing it at some point for like, a case of beer. That was what they were being paid, and Doritos. No, I mean, it was like they were not—they came to this thing because of the script, and also the ability, you know, I mean, I told Jeremy, “this is like a shot for you to really go deep and to completely do a 180 on Ari Gold and the stuff that you’ve done in the past.” And I told Ryan, who is a brilliantly funny guy, both of them are, but, I’m going to strip you of your ability to be that guy, to be the comic relief and really hinge it on him dramatically, and I think he’s a fantastic dramatic actor. And both he and Jeremy’s funny. I have this theory about guys who are really funny understand drama and anger and violence in this really unique way and I think that both of them are certainly like that. And then you get somebody like come, you know, [and Alicia] who just come in and just kill it. And you know. But that was—everybody responded to the script, and that was how we pulled people in. Because you know, the movie was made for under $25 million, that’s like almost nothing. And I think that’s what got them and the thing about Reese Witherspoon. There’s a film, an old Otto Preminger film called Bunny Lake is Missing, that I like quite a bit, and it just sounds almost, you know, sacrilege to say that I thought it could have been done a lot better, because there’s certain things about it that didn’t—logically you look at this film in this day and age, it just doesn’t—there’s certain things that didn’t add up. So Doug Wright, who wrote Quills, who I adore and loved that, and won a Pulitzer, wrote a script and I’m thinking, “Ah, what the hell am I doing, I’m sitting around, you know, I’d like to get into it.” And it also, what I love about the possibilities of it, is it’s like, coming out of Smoking Aces, it’s like getting sent to war with like, you know, the bazookas and the grenades, and you know, the full compliment—the flamethrower, and then going into a movie like this, it’s like somebody hands you a paperclip and says, you know, fight your way out, man. So I love that. I mean, artistically it’s a great challenge, you know, to try to do something like that. Whether or not I blow it remains to be seen, you know.

Joe, you grew up, or lived a lot around Tahoe.

Joe Carnahan: Yeah.

You chose that on purpose. I wondered, you scared some hotel patrons with “The windows are going to blow out,” in the memo. Did you have to deal with any locals that you grew up with on this movie? And could you just talk a little bit about shooting it up there where you [were familiar with it].

Joe Carnahan: Yeah, I mean, listen, like I say—it’s funny, I’ve always—I love Tahoe, but when someone asks me, like, describe Tahoe, I say, well, you know, the south shore there it’s like, you know, if the gaming industry took a dump in god’s country, that’s that section of Tahoe! It is a unbelievably, majestically, beautiful piece of real estate. And against it you have this array of kind of gawdy glass towers and high rises and stuff. But I thought it was such a uniquely—it hadn’t been filmed in a way that I think is, you know. It’s like, and it’s funny because for being a place that’s so you know, exquisitely beautiful, it’s like, considered the last stop in an entertainer’s career. You know what I mean? Like if you wind up in Tahoe, man, it’s over. You know what I mean? That means Reno wouldn’t have you, and that’s a bad place to be. So it was really, just that [neat] and kind of might not. You know, David Mamet made a film years ago called Things Change, with Don Amiche and Joe Mantegna and I always loved that they shot in Tahoe and they called it The Galaxy. And I wanted to call The Nomad the Galaxy, so it was a little not to him. And then the Deep End, which, you look at that, and I consciously kind of tried to avoid the beauty necessarily of Tahoe and more the kind of—there’s just this great grime, you know, under all these, this kind of canopy of conifers and beautiful deep blue lake, is this kind of grime and grit that I thought was interesting. And did I get—was I accosted by people from my past? Just the ones that I owe money to, that are out in Tahoe. No, it was funny, I was able to put some guys, you know, the TV station I worked for, they got their trucks up there to do some stuff for me. And an old friend of mine, Ken Rudolph who was in my very first movie—plays an FBI character, like he played in my very first movie and Smoking Aces. So it was great and it was nice to give a lot of nods and a lot of love to that area because, you know, it’s my home town and I’m very proud of it and I’m very proud of kind of being brought up there.

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Joe, working with Ben Affleck, was that character originally conceived as sort of a Janet Leigh in Psycho? And where was he in this comeback trial that he’d been on while he was making the film.

Joe Carnahan: You know what? He was—Ben, just having spent time with him, he’s you know, one of the funniest, brightest, he really is. Just got this incredibly, kind of acerbic wit. And he understood like, the importance of dying, you know, for lack of a better word. He knew that it would be like—that it would be a shock and that people would actually almost kind of get off on this idea that we’re constructing the kind of the haggard, beleaguered bail bondsman who you think you’re going to ride the movie with. But what I wanted to do, you know, for you guys, or for the viewers is really put you on incredibly uneven footing. So you think, man, if he can go out, nobody’s safe, you know what I mean? So, yeah, it was absolutely constructed. And then I remember talking to Ben, and thinking, god, what a great—that would be—and he completely responded to it. He just got it. He got that, you know, that he was going to be counted on to kind of narrate it, and you’re thinking, oh man, okay, whatever your feelings are about Ben, see, I love Ben, and I think he acquits himself so beautifully because there is that world weary thing to him. And you know, this idea of like, the comeback. You know, for me, you know, I wasn’t aware that he was ever—beyond being disparaged at different turns and who isn’t, you know, that he was on, that he needed to come back, because I think the guy is as vital and as viable now as an actor as he ever was. In fact I think even more so because he’s now a father and a husband and just, you know, wrote and shot his own directorial debut. So I think that if anything, he’s even more kind of energized, I think. And I think that, you know, getting the nod in Venice was huge, you know. The guy’s a great actor. I just don’t think he’s been really given his due. You know. And I’d work with him again, obviously, in a split second.

Hi again!

Joe Carnahan: Hey, it’s come back around!

We’ve seen so much gun violence on film, how did you conceive of different ways to portray that?

Joe Carnahan: You know, it’s funny, because I never want to, like I was saying earlier, this idea of the, you know, the characters kind of influencing the way that the film was shot and the way the violence that you depict and that. You know, I think that it has been done so much, so I think doing it in a way that was appropriate for each section. You know, it’s like, listen, to me it’s like having a thesis statement, you know. And I don’t pretend—I can be a pretty dim bulb, man. I mean, I’m not the smartest person walking the earth. So if I don’t have a clear kind of mandate, or I don’t create something for myself, to like, let me kind of guide the film by, then it gets very confusing and muddled. So when I went out I thought, well, you know, for Alicia and Taraji it’s very much a—that is a very real situation as it is for Ryan. So you know, when that guy gets hit with that 50 caliber, you know, that’s essentially what’s going to happen. I mean, you actually fly apart. But I just couldn’t, you know, it was such a—I wanted it to be really raw and nasty and have the sense of just absolute chaos, kind of exploding. And in the same way that there’s a suddenness and a very violent, kind of vicious thing between Ray and Nestor Carbonell in the elevator, and then you know, you get the Tremor Brothers and that kind of you know, spectacle in the hallway with them and the security guys. And then you have the Tremor Brothers early in the film with Ben and those guys, and again, there’s that, you know, of the handful—I’ve been lucky in my live that I haven’t really been involved in a tremendous amount of violence. I mean, I can count the fistfights I’ve been in on one hand. You know. So I’ll never pretend it’s like some kind of hardass, you know, that went into bars looking for fights. But of those moments—and so you know, there’s been two of them that have been pretty extreme. You know, violence for me has this suddenness, and this immediacy, and then it’s gone. You know, very rarely is it something you linger on, or whatever. So, I just wanted the depiction of it to be that way. And it’s not, in a lot of ways it’s not dissimilar from the stuff in Narc, this very sudden kind of, you know, eruptions of that. You know. And this is the first time I think I’ve actually consciously stylized a gunfight, or gun, you know, which I normally wouldn’t do because I just think it’s—there’s part of it that I think is you know, it can border on irresponsibility, you know, because we do, you know, we have such a love affair with firearms, you know, and I think it, you know, it can lead to bad things if it’s done, you know, with this overly kind of glamorous—you know. But you know, well, you say that, you say that you’re immediately a hypocrite. Well, I’m fully aware of that, you know. So. That’s a hell of a way to end a question. I’m a hypocrite. Next question!

Can you talk about how the concept of the ADD crazy karate kid came about?

Joe Carnahan: It’s funny my brother is a screenwriter now. He’s actually becoming very successful. He wrote this film called ‘The Kingdom” in which Jamie Fox just did for Universal and wrote called “Lions for Lambs” which oddly enough Tom Cruise is going to be in. My younger brother. That was really based on a kid that we grew up with. I’m not going to name him for fear that I’ll get sued. But, no a kid that I grew up with and then my brother. My brother was an admitted freak when he was a kid. Listen, did he get an erection throwing punches at people, no. Was he on Riddlin? No. It was my need to kind of insert some desperate kind of comic relief in there. Also I was like what if this kid is throwing punches and he literally became aroused. That would be either really disturbing or really funny or both. When he’s walking away from Martin Henderson at the end doing that robot s**t, that was my brother when we were kids. That’s the kind of annoying stuff he would do when we were kids. I knew people would either go with it or really think it was funny as hell or it would bother the hell out of them and completely polarize people. That’s where that came from. When she calls him Boogie, that was actually the nickname of this kid that we grew up with that we knew was just a freak. I just remember him being a kid and always having nunchucks and his mother was nuts. I remember her running out one time, I’ll never forget, running out when we were playing street football and she yells to him to come inside and watch his brother because she’s playing Burger Time. Burger Time was the old video game. She’s playin Burger Time. “Get in here and watch you’re brother. I’m playin Burger Time.” It was mind blowing. They always encouraged him to get foam nunchucks. He never did. He always had wooden nunchucks and the kid had bruises all over his head. He never got it. You’d see him out there and he’d bust himself in the head. He’d have a moment where he’d kind of stumbled around and he’d just go back into it. So I thought that was my way of honoring this freak show of a kid.

This is the first movie for Alicia Keys and Common. How did you get them to take the part and were they fast learners?

Joe Carnahan: They were really fast learners and really, really available and open to the process. I was a fan of Alicia’s obviously musically and I went to see her in Oakland at the Paramount Theatre. I remember going backstage and you know you see Alicia onstage and she’s completely self-possessed [and] beautiful. But, then you see her backstage and she’s this kid. I remember being struck like God she’s young. We were sitting down with her and I said something along the lines of ‘don’t let people put you in some chicken s**t romantic comedy. Let’s go do something really interesting. Don’t do that for your first role.’ And same thing, she really loved the written material. She loved this idea of this utter kind of deviation and departure from Alicia Keys, the Grammy winning hugely famous rock star. And Common, being such a fan of his going way back. Here’s a guy who held his ground in the face of every major kind of hip hop movement or gangster rap, where all these different variations on hip hop, here’s a guy who held his own and remained true to himself through out all of that. That’s why you talk to people about who they have great admiration for, especially in that world, Common is always at the top of everyone’s list because he’s such an incredible gentleman first and foremost. But, he came in like three or four times to audition and one time he flew back from Paris to audition. He never said anything. Never said anything about the trouble we were putting him through. Nothing. That’s how kind of beautiful his spirit is. That’s why I love him so much and that’s why he was able to take that stuff. What’s great about Common is that it’s all in his eyes. You watch him and he has something that actors who had come in and read didn’t have. He’s seen s**t. He’s seen stuff in his life and he’s experienced things. It just comes out through his eyes, he can just turn it on and I think both of them are kind of revelations for me. They held their own with some really, really strong really top notch actors. Alicia had the benefit of working across from someone like Taraji [Henson]. She’s going to make anybody better. She just is and the same with Piven. That Jeremy and Rashid had become friends before we shooting so they were really working off this idea, this fractured kind of betrayal and this idea that this friendship was coming to an end. I let them riff and let them ad- lib and do their thing. They came to completely embody those characters and I couldn’t be more proud of both of them. It’s like a great treat and a gift tie into something so beautifully and define it and they both did that.

The cinematography was great. Were the card tricks your idea?

Joe Carnahan: Oh yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s also the kind of the idea that when they’re in that bathroom, Common and Jeremy, when those characters are in that bathroom having that kind of heart to heart. It’s the idea of this illusion and slide of hand and of what’s real. I always wanted to create this kind of impression that maybe what Jeremy’s character, what Buddy Israel has to offer isn’t really that much. But, he tells him that, ‘but I can make it real.’ I can kind of make it manifest. It’s long enough for me to make this deal and disappear into the horizon. I’m fine with that. There’s an overhead shot of Jeremy where he’s doing that thing where he drops all of those aces. That was him. He went through decks of cards like people go through chewing gum. He was killing every time. I’d always hear him anywhere on set (makes the sound a deck of cards make when their shuffled). I mean all the time. He really got proficient. It was a joy and I’d tell him, ‘the reason you have to be proficient is because I’m not going to cut this. You have to so this because I don’t want to fake it.’ It’s a really elaborate con job. I definitely wanted to showcase that stuff.

You had James Ellroy at the screening the other night. Did he give you a reaction to the film?

Joe Carnahan: I’m always dreading what Ellroy is going to say. He’s such a nut. I have not spoken to him. It’s funny because James can’t bear to sit still. I think I got him in his outside limit of where he’s actually willing to sit in one place. I think my brother had to coral him a couple of times because they were sitting next to each to other. Like I was saying the other night, no one has had a bigger impact on me creatively, certainly writing wise as Ellroy. So to be able to participate in something like ‘White Jazz’ is extraordinary knowing that something is very dear and near to James. It obvious has legions of fans to those books and trying to honor that and at the same time knowing there are certain things you need to contemporize and certain things that are not sacred. I have not solicited his opinion. My brother said he really dug it and was mumbling something as he left so I’m sure I’m going to hit him up later for his definitive kind of opinion.

Can you talk about your approach to White Jazz?

Joe Carnahan: The great thing about it is that the script really deposits a complete antihero. George’s [Clooney] decision to play a guy who murders an innocent man kind of wontedly and with a great kind of violence 10 minutes into the movie. To have a guy that’s that much of a gamer as Clooney is. My approach to it is not going to be like ‘L.A. Confidential.’ Well for one thing, if you think ‘Smokin’ Aces’ is freaky, I don’t know what people are going to make of ‘White Jazz’ because anyone who has read the book knows that’s a whack job of a book. I look at it and go that’s fucked up. I’m not really looking to invoke the movies of the ’50s or to shoot it like a period piece. I’m really going to shoot it in a much more fashion like ‘Narc.’ Movies have this tendency where they kind of shift in time or they take place in the ’50s or ’60s. There’s almost this need to make everything very glamorous. It’s just odd to me. Everything becomes very kind of fluid in this really overly reverential way. I don’t want to do that with ‘White Jazz.’ I want to shoot it like an episode of ‘Cops’ in 1958 just to keep it loose and fluid and overlapping and messy and chaotic would be my approach like the book. Shoot it like the book is written.

Can you talk about your process for writing a script? Are you a 9-5 guy?

Joe Carnahan: Oh brother no. You know what it is, I have to get into a real rhythmic. I went to work on this “Bunny Lake” thing and I went to Palm Springs because I like the desert. It cuts me off from the internet and it cuts me off from all the vices. I’ll waste time. I’ll go read about Jennifer Aniston or something. I will. I’m horrible. It’s like oh Us Weekly. I have to dig in and do stuff. I do my best work in the morning and I really try to lock it up and stay on it. That’s as dogged as I can be. We were talking to Elmore Leonard who is another hero of mine and he’s like 80-years-old and he tells me his writing day starts at 10AM and ends at 6PM everyday. I’m like ‘wow that’s why you’re you and I’m struggling to you know be.’ When I get into it, I get really indifferent to the passage of time which is good. I think for me to be successful, for me to feel like I’m doing something worth wild, I really have to kind of stay in it and be embedded in it. I don’t have that ritual and I wish I did sometimes. I’m just not disciplined enough and that’s the thing I think I need to improve upon. That’s the best I can do. I wish I had a freaking schedule.

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