The Grey is the latest cool offering from writer/director Joe Carnahan – the man who brought hyper-stylized adrenaline to the screen with Narc, Smokin' Aces, and, most recently, last year's A-Team reboot. This time, action meets with new substance and an extraordinarily talented cast, including Dermot Mulroney, Dallas Roberts, Frank Grillo, and James Badge Dale, all led by Liam Neeson into the snowy depths. Buzzine's Emmanuel Itier met with the cast and director to discuss character, the challenges they faced when filming in extreme conditions, and all possible meanings of The Grey.
Emmanuel Itier: Tell me about The Grey. What drew you to that project? How was it working with Joe (Carnahan)? What type of challenge was it for you as an actor?
Liam Neeson: It was a big challenge. Certainly physically it was a very big challenge. But Joe gave it to me to read when we were on a publicity tour for The A-Team, which Joe directed. It read like an epic poem, and it was very tender and very very beautiful, and quite mystical. And I was intrigued because I’ve made 55 films, and I thought, “How in the hell is he going to shoot this thing?” There’s extremes of temperature, vast snow-capped landscapes, wolves, crazy guys shooting each other and stuff like that. And the first week we were up in British Columbia, it was -40 degrees, and I really thought, after the first day, that we’re never gonna finish this film. It was just intense. But we got through it and had a wonderful bunch of actors, and we became very close.
EI: Was there a specific challenge for you doing it?
LN: Walking through snow – doing very very basic things: breathing, speaking in -40-degree temperature – that was the challenge. It wasn’t necessarily the character. I knew I could perhaps do that reasonably comfortably. It was just the basic physical things of moving from A to B and saying dialogue. That was the challenge.
EI: What do you think is your favorite theme or metaphoric approach that this movie explored?
LN: I don’t know if there’s a message in the film, but it certainly investigates/delves into the aspect of spirituality and faith, and perhaps God. That aspect of the film I like very much, and all the characters experience something of that spiritual essence. But on top of that, not to drive audiences away, it’s a really good emotional action-thriller.
EI: What has been your favorite scene from all the movies you’ve seen in your life? Is there a scene where, every time you see it in a particular movie, you are moved?
LN: There are a couple of scenes in Michael Collins, that I shot 17 years ago, that I watch and I think, “Yeah, those two scenes really work.” I’m really proud of those two scenes.
LN: Because they were written very very well, and Neil Jordan -- the director – shot it very well, and I thought my acting was okay in it. There was a truth to it that still stays with me.
Dermot Mulroney & Dallas Roberts
Emmanuel Itier: Tell me about The Grey. What is The Grey about for you? What are the themes, the metaphors that you enjoy with that movie?
Dallas Roberts: I think it’s men in extreme situations facing what’s true at the center of them.
Dermot Mulroney: Yeah. It’s avoiding death, which makes it a survival film. And as time goes by, everybody’s defenses get further and further eaten away, and the group that combined to cause each other to live begins to lose its affectiveness until the combination of people dwindles to the point where it’s un-survivable for everyone. So you’ll see that you can’t live alone.
DR: All of that set on a rocket sled through the snow.
EI: How was it working alongside Joe – a great director – and alongside Liam? Was it like a Christmas tree?
DR: [Laughs] In a way it was, really. And luckily it wasn’t so much Joe on one side and Liam on the other – it felt like everyone was on the same side, and that everyone was all pushing toward the same thing, which I trust comes out in the film.
DM: And both of these guys are really powerful personalities, and they’re really good friends, but obviously this is their second film together, but they couldn’t be more different in how they command a space. Carnahan comes in like a bear, and Liam…doesn’t. He just comes in quiet and has even more impact than the big loud powerful director. The way Liam’s personality just lands it, you see in the movie too, so it’s an interesting question because they’re very different personalities but both so strong that we were sort of being dragged through it.
EI: How was it shooting in the cold? What types of challenges did you face, as actors surviving the elements?
DR: We faced the same challenges -- not the same because we were allowed to go inside every now and again – but the same challenges that the characters would – just extreme temperatures, extreme physical endurance tests over and over and over again. A little bit easier than had we actually been stranded out there, but not too much.
DM: Yeah, they did figure out a way to deliver hot food throughout the day, so it wasn’t all that bad. We were being fed. Really, one of the other human necessities was a lot more complicated. One or two little portable restrooms that they provided for the entire crew were never close by, and they were never caked with less than three inches of frozen urine. [Laughs]
DR: And not so much for you, but for me, the amount of layers it would take to get that done, it was often easier just to sweat it out. [Laughs]
EI: What’s coming up next for you guys after The Grey?
DR: I am starring in a film called The Shadow People. It’s a sort of thriller as well, and I recur on The Good Wife every now and again on CBS.
DM: I have a nice movie being released next month as well, called Big Miracle, so maybe we’ll talk then about that, but that’s actually the opposite. Instead of trying to kill the northern hemisphere mammal, we’re trying to save it.
DR: See, so you got some karma in between your films -- that’s balance.
DM: I want to kill the wolves and save the whales. Northern mammal movies.
Emmanuel Itier: How did this movie come together? It’s not the usual all-in-your-face like we’re used to seeing with you. So tell me a little bit about your approach…
Joe Carnahan: I think wanted to make a film and I wanted to make it more still. I think the knock on me has always been everything’s fast, and I wanted to make a film that I was still comfortable with, which is kind of an action film or an action-thriller, but I still wanted it to have some great depth, and I wanted it to be depth that you could actually see, as opposed to something like Smokin’ Aces, which I find very deep at times, and it was lost on people because the milieu was so guns and craziness that people were lost. But in this, it’s a survival film; it’s a very emotional movie to begin with – the genre itself is very emotional – so that was something I was very interested in exploring.
EI: Why Liam Neeson?
JC: Why not Liam Neeson? Liam as Ottway, to me, is so perfectly cast because he’s a man who’s lived life and has seen the highs and seen the lows, and seen everything in between, and he imbues that character with a very profound sense of who he is. Liam, as a man, is very critical, I guess, to who Ottway is as a character.
EI: What was the biggest challenge for you, doing this movie?
JC: Primarily, the elements – the wind and the snow, and going into an environment that’s very hostile and doesn’t lend itself to making a movie, and putting these actors in that situation, and the odds are against you, in that kind of a situation, and that was certainly tough. The wolves were very difficult – trying to figure out how to do those, knowing that I couldn’t use live wolves, so the combination of live wolves and animatronic wolves and the CG wolves was very challenging. And just the subject matter is tough. It’s not a movie like The A-Team, which is very funny and bubblegum. This is a very deep…and it’s tough to get up for that sometimes. So all of those things were very difficult.
EI: What do you think is your favorite metaphoric theme in The Grey?
JC: The idea that these men are different facets of Ottway’s personality – this idea that there’s the masculine part of him, there’s the sensitive part of him, there’s the terrified part of him, there’s the innocent part of him… I think all these guys function, in a way – they’re reflective of who Ottway is, and that is the metaphor of the alpha and the packs – the pack of men and the pack of wolves – are the things that I’m most fond of.
Frank Grillo & James Badge Dale
Emmanuel Itier: Tell me about The Grey. What type of challenge for you? What do you think the movie is about for you?
James Badge Dale: Oh, what is “the grey”? What is that grey area between man and an animal? What makes us a man, and what is that animal instinct in us that takes us away from being a man? I think we kind of play in that realm.
Frank Grillo: Yeah, it’s really kind of a play on the whole thing, about faith, about our demise, about what we’re really capable of doing as men when faced with a situation like this. I think we all have this idea about who we are and how we think people see us, and then you’re faced with a challenge and sometimes it doesn’t always come out the way you thought it would, and you’re not as strong as you thought you were, or maybe you’re stronger than you thought you were. I think that’s a lot of the theme this movie challenges.
JBD: I read this script and I thought, “Oh, every guy in the world is gonna see this movie and get this movie and get these themes,” and what’s been amazing to me is that every woman I’ve met who has seen the movie has come up to me and said, “Wait a minute. I get it. I get it too.” And I’m just a brick-headed guy…
FG: Yes, you are.
JBD: And I’m don’t think in large terms…
FG: No, you don’t.
JBD: I think in very focused… [Laughs] But I learned it from you. I learned it from watching you, Frank.
FG: No, but what you’re saying is absolutely right.
JBD: The reaction has been fascinating for us, having gone through it, and that’s the beautiful thing about film. We go through an experience and then a year, year-and-a-half later, other people have their own experience by watching it.
EI: How was it working with Liam? He’s such an intense man.
FG: Eight years ago, I saw Liam on stage do The Crucible, and my wife was pregnant and we named our child Liam. Eight years later, I’m sitting in a bar, before we started this movie, with Liam Neeson. So it was an interesting journey for me to be… This guy has always been like an acting hero to me, so it took a minute to get over that, and then he was just one of the boys, and he continues to be.
JBD: It’s amazing how intense, how focused he is, but he’s also one of the most gentle, giving actors I’ve ever worked with.
FG: Yeah, he’s a big poet.
EI: What type of challenge was it for you? What was the most challenging aspect of doing this movie?
JBD: Frank. [Laughs]
FG: Yeah. You know what was challenging was the continuity of the situation – to make sure that we were as cold as the day before. There was never a day where maybe you didn’t feel like being cold so you kicked it back… You always had to be cognizant of where you were the day before, and that was a challenge mentally.
JBD: You were talking about how you go outside and it is cold. It’s -20. That’s not something you’ve got to think about. You remove yourself from the process and you’re just there in the circumstances. But then you go on a soundstage the next day, and it’s supposed to be -20, but you’re on that soundstage and it’s a nice 60 degrees in there.
FG: Right. It’s 107 degrees.
JBD: Yeah, it’s 107 degrees under the lights.
EI: How was it working with a great director, Joe Carnahan? What does he bring to the shoot?
FG: What doesn’t he bring? I don’t think people know… I think Joe Carnahan is just coming into his own as a director. He’s, for my money, one of the top five in the business. I don’t even know if he knows how good he is. He’s a phenomenal writer, he’s an actor’s director – you just want to do better for him all the time, and he makes a beautiful set. I would do anything he asked me to do.
JBD: It’s the environment he created. He is so passionate. I love showing up to work with people who love their jobs, and he loves this movie.
FG: He’s childlike.
JBD: He loves making movies, and that’s contagious, that’s infectious, and he created this environment that was…aw man, it was fun.
FG: And we all stayed good friends – all of us.
JBD: We’d shoot 12 hours a day and then we’d all go out to dinner together every night.
FG: Every night. [Laughs]
JBD: I mean every night we’re at dinner until midnight and then we’re like, “Oh guys, we’ve got to be up at 6:00 a.m. Come on. Let’s call it.
FG: It’s good, man. It was a good experience.
Open Road Films' 'The Grey' is released in theaters on January 27, 2012.