If Jack London were alive today, he might have written The Grey, a drama about seven plane crash survivors caught in the Alaskan woods mid-winter. Liam Neeson plays a guard who shoots wolves to protect workers around the Alaskan oil pipeline. He becomes the default leader when their plane home crashes during a snow storm and the men have to survive both the weather and encircling, hungry pack animals. While the film boasts some petrifying man-versus-nature action and ex-cons too proud to cry "wolf," it's equally interested in the inner conflict that comes when a person loses the hope of rescue. The machismo the workers earned on the job melts away pretty fast in the face of blistering cold, chest-clenching altitudes and expedient predators. If you ask director Joe Carnahan and actor Frank Grillo [Prison Break], who plays Diaz, a blustering felon with a neck tattoo, it's all about manhood—and when you get them talking about it, you see quickly these two are strong, but definitely not silent.
What makes a man?
Joe Carnahan: Life. Experience. Understanding. Acknowledgement. Harmony.
Frank Grillo: That's fantastic.
Grillo: The difference between being a boy and a man to me is 25-26. Being a man is to know, understand and appreciate what you don't know and work on that. And having an open heart. When I was a boy my heart was closed, and when I became a man and a father my heart was opened and I could see the world.
Carnahan: That's much better. I tried to do that bulls--t haiku.
Grillo: It's not a competition, man.
Raw survival is a more essential test of manhood than say, the hijinks of The A-Team.
Carnahan: I think I've reached a point in my growth where I see themes I'm comfortable with. I cast men. Frank and Liam aren't boys. They've lived life and experienced highs, lows and all points in between. After The A-Team, I started thinking about how I saw myself and how the community sees me—and after A-Team, it was like "Joe, are you some hack?" And I was like—
Carnahan and Frank Grillo in unison: Yes.
Carnahan: People are so quick to label and quantify others. I could have spent my career after NARC [starring Ray Liotta, nominated for the Sundance Grand Jury prize] doing "serious" pictures, but my love of The Three Stooges and other things I loved when I was a boy, the time I had when I was on Mission Impossible 4, that all seemed like taking care of unfinished business. This film feels like something out of the core of my being. Hopefully it shows. It's not meant to be anything like the other movies. It's got to be its own beast.
Liam begins the film with a distinction between men and assholes. You might also say "men and animals"—
Carnahan: Of which we're all things.
Which is a far more interesting situation than being one or the other.
Carnahan: Natural thrillers are built around a largely plotless process. You have to inhabit those things with the nuance of life and behavior; for all your machismo and bravado, nature will quickly strip it off you. A guy like Diaz is most at peace when he can just say, "I'm fucking scared" and not apologize for it. I think you owe it to the material to do that. That's how I got all these actors. If we were doing a cut-and-paste nonsensical action film who would have cared?
Grillo: I'm a man who's encroaching middle age. I have three kids and a wife and what's important to me are things like faith and morality—things I have to pass on to my kids—and this script contained all of them and the things I want out of being an actor and what I explore as a man. Plus wolves! Also Liam Neeson!
Carnahan: I don't think you could do this as a straight character-driven story because it would marginalize the film. There was this talk about the film coming out earlier in 2011 for awards consideration—which is flattering-but then there's the stigma of being "one of those films," and if that Oscar plan doesn't work it becomes one of those little films that gets stuck in January.
What some in the industry call: "Crap-uary."
Carnahan: It becomes Kinsey—now I love Bill Condon and I love that movie but it's specialized. What I want for this movie is for it to play for you longer than the two hours it took you to watch it.
That's well put. Let's talk about social hierarchy. Frank, your character is the angry, bitter beta male always challenging Liam Neeson's hard-working alpha. Why is your character necessary to the balance of the film?
Grillo: I know people like Diaz. I don't think he's capable of—or even wants to be—the leader of the group. I think he's a contrarian and for guys like that, having "respect" is the most important thing to them. They're usually very un-evolved. I realized this character was not equipped and it didn't take the character long to realize Neeson was the guy to follow. If I did it right, Diaz can take us from cheering against him and rooting for Neeson, to ultimately being a character to empathize with.
Carnahan: Diaz has interesting stuff. At the beginning, when the group is collecting the wallets of the dead men to alert their families Diaz is critical, but when Diaz makes his choice, he hands off his wallet like this talisman—it's the artifact of this man's time. And it's just a driver's license, which is heartbreaking. One woman lost it during that scene and it made me feel like the audience gets it—they get that this guy has nothing. In that, he's the closest corollary to Neeson.
Who also has no one.
Grillo: I spent a little time in prisons before we shot.
Carnahan: He went to Riker's Island and spent the night. That's like community college.
Grillo: I talked to the prisoners and, if you allow yourself to see, it's clear these guys are damaged but at the same time they don't belong outside, they belong where they are. It amazed me how interesting these men are and how, in some ways, they got the short end of the stick from the beginning of their lives.
That's interesting because my take is that Diaz was the guy growing up who saw the power dynamics and figured them out before anyone else. That made him forever bound to a place in the middle. Even ascending to power challenged the dynamic too much to risk.
Grillo: Not unlike a pack of wolves. If you see an active prison, there's a very obvious structure and it's run by the prisoners, not the guards.
Carnahan: But there's also an indoctrination. That's why some guys can make it outside. Some of those guys have no idea how to function on the outside; the rigidity of the form makes it possible for them to live. The further absence of that form is anarchy and that's why there's a rudimentary structure to the leadership in the film.
But Anarchy isn't madness, it's everyone choosing their own path without a social nexus to support it. Anyway, you have your Anarchy here—the men around the fire talking about the existence of various greater powers, while Neeson says, "I wish I believed it."
Carnahan: Right. We have a guy knuckling under and a guy with the force to persevere. I see nature in the way of chaos and anarchy. It's like that great Herzog doc about Timothy Treadwell.
Carnahan: Herzog says something like, "I only see the indifference and the savagery," not some warm cuddly thing I can snuggle up to. These guys are dropped into absolute abject hostility, for all its beauty, because nature is a fucking thing with teeth.
Grillo: And nature is beautiful and the closest I ever come to what I imagine God to be. But it's also the most violent place—and quick violence. I don't want to die like that and it's why I believe in God, because I'm afraid of that.
Carnahan: It's our own egos that fear the un-ceremonial end of things. I have no memory of myself pre-1969, the year I was born. When it shuts off, does it just shut off? That's, in a big way, what the film is about. Am I going to die and go some place where I can jam with Jimi Hendrix and lunch with George Washington? Is that a possibility?
When Herzog said that line about nature and chaos I laughed. A lot. Do men not find that funny?
Carnahan: I found it funny, too. It's not gender divided, it's experience divided. Herzog lived in occupied Germany. He and Treadwell couldn't be more dissimilar.
Grillo: It's a fantasy.
Carnahan: Yeah! Treadwell was on an island where every pathway was constructed by bears and he lacked the basic humility to think, "At some point, this ain't gonna go my way."
Grillo: He hasn't been accepted among them.
Carnahan: He's watching Mr. Chocolate use a pine tree to scratch his back and the bear breaks the tree.
Grillo: Mr. Chocolate. It's like we're watching cartoons. But how visceral! When I say "Mr. Chocolate" I feel good.
It softens the blow, right?
Carnahan: There's a point when Treadwell's entering a stream where a bear is bathing and the bear looks over at Treadwell and has this look like he's thinking, "ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR F--KING MIND?! I'M A BEAR!" Mr. Chocolate is a catcher's mitt full of serrated steak knives!
Grillo: The other bears are like, "We'll get him later. When we get hungry, we can kick him around."
Women—all distant here—are used like sources of comfort much in the way they'd be if this was a WWII film. Like savior goddesses.
Carnahan: It's a natural extension of the masculine. What are the things you miss? Liam's comfort memories also involve his father, but when Dylan McDermott's character is talking about his daughter's hair...[both Carnahan and Grillo make a whimpering noise]. There was a big part of Liam's speech, I hated to cut it, he talks about kissing a girl in Palm Beach and not remembering her name but remembering her shoulder tasted like—
Carnahan: And his brother cried and didn't make a sound but he watched the tears hit the ground—
Grillo: —when his wife died.
Carnahan: It was all around the death of a woman. It's also maybe my own romantic notions. When you go what will you remember? When did you feel safe or loved? When you were with your wife or mother?
Grillo: I went from my mother to my wife and when I see my kids—I have three—I know that they'd be playing in a corner with yarn if it were left to me to raise them. My wife, I'm serious, I don't know how she does it.
Carnahan: Child Protective Services, please strike the last comment.
Grillo: I'm fascinated and I've always been fascinated by women.
Carnahan: But, Sara, you're saying it doesn't happen here in in a way where you have a virgin and a Madonna figure.
No, you don't. Jesus I hate that.
Carnahan: I don't show the women cooking or caring for their men. It's very specific moments. I didn't want to adorn, just connect it to the story. The one thing you love—like Liam says to one character, "What's the one thing you love? Let her take you there."
If you let those women be symbols, it'd strip the nature and chaos right out of the film.
Carnahan: 1,000%. That's what makes it work as a horror film, or something scary, because all of those things are relatable and possible. It's not a supernatural story and that's why you hear nervous laughter in the audience, because it's a little too close to home.
You just brought up supernatural. Let's go back to this question of faith and hope and religion—all ideas that mean different things to each of the men.
Carnahan: We talked a lot about this. Not so much like theological discussions—I grew up Catholic. I had major issues with Catholicism but those issues are mine. The idea that this planet is just a waiting room on the way to Kauai is retarded. If you don't let the world envelop you and be the world it is, you're missing out. I don't subscribe to the idea there's a paradise beyond this one: this place is pretty f---ing spectacular—if you look around. It can be miserable, but it can also be extraordinary. God and nature are synonymous to me.
Grillo: We're all men who've lived a bit and thought a bit and we all had views, Liam included. We talked about it sitting at the bar and how our beliefs have disappointed us or helped us.
Carnahan: I'm surprised I haven't taken a hammering for the scene when Liam calls God out.
Grillo: We've all done it.
Carnahan: I know! A mudslide buries hundreds in Mexico, I could give a s--t about your mysterious ways!
Grillo: It's true. Pulling babies and bodies out of rubble—what is He thinking?
Carnahan: What makes this question a taboo? We're given the power of abstract thought, why wouldn't we ask?