A Chat with Joe Carnahan, director of “The A-Team”

Writer-director Joe Carnahan is proud of his latest film, a beyond tongue-in-cheek 2010 remounting of the 1980’s TV favorite, “The A-Team.” Available on a brand new, extras-laden DVD and Blu-Ray edition, the actioner stars Liam Neeson as A-Team leader Hannibal Smith, with backing by Bradley Cooper as the suave “Faceman” Peck, Sharlto Copley as the mildly insane H.M. Murdock and mixed martial artist Quinton “Rampage” Jackson as the Mohawk-wearing B.A. Baracus.

Jessica Biel is also along for the ride as DCIS Sosa, Faceman’s by-the-book military investigator ex-girlfriend. The story, such as it is, is fully eclipsed by a mix of preposterous stunts and CGI heavy effects and a jackhammer sensibility that is, like it or not, proudly over the top and unashamedly silly.

A former maker of promotional films and videos for a Sacramento TV station, Carnahan’s first feature was 1998’s “Blood, Guts, Bullets, and Octane,” a crime-suspense black comedy that co-starred Carnahan as a desperate used car dealer getting in way over his head with some extremely dangerous characters. The film, low on finesse but big on Mamet-esque macho verbal energy, was notable enough to break through the enormous Tarantino-Guy-Ritchie fatigue that made making almost any kind of independent crime film a questionable proposition throughout the 1990s.

Carnahan’s 2002 studio debut was the grimly serious “Narc,” starring Jason Patric and Ray Liotta. Big on style and terribly unsubtle, the dark procedural nevertheless earned lots of good reviews. That was followed in 2007 by the all-star action black comedy, “Smokin’ Aces.” The grosses were higher, but the Rotten Tomatoes rating was much lower.

Joe Carnahan’s bombastic ways as a filmmaker are matched at times by what reads as a rather pugilistic verbal style when it comes to critics who dislike his style and reporters who harp on less than enormous grosses. As someone who is yet to be won over by any of his films — though “Blood, Guts” has its share of low-fi charms — I was a little concerned about meeting him.

Watching Carnahan introduce a number of clips from the Blu-Ray special features for “The A-Team,” however, he came across as much more of more a teddy bear than a grizzly. In our interview, he won me over with news about some long incubating projects, a bit of sincere sounding film geekiness, his clear interest in branching out creatively and, most importantly, the fact that he’s my only interview subject so far to admit to visiting our sister site Bullz-Eye — which, I’m sure, he looks at only for our thoughtful prose.

“I’m on the Internet far too much,” he admitted, adding cheerfully, “just looking through academic articles!”

Never let it be said that Joe Carnahan is lacking in manly virtues and/or vices.

Premium Hollywood: Speaking of manliness, there’s a line in “The A-Team”: “Overkill is underrated.”

Joe Carnahan: Yes.

PH: This seems like a pretty good watchword for your career and your approach to making movies.

JC: Right. I think I’ve been perhaps unduly typecast as a guy who likes to hyper-edit and so on. I certainly have a style, but this kind of thing will always cancel out [other things]. There was a five minute tracking shot in “Narc” that was nothing but Ray Liotta talking, but nobody ever mentions that stuff. Listen, it was certainly the call to arms for this movie, “Overkill is underrated.” I did it as a thesis, as a joke. It’s the aside to the audience that says that we know it’s a lot, we know it’s overblown and overinflated, that’s the point of this little bon-mot here, this little movie.

PH: By the way, I was just catching up this morning, watching “Blood, Guts, Bullets, and Octane.”

JC: Wow. Good for you, man. Now that was designed to hide how bad we were as actors and to hide [our tiny budget]. We made that movie for eight grand. I mean it was like nothing, but at the same time it got us into Sundance. It was a great jumping off point but I also think that movies like “Blood, Guts,” “Smokin’ Aces,” even [“The A-Team”] to some extent, I’m gonna back-burn for a while and go for the stuff’s that been [left undone]. “The Grey,” which I’m going to do with Liam, which we start in a month, and then I’m going to do “White Jazz,” which is the “L.A. Confidential” sequel.

PH: You are going to do “White Jazz.”

JC: And I’m going to do “Killing Pablo” [based on the book about the hunt for the late Colombian drug lord, Pablo Escobar]. My focus is on getting those movies made because I think it’s always dangerous to color yourself as a certain kind of director and then people think “I know exactly what this guy’s all about.” It’s funny, the careers that I have admired the most are like [Steven] Soderbergh’s and Ang Lee’s — they don’t ever repeat themselves. I always use sports analogies, but a guy can bat clean-up, and he can hit lead-off, and he can play centerfield and catch and play third. That’s what you ultimately want to be: the five-tool guy. You want to be able to do everything. It’ll be an interesting process with “The Grey” because it’s an utter departure from any of this. It’s an R-rated drama about guys trying to survive a plane crash and getting hunted by wolves.

BE: It’s a man-versus-nature tale.

JC: Absolutely.

BE: That’s next, and then “White Jazz” after that?

JC: And then “White Jazz” after that, hopefully in the Fall.

BE: I have to ask because I am a pretty big James Ellroy fan. Now you say “sequel” — are you treating it as a sequel to “L.A. Confidential”?

[Note: “L.A. Confidential” and “White Jazz” are respectively the third and final books in a four-novel series by Ellroy. which begins with the previously filmed “The Black Dahlia”.]

JC: It’s interesting because it’s something with Ellroy with the rights. I can’t call the character Exley, even though I wanted Guy Pearce to play that role. Who knows, because people are realizing that that type of film is difficult to make. I’m actually excited that they’re making “Gangster Squad” at Warner Brothers. I’m hoping that that will re-introduce that type of film.

BE: Neo-noir?

JC: Yeah. And it’s not so forbidden to do period films because “White Jazz” is still an action movie. There’s still a lot of stuff going on in that film and it’s still very intriguing, very pulpy. It would lend itself to a bigger audience. Who knows?

BE: I personally would like to see the entire “L.A. Quartet” made.

JC: You and me both. If I can make “American Tabloid” [actually a part of Ellroy’s follow-up “Underworld USA” trilogy] and “The Big Nowhere”…

BE: “The Big Nowhere” is great. Anyhow, in “The A-Team” you have some very impressive people in the cast. Liam Neeson, of course. I was surprised, Brian Bloom [who plays the deadly but irritable assassin, Pike] really impressed me.

JC: He’s great.

BE: I was really surprised when I just found out this morning that he was also one of the writers.

JC: Yes, he and I wrote it. Brian and I are really good friends. Really close friends. He and I were writing this other thing together, we kind of hatched this. Alex Young, whose a good friend of mine, is a producer here on the lot. At the time, he was president of production with [current Fox president of production] Emma [Watts]. He said, we got “The A-Team.” Any interest in you doing “The A-Team”? I thought, well, that’s interesting. Brian and I were kind of in that work mode and I said, “What do you think of ‘The A-Team’?” It literally took us ten minutes going on the Internet to find the lynchpin, the plates. [i.e. stolen plates for making counterfeit U.S. currency that Hannibal Smith and company must recover to clear their names] and find the story about Saddam trying to rob the central bank of Iraq 24 hours before “Shock and Awe.” He literally had his son go in there with what amounted to a stick-up note saying “We want 600 million in Euros, 400 million in American dollars,” and then I think it was bills, T-bills, whatever the hell it was. I thought, “How fascinating, this guy tried to rob his own country on the way out the door.”

BE: So is Brian primarily an actor or a writer?

JC: He’s doing both now. He’s writing “Remarkable Fellows” for Universal. He’s multitasking right now, but I think Brian is a lot more comfortable as a writer. He prefers that, but he’s so good in the movie.

[I get the “one more question” signal from the publicist.]

BE:I have to ask, the 3D movie gag [in which a Humvee crashes through the wall of a psychiatric ward while a 3D film featuring a Humvee is being projected], is that an homage to “Bachelor Party”?

JC: Oh, God, “Bachelor Party” — that’s right. I didn’t think of that. The 3D gag. We didn’t really realize how kind of prescient the whole thing was going to be — this was right after “Avatar” — that everything would be in 3D. In the looping, we actually had somebody saying in the background, “I hate 3D.” No. I just thought it would be a funny way to break Murdock out to have an actual 3D movie and have the thing come through the wall. But, you’re right, it reminds me of “Bachelor Party.”

BE: Just one quick follow-up. Are you trying to stay away from this whole 3D craze?

JC: Now that Scorsese’s making a 3D movie, it’s out there. I still feel like my favorite 3D film is “Dial M for Murder,” which I actually got to see in 3D, because I think Hitchcock took what at the time was a gimmick and made it work to his advantage. He created almost a proscenium for the audience. Then you felt like you were in that room. He really avoided [throwing things at the camera]. I think he just had Grace Kelly sort of [put her hands in front of her] when she’s getting strangled. He was so free of that stuff. He stayed away from it, which I love.

  

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