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33 Things We Learned From Joe Carnahan’s The Grey Commentary

The Grey
By  · Published on June 15th, 2015

Director Joe Carnahan hasn’t made very many films. He’s directed just six features as of 2014 ‐ his latest (Stretch) was unceremoniously dumped by Universal just two months before its planned release ‐ but he’s already proven himself capable of being more than a one-trick pony. Perhaps best known for action/comedies like The A-Team and Smokin’ Aces, it’s his 2011 dramatic adventure that seems guaranteed to stand the test of time.

The Grey is, on the surface anyway, a film about men versus wolves in the icy Alaskan landscape, but there’s far more going on here than a simple tale of nature gone amok. The movie is interested in what drives someone to live and fight for that life, what matters enough in a person’s life that they’ll struggle to the bitter end, and it captures that drama in the guise of an exhilarating and honestly affecting snowbound adventure. Carnahan recorded a commentary track for the film’s home video release alongside its two main editors, and we gave it a listen for two reasons. First, he was recently in the news as a possible candidate to write and direct Bad Boys 3, and second ‐ and more importantly ‐ it’s a fantastic goddamn movie worth watching whether or not you have a reason.

Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary track for The Grey.

The Grey (2011)

Commentators: Joe Carnahan (director/co-writer), Roger Barton & Jason Hellmann (editors)

1. They had multiple thoughts as to how to open the film and went through several much longer iterations until Barton tried out this more abbreviated version. “It feels like the more we fractured time,” he says, “the more successful this opening became.”

2. Carnahan wanted Iron Maiden’s “Number of the Beast” playing in the bar during the opening scene, but “the boys in Maiden came back a little steep.”

3. The opening was filmed in the town of Smithers, British Columbia, and Carnahan says the people were lovely and without pretense of any kind. He points out the bartender, complimenting her work as a fantastic background actress, and Barton adds “She’s half of our female cast right there.”

4. Anne Openshaw plays Ottway’s (Liam Neeson) wife here and also starred as the wife of a deceased policeman in Carnahan’s Narc. “Annie’s a bit of a good luck charm for me,” he says. Perhaps, but maybe she’s less of a good luck charm for the characters she’s married to?

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5. Carnahan gives a shout out to two special effects companies who worked on the film regarding the early scene of Ottway shooting the wolf as it runs towards the field workers. “Digital Dimensions, the vfx company which I certainly had my moments with and they were not good, they did a really fantastic job with this.” The second company, KNB, receives a less complicated compliment. They built the practical wolf, and the dying creature’s last breaths were created via “one of the puppeteers is blowing a tube up this thing’s ass.”

6. Ottway’s early inclination towards suicide was originally interrupted by a polar bear entering camp and walking towards him. Carnahan credits Barton with talking him out of that plan and instead going with the wolf howls. “Basically there’s this very karmic-now connection between the wolves and Ottway which I think is fantastic, where now they’re almost calling him out. I love that they’re calling him from the distance, it’s like ‘we have unfinished business because of what you’ve done to this guy [the dead wolf].’”

7. Joe Anderson was under the impression that he was going to be fired after the first day because he thought Carnahan hated him. “He wasn’t the actor I hated,” clarifies the director. “It wasn’t him.” Barton adds “You know who you are.”

8. Flannery’s (Anderson) opening conversation with Ottway on the plane features a nod to Timothy Treadwell, the activist profiled in Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, but Carnahan thinks most people miss it. “I really wrote that line for my brother because I knew he’d get a kick out of it.”

9. “There wasn’t a boy in this cast,” says Carnahan. “They were all kind of men.” This triggers Hellmann to compliment a comment he made on Twitter regarding what Hollywood sees as masculinity. “I think we have a really arrested idea of masculinity,” says Carnahan, in reference to Tinseltown’s preference for younger, shirtless and frequently hairless males.

10. “I’ll go on record as saying if there’s a better plane crash in a movie, I want to see it.” He credits the two editors with its success. Carnahan also mentions a flight he was on that “was bucking turbulence” where he looked down and saw a Pokemon sticker on the seat tray. He was terrified that would be the last thing he would see before dying, and added a nod to it here as Ottway focuses in on the brochure.

11. The scene with Ottway waking up in the snow was shot in minus twenty degrees. “See Liam’s face, how red that is, there is no makeup on him,” says Carnahan. “They kept saying ‘you can’t put Liam in the snow, you can’t put Liam in the snow,’ but Liam went in the snow.” Barton says Carnahan and the guys complained so much about how cold it was, but the editing room was probably 75 degrees which was also pretty tough. “There was some days the espresso machine was jammed,” adds Hellmann.

12. Lewenden’s (James Badge Dale) last words ‐ “Wait for me.” ‐ were Carnahan’s grandmother’s final words when she passed.

13. Carnahan’s wife told him she thinks Ottway was the lone survivor and the rest were simply facets of his personality. “I thought that was really novel until ten other people, all women, said the same thing to me. I thought my god that’s an interesting little trend.” Barton recalls hearing her say that and thinking “Holy crap, what a great thing to say. We had never thought of that.”

14. Regarding the wolves’ actions, Carnahan points out that they “were never trying to depict wolf behavior accurately. They’re meant to be a facet of and thereby a force of nature.”

15. The video game sounds were built by Hellmann, and it’s his voice saying “Game over.”

16. The scene where the men awaken to discover one of their own has been killed during the night originally featured some more graphic glances of the dead man’s half-devoured head. They trimmed it back some.

17. Carnahan is not pleased with some organizations’ “misguided” opinions on the film’s portrayal of wolves. “The myopic view of this film is that we were mean to wolves, which I think is absolute bullshit. And by the way Humane Society, you’re never getting my $100 a month that I’ve given you for the last five years after you came out against this film.” Barton adds that’s he’s already canceled his membership as well.

18. The dead bodies being turned over and searched for wallets were a combination of dummies and stuntmen.

19. The bit where Ottway finds the rifle but discovers it’s broken was added back into the film after test audiences asked why he never retrieved it from the crash.

20. Carnahan points out a rare crane shot in the film and mentions that it froze shortly thereafter. “And because the crane operator was such a douche-bag and so rude to the people around him I made it a special point because I was freezing to death to take whatever heat I could muster from my hatred of this guy to direct it right at him.”

21. The high-pitched howl emanating from the woods as the men scramble to start a fire after being chased by the wolves was actually made by Quentin “Rampage” Jackson. They recorded him and modified it some, but he’s the source.

22. Carnahan asks Barton for scoops on Transformers 4, but the editor passes. “I got Death Wish in my sights,” he offers instead, in reference to Carnahan’s upcoming (at the time) remake. It’s unclear where that stands, but Carnahan did go on to direct Stretch which none of you saw but probably should. It’s fun.

23. The one improvised line they allowed Dermot Mulroney was his post-attack comment “I think I lost a nail.” That’s proven false moments later when they acknowledge that his “I’m more of a cat person myself” was also improvised.

24. Barton suggested an existing piano piece be used to score the fireplace chat scene ‐ a Jamin Winans-written/performed track from his own film, Ink ‐ after using it as a temp piece during editing. They all fell in love with it and fully agreed. I’ll take this opportunity to recommend Winans’ second film, The Frame, for fans of smart, philosophically-engaged science fiction.

25. Some exteriors were shot outside Vancouver while the area was experiencing less than expected snowfall. The production had to manufacture the snow “to the tune of $175k” says Carnahan.

26. Carnahan finds that a lot of people don’t realize that Mulroney is in the film until the scene where he stands on the cliff side before crossing the chasm.

27. Henrick’s (Dallas Roberts) drowning is Carnahan’s homage to a powerful drowning sequence in Paul Newman’s Sometimes a Great Notion. He had the cast & crew watch the film on set.

28. Carnahan has had people tell him that they hear a helicopter above Ottway right before he goes on his tirade towards God. “Had we shown a helicopter in that moment I would expect someone to set fire to me and everything I own,” he says. “That would have been a complete and utter betrayal.”

29. The wallet photos of the characters and their family members are actual photos of the actors and their loved ones. “I thought that was important,” says Carnahan. “One of my biggest complaints is those horrible Photoshops, I hate ’em, I just think they destroy whatever veracity a scene can have. They bear such truth, you just can’t fake them.” Diaz’s (Grillo) wallet features no family photos, and it was Neeson’s idea to have Ottway fold his hands over it with respect.

30. “This is not a movie about a man fighting a wolf,” says Carnahan. He acknowledges that the marketing’s use of the images showing Neeson armed with bottles and knives and ready to scrap with the wolves “was the enemy of the film in a lot of ways. I guess it created a promise that people felt the movie didn’t live up to. We had this discussion, the movie must end here. It would just feel like an addendum to do anything beyond this.” They apparently did multiple versions of a wolf battle ending, but none of them satisfied or left much to discuss after the credits rolled.

31. They all agree that Neeson and Grillo should be nominated for their performances when award season rolls around. (They were not.)

32. As of the commentary recording customs had yet to return KNB’s animatronic wolves.

33. The post-credits shot, a remnant of their attempts to capture Ottway’s fight with the wolves, was included for purely artistic reasons on Carnahan’s part. “It certainly, to me, doesn’t answer any questions,” says Barton, “in a good way.” Carnahan adds that a lot of people don’t seem to realize that’s the back of Neeson’s head resting on the wolf’s slowly breathing form.

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Final Thoughts

The Grey remains a powerful and affecting film with a ballsy ending, and while the CG occasionally disrupts the serious intensity the distractions are minor. The commentary is equal parts entertaining and informative as the trio share some laughs, anecdotes and insight, and I highly recommend it for fans who’ve already seen and enjoyed the movie.

Check out more commentary commentary in the Commentary Commentary archives

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.