Interview: Joe Carnahan Brings His ‘A-Team’

By  · Published on June 11th, 2010

The A-Team seems like an odd change of pace for Joe Carnahan. One, it’s a summer tent-pole popcorn movie that’s an inevitable blockbuster. Two, Carnahan is one known for his grit and his more extreme nature when it comes to the violent side of things. And three, it’s got wide appeal – unlike (the underrated) Smokin’ Aces or Narc. So, how did this transition go for Carnahan? Actually, quite well.

The A-Team is exactly what you expect from a summer actioner like this. If you’re one of the many out there who’ve been dissatisfied with this summer thus fur, you’ll most likely be happy to know The A-Team delivers the goods when it needs to. As covered below, it’s definitely a film where you’ll see things you don’t get see too often in real life – to say the least.

Thankfully, we pulled in an interview with Carnahan – who’s an actual Film School Reject himself – at the last second to discuss all of this.

I’m going to start off and be honest and say that I haven’t seen the film yet…

Listen, man. You’re going to dig it, Jack. I promise you. I’m really happy with the way the movie came out, the studio is really happy, and thus far the response has been huge.

Talking about the studio a bit, what was it like working in that type of environment? Smokin’ Aces had a fairly sized budget, but this is your first real big blockbuster where there are a lot more suits in the room.

It’s difficult, but people ask me if this is the hardest film I’ve ever had to make, but it isn’t. Narc is the hardest film I’ve ever made. That was a death march compared to what I had to do here. It’s obviously a political environment where you gotta be smart and you got very strong opinions on all sides. That’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with that as long as the end result is a better movie. I’ll take a suggestion or an opinion no matter where it comes from as long as it makes it better. While we definitely had our absolute dog fights throughout this process we also made very smart decisions on the heels of those arguments. We didn’t let all of that stuff gum up the works where it gets to the point you start hating each other. That’s when nothing moves forward and the thing that suffers is the last thing you want to suffer which is the movie. I didn’t mind, man. It’s like everything else where you go in and you fight for what you believe in. Listen, I left Mission Impossible III years ago and my personality has not changed at all (laughs). I never went in there saying, “You gotta do this and you gotta do that,” but instead I said, “We gotta make the movie if we can make it right.” We got to do it properly and make something that’s worth seeing. To me, everything else is just just careerist bullshit. Who cares about that? If it comes to that I’m fine with moving onto directing community theater (laughs). Yeah, it was tough but it was worthwhile.

Now a lot of people have been labeling this as a remake, but would you call it that?

People ask me that and I think it’s impossible to do that. How the fuck do you remake a TV show unless you’re picking an episode? It’s funny, all the die hard fans of The A-Team I meet I always ask them: what’s your favorite episode? No one could ever name an episode. They can just name moments. They would say the time they broke Murdock out of a psych ward, but they did that all the time. They did that in nearly every episode. They also bring up the time they tricked B.A. into getting on a plane by giving him a shot, but they did that in almost every episode as well. This had to be its own standalone film. If you’re just making a movie for the hardcore fans then you’re cutting off your noses by doing that. I have a fourteen-year old daughter and a twelve-year old son and I wanted them to come out of this film having a blast with it despite knowing nothing about the show. My kids never watched the show and they don’t even know who the hell The A-Team is.

You basically wanna do what they did with Star Trek. Enough for the fans, but also open up more for the non-fans.

Yeah, exactly. That’s exactly it. J.J. Abrams did such a brilliant job with shaping that. He had a hell-of-a-lot more to lose since there’s a richer history, a damn good film with Wrath of Khan, and he had a much higher bar in terms of satisfying a much more rapid fan base. I was of the mind that we couldn’t just make this movie for a section of the viewing public. We had to make it for everybody, but not make it the sugary bullshit that’s easily digestible. With that, it’s just pandering.

I know you don’t consider this a remake, but there’s been a lot of TV adaptations lately for better or worse. What do you think is going to make The A-Team a bit more different than some of those other adaptations?

I don’t think we lean with our chin out that way. In the way that we’re not saying it was a TV show and now it’s a movie! We’re saying it’s its own thing. Once I was able to identify the things about it that the fans would want and would miss we went and did our own thing. I didn’t stick so thoroughly to the culture of the show. It was interesting because I loved Watchmen, but of course I read that graphic novel ages ago. I thought it was so in-tuned and devoted to the source material that it ran the risk of narrowing the chance of a more broader appeal. There’s nothing wrong with that. Movies are movies and are not meant to be secular experiences, but they should be communal shared experiences. It should be where you could look around at everybody else regardless of how old they are and see that they’re having a good time. I think that we’re now confusing that with what I said before which is just a pandering attitude some films have. It’s where people go, “Lets just make it this big blob of what we think is funny and what he thinks is action,” but it ends up looking like it was made by a committee of monkeys. This is something where I knew it was important to people and I didn’t want to trample on people’s childhood memories. It’s like with how Rampage and Sharlto have a very deep connection to that show and even because of them I wanted to do right to the fans. I think we did.

Going into the style, both Narc and Smokin’ Aces had this specific grit where you could really feel it. With The A-Team, did you carry over that same style?

Yeah, absolutely. Jack, you’re gonna dig it man. There’s no question that for whatever I’m known for, or whatever style people think I have, which I don’t know what the hell is; you’ll recognize it immediately.

And with that you didn’t feel at all constrained with the PG-13?

No. I didn’t, man. I think Narc had about 217 uses of the word fuck and Smokin’ Aces had about 253 (laughs). That had blood and everything with chainsaw enemas and all that kind of wonderful stuff. I thought it’d be nice to do…While this isn’t the softer, gentler version of me as a filmmaker it certainly is one that’s more restrained. In a sense, I didn’t think we needed to start piling up a body count. With that, I think that’s when you start doing a disservice to the show. Yes, people die in this movie. There’s no question that people die here. It’s not in the gratuitous and bloody way though. I really didn’t think The A-Team as an R-rated movie would be appropriate. I don’t think that would make sense to anybody.

As for the tone, the action comedy is a tough one to get. As you said, people die in this movie but there’s also a good amount of jokes there…

Right. When it works really well comedy, action, and drama all those things will be interwoven and will move as one. I think that’s what we did very well. When you see the film and you see that tank drop, which they’re basing these thirty-second TV spots around, it’s just my favorite sequence in the film. It’s just a blast and I think if you don’t like the idea of guys flying a falling tank then this isn’t the movie for you. It’s like if you think a guy curving a bullet is silly then don’t go see Wanted, you know what I mean? Go see The Sorrow and the Pity or a documentary. The movie is designed to be a hell-of-a-lot of fun and to be entertaining. A part of that comes from the feeling I get when I see a movie and I feel like someone just stole my money. Someone just took my twenty bucks, plus parking, and all of that. I get pissed off about that. The popcorn should not be the most enjoyable part of the experience. For me, I just wanted to make something entertaining and be something that would make you happier when you left the theater over when you came in. Honest to god, dude. It was as simple as that.

How do you make sure with those big moments- like the tank scene- that you don’t go too over-the-top and still keep it grounded a bit? It could easily become overly goofy.

Right. You never know what you’re doing is going to be considered over-the-top. Going back to the tank sequence they drop M8 Buford Army tanks out of airplanes, they have suits on it, and they airdrop those things. That’s real. What if they had to escape a plane that was going to be shot out of the sky? Would that tank stand the explosion? What if it potentially shuttled them to safety? How about if they lost the suits? What would a guy like Hannibal do? Then it gets fun. If you start to draw your line to thoroughly on those things then you limit your ability to be imaginative, be creative, and it also limits you from doing something potentially that people will remember. I’m telling you, man when you watch that tank sequence I promise you that you’re not going to forget it.

Besides some of those bigger moments, I’d say that based on what I’ve seen you’ve still rooted most of the action in practical.

We didn’t get so crazy to the extent where you can’t buy it. We didn’t do what Wanted did where it goes crazy and that’s great. That’s the style of the film. You know what you’re getting into and you know what that movie is about. That’s a separate and alternate reality. I don’t think we went there. With the action, we certainly pushed it. It’s an A-Team movie, man. I wanna see stuff like that. There’s two or three sequences you’ve never seen before.

It’s just one of those movies where you wanna see stuff you’ll never get to see in real life.

Exactly! As much as the foot chase at the beginning of Narc is completely grounded in reality, it should be. That’s the thesis of the movie. This is not that. This is you exercising a different set of muscles and you should. The guys I admire are like Steven Soderbergh, Ang Lee, and the guys who never do the same thing twice. I always look at those guys as if they can pitch, play short-stop, be a power hitter, can catch, and can just do everything. That’s the type of filmmaker that you aspire to be. They have the most impressive resumes.

They’re the ones that get remembered.

Yeah. Angle Lee can do The Ice Storm and Sense and Sensibility, but he can also do Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Hulk. Also, I mean look at Brokeback Mountain for god’s sakes. To me, that is what is cool and interesting.

Do you think The A-Team will help get White Jazz, Killing Pablo, and some of your small projects off the ground?

Dude, nothing would make me happier. I hope, but I don’t think you should ever do movies like this for an alternative motive.

I didn’t mean to imply that.

No, no, no. I know that, but it’s obviously… Yes, hopefully it helps get the good residual effect of doing a movie like this where it lets you do something a bit trickier like White Jazz or Killing Pablo. They’re not going anywhere, but I’m determined to make both and I will.

For White Jazz, why is there so much hesitation around that film? I’ve read that script from your old website and I thought it was great.

I don’t know, brother. I think it’s one of those things where it’s because it’s a period film and it’s the fifties. I just keep saying how it’s a followup to L.A. Confidential which was nominated for seven oscars and won four. Again, you can see the sea change in the industry. We’re going more towards films like The A-Team, The Karate Kid, and films that have a built-in audience. Twenty-eight years of the zeitgeist for The A-Team isn’t going to hurt your chances. You’re going to be in really good shape when you open in Spain, you know what I mean? It’s a world wide thing where even in China it still runs during prime-time. If you look at it in a business corporation way it’s a smart decision. Who wouldn’t do that?

You just gotta balance art and commerce.

Absolutely, man. That’s absolutely it. The flip side of that though is that it makes some things more difficult to make like White Jazz and Killing Pablo. I’ve said this before, but if someone says I got twenty-million bucks to make White Jazz, I’ll do it. I’ll figure it out. That movie could be a lot closer than I think at the moment.

The A-Team definitely can’t hurt its chances.

I’m hoping, man.

I definitely gotta ask about the original script for Smokin’ Aces. I’ve heard there was a lot that didn’t make it into the film, what were some things that didn’t make the final cut?

God, I’m trying to think. You spent a lot more time in the penthouse. It was a lot more with Buddy Israel. It got really kind of dark and a lot uglier. There was a whole other part where they brought in the hookers… I can’t remember specifically, but I should post that script. I think my original draft was 172 pages. It was crazy.

Would you bring your website back for that?

I would love to, brother. If it wasn’t for the…

The not-so-friendly nature of the internet?

Definitely. If I could do it the way that Twitter is done where you gotta verify things with email and all of that then I would. With that you wouldn’t have just a bunch of random jag-offs coming through that ruin it for everybody else. So, I would. I had a lot of fun doing it. It literally became too much of a hassle. I think it was someone on Cinematical who did a really nice piece that talked about how people blew it (laughs). You know, it would’ve been fantastic to have the site all through The A-Team to throw up concept art and all that stuff. It would’ve been nice to show people that. Again, I felt it was too time consuming and it became a distraction. The best thing it did was that a dear friend of ours died tragically and I used the blog to literally direct his family to an old bit where someone had written something nice about him. It was the best thing I could’ve done with that blog. It did serve its purpose and I do miss it. I don’t know if I miss it enough to wave back into that situation where people don’t have to account for who they are. You know what I mean?

Yeah, people taking advantage of the fact you can be anonymous online.

Totally. There’s a great quote from Sorkin about the internet about how it’s made us dumber and meaner. I believe that.

Lastly, is there anything about the film you haven’t been asked about yet but is something you’d like to talk about?

Boy, is there anything I haven’t been asked about yet…

Or about your career in general.

You know, I’ve had an interesting one. It’s been up and down, but it’s probably been down more than its been up. It’s taught me a great sense of resilience. I think if I can come out of Junior College and State College with the grades I had in High School… Jack, if you could find one of my High School guidance counselors today and if they would’ve been able to bet on me back then on if I’d be here now, those would’ve been long odds dude (laughs). I don’t have an ounce of regret or remorse towards anyone or anything. Not Cruise after Mission Impossible III, because without him Narc would’ve been a fucking direct-to-DVD movie without that guy. Not anybody. I’ve gone down that road where projects haven’t come together. That’s just the nature of the business. When you decide to do this and work as hard as I think I’ve worked you gotta appreciate everything. At the same time, don’t hold any grudges for a long length of time. As proud as I am of this movie, I have no idea what it’s going to do. It cant affect me one way or another. I’m going to read great things about it and horrible things about it. You just have to remain who you are at all times and that won’t change.

Just live in the moment.

Absolutely, dude.

The A-Team is now in theaters.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.