This fall, writer/director Joe Carnahan will start production on one of the most talked-about properties in Hollywood -- the closing chapter of James Ellroy's famed 'L.A. Quartet,' White Jazz. Following The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, and L.A. Confidential, Jazz is a work that's been described as 'unfilmable,' because of its frequent dips into stream-of-consciousness, its almost total lack of good-guy characters and its endless perversions, not to mention the Byzantine narrative, typical of Ellroy. But Carnahan is confident that he's going to crack it, and could hardly contain his enthusiasm for the project when I recently spoke with him -- the director is making himself available this week to promote the April 17 release of the Widescreen DVD Edition of Smokin' Aces. Among other things, we talked about the architectural and musical influences he's drawing on, how it will stand apart from L.A. Confidential, and who he's envisioning alongside George Clooney in the film's major roles.
Also on the agenda was his other major passion of the moment, a full-throated telling of the Pablo Escobar story, which he hopes to jump onto after Jazz is completed. His enthusiasm for that one is already so high and his knowledge of the main character so deep that when hearing him talk, it seems like he's ready to start shooting the picture next week. Throughout the course of the interview, we also talked about the recent media furor over Reese Witherspoon's departure from Bunny Lake is Missing, the current Hollywood rush to remake Sam Peckinpah, the spec script he's currently working on, and whether or not we could see more of the Smokin' Aces characters sometime in the future. My list of things to bring up also included MI:3 and how he managed to coax a decent performance out of acting novice Alicia Keys in Aces, but we didn't even have time to get into that stuff. If you're a Carnahan fan, as I am, it's a fun read, so enjoy.
Do you see the ending of Smokin' Aces as an ending or a beginning? It seems to me like Ryan Reynolds' character could go to jail and become a villain -- he'd just be swimming in a different pool of corruption.
JC: I saw it as the end of that particular bit of hypocrisy that he was kind of revolting against, I guess -- the idea that it's just better to just bring both of these situations into the ground than it is to kind of allow them to continue. I can never kind of fathom a character's journey beyond the moment when you go to black, any more than when people ask me what Jason Patric did with the tape recorder at the end of Narc, you know what I mean? Even in Blood, Guts, like, what happens down the road with these characters? I love the ambiguous kind of endings. I think often times, that's what life really is -- there's no concrete path for you to take. It's always kind of a jumble of variables. Behind this door could be a beautiful woman, and behind the same door could be a tiger, you know? You don't know. So I always look at it as the end of that particular journey, that particular story, but I certainly wouldn't preclude revisiting that.
It seems like a lot of your stories are about the establishment having to go the extra mile to deal with someone they can't really control -- it's certainly the case with characters in your upcoming projects. Dave Klein, Pablo.
JC: You're absolutely right. That's absolutely dead on-the-money.
I don't see Pablo as a Robin Hood figure, by the way -- you don't either, do you?
JC: I don't, but I think its interesting because Javier Bardem and I have been in, like, this four year courtship and we just met, like, last week. I think Pablo saw himself as like this great benefactor and this guy who was ultimately in charge of the protection of Colombia's underclass, which I find patently, laughably absurd. He really kind of cast himself in that role. But think about it, listen -- if some guy runs out and cheats on his wife, there's always a rationalization. 'Well, I was drunk, well I was this, well I was away from home.' You know? We do that. We create this, and this guy just created that rationalization on this grand scale, you know? And could basically lay off the murders of thousands of innocent people to some kind of bullshit kind of self-styled, larger goal that he was indeed this great, historic figure and had a responsibility to ... it's nonsense. Any rational person looks at that and says its nonsense, and yet look at what this guy was able to do. Look at what he wrought in the time that he was rampaging across that country.
I heard that his jail cell, after they caught him, was like a palace.
JC: It was Club Med, man. It was in a place called La Catredal, which is a hillside overlooking Envigado, which is where he grew up. He was as imprisoned, dude, as you and I are if we want to go out on a Friday night and go to a club or go have dinner. It's like, the guy was literally leaving the prison grounds. You know when, in a situation where their version of the Attorney General -- Colombia's version of the Attorney General, a guy named Eduardo Mendoza, goes to remove Pablo from this prison and the prison guards turn their guns on him ... when people read that script they can't believe it was that bad, and it was that bad. So it's really one of those stories that I kind of feel fated to tell, you know what I mean?
I imagine the action scenes will be daunting -- U.S. squads, Colombian Army people, Pablo's people, all clashing.
JC: Well, it's funny because a lot of those things were very sub rosa. It was very kind of 'black-op,' we were only supposed to be consulting and even at the end of the film, there's a very ... I made it very deliberately kind of convoluted, like 'what happened?' I 'suggest,' because obviously, making friendships and having these people who had intimate knowledge participating on some level in the whole Pablo Escobar hunt ... I used what they told me. There's a supposition that a Delta sniper had wounded Pablo as he's running across the roof but not killed him; basically immobilized him until the search bloc of the Colombia National Police could get to him and kind of give him the coup de grace, the shot to the head, double-tap from three feet out. So there's all these interesting kind of theories and stories, and there's stuff that I didn't put in, that I put in the epilogue, that's them shaving Pablo's beard down to just a Hitler-like mustache that they left, his morgue photos. Their desire was to show the world what Pablo was to Colombia -- Hitler. That's heavy-duty, man. That goes a long way toward undoing the popular myth that he was, like you say, this Robin Hood figure.
So is Javier on board? What's the story there?
JC: He and I are constantly battling, but I'll get him if it's my last ... I'm gonna get him. He knows. He's a marked man, so we're gonna firm it up here soon.
So tell me about Los Angeles, 1958. What's your vision of White Jazz? Is it going to be stardust-heavy, 'Oh, look, there's Lana Turner' kind of vibe like L.A. Confidential had?
JC: I really wanna go, and I said this ... someone asked me to give a baseline description and I said 'imagine an episode of Cops shot in 1958.' That'll be the vibe on White Jazz. I think we've kind of done the glamour-puss angle, and I think L.A. Confidential certainly did it beautifully, it was very, very kind of stylized. Which is not to say that there's not going to be, you know, a great kind of style in it, but I'm really interested more in grounding it so that it doesn't feel necessarily like this period film. Even the visual presentation we put together -- you're seeing this kind of great, modernist architecture, you know, like what John Lautner was doing at the time, and the art scene with Frank Stella or Miro or all these great kind of ... the West Coast jazz scene, Brubeck, that's kind of the vibe that I'm going for. Miles Davis. Really making this more of, again, that kind of mid-century explosion of art and music, and really letting that be the kind of guiding force behind it, as opposed to making it like this ... all 'period suits'. I really want to try to make it as accurate a reflection of L.A. at that moment in time as I can, and it was very exceedingly hip and Bohemian and forward-thinking and all that stuff. I want to try to incorporate that into the film.
Okay, here's one thing that's been kind of stuck in my head. Clooney played a spree-killer in From Dusk Till Dawn, and he was the nicest spree-killer of all time. In Out of Sight, he was the nicest bank robber ever. How is this guy going to hurl Sanderline Johnson out of a window?
JC: Yeah, listen. Clooney wants ... you're obviously familiar with the book, there's the scene where he has the nightmare that he's chopping up the Japanese colonel with a samurai sword and winds up being Junior Stemmons, so ... actually, I just gave you a plot point. Oh, Jesus. Who was it in the book ... it was Johnny Duhamel in the book, and my brother and I changed it. So there are scenes that are kind of unbelievably grotesque and unfathomable and despicable and I think George's willingness to go there ... you make a very good point, a very salient point. I don't think there's anything nice about Klein. You're right, the spree-killer in From Dusk Till Dawn, George never has a moment like with Sanderline Johnson where he just kills an innocent guy. I think that, in and of itself, will set the pace and the tempo for what's to follow, and listen, George wants that. He's made that very clear to me: "I have no other desire than to play what's in that script." And what's in that script is a pretty despicable guy at times, and pretty nefarious and nasty and selfish.
You'll probably dial down the racism and stuff, just so you don't jolt people out of the movie, right?
JC: Yeah, there are certain things that are kind of running themes in there that I don't want, that I'm not interested in, the racism of that time in particular; that's kind of Chief Parker's LAPD. Their legacy is not one of kind of multi-ethnic support and acceptance, and certainly not where African-American, where black Los Angeles -- 'Darktown', as Ellroy refers to it in the book. You have to be very, very conscious of that and at the same time, I'm not going to shy away from it. I don't want to make a film where it's like 'wait a minute, there's no racism? I can't believe that.' Then it becomes this kind of gentrified, kind of lame ... you know what I mean?
You gotta find a balance.
JC: Yeah, you do. So that's always a tricky equation, but I think it's something we address in the script without making it ... I think it's really interesting, where my brother and I deviate from the book is the kind of the 'slayer of the evil' at the end is not the character that was used in the book. I always thought that as much as I love White Jazz, it became almost unfilmable at some point, because there are so many strands, so much, and it became so psychotic ... that's what made it such a great book, but those things would not carry over into the filmic realm, I thought, with ease. We couldn't figure out a way to translate em,' so there's a paring down that I think is really essential, that we did, that I'm really happy with.
Are you beefing up the role of Glenda Bledsoe into a big, leading lady part?
JC: Yeah, yeah, yeah, it's definitely a much bigger role than it was in the book.
Who do you like?
JC: I'm a huge Charlize fan. I would love her for that. I was taunting her at an Oscar party that I was gonna come chasin' her, so I really like Charlize. But there are so many wonderful, amazing actresses that could blow that thing out of the water, that you never want to limit yourself ... but she would be, like, an early favorite.
Are you keen to work with Liotta again any time soon?
JC: Yeah, I'd love to put Ray in White Jazz. I'm a huge, huge Ray supporter. I have a great ease of use with him, that I think is pretty great.
Junior Stemmons? Welles Noonan?
JC: It's funny, because we're casting about for ... it's interesting, because the Pete Bondurant role is a tough one to fill. Ray was probably 6'3, 6'4 in Narc and all bulked up and he could certainly pull that off. But I don't know. I don't know where I'd put him. Welles Noonan is interesting, because Ray is so non-patrician New England.
He pulled it off in Hannibal.
JC: He did, he pulled it off in Blow, too. But yeah, you're right, in Hannibal he kind of pulled off the kind of effete bureaucrat.
When I heard they were re-doing Straw Dogs, I thought of you for some reason -- do you have any interest in a full-on Peckinpah remake?
JC: You know what, if I was ever gonna remake a Peckinpah film, it would be Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia. That's my favorite Peckinpah film. I'm surprised they haven't remade The Killer Elite -- that's something I would have thought they'd try to remake. But they're doing so much of that shit. Even what I was gonna do with Bunny Lake, I had reservations about trying to follow Preminger. But there are certainly films that are worthy of a remake. Listen -- if Rod Lurie is going to do Straw Dogs, I'll go see that movie. You know what I mean? And certainly a movie that not a lot of people remember. It still has to be probably the single most disturbing rape scene in a movie.
I don't think I remember that scene clearly, actually. It's been a while.
JC: Oh God, who's the actress. Susan ... what the hell is her name? It's her basically with her old English boyfriend, and what starts out as this kind of flirtation becomes this rape, and you're cross-cutting to Dustin Hoffman, completely ineptly trying to hunt quail and he can't figure out the shotgun and the gun's going off. Meanwhile, his old lady's bein' railed by these English blokes. It's really deeply disturbing. And that movie's 1972.
Speaking of Bunny Lake, that whole situation was, what? The blogosphere getting hold of routine business and blowing it up into something?
JC: As they're wont to do. It's always, like, 'let's try to make something.' Honest to God, man, it was something of nothing. I had a window before I really had to get aggressive about White Jazz, and we thought we could pull it off, and as we got closer, and as Reese was kind of ... you know, Reese was going through her own kind of personal travails and so on, and it just became untenable. There was no great, dramatic arc where there was some big blowout or anything -- it was just like, 'damn, I don't think we can do this.' And I don't think she was really keen to spend a bunch of time away from her kids, so I think at the end of the day, it was for the best for everybody. We didn't wind up doing something that would have felt rushed and forced and, like, 'how the fuck are we gonna do this?' And I got my summer off, which I want, because I'm really kind of going to ground on White Jazz, to make this thing spectacular.
Do you have a start date?
JC: I start prepping in late July, early August, for a November start.
What's this spec you're finishing? Ghost Walkers? Is that a quick one you might want to fit in, like Bunny Lake?
JC: No, no, no, it's actually funny because as we're handling these calls all day I'm trying to ... it's a spec that my friend, I purchased [it] from him, the idea. He wrote a short story, and it's actually called The Grey. It's this really great kind of man against nature story that I own 100 percent, so I'm really excited about it. I'm almost done, I've written it as a spec. It's got some pretty incredible stuff in it, but a very simple story. These guys go to down into the Alaskan -- it's like the Yukon -- and they start getting basically hunted by this pack of rogue wolves. It's just really exciting and cool. That's something that, I don't know, listen, anytime I write something I always say 'I'll write it for someone else,' and then I really get into it and it becomes like this inseparable process, and I'm like 'I gotta do it!' So I don't think so. I think if I do anything, I'll do some TV, but I just can't afford to do any kind of a feature right now, with White Jazz looming.