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In the twelve years since he premiered his first feature, Blood, Guts, Bullets, and Octane, at Sundance, Joe Carnahan has been through his fair share of ups and downs. Sure, he earned critical acclaim with Narc, a cult following with the critically maligned actioner Smokin' Aces in 2007, and notched a writing credit on Pride and Glory in 2008, but he also had no less than four major directing projects stall or fizzle out, including Mission Impossible III, Bunny Lake is Missing, White Jazz, and Killing Pablo. And when your luck is so bad that Entourage makes a bizarro version of your film before you do -- as it did with the faux film Medellin -- well, you can use a karmic turn of events.
So it's with great anticipation that his supporters look toward 2010, when Carnahan directs again for the first time in four years. His summer studio flick, an update of the television show The A-Team, has earned buzz with a newly unveiled teaser trailer and, he assured Cinematical, will not disappoint fans of the original series. But first, Carnahan offers a more immediate treat for his fans: Smokin' Aces 2: Assassin's Ball, a prequel to Smokin' Aces on DVD this week that stars Tom Berenger, Clayne Crawford, Michael Parks, Vinnie Jones, and Autumn Reeser as the Tremor sister we never knew existed (in a cackling, guns-blazing performance that will eradicate the memory of her goody-two-shoes role on The O.C.).
Full interview after the jump.
Cinematical spoke with Carnahan -- or, as we like to call him, Smokin' Joe Carnahan -- about The A-Team, his now-defunct blog, and his collaborations with Smokin' Aces 2 director P.J. Pesce (From Dusk Till Dawn 3: The Hangman's Daughter, Lost Boys: The Tribe) and two of his co-screenwriters Olumide Odebunmi and Olatunde Osunsanmi, both former assistants of his whose careers he's helped shepherd. Lastly, Carnahan clears up the confusion surrounding his upcoming slate, which troubled projects he's still holding out hopes to bring to fruition, and which abandoned film remains best left unmade.
Cinematical: It's evident on the DVD commentary for Smokin' Aces 2 that you and director P.J. Pesce had a very close working relationship. What was your dynamic like, and how much creative input did you have on the film?
Joe Carnahan: We wrote the screenplay together -- originally it was myself and my two old assistants, Olumide Odebunmi and Olatunde Osunsanmi, who went on to do The Fourth Kind, which I produced for him. But originally, Tunde was going to [direct] this film. He went off to do that picture; I had met P.J., and P.J. is one of those guys who, for whatever reason and how the business treats us, I felt he was a much better filmmaker than he had been allowed to express. If you talk to P.J. at all, he's like this Italian tailor, with the way he goes about what he does, because he's hands-on in every aspect. And he had to be, because it's really DIY with a lot of this stuff. So we became quite close; he stayed with me up in Vancouver up on the A-Team set. I had a great working relationship with him. He's really smart and very funny.
Cinematical: What did you hope to explore in a Smokin' Aces prequel?
Joe Carnahan: I think ultimately what I was looking forward to P.J. doing with the second film was that it would actually help inform the first one, which I always felt and still feel was completely misunderstood. The allegory that I was going for at the time was the Iraq war, and if you look at the way the film is constructed it's misinformation that leads to all these nefarious, violent characters showing up that gives way to incredibly heedless, pointless violence that doesn't really get the job done because there was no job to begin with because they misheard everything. And the government forsakes their own at the end. That was it. I thought the people who got it, I guess they got it, the people who didn't -- which are numerous -- thought it was just a Tarantino rehash. But I thought with this prequel, we really led with our chin.
Cinematical: In the commentary on Smokin' Aces 2, you close with a quote directed at aspiring filmmakers: "Give the audience exactly what they want, in the way that they least expect it." That's sort of a great way to describe why fans loved Smokin' Aces to begin with.
Joe Carnahan: I think it's Arthur Miller. I love that notion; as in all things, try to envelope an experience that [the audience] can appreciate and are familiar with, and yet do it in a way that's unfamiliar. I think as artists and filmmakers, it's a good mantra to march to.
Cinematical: How did you first conceive of the story?
Joe Carnahan: [SPOILER ALERT] Tom Berenger's character is very much a right-wing conservative white male, and that's where it started for P.J. and I. I told my own father, who's politically-minded in that same way, "Dad, you're the most dangerous thing on the political landscape because you're a sixty-year-old white conservative," and that's more terrifying than any jihadist. But if you took one of these guys, and you gave them the strength of their convictions to become a jihadist... that, to me, was fun. That was Smokin' Aces territory. P.J. and I gelled behind that very quickly. [END SPOILERS]
Cinematical: You used to have a great blog. What happened to SmokinJoeCarnahan.com?
Joe Carnahan: You have to blame the assholes that finally drove me to go, you know what, I've got nothing more to glean or to give to these folks. I had a blast doing it, and listen, it certainly would have been worth everybody's time over the last couple of months because of The A-Team and because of Smokin' Aces 2... but I couldn't support it any more. When I'm dueling with people and offering to fist fight, that's when you realize, ok, something's run its course.
Cinematical: You're referring to the commenters on your blog?
Joe Carnahan: Yeah. It got too consuming in my mind. You'd have people who were totally anonymous; it came to a head for me with some guy who made a cheap kind of threat against me, and I said, you let me know where you're at, and we can deal with this if you're a man, here's my phone number. He left me a message, I call him back, and I realize he's given me an alias that's some real estate guy in North Carolina. So I go, what the hell am I doing?
Cinematical: Tell me about it; I work online. The negativity from some user comments (thankfully, not at Cinematical!) can suck you in.
Joe Carnahan: Oh, completely! People ask me if I've read some of the comments on the A-Team teaser trailer on another website which we shall not name. But, forget it. It's pointless. Aaron Sorkin had a great quote about this: "Nothing has done more to make us dumber or meaner than the anonymity of the Internet," and I believe it. When you can hide behind something, you don't have to come out and have the guts to state something as you. It's a community of snipers. Who cares. But listen, the people who are enthusiastic and go online with the strength of their convictions, that's great. That's good. We need those people. It's the trolls that kill it for everybody.
Cinematical: So what did you make of the fan reaction to the A-Team teaser?
Joe Carnahan: That trailer in particular was designed to encourage and reassure people that loved that show that we did right by them. I think that was its overall goal, and it achieved it quite well. Is it hopefully going to be reflective of the film? It's like a lot of things; it's a big piece of marketing, and these guys are much smarter than I am. All I know is, anybody that is in any way worried about what we've done with The A-Team, you have absolutely nothing to worry about. That, I know at my core. Everybody that loved that show -- you're gonna be fine. Trust me.
Cinematical: You already put skeptical fans at ease with the best quote of 2010 so far, when you said that you weren't out to make the "easy, breezy, Cover Girl" version of The A-Team.
Joe Carnahan: Did that actually show up somewhere? [Laughs] Honestly, it's akin to saying that Chris Nolan should have somehow adhered to the Adam West incarnation of Batman. It's preposterous. What worked on television 25 years ago -- Murdock's crazy in 1983 ain't Steve-O's crazy on Jackass, and you've got to know that the audience is very savvy and astute, and they're not going to let you get away with a sentimental journey through The A-Team. What are you going to do to contemporize this thing? I think we went to great pains to make sure we were doing that while at the same time paying homage to the show.
Cinematical: Considering the early buzz, are there plans to turn The A-Team into a franchise?
Joe Carnahan: I think any time you acknowledge that, it's like I'd be jinxing the future. What I'm content to do is say, let's let this one ride and in five months see how people dig it; if they don't dig it, we'll have our answer then.
Cinematical: Potential A-Team sequels notwithstanding, you're seemingly still attached to a number of projects. What's up next in your future?
Joe Carnahan: There's a film that I wrote that I want to do called The Grey, which is about a group of pipeline workers in Alaska flying back into civilization after being remote for a number of months. The 737 they're on goes down, and they begin to be hunted by a pack of rogue wolves. It's very much a man vs. nature adventure, existentialist kind of drama that I want to do. We're very, very close to it now. If not [The Grey], Killing Pablo's always going to be up there for me. And White Jazz – I'm still bound and determined to make that movie.
Cinematical: Didn't James Ellroy himself call White Jazz "dead" last year?
Joe Carnahan: I think there's a lot to be pessimistic about in the business right now because movies like that aren't getting green lit. I think if we can do it for a number, and that number is gonna be ... about $12, then we can make that movie. I think it's a tremendous script, and I think there's always a place for that kind of movie. Certainly there's still got to be a place for the L.A. Confidential sequel, I can't imagine that we've forgotten that completely.
Cinematical: You were once thisclose to making Bunny Lake is Missing before it fell through. Do you have any similar hopes to resurrect that project?
Joe Carnahan: You know what? Bunny Lake was a kind of time and place [situation]. It was one of those things that, in the end, I'm glad didn't move forward because in hindsight I think it would have probably been a mistake. But who knows? I thought I was taking myself out of my comfort zone and doing a film with a really strong female lead and a little girl, and understanding that dynamic and challenging myself. I've got a pretty good gauge on my maturity, and I don't know that I would have been in full form to make that thing what it needed to be.
Smokin' Aces 2: Assassin's Ball is out on DVD today. The A-Team is in theaters June 11, 2010.