Liam Neeson has done a lot of physically challenging roles in his life, but probably the most physically demanding movie that he’s done so far is “The Grey.” The movie was filmed in sub-zero temperatures, and the cast and crew had to work in high snow drifts. In the film, Neeson plays John Ottway, an introverted member of an all-male oil rig crew whose plane crashes during a snowstorm in the remote wilderness of Alaska.
Ottway is a sharpshooter who is trained in fending off wild animals and in survivalist techniques, so he quickly takes charge of the group of survivors as they try to find a way to be rescued. Facing the harsh elements and starvation, the men sometimes clash with each other on what decisions to make that will best ensure their survival. And then they encounter perhaps the deadliest threat of all: a pack of bloodthirsty wolves that are out to defend their territory.
At the New York City press junket for “The Grey,” I sat down with Neeson and “The Grey” director/producer/co-writer Joe Carnahan, who previously worked together on the 2010 movie “The A-Team.” They talked about why “The Grey” isn’t just a “man versus beast” story, how the killer wolves were filmed and what were some of the physical effects they experienced from making a movie in such brutal conditions. Neeson also spoke briefly about his roles in “Wrath of the Titans” (the sequel to 2010’s “Clash of the Titans”) and “The Dark Knight Rises.” (NOTE: There are some spoilers in this article that are clearly indicated with spoiler alerts.)
Who had the worst frostbite while making “The Grey”?
Carnahan: Me. It went away eventually, but I had it in my fingertips for a while. It was really cool, and then it wasn’t, but it eventually went away.
Neeson: A couple of the crew [members] too, who were there, [got frostbite].
Was being in the freezing water colder than being in the freezing snow?
Neeson: It was cold, yeah, even though we had wet suits on.
Carnahan: That was the second time they said to me, “You can’t put Liam in there.” The first was the snow, in the beginning. And then it was, “Liam can’t go in the river.”
What were they most concerned about in this situation?
Neeson: I’ll be 60 this year.
Carnahan: You know who was the most concerned? The guys making “Taken 2!”
The production notes for “The Grey” describe the John Diaz character (played by Frank Grillo) as “sociopathic.” What do you think about the personality of John Diaz and how he is affected not just by the weather elements but also the people around him?
Carnahan: I don’t think he’s sociopathic. You’re reading something that is designed to create an instant image of someone, in the same way that the marketing is designed to create this sense of this action-adventure, which it absolutely is, but it’s also, I think, much deeper.
It certainly applies to Diaz. I don’t think he’s certainly one thing. I think he’s a very confused guy. I think Frank Grillo said it as much. He knew how afraid Diaz is. And that’s the way he wanted to play him: as just a guy who is afraid and couldn’t show it, but that fear as such is what made him boisterous and obnoxious and overblown and egomaniacal and all that good stuff. But I think the layers and the subtlety at which Frank attacked it makes that performance.
Neeson: These are all men who have trouble relating to their emotions — and certainly more trouble trying to share them.
Liam, how do you think your John Ottway character changed from the beginning to the end of “The Grey”?
Neeson: There’s a famous expression: “How do you make God laugh? You tell Him your plans.” I used to think that about every day when we on set.
This guy thinks his life is going to go down a particular path, and then suddenly you’re going to do the exact opposite. If you’ve given up on life, you’re going to do the exact opposite [if put in a life-or-death situation]. You’re going to cling on to life and you’re going try and help these other five guys cling on to life.
Carnahan: That’s what is, at least for me, the most interesting thing about Liam’s character John Ottway. Here’s a guy in the beginning who doesn’t seem to have much use for life, and then by the end is fighting harder for it harder than he’s fought for anything else.
That kind of contradiction exists in all of us. We all get to the point where you’re like, “I’ve had enough” Hopefully not [suicidal] far. But then there are those other days when you realize how beautiful life is and how wonderful it is and we wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. That duality, I think, is interesting.
Liam, can you talk about how making “The Grey” affected your relationships with your fellow cast members and the crew?
Neeson: Well, we did bond. And I remember the first day, we had three or four days of rehearsal in Vancouver. And we were all sitting around a table with our scripts and cups of tea and stuff like that. And we all started to talk about what we wanted from this.
I more or less said, “I don’t want my ego to be brought into this film at all. I want to be here for these guys and for them to be there for me and for you there for Joe. And for working with Joe before, he’s certainly there for you.”
And we knew there was a big question mark about the elements. Of course, we imagined how cold it was, but the reality was five times worse. The first week it was -35, -37 degrees [below zero], and you had to be there for each other. You know what I mean?
There was no sharing of trailers. We were put in this caterpillar thing with a cab. And we huddled together, and we cracked jokes, talked about the meaning life and cracked more jokes … So over a period of time, not too long, we were very, very close friends — and still are.
As an actor, what do you to do elevate your performance so it just isn’t about a man fighting off a deadly enemy?
Neeson: I read a bunch of Jack London. “Moby Dick.” “Call of the Wild.” And I just trusted Joe’s words. It was a wonderful script and easy to connect with.
I turn 60 this year, and I just found the emotions that I had for this find this [movie role] came with relative ease, actually. And I was ready to communicate those. And Joe’s script gave me this beautiful vehicle for it.
Carnahan: I hope people come into this film expecting one thing and they get that but they get this other [thing] … There seems to be this great enthusiasm for the movie, which is wonderful, because it could very easily go the other way, if you just had these characters in there that were kind of ciphers: “the naïve one” and “the macho one.” But the way I always viewed the film — and continue to do so — is that the wolves are a facet of and therefore a force of nature, just like a blizzard, just like the river, just like the cliff side.
The animal activists were saying that we were demonizing wolves. The first thing I say is, “Wait until you see the film before you make this kind of hair-trigger assessment of the movie because [your assumption] is incorrect.” I also think that for all of nature’s natural wonder and splendor and beauty, it’s equal parts hostile and merciless and unpredictable.
My brother and I were talking, and he was doing this research on this bear seal. And when the bear seal mates, it violently protects its mate and the children. And when the cubs are old enough to leave, the male immediately tries to kill the female, because he doesn’t want her to re-mate and create competition for his cubs. And my brother is like, “That’s nature: raw and unpredictable.” And I think we have to embrace both.
The wolves are never meant to be anything other than defending. They’re not meant to be aggressors. And the movie ultimately plays out that string …
Where does [John Ottway] wind up at the end? If that doesn’t vindicate and validate those wolves’ behavior then nothing will. But as Liam said earlier, there is that mythic, existentialist quality that I am much more interested in than in advocating the hunting of wolves.
Can you talk about your decision to use life-size puppets as the wolves instead of having them be all computer-generated imagery (CGI)?
Carnahan: I really wanted to move away from [CGI]. The idea of having an actor wrestle with a tennis ball and say, “In six months, it’s going to be a wolf,” just wasn’t going to appeal to me.
Neeson: Just wait for “Wrath of the Titans” for that. Lots of tennis balls.
Carnahan: [He laughs.] Liam can say that, knowing that [“Wrath of the Titans”] is going to be massively successful. But yeah, we did not want to dispense with that [realism]. We would have been in real trouble.
Neeson: I think audiences are so sophisticated now with CGI. You can tell when it’s real and when it’s not.
Carnahan: Nothing would have ruined this film faster than, “Oh, that’s so fake.” It would have knocked you right out of the movie.
What did you learn from your research of wolves?
Carnahan: They are what you’d imagine. They’re pack animals. So it’s not like Fido, where you go, “Roll over. Play dead. Do this.” I mean, we had trouble getting them just to howl.
And I found them to be very binary, that you could get them to go from A to B, and you could get them to do certain things, but I think, beyond that, they were … You could just look at them [and tell] it’s a feral animal. I love dogs, so by extension, I love wolves.
My dog Jake, if I put a wolf pelt over him and had a refrigerator off-camera, I could have gotten him to do more than these wolves. I know him. He would have behaved. [Carnahan and Neeson laugh.] I’m telling you, all he would have to see is the magic cold box for the refrigerator. He’ll do whatever I want him to do. So it was interesting.
Gerry Therrien, the [wolf] trainer, was brilliant, but they really are going to do their own thing. So it was very interesting and frustrating at times, because you really had to steal things. They incorporate very well into the film, but it’s also a lot of smoke and mirrors and a lot of sleight of hand that makes that work.
Neeson: I just watched a couple of documentaries on [wolves].
Joe, what is it about Liam Neeson that makes him perfect for this role in “The Grey”?
Carnahan: His striking good looks. His Irish charm. No, listen, Liam has this great nobility and grace as a man — forget about as an actor.
My wife always says that the reason why she loves Liam is because he can sit down with her after not seeing her and ask about her horses and remember their names. I say the same thing about Liam that I say about a guy like Ray Liotta, which is what makes them great actors: They’re always more interested in you than you are in them. And I think that’s a wonderful quality to have.
Now, when I see Ottway and what Liam did with that [role], I could never conceive of who else could have played this. He’s so thoroughly that guy. And having him first in the door, it also sends a message to the at-large community of actors that, “OK, I get it. This is the kind of movie we’re doing.”
Everybody got into formation early on. And we set the beat and everybody marched to it. And it was great. And [Liam Neeson] being first in was a big part of that.
Joe, can you talk about how you crafted the screenplay for “The Grey”?
Carnahan: I was on “Mission: Impossible 3,” and I was coming to the end of that process. And when I say “the end,” I mean that I was going to quit or they were going to fire me. It was a big movie star [Tom Cruise], big franchise, big movie studio.
And here I get this story from a buddy of mine, this 11-, 12-page short story [“Ghost Walker” by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers] about these guys surviving a plane crash and being hunted by wolves. I thought, “Wow, it’s the complete opposite of what I’m dealing with right now. The simplicity of that really appealed to me.” So that’s where it came from.
And then I just spent the ensuing four or five years developing that script. It was nice to not have a deadline, like, “You owe us this script in 12 weeks,” because the movie wouldn’t have been the movie, and the script wouldn’t have been the script if I’d been under this kind of time constraints.
Liam, what can you say about your role in “The Dark Knight Rises”?
Neeson: I can tell you nothing about “The Dark Knight Rises.” Seriously. I was on set for maybe an hour-and-a-half. The director [Christopher Nolan] didn’t tell me anything about what it was about. I’m being very honest.
Can you compare and contrast your experiences making “Clash of the Titans” and “Wrath of the Titans”?
Neeson: On “Wrath,” Zeus and Hades get a little but more to do. There’s a lot of green screen.
Carnahan: [He says jokingly] There are some titans in that movie, I hear.
Neeson: There’s a few titans.
Carnahan: [He says jokingly I think Batman is in the other one, right?
The last scene in “The Grey” is pretty intense. What can you say about what it was like to do that scene, without giving away any spoilers?
Neeson: It was there in the writing and accessible. Having went through most of the movie at that stage … It was very available.
What can people expect on the DVD/Blu-ray extras for “The Grey”?
Carnahan: In terms of DVD extras, I did shoot a fight. It was the “battle royale,” I guess, between Liam and the [alpha male] wolf. And God bless him, he didn’t hold it against me. I’d drag him around and knock him to the ground for two or three days straight.
But I guess it would have been a bad addendum for that movie to go into that. For me, the emotional climax of that film is the realization of what was the situation with [John Ottway’s] wife and the wallets of those guys. And I thought to do anything beyond that, I felt like it would have been tacked-on.
And I shot a seven-minute across-the-tundra conversation that I made them do about eight or nine times. You’ve got to remember that when you’re moving 300 yards in that snow, you might as well be running half a marathon. It’s that taxing. So we dropped all of that stuff, because I think it became a purely visual thing.
[END OF SPOILER ALERT]
What do you think about the fact that Christian groups are endorsing “The Grey” even though it isn’t a religious movie?
Carnahan: The interesting that’s happened with these Christian groups kind of embracing [“The Grey”], I just think this is testament to whatever the spirituality is, in what I consider to be a completely non-denominational film, if you’re an atheist, you think, “There’s no way [John Ottway] believes in God.” And if you’re a devout Christian, you go, “He 100 percent believes in God.”
I like the duality, especially the Christian groups embracing something that’s got bad language. I think it’s kind of cool … Anytime that gets that debate going, and we’re talking about that stuff, hopefully, we’re creating understanding and who knows? I’m very happy with that. It’s a byproduct I did not expect, but it’s lovely just the same.
Liam, is there’s a rumor going around that you’re in talks to play World Wrestling Entertainment chairman/CEO Vince McMahon in a movie called “Crossface”? Is the rumor true?
Neeson: No. I never heard of [“Crossface”].
Carnahan: [He says to Neeson] Jesus, I can’t see you doing that [movie], dude! Let me “agent” this one. “We’re currently entertaining offers — also to play [Ultimate Fighting Champion president] Dana White at UFC!”
For more info: “The Grey” website
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