Joe Carnahan On Directing 'The Blacklist', Slowing Down His New Film 'Stretch', And His Future In Both Mediums

Posted: Jan 13 2014, 9:51am CST | by , in News

Joe Carnahan on Directing 'The Blacklist', Slowing Down His New Film 'Stretch', and His Future In Both Mediums
Photo Credit: Forbes

With current TV projects like The Blacklist and active film projects like Stretch, it’s hard to believe Joe Carnahan would have any time to speak about his evolving career. But in this exclusive interview, Joe took a moment to not only talk about his thriving career in film and television, but also where each of those systems might be headed in the future, and his own future within them.

So Joe, you’ve done TV pilots in the past – around 2006 you were involved in something called Faceless - but The Blacklist is the first one you’ve done that went to series. You also have the other pilot Those Who Kill, and you’re supposedly attached to a CBS pilot this season. I’m curious: you have high profile films attached to your name: Narc, A-Team, The Grey, you’ve got Stretch upcoming this year, why come to TV?

Carnahan: Because I find it a lot more creatively rewarding, a lot more creatively expedient, and I think the cinemas are jam-packed at the moment, and if you want to do anything even remotely adult or adult themed, your best bet, hands-down, is television. The days of the $25-$35 million drama, theatrically, are dwindling down to zero. So, I find working in television and having the ability to work in television; you know, like, I’m talking to Amy Powell at Paramount about doing Narc as a TV show, and that’s extremely exciting to me.

That sounds awesome.

Yeah. I think the thing is I’ve spent so much time; I equate it to, in film you’re endlessly in the departure lounge, in TV you’re on the plane. That’s kind of the way I feel about it.

That kind of goes into my next question: You have Stretch in post right now, you have a packed schedule, and what my piece in December was about, was film guys are always coming in to do pilots; networks like it because they can get a marketable name on the push when they’re trying to sell the show. But it’s rare you see any of [the feature directors] stay. You, and a select few, have stayed. I’m curious why you opted to not only stay on to direct, but in something I’ve never seen, you also wrote episodes, and you’ve got an episode [of The Blacklist] coming up that you just wrote and didn’t even direct. So I’m curious why you decided to do that.

Well, listen, I really love [Blacklist creator] Jon Bokenkamp and [Blacklist show runner] John Eisendrath and all the guys associated with The Blacklist, [Megan Boone] and [Diego Klattenhoff] and Ryan Eggold and of course the magnificent James Spader, and I just had so much fun working with them. It’s like a jazz ensemble, you pick up the same instruments and you get back to it. And again, the speed and alacrity with which you’re allowed to work in television; episode 1×08, the Anslo Garick episode, I think I wrote that in eight days initially, and did a couple weeks with Spader back-and-forth. From the time I wrote it to the time I shot it and post was eight weeks. That, to me, that kind of mentality is very vital creatively because I like to move. I’ve spent ages putting movies together and they simply; they’re a lot tougher, and it’s a lot harder to get something through the system now that’s not a big genre film, or big superhero film, or a micro-budget horror film. I find that particular landscape incredibly limited.

Staying on that landscape for a moment: it seems what you enjoy doing a lot is teaming up with people that work against the grain. Jon Bokenkamp creates this character that doesn’t fit a “broadcast model,” [Red Reddington] feels like he belongs on cable, but no one’s really praising that character [for being on broadcast television]. Then you have a guy like Jason Blum who you’re working with on Stretch, whose track-record of success would prove he can be trusted to do just about anything he wants. Am I on the right track with that? Do you like teaming up with guys that work against the grain in either medium?

Yeah, I think you’re always looking for a class of innovators and people that kind of see a flaw in a system and they buck it or figure out a way to work around it, and I think the two guys you mentioned have done that. I think also, with what James Spader brings to Reddington, it deviates from even the way that character was initially written on the page. [Red]’s, in large part, a lot of Spader’s invention in terms of the look of Reddington, his demeanor, the way he handles himself, that’s very much James, and I think that also gave it this variance from something that was more run-of-the-mill, whatever that may be network bad guy. Why the show enjoys the level of success it has is because it’s constantly confounding what people’s expectations of what that particular character should be. He’s a rogue, and a criminal, and a scoundrel, and yet people love him.

You always hear about the relationships, be it male or female, where they want the volatility, and they want the person that tells them to [censored] off, and the person that’s difficult to reach. There’s certain people that have a craving for that kind of chaos and turmoil in their lives, and I think Spader as Reddington offers this. You want to rehab him. You want to see the goodness in him. Then when you do, he immediately does something sinister, and you’re back to square one. I think Bokenkamp did a brilliant job of fleshing out this guy and this mindset, and then Spader took it to this whole other place, and I think Jon would acknowledge that as well. I’ve worked with Spader now a couple of times and I find in a rare instance, James does not have bad ideas. He simply does not have bad ideas, and that’s rare and remarkable.

I’ve heard you speak in the past on how you backed into film from an editorial stand-point, which you feel gives you an advantage, and it feels like you’re doing a similar thing with television where you’re backing into from a directorial perspective instead of going into it from the writing perspective. It’s always been said television’s the medium where the writer’s king, but in recent years it’s starting to feel like a clear directorial vision is just as important in building a show regardless of what it is, which is why I think it’s very important you stayed on to direct. Do you feel that way? That as much as you need a very clear writer vision [in television], do you just as much need a directorial vision and a team of people who can help create that show?

I mean, I’m certainly not equating the two; I’m just using this example purely as a corollary. Anthony Yerkovich created Miami Vice. Michael Mann made Miami Vice. You know what I mean? I think it was an absolute combination of the stylistic, and that material being elevated by a great director. I’m not saying I’m Michael Mann; I’m not making that comparison in any way, shape or form. I’m saying, to your argument, there are historical examples of that type of thing happening. Look at J.J. Abrams with LOST. What’s that show like without his directorial contribution? I think [the argument about directorial vision] absolutely has a basis in fact, and often times you get to an even more enlightened state when you have a guy like J.J. producing and a guy like Alfonso Cuarón directing a network show. Now you’re talking about a whole other league of potential story-telling. When I get off the phone with you I’m driving to Paramount to sit down with the guys and talk about the episode [of The Blacklist] I just wrote. This borderline elitism [people] have between the film world and the television world, I think, is just being eroded down purely by virtue of the material and the fact that most feature length screenplays are [censored].

John Landis had this kind of brilliant little article where he said something along the lines of ‘Hollywood’s not interested in the execution of an idea anymore, they’re interested in the execution of a prior idea, something that’s been bulletproofed, and airtight and has shown a modicum of success in the past.’ That’s terrifying and depressing at the same time; that we’re just gonna trudge these well-worn, beaten paths that won’t offer us any kind of glimpse into the next iteration of what cinema can be beyond the technophileness that’s just bigger, better, more immersive, more encompassing. Is there gonna be room for an Alexander Payne film in that world? I sure as [censored] hope so. But based on the current trend, and this Panzer Tank like charge the current world of theatrical releases is on, you know, I don’t know. We’re not allowing for any kind of breakouts anymore because we’re so flooded with six or seven or eight films every Friday night.

In TV, you can carve out a beautiful little niche like Breaking Bad did. Like The Wire did. Like Homeland did. It’s funny, my brother recently got into Homeland and he was talking about Claire Daines’ character basically seducing Damian Lewis’ character, letting him [censored] her to further infiltrate this guys world. You wouldn’t get that note past a studio head on a drama unless you wanted to make that film for $3 million.

You wouldn’t get that note past on broadcast. There was a [pilot] on FOX that tried to do that called The Asset, and it didn’t work there either. So it’s hard to even get that in television sometimes.

But the point is there’s still, within that same format, within the world of television, there’s still room for that, and more importantly, there’s still room for success with something like that. It doesn’t just get rolled by The Avengers on opening weekend and disappear. Look at Google Studios. Look what Amazon’s doing. Look what Netflix’s doing. It’s like, look what Microsoft’s doing with the X-Box channel. You can invent nontraditional platforms. Even with something like Stretch, I think about that. I think about, is the theatrical journey for a film like this becoming more archaic? I don’t know. But it’s a hell of a lot more exciting to consider the ‘what ifs?’ on the television side.

Unless it’s a movie like Gravity or I go see an old movie, I don’t go to [tent-pole films] because I don’t want to worry about some [censored]head texting in front of me. It’s becoming more of a confined experience, and you’ve got now these home theater systems with 65” screens and surround sound, and it’s funny how movies were [modified] to trump television to get people out of their homes. I think television’s now reemerged and subsumed that movie going experience. Although box-office is up, we’re charging 100x the ticket price we were in 1935, you know what I mean? There’s an ability [in television] to do something really unusual, and interesting, and fascinating, which I think is always fun.

You were talking about the Landis piece, which I also read. What it feels like is, television’s still willing to say ‘let’s take a risk on something. The cost is low enough that we can just try something, and if it doesn’t work we know ‘okay, don’t try that again.’’ I feel like you’re seeing that come back a little in film through guys like Blum, where the budgets are kept low enough they have some room to play and still make money. But it definitely feels like [in movies] ‘let’s go big or go home instead of play around with what we do have.’

You mean is that attitude pervasive now?

Yeah, I’m just not seeing any sort of playing. It’s not so much risk taking; it’s trying stuff and seeing what sticks, because that’s what it was in the 70s.

I mean, Merrill, you’re talking about the 30s and the 70s which, in my opinion, are the golden age of cinema, especially in American films. It’d be nice to see some sort of resurgence, renaissance like sea change, but I just don’t see that happening. And also, like anything else, you have to educate an audience and allow them to sit for longer than four seconds without a cut on screen because we have the collective attention span of a mosquito on crack cocaine.

I tried to show the sequence of Omar Sharif coming out of the desert in Lawrence of Arabia to my son. My son’s also a bit of a cinemaphile. He loves Kubrik, and he was shifting around in his chair. It’s like in that scene you have ‘okay, we get it; he’s coming out of the desert, cut three minutes out of it.” You have to be able to educate the audience and allow for them to sit still, and we just don’t have the temperament. We’ve evolved out of that, or devolved depending on your opinion. But we don’t have the patience or mental fortitude to just sit and watch and experience something.

That’s why I’m so glad when a film like Gravity works, when you’ve got an 11-minute, unbroken opening shot. But I think [Alfonso Cuarón]’s very smart to start with something like that because [the audience is] captive. Rarely is somebody going to walk out in the first 10 minutes unless you’re bludgeoning the elderly or doing some despicable thing to a dog. But I think had [the long take] come in the middle of that film, people would start getting itchy. So, the onus is also on us [the filmmakers] to reshape [the landscape]. But I feel we may be too far gone because everybody’s got texting, and an iPhone, and an iPad and this and that, and there’s just a billion things pulling your attention as opposed to what’s on the screen in front of you.

Taking it back to television: you’re jumping back and forth between the mediums at the moment. Do you find leaving Stretch to go work on The Blacklist, or go work on the CBS pilot, do you find it helps you clear your mind and come back to Stretch with a new perspective?

Absolutely, because Stretch is a $5 million film where I have final cut, and there’s no rush. Even if we don’t make our March date, it’s like; it’s just not something that concerns me. I’ve kind of purposefully slowed the process down. There’s not millions and millions and millions of dollars being spent, we’re not leaking money, it’s like ‘alright, let’s just take our time and make sure it’s right.’ That’s the beauty of doing a small movie. You don’t have a summer tent-pole like you had with The A-Team where you’re marching toward a date.

I think often times those things become very arbitrary and wind up working to the detriment of the film. So yeah, [stepping away to work on TV projects] does, it helps a lot. It helps refocus you. I can also sit at my desk in my office and cut that movie, which is like, that level of creative liberty and freedom is unheard of, especially on films where, again, ‘we gotta hit this. Transformers 4 has gotta come out on this date, and that’s the date.’ To not have that pressure swirling around us, that sense of overly urgent ‘we gotta go, we gotta go, we gotta go’ is, I think very freeing.

And on a film like Stretch, those R-rated action/comedies, I’d imagine you want that because [the genre] is a fine line to walk.

Yeah. Yeah, man. I mean, you shoot something in 22 days and you really want to be able to massage it, and go through the footage, and make it something that’s really great. And the film is great. It’s a blast, that movie. But, at the same time, it’s a situation of ‘do I have to let it go right now? Can I try a couple more things? Can I try a couple more ideas? Can I try a couple of,’ as you said, ‘really experiment and see how this works. Let me try this.’ And by the way, in this day and age where we have the DCPs (digital cinema packages), it’s not that expensive. It’s not like going out and striking a 35mm print. I know my friends who are all about the emotion, all about film, but the reality is it’s far less expensive. You can make a DCP, try something, show it to a bunch of people and if it doesn’t work, you’re not out hundreds of thousands of dollars.

As much as I’ve always said, as these things get easier to do, vis-à-vis I can get a Canon 5D or 7D and shoot a remarkable looking film and put together a piece that’s really technically competent, sounds good, looks great, and do so with a camera and my laptop, not everybody’s gonna do it, but like in all things, the cream will still rise to the top. As technology affords us very leisurely ways of achieving these things, it’s important we take advantage when we can. And relax. And breathe. And allow these things to evolve naturally as opposed to building a barn in an hour.

You know, you’re an advocate of television; you’re working in it, you enjoy it because it offers a different thing than films, what I’m wondering is: are you gonna try and make more of an impact in the medium? Are we gonna soon see ‘the next show from creator Joe Carnahan/show runner Joe Carnahan’ as well as still seeing ‘from director Joe Carnahan’ on the silver screen?

Well, for me to go into show running mode, it’s gonna have to be a hell of a project. Now I’m not saying that I don’t have stuff. I’ve got stuff right now that I’m extremely excited about including this thing called The Angeleno that I’m very, very keen on. And also another project I’m doing with Ben Bray, one of my oldest friends, called The NDs which stands for ‘The Non-Descrips.’ I think both those projects are fantastic and very close to my heart, but it’s the same thing. When I can let these things marinate, and let them naturally build, and texture, and flavor, and nuance, why not let that happen? We’re coming into pilot season now and I’m like a kid in a candy store because it’s really exciting. And I’m sure I’m gonna get the scripts in front of me that are very Blacklist reminiscent because I think every other network is now gunning for that show.

With those ratings, how could you not?

Yeah, which is a testament to Bokenkamp, to John Eisendrath, and Spader, and Megan Boone, Diego and Ryan and Harry Lennix, [Parminder Nagra] and everyone that works on that show, they’re just doing it at such a high level. But it’s good to be king in that way. It’s good to be associated with that show. I also understand the incredible good fortune and luck that we had that [The Blacklist] broke out. And the same way with Those Who Kill. I’ve been extremely fortunate in television, and I’m the last guy. The superstitious Irishman in me with always be like ‘well you know, the girl you brought to the dance, this is the one you dance with.’

As I said, I think the right thing, the right project, I would have no problem [stepping into a showrunner role], and I’ll do a Terry Malick and direct [a feature] in 10 years. I don’t conduct my career for when I’m dead and people say nice things about me. I conduct my career for the here and now, and what excites me, and what interests me. The perspective of what it looks like or how it’s perceived by Hollywood, which I could give two [censored] about how this town looks at me, or regards me. Beyond the people I’m working with at the time and the projects that are meaningful to me and the friendships I make through them, the overall perception, I have zero time for it and zero taste for it. Hopefully this isn’t too lame an answer, but I feel never say never is what I would default to.

It’s a fair answer, and I prefer that one over ‘well, I’ll keep directing pilots and maybe directing a few episodes, but film is still where I belong.’ I much prefer the ‘it could go anywhere’ answer.

Well, listen, a buddy of mine said to me ‘hey, remember, you’re a feature director. You’re a feature director.’ And I said to him ‘dude, I’m a filmmaker. That’s what I am.’ Regardless of the medium, be it television or feature or documentary, I’m not gonna distinguish and worry about my particular canon, whatever that means. I’m more interested in enjoying myself, exploring things, experimenting and trying new things, and that, right now, is the dominion of television. And that’s where, to me, really great things are happening. Therefore, that’s where I’ll stay. I’ve got a lot of feature scripts I’m excited about and intrigued by, and if those opportunities arise, then I’ll take that. But I’m not gonna set this dead-head navigation course and say ‘it’s only gonna be this.’ I don’t know what it’s gonna be. I really don’t, and that’s really exciting to me. And that’s what keeps things vibrant and viable and fun.

Source: Forbes

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