Liam Neeson stars in the action thriller, THE GREY, a film by Joe Carnahan. Photo Credit: Kimberley French. Picture courtesy Open Road Films. All rights reserved.
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The Grey (2012)
Opened: 01/27/2012 Wide
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Trailer: Click for trailer
Rated: R for for violence/disturbing content including bloody images, and for pervasive language.
In THE GREY, Liam Neeson's character leads an unruly group of oil-rig roughnecks when their plane crashes into the remote Alaskan wilderness. Battling mortal injuries and merciless weather, the survivors have only a few days to escape the icy elements -- and a vicious pack of rogue wolves on the hunt -- before their time runs out.
From the literary classic MOBY DICK to the groundbreaking motion picture JAWS, one of the most enduring popular narratives has centered around the conflict between man and nature. Now comes an engaging new adventure about ordinary men stranded in the wilderness and pitted against impossible conditions and even more nightmarish predators. In THE GREY, set in the frozen mountains of Alaska, a pack of angry, snarling, bloodthirsty wolves are in dogged pursuit of human prey. As they pick off their helpless victims one at a time, the chances of survival for the last men standing become more and more remote.
"This is a hard-core survivalist film," says director and co-writer Joe Carnahan, whose previous hits include NARC and SMOKIN' ACES. In THE GREY, a group of men must fight for their lives against the extreme cold and snow as well as a hungry pack of wolves protecting their den. "If you're afraid of wild animals or plane travel, this movie will put you off for a good, long time."
"The picture crosses numerous genres," says producer Jules Daly. "It's a thriller. It's a horror film. It's a character-driven drama of men struggling to survive." Based on the short story "Ghost Walker" by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, THE GREY marks the second collaboration between Carnahan and international superstar Liam Neeson (TAKEN, STAR WARS EPISODE 1, SCHINDLER'S LIST)), who previously teamed for the 2010 action-comedy THE A-TEAM. Serving as producer and executive producer respectively on THE GREY are Ridley and Tony Scott, who were also behind THE A-TEAM.
"THE GREY triggered something very primal inside of me," says Neeson, who initially heard of the project while conducting a string of press interviews with Carnahan for THE A-TEAM in Berlin and later asked the director about the project over a lively dinner in London. After seeing the script, he quickly signed on for the lead, knowing full well that Carnahan would strive for realism by shooting on location near the sub-artic zone. "When I read the script, I was 57 years old, and the little boy inside me thought it would be great to take on such a demanding role," says Neeson. "I wanted audiences to say 'Wow, how did you guys do that?' At the same time, I was thinking, 'Jeez, can I physically do this?'"
About the Production
THE GREY's storyline fired up Neeson's imagination as well. The film begins at a refinery in Alaska, where crude oil is broken into various elements for commercial use. Workers endure grueling five-week shifts 24/7, then have about two weeks off for vacation. One group of men heading back home encounter a brutal storm, causing the plane to crash in the Alaskan tundra. All on board are killed except for eight survivors who head south toward civilization, pursued by a pack of mysterious, almost mystical wolves practically prehistoric in their size and ferocity.
Neeson portrays John Ottway, a sharpshooter who has been hired by the refinery to keep bears, canines and other wild beasts from attacking oil workers during their shifts.
"Boy, I tell you what," enthuses Carnahan. "In terms of what I thought the film was going to be and what it is now, it would be tough to imagine anybody other than Liam in the role. How this character evolved and later shaped by him as an actor has wildly surpassed my expectations. He was able to bring a deeper, more profound sense of what life and death is about. When talking to younger actors, they didn't understand their own mortality. Liam is nearly sixty and, as vibrant and strong and tough as he is, he understands how we're all on the clock, every one of us. We're all being stalked by time."
Carnahan strongly believes, "There's really no good or evil in the film -- there simply 'is'." He feels these basic thematic concepts of "predators" and "prey" protecting their territories might have been lost on a younger, more naive actor. While appreciating his character's own vulnerability, Neeson also recognizes the duality of his sharpshooter figure -- serving as antagonist as well as protagonist."
"My character has a specific relationship to these wolves," explains Neeson. "He works on the refinery's fence line and his job is to make sure the animals don't approach the men at work. What weighs heavily on Ottway's mind is that, perhaps, the wolves are now coming for revenge."
Carnahan's interest was sparked by a short story by writer Jeffers called "Ghost Walkers" about oil workers hunted by a pack of rogue wolves following a plane crash.
Jeffers crafted a rough screenplay, and Carnahan spent the next four years, on and off, developing the various characters and narrative. "It took a lot of time, but the story sparked my interest in a primal way," says the writer-director. "It mirrors what a man holds dear and important, and I also found that evolving as time went by."
The "survival story" became infused with far more existential questions as the years of rewriting proceeded. "I wanted something that had deeper meaning, something that questioned nature and life and God. The wolves are part of that. They're as omniscient and all powerful as the rivers or the blizzards or anything else they encounter. I wanted to show these men as interlopers, the clash of industry versus the natural world. The centerpiece of the film is definitely these men and their journey. But I also wanted it to be more than just an interesting action film in which the audience knows where it's going."
Bringing the diverse cast on board and making sure they complemented each other was like "putting together a big puzzle," says producer Daly, explaining the director deliberately selected relative unknowns including Frank Grillo, Dallas Roberts, Joe Anderson, Nonso Anozie, Ben Bray, and James Badge Dale to fill out the testosterone-heavy lineup.
If few of those names pop out, there's good reason. The key to casting was finding believable actors who could endure the physical rigors but who weren't easily identifiable. Explains Mulroney, "In most films, if you see a bunch of people getting on a plane and you already recognize six of them, then you already know who's going to survive the movie, and that kind of blows it. So Joe cast the film with really strong, dedicated actors -- some you might have seen before, but not all of them, not yet." Mulroney grew a beard for the role, and wears glasses so he's barely recognizable from his usual screen image.
Grillo, a longtime friend of Carnahan's, portrays sociopathic John Diaz, and the actor even spent a night on Riker's island to prepare for his role. Grillo recalls screening the male bonding epic Deliverance with the rest of the cast early on to help prepare for their performances. "We wanted to see a group of guys who don't really know who they are when faced with dire circumstances," he says. "They're forced to transform. Maybe the hero isn't really so brave by the end of the film. Maybe the bad guy isn't so evil."
Says Carnahan, "I always looked at it in a way that each of these characters is a different facet of Ottway's own personality -- there's the tough guy, the coward, the sensitive one, the husband. I tried to metaphorically set it in that way, but without drawing too much of a line to any one thing. The story asks simply, 'Who are you? How do you want to live? How do you want to die?'"
Shooting in Smithers, British Columbia
Connecting was made easier as the crew gathered on a remote mountain set in Smithers, a small town of 5,500 in British Columbia, Canada about a 12-hour drive north of Vancouver. "There's that great Sir Ernest Shackleton quote about what the ice wants, the ice takes," says Carnahan. "We certainly experienced that on the mountain. We were completely at the mercy of nature's whims, and, as frustrating as it was, I also found it fascinating."
From the get-go, the director insisted on realism, keeping actors hip-deep in snow and facing bracing winds on the mountain slope. "There were icicles on my eyelashes, it was that insane," says Roberts, who portrays Hendricks. "It was the coldest place I'd ever been in my life," says Grillo. "Eighty mph winds, freezing out there for hours. I'd be trying to say a line and my mouth wouldn't move." Says Carnahan, "We got kicked off the mountain three times by complete white-outs. I had partial frostbite on my fingers and toes."
"Absolutely freezing -- it shocked me to my very core," concurs Anozie. Mulroney adds, "All the preparation you do on the script, the reading about airplane wrecks, the research into wolves -- it all goes out the window. Because when you're standing on a mountain and it's 20 below zero with 60 mile an hour winds snowing sideways, none of that matters. You're just being there."
"You know, it's tough to fake cold weather," says Carnahan. "There's a common tool used to create wind on screen called 'the ritter fan.' but when you see some of the windy shots in The Grey, there aren't enough ritter fans in the world that could create that effect of what mother nature did to us up on that mountain. i could have set the script in tahiti with wild boars, but that didn't occur to me. Instead, we were on this godforsaken mountain freezing our asses off. You can't act it, you just have to behave it because it's so damn cold."
Adds producer Daly, "We needed it to be tough on everybody, because we knew that the more the cold affected the actors, the more realistic it would appear on screen."
Says Mulroney, "When I say 'cold,' I mean intensely, painfully, near-frostbite cold. It was excruciatining. Joe conceived of and wrote the movie with that in mind -- man going through the most extreme conditions and harshest environment imaginable. He was determined to make a movie in which the actors truly suffered."
"We got great stuff because of the weather, man, just some beautiful scenery," says stunt coordinator turned actor Ben Bray. "There's nothing that matches that look on a studio set or a soundstage. When audiences see us out there, it's clear that it's not a mock-up, it's not fake, it's not CGI. This is real snow, blowing at 70, 80, 90 miles an hour, and it's pretty gnarly stuff." Adds Joe Anderson, who portrays young oil rigger Todd Flannery, "the snow became its own character."
Conditions were challenging for everyone on the shoot, to say the least. "You could only access the set by snow cat or snowmobile," says Carnahan. "There were no creature comforts out there. No perks." In between shots on the mountain set, from 7:30 in the morning until late in the afternoon, there was no lounging in lavish trailers. Because of the extreme weather conditions, the cast holed up in small tractor boxes and shipping crates to keep warm. The male bonding taking place over those long hours of below-zero temperatures led to some unusual circumstances while shooting.
Perhaps the most memorable incident took place when the gang of actors was literally buried up to their thighs in ice-cold snow, a white-out obscured everyone's vision, and the camera operators faced serious problems with a planned crane shot because the oil needed to move the machinery was frozen solid.
"It was just a physically impossible time during the first few days," Neeson remembers. "We had lines to memorize and our brains were freezing and all we could think about was how to stay warm." During that unbearable moment, hulking British actor Nonso Anozie suddenly launched into a Shakespearian oratory about the elements from Othello in his booming baritone. "He was just so exhilarating and it made us all feel so...right," recalls Neeson. "It reminded us that, yes, it may be minus forty degrees outside but we're actors, damn it, and we're going to get through this scene no matter what. It filled us all with this great warmth, and I'll never forget hearing that man's voice for as long as I live."
But months later the cast and crew recall the extreme weather really as something that bonded their relationships, in some ways reflecting the harsh struggles faced by the fictional characters in the script. Perhaps Bray, who portrays the character Hernandez, put it best when describing the dilemma faced by the cast. "We play the riffraff, the ex-cons, the journeymen, the guys who are just happy to keep a job and get some time off to be with their families. We all seem to be completely opposite but, eventually, we've all got to work together as a team to try and get out. There's this mystery about what is out there. We're in the middle of nowhere. We don't know what's going to happen. All we're trying to do is survive and it's a hell of a challenge. It really is. And it is really, really, really spooky."
"You're completely boned if you can't sell those wolves," insists Carnahan. "We've always said that if we didn't get the wolves right, we don't get the movie right," says producer Daly. Though the director could have taken the conventional route and added all the creatures with computer generated images in post-production, Carnahan smartly used CGI as an adjunct to various other systems, such as giant puppet animatronics and trained live animals.
Carnahan watched hours of nature documentaries, read Shaun Ellis' books on wolf behavior, and learned all he could about the actual creatures. Yet he wanted something more mysterious and fantasy-like. "I wanted it to be realistic, and at the same time I wanted the wolves to be bigger than normal," he explains. "By their nature, wolves are not gigantic animals, yet we found examples of 250-pound wolves that would actually fight with grizzly bears."
Academy Award and Emmy-winning special effects wizard Greg Nicotero served as Creatures Supervisor for the KNB Effects with Mike Fields, Alex Diaz, David Wogh, and Bethamber Hathaway manipulating wolf "puppets." James Paradis coordinated special effects, with more than a dozen assistants working in the effects shop. Gerry Thierien of Action Animals was in charge of overseeing the actual wolves.
"The combination was really the way to go," concludes Daly. "One technique alone probably would not have worked, but together they complement each other." Says actor Dallas Roberts, "We used some amazing puppets that can realistically move and bleed and snarl. It's great because it's not all computer stuff with green screens and ping-pong balls. Instead, there's a wolf actually standing there, breathing heavily just inches from my own face." Agrees Carnahan, "Having the actors interacting with something real was the best way for them to work -- as opposed to saying, 'Okay, here's a tennis ball on a stick. Now just pretend you're wrestling with a gigantic wolf that's trying to kill you.'"
"We've all seen CGI effects, but we wanted something as close as possible to a real wolf," said Neeson. "So we used these huge puppet heads operated by three or four people, we used acrobats dressed in wolf suits, we used other effects and we just cut to them for two or three seconds. In my first direct experience with them, my character was attacked by two wolves, one grabbing my leg and the other getting me under the waist. There were two guys operating these bellows to make it seem as if the wolf was breathing and, you know, it became real for me. Oh my God, it was real."
Carnahan has heard from conservationists who believe that wolves never attack humans, and says his creature creations are different from real life beasts. "While I'm deeply appreciative of the idea that wolves don't attack people, they are still very much wild animals and part of nature. I was never trying to portray wolves as vicious killers. However, they're in the wild and they'll protect what is theirs."
For Academy Award-nominated Neeson, it was the chance to reteam with a solid director and a story touching on extreme emotions that served as the major draws. "On THE A-TEAM I learned about Joe's phenomenal passion and energy, and, on THE GREY, those qualities seem to have doubled," concludes the actor. "He's also a very funny guy, and I think you need a sense of humor because in certain scenes you go into some really dark places. It's all about survival, about keeping your body and soul together, because if the elements don't get you then the wolves most definitely will. When the camera is turned on and you're facing those kinds of incredibly intense situations, that's what real acting is all about."
Or, to quote the great ice explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton once more, "We had seen God in His splendors, heard the text that Nature renders. We had reached the naked soul of man."