Joe Carnahan Takes on the Gamble of <strong><em>Smokin' Aces</em></strong>

Joe Carnahan discusses opening up the movie on DVD, why he doesn't make four-quadrant films, and his next movie White Jazz with George Clooney.

In this day and age of interesting film directors who get some success and then eventually homogenized by the Hollywood system, Joe Carnahan seems poised to be a rebel with a cause. Making accessible films that don't hold your hand (or give you all the answers), this is a director who seems steeped in the same tradition that gave us Sam Peckinpah, Samuel Fuller and William Friedkin.

His latest effort, Smokin' Aces, the story follows an FBI agent (Ryan Reynolds) as he hunts for a Las Vegas stand up comedian named Buddy Israel (Jeremy Piven) who has decided to squeal on the mob. However, before Israel heads off for protective custody, he decides to go to the casinos at Lake Tahoe for one last good time. In the process he draws a crowd of assassins.

If film is a director's medium then would you say DVD has made it even more of one?

Joe Carnahan: I couldn't agree more. I think that's a perfect analogy. It certainly allows for... all those children you've forsaken, there's an orphanage down the street you can pick them up at later. (Laughs) I certainly feel with the rise of DVD that it gives director's a chance to kind of give you everything. With deleted scenes, alternate endings, it really allows the director to kind of fully flesh out everything they wanted to do. Even if there were fleeting thoughts... certainly with Smokin' Aces the "Cowboy Ending" that's on the DVD was the original scripted ending. For me it's a great advantage to having, in the age of the DVD, the ability to be all inclusive, you know?

When you make a film like Smokin' Aces, other than the myriad of things you're thinking about, were you consciously thinking of what you could bring to the DVD?

Joe Carnahan: Yeah, I knew that there was stuff in there that's just not gonna pass muster for the moment, but this was something that on DVD will be beautiful. It lends itself to that format. Allowing it to be something that's almost a standalone. It doesn't have to be a part of the whole but can be something that's valuable to people who are gonna watch that; the fans of that film. As I go into those situations I think that you really, especially in post, the DVD becomes almost more important than theatrical, because you feel, "Okay, this is gonna be where I'm really gonna be able to flex and do a lot of different and interesting things."

With the caliber of actors and the amount of actors you had in the film, did you just let them go or did you want them to stick closely to the script?

Joe Carnahan: The script was kind of thoroughly... in terms of one scene leading into another it was really scripted to be specific. I wanted there to be this adherence to the script but at the same time, I didn't want to rule out, somebody comes up with a great line or a great ad-lib or whatever, I wanted to have the ability to keep that stuff in and not be so rigid that it would discount moments that just arose organically. Those are oftentimes the most pure and spectacular. They're just born in that moment.

You're movies really go for it in terms of action, dialogue, story and characters. They play as experiences and they don't allow the audience to be passive. What do you think is the key that? And, for you, does it all begin with the script?

Joe Carnahan: Yeah, I think it does. I think that there's a kineticism and there's a visceral response that I want to have. I don't think anybody wants that passive experience. That also creates interesting kinds of scenarios because I always knew this, particularly with a film like Smokin' Aces, it would polarize audiences and critics. There would be a degree of people that really loved it and appreciated it, and there would be an equal degree of people that hated it! It was purposely deviating from certain things and trying things that conventional wisdom would say are not wise choices.

To try to do heavy drama against real black humor. Knowing that those gear changes would be very difficult. When I sit down, even with something like Narc, I left it deliberately kind of nebulous at the end of that film. What happens? You're ending it on, did the tape recorder record that whole thing? What's he gonna do with it? I like that ambiguity and that ambivalence that can come from those situations. There's people that don't like it but when I sit down to craft that stuff... I always take the path of most resistance as opposed to the path of least resistance because I think that's where unique things happen. Those are the things that hopefully stick with people long after that movie is over.

Is it that polarization that you mentioned what drove you to tell the story of Smokin' Aces?

Joe Carnahan: Yeah, I knew that it was a risky proposition. Some people say this is a much more mainstream film than Narc and I completely disagree! (Laughs) I think Narc is a much more mainstream film. Smokin' Aces was much more, at least in my mind, experimental. In the way that I was putting it together. In the way that I was allowing the character's journey to kind of play itself out. Knowing that this one is inherently comedic, this one is inherently tragic, this one is inherently dramatic, and knowing that in the end, Ryan Reynold's journey, he never saw the Tremor Bros., he never saw the Karate Kid, he never witnessed Ben Affleck being gunned down.

It's only his experience at the end that I'm following. I knew that they may present a big problem because people aren't going to necessarily groove with that. They're gonna feel like you're making something serious at the end. I get down for those kinds of things. I love those kinds of scenarios. They feel make or break, therefore they feel worth doing. Regardless of the expectations, of the levels of success, or whatever... I love, there's a great song by Blood, Sweat & Tears, "Go Down Gamblin'." (Laughs) I always think of that song, you know? Listen man, that's why you can make a $20 million dollar film and do that. You can't make a $70 million dollar film and do that. The polarization was something that drew me to that, absolutely. It was something I consciously built throughout that script.

Is that a path that you want to continue going down?

Joe Carnahan: Listen, I look at White Jazz and White Jazz to me is not a dissimilar scenario. It's this period film with this decidedly UN-PC cop in L.A. in 1958. In the first ten minutes he kind of cold bloodedly murders this guy and it's George Clooney. So you're subverting all these things that convention says you shouldn't do this, you shouldn't do that. I'd rather fail spectacularly in that regard then do the four quadrant family hit. You know what I mean? I look at some of these films and filmmakers and I say, "That's fun, but it's bullsh*t!" I'd rather someone come out of my movie seething with hatred then I would, "Yeah, whatever. It was okay." At least it's provoking a response.

Even a negative response. Something about that really got to you. I love that. At least it's... at some point it tweaked you in a way that gave you that kind of reaction. That's the P.T. Barnum in everybody; in all filmmakers. I'm gonna do something for you... (laughs) it may not be an enjoyable experience but it's gonna be something. You're gonna feel something. Too often I go to movies now and I don't give a sh*t one way or the other.

What's happening with Killing Pablo?

Joe Carnahan: It looks like we'll start that in June or July of next year; actually start filming that. We've been aggressively, especially over the last few weeks, we finally got a piece of casting that people will find out about here in the coming weeks. I'm really anxious to go, right after White Jazz with Pablo because to me it remains the best thing I've written. I really am angling to make that one happen and get crackin'.

Smokin' Aces shoots up DVD stores everywhere on April 17 from Universal Home Entertainment.

In the meantime click here to play the Smokin' Aces video game where you can try and kill Buddy Israel yourself!!

Dont't forget to also check out: Smokin' Aces