Blood, Guts, Bullets, and Unproduced Screenplays: The Real and Incomplete Movies of Joe Carnahan
There’s a box in writer-director Joe Carnahan’s garage labeled “White Jazz materials.” Inside is a complete vision: script, concept art, location photos, casting inspirations — the blueprints for a brooding 1950s crime saga. There were times the White Jazz file approached completion: In 2006, around the release of Carnahan’s run-and-gun action movie Smokin’ Aces, the trades reported that the James Ellroy adaptation, a spiritual sequel to L.A. Confidential, was a go. George Clooney would star. Soon, Carnahan was knee-deep in preproduction. A year later, Clooney abruptly moved on to other projects, leaving the director with a box to put in storage.
Is White Jazz a movie? Technically, no. But there is a finished print, playing regularly on a single screen inside Joe Carnahan’s brain. He has seen White Jazz. He loves White Jazz. He can’t wait for us to see White Jazz. And it’s not the only nonexistent feature to qualify as “a film by Joe Carnahan.” Over his 16-year career, promising concepts have come and gone. A few even made it to theaters in the real world — with Carnahan’s involvement (2011’s The Grey) and without (Mission: Impossible III, from 2006).
A movie’s life begins at conception. In Internetland, titles, concepts, and loglines zip down RSS feeds for imaginations to consume. The pairing of director and material conjures images, expectations. Not everyone is keen on the idea: J.J. Abrams is all about the “mystery box,” a preventive measure that keeps Star Trek and Star Wars magic from leaking out of their anamorphic packages. But for a rambunctious filmmaker like Carnahan, transparency is another story to tell, adding layers to scripts that escape the garage. Proto-versions of a film exist when the first flood of blog posts hits the web. A forthright guy like Carnahan can choose to “direct” the conversation, setting the tone and stirring excitement. Maybe it’s taking to Twitter to update followers on the status of a proposed Death Wish remake, or explaining to an interviewer why his Pablo Escobar biopic, Killing Pablo, may never happen, or berating Hollywood bigwigs for mismanaging The Grey. It’s all on the table for a 21st-century director.
This week, Carnahan’s sixth feature, Stretch — which first trickled into the digital ether in 2012 — becomes a reality. A psychedelic, all-in-one-night thrill-com that human-centipedes Bachelor Party, After Hours, and Holy Motors (that’s a compliment), the film takes an ax to Los Angeles, revealing the city’s oozing morality. On an early-morning phone call, Carnahan revels with sadistic glee in his relationship to L.A. — it drives him nuts, but he can’t get enough. Stretch captures that bizarre relationship. For every film that’s crossed the finished line and every White Jazz that remains entombed in file folders, for every nurturing producer or a-hole money-grabber who altered his course, there’s a “making of” memory.
Those stories are a part of Stretch, too. Carnahan was happy to share a few.
The Early Days, or Joe Carnahan the Writing Machine
Making an independent feature that catches producers’ eyes is not the golden ticket to Hollywood. As a promo editor for a Reno, Nevada, affiliate station,1 Carnahan toiled away on the script for Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane, a hyper-styled, David Mamet–like indie about used-car salesmen. The film, his feature debut, played at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival and earned Carnahan enough gigs to call filmmaking his day job. From there, he thought he’d make the 2002 undercover cop drama Narc. But first, the business had to break him.
“The agency I had been with prior had gifted the [Narc] script to this idiot producer, Gavin Polone. He’s a schmuck,” Carnahan says. “I labored under his stewardship for 10 months. It was such a cavalier thing to do to a piece of material. ‘We owe you one, so without telling the filmmaker, you take this script and do what you want to do with it.’ It was disappointing.”
Carnahan is a bit of a masochist when it comes to the process. He says he could have made a “nice chunk of dough” by selling the script for another director to run with, but he couldn’t let Narc go. To keep his ambition for the stalled project alive, Carnahan became a gun for hire. Warner Bros. executives Jeff Robinov and Mark Canton hired him to write a number of scripts, including Miami (“like Chinatown set in South Beach, very hard-boiled neo-noir”), a film he’d still like to make, and The Surrender of Washington Hansen, a book adaptation about a man at the apex of his senatorial campaign whose murderer brother resurfaces after disappearing years earlier.
Carnahan remembers entering through the gate at Ralph Lauren’s sprawling Colorado ranch and reaching civilization only after driving 20 minutes at 65 mph. It was there, at a writer’s retreat, that he wrote a drama called The Town (before the Ben Affleck film of the same name) and Live Bait, a heist movie set during the nationalization of Cuba’s economy, when Castro seized cash from casinos and threw it into a vault.
“I was paid the whopping sum of $15,000 for both of those scripts,” he says. “I was a madman.” And yet, integrity kept him warding off anything that resembled selling out. He was going to make Narc. “I was such an ‘artiste’ and had to hold out for opportunities. I remember passing on Cold Case, and I remember passing on Quantico, which became Criminal Minds. I should be having this conversation from the back of a 400-foot yacht.”
The Original Mission: Impossible III
In 2002, Tom Cruise had superpowers. He could anoint a film with Hollywood holiness by pointing at it. When Carnahan finally made Narc, it was a $3 million indie on its way to direct-to-video release. Then Cruise saw it, came on board as producer, and turned it into an 800-theater release with an Oscar push from Paramount Pictures. When David Fincher dropped out of developing Mission: Impossible III, Carnahan became the obvious successor, someone who could send 10,000 volts through the stagnant property.
Carnahan wanted the “punk-rock” version of Mission: Impossible, a post–Jason Bourne spy thriller that could 180 away from John Woo’s Mission: Impossible II, which Carnahan considered a “parody of a spy movie.” He wrote a script with Dan Gilroy (writer-director of the upcoming Nightcrawler) that pitted Cruise’s Ethan Hunt against a Timothy McVeigh–like character played by Kenneth Branagh. Carrie-Anne Moss was set for the female lead. In 2004, Scarlett Johansson was telling People she was in the middle of training for the movie. Then, after 15 months of developing the film, Carnahan walked away.
Carnahan wanted to make his movie, an action version of his favorite ’70s paranoia dramas, like Marathon Man. “That version would have been a $50 million version, not the $186 million that it was ultimately budgeted for,” he admits. Mission: Impossible III was Carnahan’s foray into blockbuster filmmaking, but he resisted going “Hollywood big.” Months into development, producers hired [Robert] Towne to rewrite the script. Everyone loved his draft. Carnahan couldn’t wrap his head around it.
“I thought it was bad and uninspiring. I thought it was more of the same from [Mission: Impossible II]. We started having these vocal disagreements about it. Looking back, I should have just shut up and done my thing, but I couldn’t go down that road.” Reflecting on that time, his colleague Kevin De La Noy, an executive producer who worked on The Dark Knight, would say, “I was on the film 52 weeks and we had 52 script pages.” Every time Carnahan thought Mission: Impossible III was inching toward production, it sidestepped into development hell. He says, “When I left that film, there was something like $38 million against it and we had done two camera tests. I didn’t want to spend another year making that film.”
There are still scenes in Mission: Impossible III from Carnahan’s original draft, including the intro in which Keri Russell’s character is rescued and killed. Carnahan doesn’t mind. “It was a great lesson in what to do and what not to do,” he says. “But how can I look back in anger at a process that gave me some of my closest friends? I spent five months in Europe on someone else’s dime, drinking great wine, having these great dinners and conversations.” As he puts it, without Mission: Impossible III, there would be no The A-Team.
“I walked away from that project when Tom Cruise was still the undisputed box-office champion, so, yeah, I was concerned that I would be labeled a ‘problem child.’ I think there was certainly backroom chatter that affected me with the studios. Bless [former 20th Century Fox chairman] Tom Rothman for being more of a madman than me, or I wouldn’t have ever gotten a shot at The A-Team. As a studio head, Rothman is the real deal and was almost apolitical when it came to his dealings with me. If he’s going to stab you, then you’re going to see the knife coming. He doesn’t talk around. He talks right through. That is a nearly extinct quality in today’s Hollywood.”
Remaking Death Wish
Carnahan has a tough-guy reputation, and he’s spent a lot of time thinking about what that even means. Themes of masculinity infest his work, but a particular diptych confronts it dead-on. We’ve seen one: The Grey, a philosophical man-versus-nature drama many boiled down to “Liam Neeson punches wolves.” The other is right up there with White Jazz in terms of passion projects. And it’s a remake.
“[With Death Wish] I just felt that I tied into something about my own fears as a man, and my own false sense of bravado and courage sometimes.” With The Grey, Carnahan aimed to poke holes in the myths of a Jack London type. He believes a modern Death Wish could ask similar questions with even more force. “How strong are you? How tough are you? And what does that matter, at the end of the day? What skills are going to pull you through to the other side?”
In a cultural landscape that seems to be perpetually fighting for gender equality, conversations about the yearning for masculinity may not have a place. But Carnahan says he senses a universal emasculation. He isn’t afraid of making a movie that spawns 1,000 think pieces. “We can’t all be middle of the road. Someone like Cam Newton exists to show us that. There’s physical superiority in the world. These things exist. So I think it touches on all those things, at least for me. It’s a very important piece for me.”
Carnahan admits his writing isn’t for everyone and, at times, is barely for anyone. When Death Wish made the rounds, Matt Damon sent him a “two-page love-letter email” explaining why he couldn’t do it. Damon feared the material would follow him home to his wife and kids, and that he wouldn’t be able to build a “psychic firewall” to keep it out. “And I thought, What a tremendous compliment, but what a tremendous hindrance,” Carnahan says. That’s why Liam Neeson was the perfect lead for Carnahan: He’d go there. “I’ll spend the rest of my life chasing that feeling I had on The Grey, because I think we’re all aware that, first and foremost, we were having an adventure, and we were also making this movie at the same time.”
Death Wish was ready to go in 2012, but a public battle with MGM executives over casting (Carnahan wanted The Grey costar Frank Grillo; the studio wanted Bruce Willis) sent Carnahan walking. He followed the departure with a profanity-laden email to studio president Jonathan Glickman. That was probably the wrong move.
“I’m prepared to grovel,” he says. “I made a very public comment about that whole thing. I have to remind myself not to react. The Irishman in me has to chill and take a beat, and I think I’m going to get that back. I’m really intent on it, and I’m talking to the guys at MGM.” Until then, it’s back to the garage. “I say this with full knowledge that I might whiff and never get this thing back and never be able to realize this movie. … It may show its age. It may be outdated ideas.”
Superheroes, Blockbusters, Spectacles
Six features in, and The A-Team remains Carnahan’s only blockbuster. He’s flirted with big-budget movies: After his mentor Tony Scott died in 2012, Carnahan continued developing one of Scott’s films, Narco Sub, a thriller involving drug-smuggling submarines. It’s a no-go now, though another Scott-related picture, Fox’s Nemesis, could still happen. Based on a Mark Millar comic book about a violent, costumed harbinger of chaos, Nemesis was written by Joe and his brother Matthew Michael Carnahan (World War Z, Lions for Lambs). Scott was originally attached to direct, but the movie become a vehicle for Joe … if Fox ever bites at an R-rated superhero movie.
Carnahan is the Don Draper of selling movies Hollywood thinks it loves. He can craft a mood with a few words and the right visual pairing. There’s no doubt Tom Cruise loved the idea of a punk-rock M:I3, but what studio would bet on that risk?
When investor Peter Chernin’s company came to Carnahan a few years ago, mere weeks before losing the rights to Marvel’s Daredevil, Carnahan conjured up a gritty interpretation that flipped the Ben Affleck–led 2003 film on its head, turning it into a kind of Taxi Driver tale. It was a never-going-to-happen situation that exploded into a wished-it-could-have-happened Internet dream when Carnahan posted his inspirational sizzle reel online:
In theory, Carnahan’s old-fashioned, hard-R sensibilities lend themselves to a post–Christopher Nolan’s Batman world. When they were working on Nemesis, Carnahan and his brother’s approach was all about taking on The Dark Knight. “It’s like what Peckinpah thought he was doing to Bonnie & Clyde with The Wild Bunch — sort of a ‘I’ve got to outdo that.’ I had to take the bar a little higher if we were going to do it.”
The bar went a little too high for Fox. Carnahan says he gave his supervillain protagonist a line that felt a little too much like an indictment of contemporary American society for a major studio blockbuster. Tearing through Washington, D.C., Nemesis was supposed to declare, “We, as this country, want to puff out our chest and declare ourselves the greatest of all time, but this country isn’t Muhammad Ali in 1965; it’s Muhammad Ali right now.” “It was met with deadpan silence,” Carnahan says. He understands why. Without much optimism, he notes that Nemesis is being “redone” at Fox.
Five Against a Bullet, TV, and What Passes in Hollywood
Carnahan is not a CGI guy. He does not want to “rely on CG-ing any robots that turn into jets that turn into semitrucks.” His favorite special-effects shot of the last decade is the planet-impacting ending of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. He knows this slims down his chances of making movies in today’s market — but he’s found other outlets.
Television is a safe haven for Carnahan’s writerly side. After directing and executive producing NBC’s hit drama The Blacklist, he created this season’s State of Affairs. The Katherine Heigl drama puts more life in his voice than any stuck-in-limbo feature script. (Sorry to anyone anticipating Killing Pablo: It’s likely “gone the way of the dodo,” thanks to José Padilha’s Netflix show Narcos.) No, it’s not True Detective or The Knick, but Carnahan says he went wild with design and cinematography, finally flexing his Alan Pakula muscle. And there’s more television to come: He’s rewiring Narc for Paramount TV as a story about an ex-con making it in modern-day Detroit.
If there’s anything that’ll bring Carnahan back to feature films, it’s a producer who actually wants him. These days, that’s Transformers producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura, who handed Carnahan the script for Five Against the Bullet. The original version focused on a Mexican politician who hires five elite bodyguards to protect him during a heated election after his father is murdered by a drug cartel.
“I wasn’t a huge fan of the script until page 95, this twist at the end,” admits Carnahan. But di Bonaventura gave him the perfect mandate: Make it your own. Having reverse-engineered the script, the writer-director says he has a movie about cynics briefly becoming hopeful, then returning to the cynicism. It’s an action movie. But no CGI robots. There are no schmuck producers involved yet — only di Bonaventura, who will spar with Carnahan. “He has a way of being concise. That’s a producer, man. A guy who understands the process. Not a guy who just says, ‘We gotta cut four pages.’ He’ll cut four pages and you won’t know they’re cut.”
Carnahan’s dark comedy Stretch is an entire career snowballed into one colorful hysteria. A struggling actor turned limo driver, Patrick Wilson’s character is a ball of frustration provoked by idiocy and wallowing in self-pity. He’s not a Carnahan proxy, but that demon does live inside the director. Writing the script for Stretch was Carnahan’s hobby between fighting for other projects and 12-hour shooting days — a comedic therapy for dealing with the daily drudgery.
There was also an impetus to scale back his budgets, shoot more like television. Carnahan says he wanted Stretch to be a “market shifter” or “proof of concept” to convince studios it was possible to do a “Hangover-style comedy for one-tenth the price,” much as The Blair Witch Project had done for the horror genre. He teamed with Jason Blum’s Blumhouse Productions, the company behind Sinister and The Purge, to execute the manic script for around $5 million. But Stretch was still a Hollywood movie on some level. And with that came Hollywood problems.
Carnahan’s script made it clear how crazed Stretch was meant to be. Cuts of the film were as acid-trippy as expected. Stretch even breached the necessary “idiotic number” of pleased moviegoers in its test screenings. (Carnahan is not a fan of the process, but that’s life.) And yet aspects still troubled the Blumhouse team. In an early scene, Ed Helms’s character is seen shooting himself in the face. “The studio sees something like that and thinks ‘indie,’” Carnahan says. To “fix” the movie, the studio hired an outsider to edit a new cut.
“It was just dreadful,” the director admits. “I just dug in. Not in a heedless ‘fuck you’ way, but it was like, ‘Guys, you make movies at this price so you can have creative freedom.’” To take back the movie and complete his own cut, Carnahan threw $60,000 of his own money into the pot. Jason Hellmann, who edited The Grey, spent four weeks with the director, cutting the final version of the film.
A younger Carnahan might have exploded over the turn of events. But 2014 Carnahan knows the business. “I mean this in the most complimentary way, but Blumhouse is like an enlightened Troma. It’s a factory, as preoccupied with quantity over quality as any other studio. Their job is to make 10 of something, and if one of them meets the metric with an audience, that’s the one that’ll get the TLC. I understand that. If you shotgun enough paint cans, you’re going to get a Picasso.”
Stretch comes out on digital platforms — not in theaters — today. Carnahan isn’t happy about it, but he understands why. Smokin’ Aces blasted on to 2,800 screens in 2006. There’s no doubt in Carnahan’s mind that today it would be a VOD title. “My hope is that a bunch of people will be embarrassed after the fact that they didn’t do something bigger with [Stretch],” he says, citing the August comedy Let’s Be Cops’s $80 million–plus gross as marketing for less-recognized stars done right. “The end result is everything. I’m proud of what it is.”
So proud that, for Stretch’s low-key release, Carnahan went from implicit to explicit marketer for the film, releasing his own clips on YouTube and jetting them out through Twitter. There’s a welcome recklessness to Carnahan’s strategy. A typical studio movie campaign would inundate the airwaves with market-researched teasers and one-sheets. The director just puts shit online to see what happens. He’s directing Stretch for a second time, telling the story of one low-budget comedy’s quest for visibility and the lunatics who dared to make it in the first place. One raw, behind-the-scenes video plays fly on a wall to Carnahan directing Wilson and Brooklyn Decker in a sex scene. It’s dirty, it’s awkward, it ends with Carnahan screaming, “Great fucking!” It’s Carnahan’s patented transparency as a seduction tactic. If people want a wild movie, it all starts with a wild director.
The Great White Jazz Whale
Carnahan believes we’ll see White Jazz one day. He’s still encouraging us, teasing eager onlookers with mock-ups of Tom Cruise as James Ellroy’s detective antihero David Klein.
White Jazz is another “Carnahan Brothers” joint; the pairing is yet to actually surface onscreen. Carnahan isn’t afraid to sound crass when he says the movie transcends Ellroy. He’ll even go one step further: “The script is better than that book. My brother and I wrote a hell of a script. It took us a long time and we busted our asses.” It’s another script, he says, that scares away talent; it’s physically and mentally demanding. Carnahan never spoke to George Clooney before Clooney stepped away from the project and never heard a straight answer from his producer, Grant Heslov, as to why it didn’t work out. Carnahan can only guess.
“They call [lead character Dave Klein] ‘The Enforcer.’ I said to George[’s people], ‘You’re going to have to build up your neck and almost be like a bull terrier.’ This is not a dig at Clooney at all, but that’s three or four months in the gym, pounding it out to get a very specific look, because you can’t look shredded. That’s not 1958. They were throwing people through windows — that’s how they were building muscle mass.” Where’s Liam Neeson when you need him?
For all the times White Jazz almost happened, a Gangster Squad comes along to kill interest. So White Jazz sits on a shelf, alive only in Carnahan’s flickering mind until someone with money takes a chance. When it does, it’ll be like peering up close at a painting in a museum: We’ll see the brushstrokes, remnants of false starts, the pages of contextual musings to pore through. And it’ll happen, too. Carnahan isn’t a tough guy, but he’s a persistent one.
“Every day, when I go out in my garage, I stare at one of those plastic storage boxes that says ‘White Jazz materials,’ and everything is in there. I just think, You know what? That’s going to come out of the garage one day.”
Matt Patches (@misterpatches) is a writer and reporter in New York whose work has been featured on Vulture, VanityFair.com, and The Hollywood Reporter.