Joe Carnahan on survivalist films

The director of The Grey chats about a few of his favorite man-vs.-nature flicks.

  • The Grey's Liam Neeson, left, and director Joe Carnahan

  • Dersu Uzala (1975)

  • Touching the Void (2003)

  • Deliverance (1972)

The Grey's Liam Neeson, left, and director Joe Carnahan

"I can relate to the concept of someone feeling lost," says Joe Carnahan, and for a second, the 42-year-old director slows down his amiable, rat-a-tat-tat style of conversing. "After my last movie [the 2010 big-screen adaptation of The A-Team], I felt like: Did I somehow turn into one of those Hollywood assholes? I need to fight my way out of the wilderness and get back to making leaner, meaner movies like Narc (2002), which is really what led me to this project." Carnahan takes a deep breath, then lets out a gruff laugh. "Though I fully admit that my problem isn't remotely comparable to fighting killer wolves in the middle of nowhere."

Not quite, no. But if it took his going through the blockbuster meat grinder to give us The Grey, in which Liam Neeson and a band of cohorts brave the elements after a plane crash in Alaska—and, yes, battle a pack of territorial timber wolves who pick them off one by one—then his Hollywood tour of duty wasn't a complete waste. It's a relentlessly tense thriller (imagine The Thing as penned by Jack London) and the latest entry in a subgenre that pits man against nature at its most extreme: the survivalist film. We asked Mr. Carnahan to chat about his favorite examples of the genre, as well as those that directly influenced The Grey.

Dersu Uzula (1975)

If you want to talk about films in which people have to conquer unforgiving landscapes, you have to give it up for this Akira Kurosawa movie. It's based on a memoir of a Russian explorer and his attempt to chart the Siberian tundra, aided by this native old man who's been living there for ages. There's such a brutality to how Kurosawa presents the outdoors, and yet he's still willing to let the story breathe, to let the movie slowly unfold at its own pace. It was a huge influence on how we did The Grey,in terms of its look and feel.

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The Naked Prey (1966)

Cornel Wilde is a big-game hunter who has to outrun and outwit an African tribe in the wilderness, all without using any weapons. That Wilde also directed it is even more impressive, plus the entire film has almost no dialogue! The way he shoots nature here...he makes the outdoors seem monstrous. And this was back when you could do things like show a bull elephant being slaughtered on film—there's a savagery here that you couldn't get away with now. The whole thing is just fucking amazing!

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Touching the Void (2003)

Kevin MacDonald's movie about a real-life climber who was left for dead in the Peruvian Andes—and made it out alive—isn't a documentary, and it isn't a fictional film. I don't know how you'd classify it, but frankly, I don't care; I just know that I love it. He's made this incredibly powerful meditation on determinism; it's one of the few times I've ever seen the ebb and flow of the human survival instinct captured in a film. You feel like you see this guy will himself back to safety right before your eyes.

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Deliverance (1972)

It's funny, because Deliverance is absolutely a survivalist film in almost every aspect except for location; these guys really aren't that cut off from civilization. But there's a cultural remoteness at work here, which is such an interesting way of treating the genre's conventions. It's still basically "people who are stranded where they don't belong, and have to use their wits and skills to stay alive"—the bread-and-butter of all survivalist movies. The fact that these four river-rafters are only a stone's throw from their everyday, normal world is partially what freaked so many people out back in the '70s. And really, you can't beat this film in terms of having a predatory vibe, which we lifted heavily for The Grey. Hopefully, our movie does for wolves what John Boorman's film did for hillbilly rapists.

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Apocalypto (2006)

Again, it's another tweak on what we think of as a man-vs.-nature movie; this time, you've got a protagonist that's familiar with the terrain he has to travel through. This isn't the typical stranger-in-a-strange-land scenario, like some of the other films I've mentioned. I tried to borrow certain aspects of Apocalypto's style, which manages to be both spare and very blunt: The guy has to get home or else his wife is going to drown in a pit. Period. But you're talking about a hero who has to overcome obstacles in harsh landscape while he's being pursued, so there you go. [Laughs] He's not exactly a novice when it comes to making his way through the jungle, and that twist makes allthe difference.

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