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April 2014
Issue: June 1, 2010

DIRECTOR'S CHAIR: JOE CARNAHAN - 'THE A-TEAM'

By: Iain Blair
Writer/producer/director Joe Carnahan first established his gritty indie cred with the 1998 release of his debut feature film, Blood Guts, Bullets and Octane. Shot in his spare time and then edited on borrowed equipment at night, Carnahan’s calling card was made on a budget of just $8,000.

For his encore, the well-received Narc, the former freelance sports writer and TV trailer-cutter upped the stakes considerably — and it didn’t hurt that the Paramount release was championed and executive produced by Tom Cruise. Carnahan followed that with another acclaimed feature, Smokin’ Aces, before turning his attention to a $100 million redo of the popular ‘80s TV action-comedy series The A-Team, released this month by Fox.

Here, Carnahan, who at press time was still in post on the film, talks about making The A-Team, which stars Bradley Cooper, Liam Neeson, Sharlto Copley and Quinton Jackson, his love of post, and how a rogue visual effects artist nearly got away with inserting his likeness into one of the summer’s biggest films.

POST: What sort of film did you set out to make?
JOE CARNAHAN: “People love The A-Team, and half the reason I did this was because my Scottish fiancée cajoled me into doing it. But I didn’t want to just transplant the TV show to the big screen. I thought that’d be a disaster because what worked 25 years ago ain’t gonna work now. It’d be akin to Chris Nolan rebooting Batman along the lines of the original campy series.
“I wasn’t a huge fan of the show as a kid, although I was a fan of the culture of the show. Everyone knew who The A-Team was, due to Stephen Cannell creating a really entertaining, fun show. That was my point of departure. I wanted to keep the humor as much as possible, and make it very situational and not punchy, one-line gimmicky. And with such a great cast I felt we had to really push ourselves.”

POST: What were the biggest challenges?
CARNAHAN: “We just didn’t have enough days for the shoot. We shot 73 main unit days, all in Vancouver, because it’s cheaper there than going to Morocco and all the things we’d discussed for locations. We shot some second unit location stuff, but it was down to the budget and what we had to pull off for the money, and you don’t notice [the lack of locations] in the end. It’s like that with a lot of movies. The stuff we really sweat goes largely unnoticed by an audience if your storytelling’s compelling enough.”

POST: Do you like the post process?
CARNAHAN: “I love it, and it’s my favorite part of filmmaking. I’m a writer too, and it’s funny now just how much more post influences what I write, knowing I won’t need this scene or that one. You spend enough time in post and the whole editorial thought process really has a dramatic effect on all the stuff that comes before it — and particularly for me, the actual writing of the script.”

POST: Where did you do the post? How long was the process?
CARNAHAN: “We did it all on the Fox lot. It was about 18 weeks — really fast. Not long enough.”

POST: Tell us about the editing process.
CARNAHAN: “The film is edited by Roger Barton, who did the last Transformers and Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, and Jim May who cut the first Chronicles of Narnia and G.I. Joe. We cut on the lot, right opposite the Newman Stage and just down from Efilm and where they’re doing the DI, so it’s very convenient. They were on the set and started cutting last September and then we worked through until recently. With the huge amount of effects work coming in, and turning shots over — that’s been a little hair-raising at times, but the edit went great.”

POST: How did all the visual effects shots break down between Rhythm & Hues, Hydraulx, Weta, Digital Domain, Soho FX and Giant Studios?
CARNAHAN: “I’d say Rhythm & Hues did the majority of the work, with Weta and Digital Domain coming in a close second. Weta did the C130 sequence for us and worked with nothing but plates, and the work is phenomenal. Rhythm & Hues did the big tank drop, which is the big set piece in the middle, and they did an amazing job as everything’s CG in that.
“What’s great is that years ago, I’d had a bad experience with them, so I was a little skeptical at first, but they really stepped it up. There was just one small wrinkle. The studio wanted to add a shot of the tank before we jump back inside with the cast, but we didn’t have that rendered, so we had to steal an existing shot and reverse it. And as we were in the middle of doing that, we realized that one of the Rhythm & Hues artists had sketched his face into a mountainside — and it was as clear as day! I couldn’t believe it! To say it was ballsy is to do a disservice to the word ballsy. And I was pissed! But they stepped up and took care of it all.”

POST: Did they fire the guy?
CARNAHAN: “No. He got a stern talking to. The kid’s very talented and he did something really stupid and goofy. Unfortunately for them, the only thing he did was remove their ability to extend any of their deadlines (laughs).”

POST: What was that the most difficult effects shot to pull off?
CARNAHAN: “Weta’s dealing with it all right now. It’s all the container ships and dock stuff at the end, which is just huge. Between those shots and the tank drop, it’s a throw up for the hardest thing. The tank was very tricky because, what the hell does a tank look like falling from the sky? Who knows? But you’ll have a pretty good idea when you see the work the R&H boys did.”

POST: How involved are you in pulling all the visual effects together?
CARNAHAN: “Pretty involved. Jaimie Price and Ken Wallace are the two supervisors and I’ve been working the longest with Jaimie on all of this as he’s been with me since we began prepping. Jaimie’s very good at looping me into all of it and getting notes and feedback, so I’m more involved than with any other film I’ve done. I like being involved with all aspects of post. Look, at some point the whole back and forth of visual effects shots can become a bit tedious, but I always remember that great quote — ‘Don’t worry about it, it’s only forever!’ So when you think about it like that, you have no excuse. Whatever it takes, however much time it takes. You’ve got to do it right.”

POST: Tell us about audio post and the mix.
CARNAHAN: “That’s extremely important to me. I’m there for all the pre-dubs and the whole thing, although I try to stay out of the way when they’re mixing individual reels. On Smokin’ Aces I was in there every day on the mix, and the problem is, you lose any objectivity with your ears and it ends up ruining the experience for you. So you need to be able to enjoy the experience without needing to micro-manage every last detail. So I give my mixers pretty detailed notes, and then after they’ve done a pass, my editors go over there and give their notes, and then I give mine, and that seems to work really well, and it keeps you fresh and your judgment fresh.”

POST: How important was the DI?
CARNAHAN: “I think it’s crucial. [DP] Mauro Fiore has shot my stuff for years, and on this one we tried to steer clear of the more obvious things we’ve done on the other movies. We both have a tendency to pump contrast and go darker, but this time out we tried to avoid that so it’s not looking like ‘daytime noir.’ (laughs) We’ve got to have some highlights. I just don’t like ceding any one process to one person. What are they paying you for if you’re not having input and an opinion?”

POST: Did the film turn out the way you hoped?
CARNAHAN: “Better than I hoped! A lot better. You always have modest expectations going into a project like this. The A-Team? Who knows what that means? It could mean a dozen different things to a dozen different people. I feel it really delivers on what it needs to deliver on. It’s a big, fun, entertaining movie. I have no idea what sort of business it’ll do, but I do know that no one’s going to feel ripped off. And if you can do that today given the state of cinema, then you’re doing something right I believe.”

POST: So what is the state of cinema today?
CARNAHAN: “I think this tells you a lot. My brother Matt wrote The Kingdom, State of Play and Lions for Lambs, and now he’s writing a zombie movie for Brad Pitt! (laughs) So there’s an undeniable shift to things that have almost a sell-through, like The A-Team. It’s been 25 years in the zeitgeist and popular culture, and that’s like built-in advertising for a studio. You’d be foolish as a business not to exploit that. That’s what you’re supposed to do. But at the same time, it creates this paradigm shift that continues, because they’re making fewer movies, and they cost a lot more.”

POST: How do you feel about that, given your background in low-budget indie movies?
CARNAHAN: “Listen, it’s a thousand times harder to make a film like this than it is to make a $10,000 film starring your uncle or friends, like my first film. I busted my ass on that film, and on Narc, but this is just a whole other ball game.”

POST: You were all set to direct Mission Impossible 3 a while ago. What happened?
CARNAHAN:  “Tom and I ultimately just had a different approach, and that’s fine. I told him, it’s your name and face on the poster, and you’ve gotta do it the way you want it done.”

POST: What’s next?
CARNAHAN: “I hope to do White Jazz, which is the sequel to LA Confidential. I’ll probably get $12 to do it and that’s fine, that’s the trade-off, I guess. But it doesn’t mean I’m any less fond of The A-Team. I love it! It’s fun and it’s not supposed to be Narc or Smokin’ Aces or any of those kinds of films. Look, the guys I admire, the careers I admire, are the Soderberghs and Ang Lees, and those guys never do the same thing twice. I think that’s the greatest compliment that anyone can pay you as a filmmaker — that you don’t just repeat yourself. And I’m hoping I can stay that course as long as I can and people will have me.”