If you had any doubts that 2007 was going to be an odd year at the movies, the January release of "Smokin' Aces" should have been a dead giveaway.
Featuring an ensemble cast that ranged from Jeremy Piven and Ryan Reynolds to Alicia Keys and Common, director Joe Carnahan's action/comedy smorgasbord divided critics and audiences alike (see "Alicia Keys Kills — Literally — In Film Debut, 'Smokin' Aces' "). On the eve of the film's DVD release on April 17, the outspoken "Narc" director weighed in on the backlash, plans for an "L.A. Confidential" pseudo-sequel and more.
MTV: "Smokin' Aces" ended up with about $35 million in receipts in the U.S. Are you satisfied?
Joe Carnahan: We did fine. The people I thought would embrace it hated it, and the people I thought would hate it embraced it, which is kind of par for the course. If I saw the film once, I don't know that I'd like it that much. [He laughs.] I say this without an ounce of apology. I love that film and what it is. It's a freak show, and it was designed to be hard to follow at times. "Smokin' Aces" will find its feet, just as "Narc" found its feet.
MTV: With "Narc" you were a huge critical favorite, but that wasn't the case this time. Did the harsh reviews bother you?
Carnahan: Did it sting? Yeah. It always does. Some of these guys like [New York Times critic] A.O. Scott are just out for blood. You have to take it with a grain of salt. The minute I allow a critic's point of view to reshape things, I'm dead. I should just hang it up right then and do community theater. What this experience did teach me is that to some degree, Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie really own the deed to that particular genre now. It's disheartening, but you just can't make a certain kind of film without the inevitable comparisons. I was trying to take these tropes and play with them and twist them. At the end of the day, the exercise was too goofy at times, too intellectual at others. The movie's a radioactive platypus. I wouldn't know what the f--- to do with it either. As for critical reception, what are you going to do? I'm going off to do "White Jazz," a cop film, so everyone should feel comfortable.
MTV: But "White Jazz" is a far cry from "Narc" too. This is a James Ellroy cop flick.
Carnahan: Absolutely. It would be great if I could make a 1950s L.A. cop film without a Tarantino reference. That would be pretty great.
MTV: Where was your head at when you were writing "Smokin' Aces"?
Carnahan: The thing that really influenced me while I was writing it was what we were doing in Iraq. It was this idea that everybody's closing in. It's the grand plan with no exit strategy. There's this brass ring, but what is it really worth? That fascinated me, essentially watching the country be led around by the nose on the strength of a specious rumor — where are the WMDs?
MTV: Were you ever going to make the politics more overt in the film?
Carnahan: No. The minute you have Wolf Blitzer talking in the background, you're politicizing this. It needed to be more of an allegory.
MTV: I know your jettisoned take on "Mission: Impossible III" sounded more politically minded. Did that contribute to its collapse?
Carnahan: It was very geopolitical. The story I was interested in was, you have these companies like Halliburton and Blackwater — it's the Eisenhower proclamation that's been completely realized, the military-industrial complex. I was really excited by it. Kenneth Branagh was going to play a character loosely based on Tim Spicer, this guy who right now is hugely involved in Iraq. He used to run Sandline, which is a private military. Ultimately, I think it was deemed too edgy. The corners weren't rounded off enough.
MTV: At least not for a $150 million movie.
Carnahan: Exactly, man. You've got to make sure the 14-year-olds want to see this flick. That definitely had something to do with us not seeing eye to eye on that story.
MTV: It took you a while to follow up "Narc." There were a lot of high-profile projects like "M:i:III" in play. You could have gone the big-budget route.
Carnahan: I'd rather have the spectacular failure that I have full faith in than do something that if my 9-year-old son directed, it would make a boatload of money. There isn't a day that goes by that I don't say, "I can't believe I get paid to do this." I'm sure there are people who feel the same about my career — "I can't believe people pay him to do that." It is an endless source of enthusiasm and happiness for me, but I also busted my ass. I don't feel like this is something I stumbled into. It's not like I picked up the Wonka golden ticket and showed up at the chocolate factory. This is sweat equity.
MTV: What's the plan for "White Jazz"?
Carnahan: We start shooting in November with George Clooney. Originally my brother and I had written it to be the sequel to "L.A. Confidential," but we've taken some liberties. The Dudley Smith character [played by James Cromwell in "L.A. Confidential"] is alive and well in "White Jazz." You can have him be the villain in one film. I don't know whether you can do it in two films without really tipping your hand.
MTV: Is Guy Pearce's character Ed Exley a part of your story?
Carnahan: Exley was, up until two weeks ago. We were basically required to change his name because now there's an actual "L.A. Confidential 2" apart from our project that's being developed. It puts a bit of a crimp in our plans. But as much as I wanted Guy Pearce to reprise that role, the minute it became something else it opened up casting possibilities.
MTV: And what's the plan for "Killing Pablo," your long-in-the-making story of drug lord Pablo Escobar?
Carnahan: Just before I got on the phone with you, I finished the breakdown. I'm hopefully going to lock up casting Javier [Bardem]. He and I had dinner last week. I've got one other guy who's confirmed who I can't name, and I'm very happy about him, someone who in the last couple of years has blown up. I'm going to do "White Jazz" and jump right into "Pablo."
Check out everything we've got on "Smokin' Aces."
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