Interview with Joe Carnahan
What was the history of Smokin’ Aces? When did you first come up with the idea?
I wrote the first seeds of it in 1993. I was still in college and was fascinated by Frank Sinatra. There were all these rumors about Sinatra and ties to the mob, so I started thinking ‘What if Sinatra had decided one day to use his power as an entertainer to become a mob boss?’ That was how I constructed Jeremy Piven’s character, Buddy Israel, who was one of those hybrid Vegas-style magician-comedians.
Is it true that you only gave the first 30 pages of the Smokin’ Aces to the producers at Working Title as a bit of a tease?
Absolutely. It was 2002 straight after the Sundance Film Festival where I had Narc and I was considered a bit of a hot property, or whatever. For most of my career I had been cash-strapped. So, that’s what I did. Working Title purchased the first 30 pages right after Sundance and then they patiently waited for the rest.
To write a great script is one thing, but to then recruit such a star-studded cast must have been a dream come true.
It really was. The great thing was the cast was attracted by the script. The script spoke to people enough that they agreed to come on and do so for almost no money. Nobody got paid. This is a USD25 million movie and almost all of it is on the screen. If you had to pay each actor their usual rates, forget about it. You couldn’t do it. It was their willingness to go for the ride. It wasn’t a massive time commitment for them. We shot it over 40 days.
So, when you were pursuing actors to be in Smokin’ Aces, what was your pitch?
The way I always went at everybody, knowing they had a fondness for the script, I said ‘Why don’t you play a role that is totally opposite to what you normally do as an actor?’ Piven and Reynolds are usually very funny, so I said I’d deprive them of that. Alicia is this angelic woman, and I said ‘You’re not going to be like that in this.’ They got it.
Some people might say you took a risk with that approach.
My philosophy is I’d rather die falling and reaching, than go right down the middle and hand cotton candy to everyone.
You must have a great relationship with Ray Liotta after Narc.
Absolutely. Ray read the script and was in. I could have told Ray ‘You play Janitor Number Three’ and he would have agreed to play it.
So Ray was the first actor attached to the project?
Yeah. I was able to build around him. I knew he would have great chemistry with Ryan Reynolds. Then Andy Garcia came onboard and he’s another heavyweight.
Visually, Smokin’ Aces was interesting to watch. How did you come up with the visual look?
I tried to shoot each character in a way that was most befitting them. The Tremor Bros had seen The Matrix 50 times and watched Sergio Leone movies their whole lives, so I shot them in big wide angles, slow motion and people burning. It was big and operatic. Then with Ryan Reynolds, in the scene where he’s trying to revive his partner, it is very still. Every character has a moment in the movie when they show a side to them that’s human. Nobody is this sarcastic apathetic asshole who kills just for the sake of killing.
You said Frank Sinatra influenced you in writing Smokin’ Aces and you also mentioned The Matrix and Sergio Leone. What else inspired you?
Music is such a huge part of my life. It’s a focal point. When I watch Smokin’ Aces, when I see Alicia, I see my love of old R&B, when I see Common it reflects my love of hip hop. I see my love of punk rock in the Tremor Bros and I see my love of Bruce Springsteen in the FBI agents. The most direct ancestor of Smokin’ Aces is the Coen Bros film, Raising Arizona. If you look at the structure of that film, the baby in that movie is Jeremy Piven’s character in mine.
You said you are a big fan of music so it must be nice for you to launch the acting careers of two great musicians in Alicia Keys and Common.
I’m thrilled. The thing that excites me the most and gives me the greatest sense of accomplishment is everyone in the film fits into Smokin’ Aces seamlessly. I don’t think going from music to acting is too big of a transition. They are still songwriters and storytellers so it’s another facet of them being artists. For them to go out and do well and turn in performances so good, it will be an endless joy for me.
And Jeremy Piven, he really bared it all with his performance.
People ask me what my favorite scene is and they expect it to be one of the gun battle scenes, but for me it is when Piven is looking at himself in the mirror and loses a contact lense. He has that moment in the mirror. He has a complete crisis of identity. Jeremy’s ability to have so many gears is amazing. He goes from over the top, mania, to introspective and dour. It was great to cut him off from his considerable gifts as a comedic actor.
How about Andy Garcia? What was it like to have an actor of his caliber who has been in some of the great gangster films like Godfather III and The Untouchables?
Andy is someone who I have never seen have a better relationship with the camera and the way it moves and where he places himself in the frame. It’s not an egotistical thing at all. It’s Andy knowing where to put himself in the frame. You are not aware of it until you see it in dailies. You go ‘Wow, this guy is amazing.’ Andy also had the unenviable task of being the one stiff straight guy in a galaxy of freaks in this film. He was the ballast that kept it together.
Was Andy always happy to play the straight guy?
He knew the importance of it. To get someone like him and Ray in the same movie was amazing.
How did Ryan Reynolds handle playing opposite two greats like Ray Liotta and Andy Garcia? He really seemed to hold his own.
He did so in the most amazing way. Again, it’s like taking the actor out of his comfort zone. I have always thought the funniest guys are also some of the best dramatic actors. Look at Jim Carrey. I think comedy comes from a source of pain. Ryan went for it. He didn’t have any fear. He was going up against Ray Liotta and Andy Garcia so he had to bring his ‘A’ game and he did.
And Ben Affleck. We see him in Smokin’ Aces in a role that we have never seen him in.
Ben understood the gag. Playing this hagged, world-weary guy, he understood the intrinsic humor. Honest to God, I wish I had one person to complain about while making this film, but their support of the film was unconditional.
Why set the film among the casinos of Lake Tahoe? It was an interesting choice.
I grew up near there so I also used to visit it. It has never really been shot before, but it is a really interesting place. You have these giant glass towers of the casino industry built in the beautiful pristine environment. To do it there I thought it hit the right freak strain to do the movie. Lake Tahoe really embraced it too. They got a big kick out of hosting a Hollywood film.
With all of the action scenes in the movie, your crew must have virtually taken over Lake Tahoe for weeks.
The windows you see shattering in the film are actually the casino’s windows shattering. It was great to basically go back to the place to blow it up.
What did you tell the locals and vacationers staying in the hotels and casinos? Did you warn them about the explosions?
We said ‘You’re going to hear loud sounds and gunshots because we’re filming so don’t be alarmed.’
What about the huge, 50-calibre sniper rifle Taraji Henson has to shoot? What kind of sound did it make?
That gun was a monster. When we fired in a hotel room out a window, the sheet rock dust from the roof above on us fell down. We shot fully-loaded blanks and I’m telling you, it unleashed such force you felt it go through your entire body. Taraji shot about 40 rounds and at the end of the day, to say she was punchy, was an understatement. It exerts so much acoustic and sonic force coming off it, it feels like you have been in a fist fight. It was the real deal. That gun is designed to shoot people through tanks and has a range of two miles.