The Liam Neeson of old might not have seemed like a whole lot of competition for a pack of wolves. Great actor, sure, but what good would that do against ravenous, drooling, scissor-teethed wild Alaskan wolves? But in recent years, Neeson has demonstrated a different side of his thespian skills. First, he wielded a lightsaber with impressive credibility as one of the few bright spots of The Phantom Menace. As Henri Ducard in Batman Begins, he helped Bruce Wayne become The Dark Knight. And then, in perhaps the most unlikely career turn, Neeson stepped into the shoes of no-nonsense former CIA agent Bryan Mills with Taken to prove he could crack skulls with the best of ‘em. And let us not forget his transformation into the greatest of all Greek Gods, Zeus.
In The Grey, Neeson portrays oil worker Ottway, who boards a plane with his fellow workers only to crash land in the middle of nowhere. Amongst a disparate group of grizzled manly men survivors, Ottway rises to the top of the heap and leads the pack on an often hopeless quest for survival. With temperatures dipping well south of zero, surviving the harsh cold is problem enough. But the group soon discover they have are smack dab in the middle of a massive wolf den. And these beasts of the wild don't take too kindly to intruders. As the men move through the wilderness, they are hunted and picked off one by one, the wolves always watching and waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike for the kill.
Helmed by Joe Carnahan (Narc, The A-Team) and filmed in British Columbia over the course of four months, the production of The Grey itself was not for the faint of heart. I recently spoke with Neeson and Carnahan at the Four Seasons in Los Angeles about the physical preparation required for the harsh conditions of the shoot and how they created this vicious pack of wolves.
After an ill-fated attempt to helm Mission: Impossible 3 and the lighthearted A-Team, writer/director Joe Carnahan sees The Grey as a return to form of sorts, the grittiest, darkest material of his since 2002's Narc. "My friend sent me the short story, which is called Ghost Walkers," says Carnahan. "It was so antithetical to what I was dealing with at the time, which was a big budget flashy spy thing. This was a stripped down survivor story."
Carnahan saw the film as an opportunity to appeal to a wide variety of appetites, from those looking for a raw, emotional thriller to the bloodthirsty crowd who just might be rooting for the wolves. "If you're a traditional fan of horror films, I want you to come in and have a good time," says Carnahan. "I'm not going to exclude anyone that just wants to come in and go for a ride. If you just want to come in and see a kick-ass movie that scares you, you've got it."
The violence of The Grey is brief but realistic, a departure from the more cartoonish gunplay of past works like Smokin' Aces and A-Team. "This movie has much more of a kinship with a film like Narc. I didn't want it to be gratuitous, but I wanted it to be effective. I wanted you to feel when you lost these guys that it was real."
"It's not a chick flick," laughs Neeson of the film's dark nature. The actor wasn't intimidated by the plans to shoot in the frigid temperatures, though it did require some extra prep. "I remember seeing this documentary of this crazy Brit, one of these guys who swims in the Antarctic from iceberg to iceberg. He started his training by standing under freezing cold showers for ten minutes every morning. So I thought, ‘I'll do that.' I got up to seven minutes, to immunize your body for the extreme cold. And it worked. It was minus forty on our first week."
The end result was worth the pain. "There's no CGI for all that weather," says Neeson. "All those storms and the rest of it was absolutely the real deal and you can't fake that. It was really challenging. All you want to do is stay warm."
Some members of the production thought Carnahan might be taking things a bit too far. "I remember the first day we put Liam in the snow and everybody freaking out and saying, ‘You can't do this," Carnahan recalls. "It was cold. I had partial frostbite on the tips of my fingers. At first it was cool and then by the last few weeks you're like, ‘This isn't cool any more.' But I remember putting snow on his face. That's not makeup. He's that cold. I think we earned it, as opposed to going to Glendale and having styrofoam snowflakes like, ‘I'll be in my trailer.' You would've spotted that right from the top."
With visions of terribly CG'd wolves dancing through his mind (Twilight, anyone?) Carnahan knew one thing he couldn't fake was the deadly beasts. Besides having them look realistic in the final cut in the film, Carnahan knew having a physical presence on set would add to the visceral reaction from his cast. He decided on a mix of animatronic wolves, real wolves and a small dose of CG post work to complete the look.
"They were animatronic, puppets, the ones I was working with," says Neeson. "There's very, very little CGI. When something's real, you know it and you experience it as real."
Working with the real wolves turned out to be a trickier endeavor than the director had first suspected. "Getting them to perform was tough," admits Carnahan. "They're pack animals. The wolves are going to do whatever they want. I found that the wolves were very good if you said, ‘You're going from point A to point B, but not if you said, ‘Can you get them to howl?' They're not dogs, they're not domesticated animals."
Rumors of some animal activist groups protesting the film have recently surfaced as The Grey approaches release, which comes a surprise to the director. "If you watch the movie, the wolves do okay," Carnahan says with a smile. "I treated the wolves in this film as a facet of and thereby a force of nature. But I don't think they're any different than the blizzard or the river or the cliffside or anything the guys encounter in this film that is simply nature. And you know what, for all of its beauty, and wolves are extraordinarily beautiful, there is hostility. People say wolves never attack people, but listen I could give you dozens of stories and accounts that are completely contrary to that. For every time an animal behaviorist tells you this is what they do, I'll show you a 400-member super pack in Siberia that tore through 30 horses in two days. So don't tell me that nature is completely benign."
Ultimately, The Grey is about man vs. nature. These men are put to the ultimate test of survival and it isn't very long before they must come to terms with the fact that most of them aren't going to make it. "These guys crash in territorial area they don't belong," says Carnahan. "It's like, if you're in my back yard and you mean me harm, I'm going to get rid of you. And that's really what it's about. They're in the wrong place at the wrong time. If the movie works for you and it scares you, it's because it could really happen. There's not really a supernatural aspect to it. It's not a ghost story. I want to scare you. These are suspenseful, scary, horrific situations."
The Grey opens in theaters nationwide January 27th, 2012.