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Interview: Smokin Joe Carnahan

Fans of Narc have been waiting five long years for another Joe Carnahan movie. Smoking Aces is finally here, but almost more interesting are the films he did not make in the years in between. A Walk Among Tombstones died by the wayside and Mission: Impossible III became J.J. Abrams’ feature debut after a mysterious abandonment by Carnahan.

“Well, people in this town don’t like me,” Carnahan joked. “No, I’m kidding there! No, that’s going to go on, somebody’s going to take that literally and be like, ‘This asshole actually said no one likes him.’ No, you know what? I had the fifteen months on Mission: Impossible III, which was a blast really, it was. I did that and then before that I had kind of this abortive process. When I came off of Mission, which is obviously a real incredible kind of learning experience, the things that you pick up, things to do and then more importantly the things you don’t do. I went out of that, I adapted immediately to Mark Bowden’s book, Killing Pablo, which I was obsessed with and remain obsessed with. I mean, listen, when I left Mission: Impossible I thought, that’s it, man. I’ll be directing like, straight to video. So I think there was kind of a period of just re-ramping and you feel like when you’re in a situation like that, that long, it feels like this kind of straight jacket. And I think the first thing you want to do when you get out of a straight jacket is just stretch and move, and that, Smoking Aces is kind of my response to kind of being in a cellar not being able to move for a long period of time. But it’s great because now it feels like things are really rolling and I’m actually glad to be working. And I’m sure my children are glad that I’m working as they have a roof over their head.”

Smokin’ Aces is a crime thriller in which competing hit men come after a mob informant at a Lake Tahoe hotel. Various levels of FBI agent also become involved, with everybody playing a wild, original character.

“What makes the movie either good or bad, or interesting or not interesting, I was really going for shooting characters and editing sequences according to the persona of those particular characters. You know, you look at the Tremor brothers, those guys watched The Matrix fifty times. And they watched Sergio Leone movies. So when I shot them I made them like this kind of like slow motion, and kind of overwrought, and you know, they want to shoot guys who are on fire. But you’re going from that back to Ryan Reynolds trying to resuscitate [his partner] and Taraji Henson in this tearful kind of [moment] so it was a conscious decision knowing that it was going to require an audience to go from first gear to fifth gear without necessarily feeling this big speed change. But at the same time it’s like I’d rather do that than like go right down the middle and play it safe.”

Even the bit parts are insane, like a crazy ADD kid doing karate and slow motion robot mimes. “That was really based on a kid that we grew up with. I’m not going to name him for fear that I’ll get sued. But no, a kid that I grew up with and then my brother. My brother was an admitted freak when he was a kid. Listen, did he get an erection throwing punches at people? No. Was he on Ritalin? No. It was my need to kind of insert some desperate kind of comic relief in there. Also I was like what if this kid is throwing punches and he literally became aroused? That would be either really disturbing or really funny or both. When he’s walking away from Martin Henderson at the end doing that robot shit, that was my brother when we were kids. That’s the kind of annoying stuff he would do when we were kids. I knew people would either go with it or really think it was funny as hell or it would bother the hell out of them and completely polarize people. That’s where that came from.”

The target of the hit is a Vegas magician, played by Jeremy Piven who learned to do all his on camera card tricks. “It’s also the kind of the idea that when they’re in that bathroom, Common and Jeremy, when those characters are in that bathroom having that kind of heart to heart. It’s the idea of this illusion and slide of hand and of what’s real. I always wanted to create this kind of impression that maybe what Jeremy’s character, what Buddy Israel has to offer isn’t really that much. But, he tells him that, ‘but I can make it real.’ I can kind of make it manifest. It’s long enough for me to make this deal and disappear into the horizon. I’m fine with that. There’s an overhead shot of Jeremy where he’s doing that thing where he drops all of those aces. That was him. He went through decks of cards like people go through chewing gum. He was killing every time. I’d always hear him anywhere on set, I mean all the time. He really got proficient. It was a joy and I’d tell him, ‘the reason you have to be proficient is because I’m not going to cut this. You have to so this because I don’t want to fake it.’ It’s a really elaborate con job. I definitely wanted to showcase that stuff.”

When Carnahan screened Smokin’ Aces for press, he welcomed his idol James Ellroy to the screening. “I’m always dreading what Ellroy is going to say. He’s such a nut. I have not spoken to him. It’s funny because James can’t bear to sit still. I think I got him in his outside limit of where he’s actually willing to sit in one place. I think my brother had to coral him a couple of times because they were sitting next to each to other. Like I was saying the other night, no one has had a bigger impact on me creatively, certainly writing wise as Ellroy. So to be able to participate in something like White Jazz is extraordinary knowing that something is very dear and near to James. It obvious has legions of fans to those books and trying to honor that and at the same time knowing there are certain things you need to contemporize and certain things that are not sacred. I have not solicited his opinion. My brother said he really dug it and was mumbling something as he left so I’m sure I’m going to hit him up later for his definitive kind of opinion.”

Smokin’ Aces opens Friday.