INTERVIEW: ‘Boss Level’ writer/director Joe Carnahan
By Sadie Dean • March 29, 2021
'Boss Level' writer/director Joe Carnahan shares his filmmaking journey with Script's Editor, Sadie Dean. Plus, what a writer should focus on when writing action films, his excitement for making movies, why it pays off to put in the time and work hard on your craft, and he sprinkles in some wisdom for writers on writing.
Boss Level is an action-packed sci-fi film from start to finish. But it’s not all explosions and high-octane car chases and fight scenes. There is heart and compassion from Frank Grillo’s character Roy Pulver, and a well-threaded storyline. Oh, and there’s cleverly placed nostalgic video gameplay woven in throughout, thanks to the direction by maestro Joe Carnahan.
Boss Level stars Frank Grillo as a retired special forces soldier who tries to escape a never-ending time loop that results in his death.
I had the pleasure of sharing some hearty laughs and speaking with Joe Carnahan about his journey to becoming a filmmaker, what a writer should focus on when writing action films, his excitement for making movies, why it pays off to put in the time and work hard on your craft. Plus, he sprinkles in some wisdom for writers on writing.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: From start to finish, I was hooked. I definitely lost track of how many times Roy's head gets sliced off.
Joe Carnahan: Someone did it, Sadie, online. Someone made a really cool YouTube video. I think it might be pushing 100. I was kind of shocked when somebody told me. I was like, “Wow, really that much?” [laughs] I never tire of killing Frank [Grillo].
Sadie: [laughs] He’s great at dying. It felt like that every time his head was sliced off, it was very thematically poignant to Roy’s character development. Was that something that was developed in the script?
Joe: [laughs] You know, it’s one of those you know, it's the Gladwell 10,000-hour rule. Do something enough you'll master it. And I think we we need to kind of take Roy from like, kind of careless party boy, you know, with the rest of adolescent adult to an outlet. I could watch, Selina Lo slice his head off a number of ways and laugh hysterically every time. And then it helps to have someone like Michelle Yeoh, and I thought that was important that that a female, teach him how to beat a female. You’re not gonna get that tutelage from a guy, pal. I think there's a lot of things and dramatically, running through that that are kind of little sneaky bits but really, it's ultimately a story about a guy who has got to get his shit together, as a husband, as a father, you know. I didn't want to be kind of overly poignant or feeling like it was artificial which is why I wanted Rio Grillo, his actual son to play his son. I thought it would be an added level of emotional endorsement and veracity that I don't think you could get. I don't care how good you are or the best child actor in the world, we're never gonna look at them the way you look at your own kid. It’s inescapable.
I think there's little things that kind of blend their way through that thematically. Years ago as a filmmaker, I don't know if I would be as good at pulling it off. But I think it works. It's one of those, it’s funny Sadie, it’s one of those movies that happens so often in your career. It's a movie that everything you try to do, it succeeds. That's always a great feeling just to watch when you go out, it just works, you know what I mean? [laughs] Across the board, it just works.
Sadie: From a writing standpoint, taking a Groundhog Day situation and adding time travel and sci-fi elements and action, did you and your writing team see any limitations in your world building, combining all of these different factors?
Joe: No, you know what's funny with this again, I think the sub-genre is always a really interesting one, and I think they've all kind of proven to be reasonably successful films, Edge of Tomorrow to Source Code, even Happy Death Day. There are always people that have kind of a vicarious thrill in these types of scenarios. I think it's mostly what you can rewrite in your own timeline and I think now with the kind of the advent of the multiverse this idea that there's multiple realities. I think it's just more, it's more in the zeitgeist, I think than what it was. This script goes back over a decade. And when I got involved, Tony Scott had just made Deja Vu, and I found that to be a really compelling kind of brick and mortar, look at a time travel – time displacement. I'm not a sci-fi guy. I like you know sci-fi fantasy like Blade Runner, Star Wars. I never thought myself skilled enough in that, although I love Heinlein, and Asimov, Arthur Clarke. You know I love those authors, Robert Heinlein, you know, those are some of my favorite books in that in that genre, but I needed it to kind of be grounded in something I could understand because I'm also not the smartest guy in the room [laughs] I was like I had to have you know, “OK, DNA,” she gets some hair clippings and some blood, she can create the mass to enter this collider and this spindle. I kept it kind of deceptively simple. I thought because I still think the greatest time travel movie of all time is Back to the Future. It's iron airtight in its structure and you can't punch holes in it. And I kind of did a little nod to Zemeckis throughout the top where we pass the coffeemaker - a little nod to him and Bob Gale.
So yeah, I didn't find any limitations. It was really the first time I've ever kind of written a script for an actor. I mean I had written Mission Possible 3 for Tom [Cruise], obviously, that was an established character. I've never done this for an actor where I said, “I'm gonna write this for you,” and I wrote Roy Pulver for Frank. And Frank can tell you that’s him doing his Joe Carnahan impersonation. [laughs] I found that hysterical.
The struggle to get it made was a whole other scenario but the actual writing of the script I found to be a lot of fun. And I think the Borey brothers, Chris and Eddie Borey had done such a brilliant job already structurally, that I didn't need to do a lot. Everything I was doing was kind of going in hedge clipping and reshaping and so on, but what those guys had written initially, was a really entertaining, wonderful script.
Sadie: Writing high concept movies, especially big movies that have big set action pieces, do you focus on the set pieces first, like the big action moments, or do you focus on story first and then add in those set pieces later?
Joe: You know what, it depends. I think on Boss Level, I just focused on telling a really involved ultimately emotionally satisfying story with a unique character. Once I kind of handle that, you know the voice is already built in games. Almost the first five minutes there's a Frogger reference, there's a lot of shots of Roy traveling left to right and kind of side scroller 80s video games. Those were things that we just kind of built in, but the Borey’s had written it was like levels to a video game. His apartment, the car, the diner, the bus, Ventor’s layer, you know, so it was those things they didn't change in the way that I shot them where we can see them but those things are always there.
I did a draft for Uncharted when I was going to direct Uncharted, my draft was very much big set pieces because people that are a fan of that game, expect you to do it – you gotta easily accept that you got to be on par with what they were doing in the game in terms of these kind of outrageous set pieces. So that was a different scenario, until like that voice, “I gotta build this to a big moment,” but I think every writer should always, always, always hold their closest talisman of any script should be what is the emotional outcome? Where is the journey in the outcome of the people you care about? And then reverse engineer it from there. I think it's much easier to care about where they wind up and what their interactions are with people around them, and then you can do anything you want.
Sadie: Going into the editing part of it - editing is such an important factor in storytelling, especially when you get to the final cut. This movie has a very specific rhythm and flow. What's your workflow like working with your editors?
Joe: Well, Kevin Hale is one of my dearest friends, someone I've known for 26 years. He and I started out, he actually hired me [laughs] when I was starting out. Hired me to do promotions at a little TV station out in Sacramento, California and he had the local thing, and I had the Reno affiliate, it was basically the two of us for a long-time doing promotions. So, we kind both graduated State College and we both kind of were hungry and he stayed in that world a while longer and I decided I can't do this anymore. He was always extraordinarily creative and a talented guy. I worked with him on The Grey and then he did The Blacklist, also he just cut Cop Shop for me. We also have this great professional kind of cadence and sensibility and shared the commonality of knowing someone that long, they understand how you think, what your sense of humor is. The scene between Roy and his son on the bench in the park, the first time he cut that, I never touched a frame of that, it was just perfect. So, it is lovely to have someone like that, that gets you. He intuitively apparently knows what I'm going to respond to and it’s the same thing he’s going to respond to or not respond to. So that's the ideal work relationship.
Sadie: What draws you as a director and storyteller to this type of material?
Joe: I think it was one of those things like, I saw the humor, and I think I was a fan of that genre. It was something to kind of move outside of a comfort zone. There's something in combining Groundhog Day and Die Hard [laughs], that was just one of those things. I got a couple of scripts that are in my world that I won't rest until I film in some way shape or form. I just got to make this movie. And that was one, and I was able to check that box next to it.I think again, Sadie, you spend a lot of time - I'm not trying to curate a career so the people in 50 years are talking about me, I don't care. I mean it's like, I'm very much a blue collar when it comes to that stuff. I'm deeply blessed to be in the situation I’m in, because it's never lost the fact that I get to make movies for a living. Given the merit of the roads I could’ve gone down, that would not have been nearly as fun as what I'm doing now, so it's never lost on me. And so, I treat it with respect too, you know, I think you have to. I’m very much about the “Does it make sense right now?” “Is it something I want to do?” “Do I want to spend time with these people and enjoy myself and do something potentially really cool? Absolutely, let’s go do that.” I want the experience.
I always say like on The Grey, I'll spend the rest of my life chasing what it felt like to make that movie, and I hope I experience that again. But it was just a remarkable thing to get. Also, as fraught as it was with financial difficulties, financial chicanery i.e. embezzling, we made it. [laughs] I'm very happy. And who knows, what would have been that movie if we'd had it easier or harder. You can only evaluate where you are at that moment. I'm always approaching it as, “Can we do it? Is it fun to do it? Then let’s push forward.”
Sadie: Having that passion and drive behind it definitely helps. From a director's perspective, what is it about comedians and comedic actors that do so well with dramatic characters?
Joe: You know I've always felt that people that are very funny, have a great grasp on drama, have an idea of dramatic expression, you know. I've been very lucky that when I was a fan of someone like Will Sasso, someone who's generally hysterical as a human being, but also Will is six-foot-five, 320 pounds, absolute mountain of a human being and scary when he wants to be. He just pulled that off, he’s just wonderful. I'm always drawn to that and I think in the combination of all that I just wrote the laugh, I like to laugh, I like to have a good time on set, and people that are funny, I'm always inspired by and they always impress me. So, I think it's that more than anything else. I remember telling Sasso, there’s a scene where he and Mel Gibson have a scene and I told Will, “You’re going to be the only actor in the history of movies in a scene where Mel Gibson is behind you out of focus. Don’t fuck this up.” [laughs]
But again, I think if you can make people laugh, you can make them cry, and you can scare them too, and I've never been let down by that. By that axiom I think it's always kind of held true.
Sadie: Taking a step back, what gave you the itch to become a filmmaker?
Joe: You know what, I was not good looking enough to be movie star, not smart enough to be a stock broker [laughs] so I just thought I should probably focus my mind every part of my life, like a single celled organism on this one thing for survival and I could write. I was writing short stories when I was very young, and just kept doing it. I still think of myself as a writer, first and foremost. I think my brother, who I think is 10 times the writer that I am, he got that same point, and he just made Mosul on Netflix, it’s a fantastic film all shot in Arabic. My brother shot a Western - a SWAT team in Iraq looking for ISIS. He got to a point where he'd written World War Z and Deepwater Horizon, and State of Play, all these big movies, and at some point, you just get tired. I just arrived at the point where the writing needed to be taken to another place for me to be truly kind of, I guess, artistically creatively satisfied.
Sadie: It sounds like filmmaking is kind of a family affair with your siblings too right?
Joe: [laughs] Yeah, it really is. And I've been lucky, my brother and I have written a couple scripts together, they're very, very good. One of them is White Jazz. That's one of those ones I mentioned earlier, I’m just determined to make that film at some point.
Sadie: Since you see yourself as a writer first, what is your writing process like? Do you have a routine?
Joe: You know what, it's funny, I've not written too much in the last six months. I'm trying to come get that kind of, you know, itch, slash panic attack that happens if I'm not writing. I find it so therapeutic and am instantly in a better headspace. But I think I spent so much time on Cop Shop and these other things that I've not given myself I haven't had the opportunity – whatever is going to fire my imagination to really jump in, like I can jump in, but once I go, it takes me one or two days in seclusion before I kind of get it moving. And then it takes me a minute to really shift into that zone that all writers, I think, have to get into that mindset where you can sit and write for extended periods of time. But I find myself pacing, smoking cigars, thinking, walking, which is again I think is a great misnomer the great misunderstanding about the process of writing is that if you’re not sitting at a computer, typing away, you're not writing. You're writing all the time. You're writing when you're in the shower, and you're writing when you’re in your car, you're writing when you're walking your dog, you're writing at all times. I’m never switched off. I think writers would benefit in giving themselves a little bit of cushion, a bit of a reprieve from this notion that if you're not shackled to a word processor or to a computer that you're not working. That's simply not true.
Sadie: I think that's important, especially, I think a lot of us writers are really hard on ourselves when we're not typing away physically at our computer.
Joe: Right, but you are! When you scribble a note down, or making notes on your phone, you know make a little memo – I do it all the time. That's right, that's working. Listen, you also get to a point to where you want it to be efficient. I don't want to spend months and months and months and months and months on a script. I’ve done it. I want to get to a point where I understand the craft enough that I could be efficient and smart. You know what I mean, we all want to do - faster, better, stronger. As artists, what's great about what we do is you don't age like an athlete. You know you're not 35 or 36, you pull your knee out or your rotator cuff tears and that's it for you. You can continue to get great. And you know Raymond Carver didn't publish short stories until he was 52 years old and became one of the most prolific short story writers in American history. So, you can't judge these things based on the metrics, or the systemic kind of other processes. You have to go and say, “I'm doing this.” I know people that pace and just talk into their phone. There are all kinds of processes, they should all be explored, whatever works for you, works for you. You are always writing, and you have to tell yourself, “I am.”
Sadie: I love that. Any future projects in the horizon with you and Frank?
Joe: Frank and I just finished this film called Cop Shop, which is kind of a gene splice between like Don Siegel of Dirty Harry movie and Sergio Leone [laughs] It’s like this weird Western Dirty Harry 70s cop kind of vibe. And it’s Gerard Butler, Frank and this really lovely extraordinarily talented young actress, Alexis Louder. She's just something else.
Sadie: Awesome, I'm looking forward to that one. Any parting advice for budding screenwriters out there?
Joe: I would say, Sadie, don't think that the first script you write is going to be the overnight success. You have to be prepared to write several scripts. Get prepared to get in the trenches on your belly and crawl around and fight and struggle and gouge and punch and do all these types of things. You have to ultimately ask yourself how bad you want it, you know. Narc was the 17th feature length script I had written. Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane, my first movie was the 15th. So, there's a lot of frogs that didn’t turn into princes [laughs] So you have to understand that that's part of the part of your education, part of your enlightenment is doing that work, and suffering those setbacks and understand that not everything you do is going to work, you know.
When I write a script, I put it in a drawer and start the next one. I had one of the most miserable jobs for a year I worked in a cold storage. I would go in at five in the afternoon and come home six in the morning, it was an absolutely miserable, miserable job. I wrote three screenplays in that year. I used that to motivate me to get really busy. So, I think you have to know that you've got to want it, and you've got to want it a lot, and you got to put the time in, and there's no shortcuts. There's no easy way to do it.
I'll leave you with this, I remember when I was a young, I liked to write sketch comedy or at least try to write sketch comedy [laughs] In Living Color sketch, a wonderful sketch comedy show that came out early 90s, I loved that show. My generation of like SNL. I think it was 20 or 21 years old, I wrote, kind of specs and rough sketches for the show and somehow got through the wire, and went all the way to Tamra Davis, who's the producer of the show with Keenen Ivory Wayans. It got all the way to her, and she wrote me this beautiful letter about, “We really love the sketches you did, but Keenan said this kid hasn't paid his dues. This guy hasn't paid his dues.” And at the time I’m going, “What do you mean?” But I understand it now. I hadn't been through the wringer enough. I was like a weird guy, struggling and pushing it to the point where I got it. I thought it was a really interesting way of looking at it, but it was my first kind of introduction to rejection, one on a kind of a high level, at the time this show was massive. But also, as I got older, I understood exactly what he meant. And that, again, not saying that there's no such thing as an overnight success, but that overnight success was probably years in the making. And if you are lucky enough to kind of hit it out of the park the first time, you gotta stay on that theme and that's a tough act to follow, you know, and the work is no less. In fact, I think it gives you more pressure. You just gotta stay on it. And as Frank Grillo said, and I love this, “You gotta work hard at working hard.”
Boss Level is now streaming on Hulu.