A roundtable of journalists recently witnessed
Joe Carnahan and Jeremy Piven having fun and    SMOKIN'  ACES

By Omar P.L. Moore  |
January 15, 2007

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Image:Aceofspades.svg  Joe Carnahan, director of "Smokin' Aces"

"Come on in here, ya bastards!" yells Joe Carnahan -- or something to that effect, as seven journalists stroll into a small suite at the Four Seasons Hotel in downtown San Francisco one balmy afternoon in early January.  The director of "Smokin' Aces", which opened in London on January 12 and opens in the United States and Canada on January 26, has a big smile on his face as he shouts his greeting -- and the greeting is all about affection.  Mr. Carnahan may not take himself too seriously but he certainly takes the craft of filmmaking very seriously.  At the same time however, he is realistic about the medium of film and its constraints.  Joe Carnahan is also without a hint of pretentiousness, a refreshing quality.  "All filmmaking is indulgent," he would say later.  "I don't know what idiot coined that, that suddenly got that minted and printed off.  It's moronic," he would add.  The point of all this is to say that Joe Carnahan, who directed "Narc" in 2002 (Tom Cruise and Paul Wagner executive produced) and was slated to direct Mr. Cruise in "M:i:III" (one of its scenes that he wrote remains in the final cut of the film -- details later) before J.J. Abrams replaced him, is having fun at this very moment -- big fun.  Which naturally makes it very easy for his interviewers to have fun along with him.  As a corollary then, it is easy to imagine that Carnahan's actors had a lot of fun making "Smokin' Aces", and when you see the film you will be able to detect this right away.

And speaking of actors, did we forget Jeremy Piven?  Of course not.  Mr. Piven, who has just received nominations from both the Golden Globe Awards and the Screen Actors Guild Awards, is enjoying some of the best reviews and kudos for his performances of his career of late.  For his role as agent Ari Gold on HBO's television series "Entourage" he netted a Screen Actors Guild nod on January 4.  A stage actor by trade, Jeremy Piven has appeared in such films over the years as "Say Anything", "Judgment Night", and "Grosse Point Blank".  (Recently reports have surfaced about a supposed rift between Mr. Piven and longtime friend and fellow actor John Cusack.)  He's played the good guy, the rogue, the confidante, and all roles in between.  In 2005, Piven appeared on Broadway in Neil LaBute's play "Fat Pig" as the lover of an obese woman (played by Ashlee Atkinson).  Piven's character faces ridicule and taunts from his friends about his girlfriend's size and weight.  When one of the members of the media roundtable queries whether Ashlee Atkinson ("Inside Man") was the woman he starred with, Piven is almost shocked, albeit in a playful way, when he answers the question.  "Yes -- my God, I can't believe that you pulled that out!  That's unbelievable."

Jeremy Piven as Buddy "Aces" Israel in "Smokin' Aces"

                                Outtakes:  We just had to go in an attack Vegas and get the most out of those locations -- Jeremy Piven

You get the feeling that the duo's comedy hi-jinks were a constant on the set as well.  A loud, pronounced knock on the door of the suite brings a "come in, dear!", shout from the director.  The person obliging is a man from the Four Seasons' room service who looks to be in his mid-forties.

Both director and star actor speak with endless excitement and enthusiasm about "Smokin' Aces".  The only thing that stops them -- or at least temporarily stops Jeremy Piven -- from being loquacious, is the salmon dish that has just been brought to him.  He dutifully indulges.  Before that moment he and Carnahan have described the big set pieces of the film.  Carnahan's lead character Buddy (Piven) is constantly shuffling cards from his hands performing magic tricks in the film, while the director in person enjoys demystifying the magic of cinema.  Where many directors guard their filmmaking secrets and sleight-of-hand tricks zealously, Carnahan enjoys ripping the process to shreds.  "I always love, like, undermining the illusion," he says, as he's about to describe one scene early in the film, a scene which he admits was set all on one stage -- Las Vegas entertaining legend Wayne Newton's working stage -- but with different backdrops.  The audience was Wayne Newton's audience that particular night the film crew was shooting.  Carnahan also describes shooting some of "Smokin' Aces" at a "pretty vibrant kind of nightclub" called Pure.  "We didn't have any kind of crowd lock-up at all.  So if you look you can actually see people kind of staring into the camera," Carnahan says.  "We were literally having a bouncer holding people back from entering the club." 

Jeremy Piven talks for a moment about any juxtaposition or parallel between Ari Gold (the character he plays from HBO's "Entourage" television series) and Buddy Israel.  "They're definitely two different beasts, that's for sure."  He continues: "You've got a guy in Israel that is at the top of his game".  Outside that world, Piven says, it is completely different.  "He becomes enamored with the mob and needs something real in his life because everything as he reveals kind of feels like it's a lie and he has to face himself for the first time in his life.  And when you face yourself and you are this tragic person -- that's why I'm an actor -- to be able to explore someone's life like that and the tragedy of someone's life."  I think Ari Gold is a guy surviving in Hollywood, and it's a very cutthroat business, but would never go to those lengths [that Buddy does]."  A clock can be heard chiming loudly in the background.  "Do you see how I can actually focus when the clock is striking whatever-it-is?" 

While Piven's spontaneity brings bouts of laughter from all around the room, he doesn't neglect to mention that he sees comments about him being typecast as Ari Gold as, well . . . gold: "it's such a compliment because anytime you get specific with a character and people are quoting it . . . what a great challenge for me.  And I love that and I welcome it.  I've been doing this for my whole life.  If someone thinks that's all I have in my arsenal then I really, that's a beautiful, wonderful challenge -- that I'm honored to take part in in proving them wrong."  To underline that thought, Piven talked about a screening that he sneaked into where he heard first hand some kind compliments: "I heard someone say, 'wow, I thought Ari Gold was my favorite character, and now it's Buddy Israel.'  And to hear that confirmed is really kind of cool.  And that's the reason why I've kind of laid low and haven't done stuff outside of "Entourage" for -- usually my entire career.  I've done more movies than years I've been alive."  Here, Piven -- a New Yorker by birth, and a midwesterner by upbringing -- adds an irresistible bit of humor: "that's why I'm still single and 200 years old . . . but we'll get to that later."  More laughter.  "I've been saying 'no' for most of my professional life, so when something like "Smokin' Aces" comes around, it's like, 'my God,' you have to do that, no matter what."  Ladies, we are not sure whether Piven is still single -- but we are sure that he's not 200 years old.  (He's only 41.)

Just a few of the director's eccentric or flamboyant characters in "Smokin' Aces", which opens on January 26 in the U.S. and Canada, and already playing in the United Kingdom: (from left to right: Ritalin boy with the headband; lawyer Rip Reed -- leaning over, center; and The Tremor Brothers trio.  All photos in this feature story by Jaimie Trueblood/Universal Pictures, unless otherwise designated)

While Mr. Piven is biting off far more than he can chew with that very tasty salmon dish he's attending to, Joe Carnahan admits that "Smokin' Aces" is derivatively "totally all over the place -- but in a specific way."  The 37-year-old director from Sacramento, California outlined his methodology for the shoot: "what I wanted to do with literally every character is that I basically wanted to either shoot their individual kind of neuroses or psychoses and put it in a realm where I thought, 'that's where their head is'."  Carnahan described hit-man trio characters The Tremor Brothers (played by Chris Pine, Kevin Durand and Maury Sterling) as viewing themselves as "larger than life", and introduced them with tonal cinematic qualities akin to those in a Sergio Leone film.  To the Tremor Brothers "they've seen 'The Matrix' 150 times," explains Carnahan when describing the way the brothers violently engage with their competition or with people who happen to get in their way.  There is an operatic, balletic quality to the action when the three eccentric, flamboyant brothers get going.  And do they ever get going. 

"Smokin' Aces" is violent, yet that is not a surprise.  Watching the trailer hints at that, as does the storyline and the very title of the film.  It's no "Alice In Wonderland".  One only wonders what Mr. Carnahan may have conjured up if he were filming that fairly tale, but the characters in that kind of film might well be like some of those featured in his latest film, as they go in a fairly tale-type way about their business without a care in the world about consequences.  All they care about is getting job number one done -- and that means making sure bullets fly and that at least one of them ends the life of the story's troubled protagonist.  To make a variation on the title of an Oscar-winning song: it's hard out here for a punk (magician).  And when Carnahan speaks of punks, magician Buddy Israel is "very much about mirrors and illusions, and looking through things, having him being fragmented."  He continues: "Martin Whist (production designer) and I always discussed using serrated glass that was sectioned so that he would always be in pieces."  Carnahan's favorite shot in "Smokin' Aces" is of a conversation between hip-hop artist Common, (who plays Sir Ivy, Israel's right-hand man and bodyguard) and Piven at a moment where their onscreen characters have exhausted their relationship.  The scene is shot in such a way that "he's no longer talking to Jeremy, he's talking to Jeremy's reflection in the glass," Carnahan said.

                                                         Outtakes:  We just had to go in an attack Vegas and get the most out of those locations -- Jeremy Piven

Las Vegas was always a fascination for the director when filming "Smokin' Aces" there.  He wanted to remind people he says, that Binion's Horseshoe is "a pretty shady kind of a place."  Binion's Horseshoe, a Vegas gaming establishment owned by Benny Binions, was in its heyday a place where nefarious things would take place, as legend would have it.  In "Smokin' Aces" there is a penultimate moment where Binion's is prominently placed.  In the director's mind the original sin city U.S.A. takes on an enigmatic air, a complexity that is both inviting and repulsing at the same time: "I look at Las Vegas and I see the absolute best of who we are as Americans, and I see the absolute worst in the same city.  I see our ability, when we want to be, to be absolutely hedonistically free . . . and at the same go and get a deep fried Oreo for a dollar up on Fremont Street and realize, 'my God, this is truly the apocalyptic end of western civilization.'" 

Yet for someone as knowledgeable as Carnahan appears about the man-made town, he in fact did not visit Vegas until very recently, at around age 30, he says.

He recalls that "I remember pulling into town with my friend, we're going to see a fight, and I'm rolling the window down and kind of gauging the air the first time there was we were entering the Strip, and I said, 'smell, that -- that's human despair, you know?'  But I love Vegas for all the nebulous things that it is, all the promise and potential of . . . 'man if I just . . . if the dice left my hand in a certain way, a certain angle, a certain way it turned over -- my entire life could change.'  I love that.  I love the idea of the philosophy of the gambler, anyway.  And you see it . . . and that's a theme throughout "Smokin' Aces".  There's a relish in the director's voice, almost a wistfulness as he speaks about the roll of the dice, the luck of the draw.  The suspense of the die and how it they are about to be cast on one's life in a lucky or unlucky roll truly seems to thrill him.  Not surprisingly, this kind of risk-taking, suspense-filled adrenalin, gambler mentality infused itself in the actors, and certainly in their approach to filming.  "I went to actors, and approached guys like Jeremy in particular, who I knew were gamblers . . .who I knew wouldn't [come to me and say], 'you know what, I'd like to be shot here.  The light, it works better from here.  No, that's not really what I want --'. 

Carnahan interrupts his own actor-type voice, reverting to his normal vocal tone and his own gambler's attitude as it pertains to filmmaking.  "Let's go, man.  Let's explore.  Let's take out the pick axes and dig through this thing."  Piven adds his own two cents.  "Or a lot of, 'I don't think my character would do that, Joe.'"  At this point the director drops a substantial hint as to whom in particular he is referring when he says, "I've encountered quite a bit of that, if you can imagine, in other endeavors that didn't quite come to fruition." 

For the last minute or two, Carnahan has unintentionally taken a detour from a reporter's question, but he is heading towards the finish line with an answer.  "That's the thing about Vegas that fascinated me.  [Frank] Sinatra as a icon always fascinated me because I thought [he] was someone of  . . . just [an] unbelievable kind of raw power and sheer charisma, charm, but also a guy who, you know, he liked to be thought of as kind of a tough guy.  He liked to be thought of as a kind of this rough-and-tumble-figure and have him project this kind of air of this kind of you know, dangerous kind of . . . quality.  And I thought at times you kind of read something about him and thought it was kind of laughable, because he's got guys like Jilly Rizzo and these legitimate leg-breakers.  And I think in proximity he was felt like he was . . . but not really.  Once they realized how little pull somebody like him had with the Kennedys, the Giancanas, they kind of backed [away] and they realized, 'wow, this is really a guy kind of playing pretend.  He's really not this kind of . . . world-beater.'  Yet, Sinatra -- at least in my mind -- you look at personalities in the 20th century who are like pivotal . . . he's probably in the top ten -- probably in my top five.  I thought that a guy who could be at times like, unbelievably vicious and ugly was also the same guy -- there's a great story about him and [jazz legend] Sarah Vaughn opening for him at a time when you know, 'you have to eat dinner in the back, you can't be here.'  And her taking her meal back to her room, and Sinatra coming up and saying, 'what are you doing?'  She's like, 'no, I don't want to make a thing, I'm just gonna eat in the other room.'  And he said, 'get your plate.'  And he told this guy, 'if anybody looks her cross-eyed, break their arms.  You're gonna sit down with me and eat.'  And I thought that was wonderful.  So there was that, and then also his voice, which was just so extraordinarily beautiful, and his real, his gift to the world.  It was really that - it was Frank who kind of put me on that path to Buddy."

Binion's Horseshoe, Las Vegas -- circa 1986.  (Photo: Larry D. Moore)

Outtakes:  We just had to go in an attack Vegas and get the most out of those locations -- Jeremy Piven
-- you really push your luck if you start to have these kind of long, drawn-out scenes

 Movie Poster Image for Smokin' Aces     Movie Poster Image for Smokin' Aces
  The film's movie poster.  Several variations of it (such as the one on the right) are on the Internet.  (Universal Pictures)

As has been true for several years with many films released in America and other nations, Carnahan revealed that a director's cut edition of "Smokin' Aces" will make it to DVD at some point in time.  One scene that the director pointed to was where one of The Tremor Brothers accuses his brother "of not being Chinese".  "I couldn't even explain it to you adequately, you'd have to have seen it."  Ever the breaker of film secrets, the director reveals the source of that idea: while in Stockton, California.  "A variation on that very conversation took place in front of me between a kind of a total redneck, and his estranged wife, and I remember having this total moment going, 'my God, if I could ever put that into a movie, I will.'"  At the end of the day, the director admits that the scene "was too damn weird" to make it into the film's final cut. 

Carnahan laments the ways that filmmakers' destinies have been sealed within the Hollywood filmmaking industry.  "What I don't want to do is become the guy that, 'well, you're just gonna do that thing.'  And I think unfortunately a lot of filmmakers are pigeon-holed in that way, that they're not gonna be able to get out of your own wheelhouse, your own power. " As far as how he's grown as a filmmaker, the director responds, "how I've grown is -- I think will ultimately be reflected in the work.  The movie I do next ("Bunny Lake Is Missing") will have no, absolutely no resemblance to this film at all, and that's exciting to me.  As to opposed to just repeating yourself again and again and again."  He adds a hopeful note.  "Hopefully when I'm seventy, if time will still have me, I'll be doing something wonderful with kids, and music and animated . . ."

He has the room cracking up once again.

After "Bunny Lake", which Carnahan called a "simplistic" story which impressed him so much -- the film's script is co-written by Doug Wright (who penned the 2004 Broadway play "I Am My Own Wife", for which he won a Tony Award, and the screenplay for the Geoffrey Rush-Kate Winslet film "Quills" in 2000), the film "White Jazz", which will presumably be followed, the director said, by "Killing Pablo", which he revealed starts with the final hour of Columbian drug lord and gangster Pablo Escobar's life and "cuts back and forth".

       Outtakes:  We just had to go in an attack Vegas and get the most out of those locations -- Jeremy Piven

The director is forever fascinated by moral ambiguity.  "It's this idea that we are only as good as our intentions at that moment.  And if I hand you a machine gun and say, 'go downstairs and wipe out the ballroom or your whole family's dead . . . there's a choice that you're gonna make.  You know what I mean?  Do I do this, or do I do that?  What are the consequences?  And I'm fascinated by that.  Because I think we all traffic in that gray area, a lot more than we I think are willing to openly acknowledge . . . it doesn't make you selfish.  It makes you human.  It makes you real.  And I think that that type, dealing with that type of character, with those types of situations, lend themselves to the kind of criminal world, because I don't believe that anybody is all one thing . .  there's some evil sons-of-bitches in this world, there's no question about it, and there's been some guys that have come through, you know, this existence who've just been nothing but bad and have wrought horrible things.  At the same time, they're not without their private moments." 

The thread of complexity of character weaved itself into Carnahan's prior film "Narc", which starred Ray Liotta in a razor-sharp, ice-cold portrait of a deeply-flawed detective who frames two innocent men for the death of a police colleague in order to avenge it and keep a promise he made to the widow's family.  ("For [Liotta's character] that's an easy call.")  To some degree, the complexity surfaces again in Jeremy Piven's Buddy character in "Smokin' Aces", especially in some noteworthy scenes.  And in the eventual production of "Killing Pablo" the previously-mentioned Carnahan film that will be shot in the future, this dual-theme of criminality and humanity will rise once again.  "You go to the barrio of Pablo Escobar today, the houses he built for the poor, do you think anybody has any bad things to say about Escobar?  Thousands of people, and judges and police officers, and . . . constables he had murdered?  No.  They don't think about that.  They think, 'you know, when I had nothing this guy put a roof on my head.'  That is the inherent kind of paradox that I am fascinated by.  That this was a guy who, when he died, people do miss him.  His mother does a weekly mass and over 2000 people show up every week.  And he's been dead for 16 years, 15 years.  So that to me will always fascinate me."


First photo: Sweet "Georgia" "Brown": Singer-songwriter-Grammy winner Alicia Keys makes her film debut in "Smokin' Aces" as assassin Georgia Sykes, who comes in a similar mold to that of Pam Grier's seminal "Foxy Brown" action film character of the 1970's.  Second photo: Sharice Get Your Gun: Taraji Henson as Sharice Watters, assassin and partner to Georgia, working the biggest gun this side of Texas. 

"Smokin' Aces" has enough characters to fill a sequel, even if -- surprise, surprise -- some of the characters don't survive.  Carnahan has been asked to do a prequel involving The Tremor Brothers characters, and spin-offs as well.  He admits that you could explore these characters "endlessly", and "would never rule anything out", while acknowledging that "it's a fickle business . . . you just don't know from one minute to the next."  Returning to the earlier theme of luck and chance in the roll of a dice, he says, "you always hope for the best."  He said that the set ups of each character were prequels of sorts and he had a "blast" doing that.  He cited the convergence of creative ambition and hardline reality however, when he said, "there's this huge difference between your artistic [motivations] as a writer and what you're gonna say, and then go sit down and say, 'okay I have to direct this.'" 

Carnahan was close to directing "Mission: Impossible III", but he can say that his input was not totally vacated from the final cut of the film directed by J.J. Abrams (creator of both the "Lost" and "Alias" television dramas).

The opening action sequence of "M:i:III" Danny Gilroy and Joe Carnahan wrote that stays in the film's final cut features a 50-caliber gun assault on a building in order to rescue an IMF agent played by Keri Russell.  In "Smokin' Aces" Taraji Henson (who plays assassin Sharice) wields a gun that is twice her size. "It's a gun designed to end people's lives," Carnahan says.  "When she fired that gun endlessly, I can't adequately describe to you the concussive ferocity that that thing unleashes. The kind of sonic force that just moves through your body.  [Taraji] fired it 30 times one day and the weapons expert said that it was the equivalent of her literally being in a full-blown fist-fight -- that's what it did to her body."

For Jeremy Piven, he will next appear in "The Kingdom", which opens in April.  The film recently wrapped up production in Dubai.  "The Kingdom" is co-written by Matthew Carnahan, Joe's brother, who will contribute to "White Jazz" and is reportedly attached as a writer and producer on Robert Redford's film "Lions For Lambs" (Redford, Tom Cruise and Meryl Streep star) -- a film that starts shooting this month.  Getting back to "The Kingdom", Piven co-stars with Academy Award-winning actors Jamie Foxx and Chris Cooper, with Jennifer Garner -- as just a few members of an impressive cast.  "The Kingdom" was directed by actor-director Peter Berg, who also has a small role as an ex-cop in "Smokin' Aces."  (Berg also directed "Friday Night Lights" and appeared in Michael Mann's "Collateral" as a detective.)  Piven will start shooting a new season of the HBO comedy series "Entourage" next month.  He admits that for "Smokin' Aces" he had a tough time adapting to the card choreography his Buddy character does in the film.  "It was not easy for me at all, but that's when . . . you're on to something, when you have to work through it."  He added that "as an actor you get to a certain point where you've gained a certain amount of confidence and you feel like you can handle certain situations -- and I found a new level of fear, because -- wow, okay -- I think .. about how I have to pull two magic tricks off and act at the same time.  So that was one of those moments . . . you're always a student and you always have more to learn.  And that's the one of the great things I've learned about working with these great actors is that they -- the great ones -- are very humble and open and always learning and growing . . .".  The card trick education was "definitely not easy, and very humbling to get to that point [where Piven perfected the tricks]."

Joe Carnahan and Jeremy Piven would probably be great comedians if they wanted to be, as they have spent the better part of an hour laughing, making sarcastic barbs, lightening the atmosphere with endless humor.  It seems however, that the success train in the film industry that both are riding on will not be coming in to a station anytime soon.

"Smokin' Aces" is now playing in London, and comes to the U.S. and Canada on January 26.  During the first quarter of the year "Smokin' Aces" will also open in Russia, Spain, Sweden, Australia, the Netherlands, Belgium, Turkey, Italy and France, among other countriesThe film was written and directed by Joe Carnahan and also stars Andy Garcia, Ben Affleck and Martin Henderson.

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Above photos: Ray Liotta as FBI agent Carruthers; The Tremor Brothers (played by Chris Pine, Kevin Durand and Maury Sterling) mug for the camera during a time-out on the set;
The photos directly above this caption: Ryan Reynolds as the anguished FBI agent Messner in Carnahan's film.  Common Don't Take No Mess: The rap/hip-hop star makes his acting debut on the big screen in the film as Sir Ivy, Buddy Israel's trusted bodyguard.

Story first published on January 15, 2007.

Copyright 2007.  The Popcorn Reel.  All Rights Reserved.




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