"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
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."
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
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
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.
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)
The film's movie poster. Several
variations of it (such as the one on the right) are on the Internet.
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".
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.
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 countries. The film was written and directed by Joe Carnahan and also
stars Andy Garcia, Ben Affleck and Martin Henderson.
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.
PopcornReel.com. All Rights Reserved.