Adam Interviews the Co-Writer/Producer of El Chicano Joe Carnahan. The Superhero film recently made its World Premiere at the 2018 Los Angeles Film Festival.
Our coverage of El Chicano is just beginning. Earlier we had our review of the film that just made its world premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival. We interviewed Writer/Director Ben Hernandez Bray. Today we have an interview with Producer and Co-Writer Joe Carnahan.
Film Fans know Carnahan from directing films like The Grey, Smokin’ Aces, and The A-Team. Carnahan before his career in studio films made his debut with the no-budget Indie Cult Classic Blood, Guts, Bullets, and Octane (which he also co-stars in). He followed up his debut with the Indie Cop Thriller Narc starring Ray Liotta and Jason Patric. In recent years Caranhan has gone back to his indie roots with starting up War Party Films a co-venture with Actor Frank Grillo. War Party has produced Wheelman, the upcoming Carnahan directed Boss Level, and the film we’re talking about right now; El Chicano. Joe was kind enough to give us some time to talk about El Chicano and the upcoming slate from War Party both completed and in development.
Enough from me, let’s get to the interview:
Adam: I told [Ben Hernandez Bray] the only one complaint I had was that I had to watch it on the screener and not on the big screen … after I watched it was I was really happy [to hear] that that it’s [El Chicano] going to be released theatrically because this is a movie that demands theatrical experience.
Joe: I agree brother. I just think it’s interesting because … I heard from this festival that shall remain nameless, literally brother five minutes before I called you, and it’s kind of a, dare I say, for lack of a better word, a white-bred kind of, elitist festival, and that they were concerned that a Latino gangster film, and we had fought about this … I said, “Do you consider The Godfather a mob movie or a movie about family? Because I can tell you what it is to me.”
It’s kind of amazing, the need to quantify, explain this movie because of the immediate, derisive, derogatory labels and tags that are applied to something like this. It’s kind of mind blowing. Something that the movie I made fights against because I think there’s this sense that, well it can only be this thing, and it’s simply not that at all. If anything, it is shot across the bow that everything that’s happening in this country right now, especially with the Hispanic community basically under siege by this idiot administration and everything that’s going on. I said to this guy, “Do you follow me on Twitter?” I’m a fairly politically fiery guy. Why would I just kind of cash in on this kind of populist form of entertainment without there being some underlying, subtextual something there. Yeah, brother, I’m really looking forward to Saturday because I think experiencing it at the ArcLight and that kind of environment is just gonna be mind blowing. I’m really, really fired up.
Adam: Oh yeah, and it’s really interesting that you mention that because one of the things that I wanted to talk with you about was the development of the script and how … it’s so much more than, this superhero movie. It has so many layers.
Joe: Oh yeah brother… Well you see that Adam, that’s so great that you’re seeing kind of the layers that we’re going for and I think again, when you’re looking at … I think it’s as much about identity politics. There’s that quote by FDR in there, about you know, we are all, you and I especially, descended from immigrants and revolutionists. That’s purposely in there, you know what I mean? It’s like the idea that he capitalized American in Mexican-American, and that’s who we are. This is a culture of immigrants, we’re the people that came from other places to build this country. And I think that it is far more the sum of its parts. But again, the moment that made Black Panther for me was when Michael. B. Jordan [as Killmonger], says to T’Challa, “there’s two billion people look just like you and me, you’re gonna keep this from them?” I thought, “What a fucking’ brilliant moment in that movie”, then he’s not such a bad guy is he?
Joe: And the good guy ain’t such a good guy. It’s these really wonderful, kind of understated things that I think El Chicano exists in, and that it’s, and what’s interesting brother it’s like … I’ve said this dude, again in the development of the script, a number of things came to pass, and for me, I had at Sony, a green lit script, a green lit version of Bad Boys 3. In November of 2015, and I will submit to you now and in the future, they will never shoot a better version of that movie that the script I gave them. It was fucking’ dynamite, right? And then to watch it be … To watch it be pulled apart like warm bread was not something I was a big fan of.
Conversely, my best friend [Bray] had just gone through a terrible tragedy, had lost his daughter, at birth, had lost his mom, and I thought to myself time, this franchise [the Bad Boys series] doesn’t need me. It doesn’t need me. It’ll do whatever its gonna do without me … I’ve thrown my best shot, it didn’t land, so this ain’t for me anymore. And also, in a way, I don’t know how to be of use to my friends in that way, I’m not a therapist … But I know how to be of use to him in something he’s been telling me for 10 years, a massively overlooked, undervalued part of the culture, which is Hispanic Filmgoers, ticket buyers, 24% of the people that consume movie tickets in this country. And he’s like, “There’s nothing. There’s nothing for me.” He’s been saying this for years.
Joe: So I think, the confluence of all these things, brother, I just went, “Okay, fuck it. Let’s go and do this.” It was born under the best of signs. Even down to the fact that our first day of shooting last year, was on Ben’s mom’s birthday, after she had passed. It was just, all these kind of interesting things that I thought, “Okay, if we do this for the right reasons, then we cannot fail”. And I’ve said, to everybody, and I’m gonna say it on Saturday night, all that’s at stake here for me, is every fucking’ thing I think I know about the movie business. So, no big deal, shake it off.
But, it was a lot of things, and it was … but I felt like it was always, that story [El Chicano] was always out there calling and trying to … beckoning us, and we finally had the moment in time when we went out and did it.
Adam: Absolutely. I was ruminating on it, after I watched it, and it’s an origin story, but, what I love about it is that it’s an origin story, taken by way of a police procedural. Something I’ve never seen in a superhero movie is taking another genre and using it as an entry point. Marvel talks a good game about it, but El Chicano actually, really did that, it went in and went “You know what?”, and it kind of recalls Narc [Carnahan’s second feature film] in a little bit of a way, for me, and how it was able to take this investigation and make it personal, make it …
Adam: … make it a journey about this man and his relationship with his brother, where it starts in one place and ends in a completely different emotional state.
Joe: Oh yeah brother, they’re on opposite sides of a very distinct, you know, the thin red line, your thin blue line … you know, it’s very Dickensian in that way, “These are the best of times, these are the worst of times.” It’s very theatrical, like the brother was a convict, the brother was a cop. Again brother, we’re not trying to re-invent these tropes, what we’re trying to do is tweak them, and make them interesting, and they, it’s that old adage about give the audience what they want, the way they least expect it, which I love, which I kind of live and die by. So again, these are thing that are, for you, identifiable, you go, “wait a minute, I can piece my way through this, I know what this is,” and that’s important, brother. That it’s not so esoteric, or removed from something that’s a bona-fidable, you go, “Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, I know what this is. It’s a superhero film, or it’s a cop movie.” I had never done a superhero film, but I’ve done cop films, for sure. So I knew that would also have the tendency to ground the action and make it feel very street, which I thought was important.
Adam: Absolutely. From a producer perspective, what was your role in El Chicano? I know that you had worked with Ben at certain points; he talked about you guys developing the script, but when it came to the actual physical production, were you around?
Joe: Oh yeah, I was there every day. I mean I directed the second unit, I was there every day. For better or worse, work of this kind, because we just had 24 days. At some point I said to Ben, “I gotta go make this happen; stunts do this stuff and shoot this bit and shoot that bit”, and that’s what we did. When he had gone off … when I encouraged him to, “Hey, go write this screenplay,” and he did, he wrote a 185 page [script], and by the way, it was much more of a memoir, and he understood that. But there was something he had to kind of exercise; I said “Okay, great, this is fantastic, now we will go write the screenplay”. He was brilliant about letting that happen, and letting me impose my whatever the hell it was on that process. To get it to a place where I thought “Okay, this is, we can go make this, I can go finance this.”
Joe: Which we still barely just did, we still barely did that.
Adam: Ben had talked about the budget, and I was just like, “Get the fuck outta here, it doesn’t look like that [budget],” it looked like a $30 to $50 million movie.
Joe: Yeah dude, it looked like a much more expensive film. We did it for a $6.5 to $7 million, or something, it was nothing.
Adam: Yeah, with a [primarily] unknown cast.
Joe: You know, with George Lopez being the biggest name in the cast.
Adam: The great thing about El Chicano, they may be not known to white audiences, but [to those] in Latino community, some of these guys that you put in, are just, their names, they’re guys that we want [to see].
Adam: I mean you’re talking like Emilio Rivera…
Joe: Dude, we screened at LATC, the Latin Theater Company down in L.A. with Sal Lopez. Sal Lopez, plays El Gallo. Sal Lopez also may be the owner of the greatest head of hair in Hollywood, that man. I am jealous of that hair.
But I walked up to, Marco Rodriguez, who plays Jesus, after the screening, he was shaking. I said, “Are you alright, dude?” He said, “I’ve been doing this 42 years. I’ve never been a part of this. I’ve never seen us on screen like this. I never experienced this.” I’m like, “Then dude,” I got choked up, I’m like, “then I’m doubly pleased that you feel that way.” It was … because at the end of the day, Adam, I’m the gabacho, I’m the guy helping my friend, I’m the guy, and it’s really important, I said to Ben, openly, you know it’s his film, it’s his story, but I said to him, “Let’s not marginalize and make it … as personal as this movie is, dude, we’re also gunning for the fucking rafters, like we’re going after… I think a kid in Tokyo could be El Chicano for Halloween, and so could a kid in Russia … This is not so distinctly Chicano culture that it can’t cross over.
Adam: Oh, no.
Joe: And that’s important. The idea, the inclusive nature of the immigration, it has to be an inclusive movie. I think what we did was, we tipped our hat, necessarily, when we should, to the community, and then we got about the business of making a good film, and that’s what it’s all about.
Adam: Absolutely. It’s not just paying lip service, it’s actually doing what it said it would.
Joe: Exactly, exactly. That’s the most important thing, it’s like, “Listen, don’t talk it, walk it,” and at some point we’re all beholden to that. I got a lot, like I said, I got a lot riding [on the success of El Chicano] … a bunch of us [do], we haven’t taken a dime, we’re betting on what we think it can do, and again, it doesn’t have to be a wildly successful, I just want to get it out there. I feel like if we get it out there, and we get Latinos to get excited about this film, we’re going to be just fine.
Adam: Oh yeah.
Joe: We’ll be just fine. And I have no problem leaning into that core demographic which is what I think the film does, anyway, it’s funny, there was a time, the movie used to run about 14 minutes longer and it was Ben and I kinda knocking heads and Ben going … you know there’s a scene where the mom screams across graveyard, he’s like, “Latinos are gonna love this, dude, I’m telling yah, this is the stuff that’s gonna bring us …”, I said, “Brother, the movie’s called El Chicano, Latinos are gonna love it anyway.”
Adam: It’s true!
Joe: You know what I mean? I want everybody else. Latinos I’m not worried about, they’re gonna show up, it’s called El Chicano, we got’em.
Adam: A badass Mexican, that’s kicking’ ass, and like a hero, like a true hero, and you’re gonna get …
Joe: Brother, what’s going on right now in those fucking detention centers and all that shit? All this … to be able to have a character like this, and have, “Oh, he’s a vigilante”, it’s like, “No he’s not.” This guy’s doing …. crime fighting, he’s Batman.
It’s funny, because at the beginning of the movie, there’s this moment, and we had this big discussion when Emilio Rivera is killed. The two boys, the young Diego and Pedro, witness this, I said to Mitch Lee, our composer, just a brilliant guy. I said, “Guys listen, right there, on this kind of really lovely push-in, El Chicano on a motorcycle, we gotta play the hero’s theme, because what you’re saying right there musically, is, this is the right thing to do boys, I’m not a murderer”, you know what I mean? It’s like, you gotta remind people who this guy is, he’s the avenger, he’s not this brutal street assassin … there’s a reason why he’s doing this, and I think, once you get into lore, the nomenclature who El Chicano is, it becomes really fascinating …
Adam: This is your second, I think it’s your second film through War Party, and …
Joe: Yeah. We just finished our fourth, which is great.
Adam: You guys are just banging them out, man.
Joe: We wanna keep it goin’, you know?
Adam: Absolutely. What I’ve noticed is, you guys have had a very distinct, and I mean this is a compliment, a very distinct personality when it comes to your films. It’s elevated drama. It’s hard-hitting, and it reminds me a lot of, the spirit of Tony Scott.
Joe: Oh, I love that brother. That’s high compliment, that’s high praise, I appreciate that.
That was my guy. I had offices RSA [RSA is/was the production company for Ridley and Tony Scott] for, almost 12 years, and I left. A lot of it had to do with Tony leaving, it was … I lost my benefactor, I lost, my crazy uncle that I … you know, there’s a great [story], when I made The Grey; I was fighting, like cats and dogs with the finance company, the bond company, some of the money people.
I was just, really at wit’s end. I got a phone call, and I missed it, and I wish I’d saved it, man, but the message, I must have listened to this message, I must have played this message to people 50 times. It was Tony. He had a very distinctive gruff British accent, he calls, “Hey, Joe, eh, mate. Movie’s great, It’s great, fuck’em. Kill.” It was great, dude. It was the best. So, that you said that, it is very touching to me, that means a lot, because that was my guy. That was my guy, was Tony.
Adam: You can tell, there’s this certain kind of filmmaker that I think that we’ve gotten away from. Like you and Frank, and now Ben coming in to the fold with things, and hopefully, I’m super excited by your guy’s remake of Point Blank, by the way. Lynch [writer director Joe Lynch of Mayhem and Evelyn] being involved with that,
Joe: Oh yeah, Joe, shot a hell of a film, wait ’till you see this.
Adam: It’s the one that I’m like, “Okay, I love the original”, I want to see what happens with the remake.
Joe: I mean, dare I say it’s gonna be great, it’s gonna be, it’s Mackie [Anthony Mackie] and Grillo [Frank Grillo] …
Adam: [With] War Party, is there a specific creative understanding that you and Frank have, as you guys are moving forward with War Party, because it’s like you guys are a fucking freight train …
Joe: No, no, you know what it is, if anything, it elevated genre, is what it is. And I think that’s our battle cry. That’s call to arms, is that kind of elevated, but recognizable genre. Listen, we’re never gonna do the mom and daughter, coming of age story, road trip, you know. That’s not gonna be our jam.
Joe: But, and that’s not to say there is anything wrong with those films, I quite love those film. Gavin O’Connor’s Tumbleweeds, is a fantastic version of that movie, but, that’s not us. We’re very much like … there’s a script right now called Wildfire that I’m very, very intrigued by, we’re working on with some friends of mine. It’s kind of a female Rambo, and the girl literally says only one word the entire movie.
Adam: Oh man, oh.
Joe: It’s that kind of stuff that’s exciting to me, and The Raid.
Joe: Stuff like that, you know, that I can wrap my head around. But we’ve got … a horror film that we’re working on that’s really, really cool. Female-centric … horror action film. So yeah, it’s that kind of stuff. It’s just, but it’s identifiable, and it’s, when you see Boss Level, brother you’ll see, this movie exists somewhere between Smoke and Aces and The Grey, which it sounds crazy to say, but it’s true.
Adam: No …
Joe: And it works.
Adam: I can totally see that. As soon as I saw the description, as soon as I saw the cast coming together, it was like, “Whoa.”
Adam: This is like Joe going for it.
Joe: Oh yeah, dude. Juan Miastros, the D.P., I showed him the film. And he had the greatest thing to say about Boss Level, he said, “Dude, that movie is funny as shit until it’s not. And then it’s even better.” Which I thought was beautiful. A beautiful way of looking at that movie.
Adam: And I was going to ask you about Boss Level, because as I understand it, you’re right in the middle of editing, correct? Or have you finished editing?
Joe: We’re done. I’m in my … next week I’m going into my 10th week of the director’s cut, I’m …
Adam: Oh whoa…
Joe: I’m ostensibly locked, I mean I’ll be locked in another two weeks.
Adam: Oh wow, okay.
Adam: Are you guys looking forward to releasing Boss Level, like, El Chicano, theatrically?
Joe: Oh yeah, dude. Oh, absolutely brother.
Joe: You have to see this movie, with all the bells and whistles. One thousand percent. Yes.
Adam: I did see that Gronkowski [Football star Rob Gronkowski] clip that you put on Instagram, with that mini-gun just going to town, and I’m like, there is mini-gun scene?
Joe: Oh yeah, you should see Gronkowski in the movie, it’s great dude.
Adam: Oh, was he cast in part or if he had just come over just to shoot the mini-gun?
Joe: Oh no, dude… It had started out as a joke because, Sheri Biali Thomas [Casting Director on Boss Level] is the biggest Gronk fan on the planet. And somehow, we found out Gronkowski’s in town, he was looking for a movie role. Thought it would be really funny to send him the office, and Sheri’d freak out. She did. And I think, if I’m not mistaken, although my memory is shot, but it was one of those things, I was like, “I love Gronk, why doesn’t he play the mini-gunner,” it was gonna be him or Luke Rocco …
Adam: Okay, so last one, have you heard anything about a high-def version of Narc?
Joe: I need to push Paramount to do that. The old regime which is terrible is out of there, the new guys are great. Jim G. [Gianopulos] is a fantastic guy, so I may have to take it up with him directly
Adam: And what about Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane?
Joe: Brother I own that movie. You know it’s funny, I think I’m gonna hire my daughter, just got out of NYU, to restore that film. Not kidding, to actually restore that movie. I think I’m gonna do it. I own the negatives, so I think I’m gonna do it.
Adam: Oh great! Because that’s one that I still have my DVD, I’ve just been waiting for it…
Joe: Honestly dude, I think I’m gonna redo that film. I’m not kidding.
Adam: That would be great
Once El Chicano is released in theaters we’ll see about posting the audio version of this interview as it was a great interview and Joe is one of the great raconteurs.