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In ‘The Grey’, Liam Neeson’s character leads an unruly group of oil-rig roughnecks when their plane crashes into the remote Alaskan wilderness. Battling mortal injuries and merciless weather, the survivors have only a few days to escape the icy elements – and a vicious pack of rogue wolves on the hunt – before their time runs out.
From the literary classic Moby Dick to the groundbreaking motion picture Jaws, one of the most enduring popular narratives has centered around the conflict between man and nature. Now comes an engaging new adventure about ordinary men stranded in the wilderness and pitted against impossible conditions and even more nightmarish predators.
In The Grey, set in the frozen mountains of Alaska, a pack of angry, snarling, bloodthirsty wolves are in dogged pursuit of human prey. As they pick off their helpless victims one at a time, the chances of survival for the last men standing become more and more remote.
“This is a hard-core survivalist film,” says director and co-writer Joe Carnahan, whose previous hits include Narc and Smokin’ Aces. In The Grey a group of men must fight for their lives against the extreme cold and snow as well as a hungry pack of wolves protecting their den. “If you’re afraid of wild animals or plane travel, this movie will put you off for a good, long time.”
“The picture crosses numerous genres,” says producer Jules Daly. “It’s a thriller. It’s a horror film. It’s a character-driven drama of men struggling to survive.” Based on the short story “Ghost Walker” by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, The Grey marks the second collaboration between Carnahan and international superstar Liam Neeson, who previously teamed for the 2010 action-comedy The A-Team. Serving as producer and executive producer respectively on The Grey are Ridley and Tony Scott, who were also behind The A-Team.
“The Grey triggered something very primal inside of me,” says Neeson, who initially heard of the project while conducting a string of press interviews with Carnahan for The A-Team in Berlin and later asked the director about the project over a lively dinner in London.
After seeing the script, he quickly signed on for the lead, knowing full well that Carnahan would strive for realism by shooting on location near the sub-artic zone. “When I read the script, I was 57 years old, and the little boy inside me thought it would be great to take on such a demanding role,” says Neeson. “I wanted audiences to say ‘Wow, how did you guys do that?’ At the same time, I was thinking, ‘Jeez, can I physically do this?’”
The story of the wild
The Grey‘s storyline fired up Neeson’s imagination as well. The film begins at a refinery in Alaska, where crude oil is broken into various elements for commercial use. Workers endure grueling five-week shifts 24/7, then have about two weeks off for vacation. One group of men heading back home encounter a brutal storm, causing the plane to crash in the Alaskan tundra.
All on board are killed except for eight survivors who head south toward civilization, pursued by a pack of mysterious, almost mystical wolves practically prehistoric in their size and ferocity. Neeson portrays John Ottway, a sharpshooter who has been hired by the refinery to keep bears, canines and other wild beasts from attacking oil workers during their shifts.
“Boy, I tell you what,” enthuses Carnahan. “In terms of what I thought the film was going to be and what it is now, it would be tough to imagine anybody other than Liam in the role. How this character evolved and later shaped by him as an actor has wildly surpassed my expectations. He was able to bring a deeper, more profound sense of what life and death is about.
When talking to younger actors, they didn’t understand their own mortality. Liam is nearly sixty and, as vibrant and strong and tough as he is, he understands how we’re all on the clock, every one of us. We’re all being stalked by time.”
Carnahan strongly believes, “There’s really no good or evil in the film — there simply ‘is’.” He feels these basic thematic concepts of “predators” and “prey” protecting their territories might have been lost on a younger, more naive actor. While appreciating his character’s own vulnerability, Neeson also recognizes the duality of his sharpshooter figure – serving as antagonist as well as protagonist.”
“My character has a specific relationship to these wolves,” explains Neeson. “He works on the refinery’s fence line and his job is to make sure the animals don’t approach the men at work. What weighs heavily on Ottway’s mind is that, perhaps, the wolves are now coming for revenge.”
Carnahan’s interest was sparked by a short story by writer Jeffers called “Ghost Walkers” about oil workers hunted by a pack of rogue wolves following a plane crash.
Jeffers crafted a rough screenplay, and Carnahan spent the next four years, on and off, developing the various characters and narrative. “It took a lot of time, but the story sparked my interest in a primal way,” says the writer-director. “It mirrors what a man holds dear and important, and I also found that evolving as time went by.”
The “survival story” became infused with far more existential questions as the years of rewriting proceeded. “I wanted something that had deeper meaning, something that questioned nature and life and God. The wolves are part of that. They’re as omniscient and all powerful as the rivers or the blizzards or anything else they encounter.
I wanted to show these men as interlopers, the clash of industry versus the natural world. The centerpiece of the film is definitely these men and their journey. But I also wanted it to be more than just an interesting action film in which the audience knows where it’s going.”
The Grey will be in cinemas around the U.S. on January 27, 2012
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