Joe Carnahan’s crossroads

Can the once-local writer and director of Smokin’ Aces go home again? Should he?

Writer-director Joe Carnahan.

Writer-director Joe Carnahan.

Illustration By Jason Raish

Who is this guy? Center of attention, clearly. Reason for commotion. But what’s he all about? Are we talking player, shyster, wannabe, shamus? Depends who you ask. Plenty of people think they have the answer dialed. Everyone agrees he seemed to come from nowhere; they’re still puzzling out all the connections. Either way, before long, as one observer puts it, “He’s breaking bread with the wheels, keeping company with major muscle. And it goes to his head in a big way.”

No one denies the dude’s got talent for trickery. It’s partly what made him, and where he sometimes hides. Thing is, maybe his tricks have caused some trouble. Maybe he’s made some mistakes. Burned some bridges. Let his ambition overtake his judgment. In the final analysis, maybe he’s just a small-time operator reaching too big. It does seem a little ridiculous that such a man ever could have so many people so interested in him. But they are.

What’s certain about Buddy “Aces” Israel now is that he’s off the stage for a while, holed up and coked out in a Tahoe penthouse (“This shithole, this is a junior suite in Vegas!” he carps), waiting to rat out some wiseguy buddies. It’ll be a huge score for the Feds, maybe their hugest ever. Which, says the grapevine, is why the wiseguy buddies have it in for Buddy, enough to dispatch a contract on his life. And why a horde of freelance eliminators from all over creation, with back-stories you wouldn’t believe, are coming to take that contract up and take the guy down. Game on. Lock and load. Your cliché here. Point being: Everybody’s got an interest in Aces getting smoked.

Hang on just a minute. This feels familiar. Not because Smokin’ Aces, now in theaters everywhere, rips off half a dozen other movies, as many pissy critics already have said that it does, but because of the weird, maybe deliberate resonance this pathetic character has with the guy who made him up. What are we seeing here? Could it possibly stand to reason that this movie amounts to one big style-piled, guns-blazing, caper-circus metaphor for writer-director Joe Carnahan’s own creative life? An extravagantly pitiless, yet coyly self-aggrandized, autobiography? Well, this seems like as good a time and place as any to ask, what with Carnahan’s creative life having come straight outta Sacramento.

If you live in Northern California and you watch TV, you’ve seen the commercials for Carnahan’s third feature. Or else you’ve read about or had encounters online with Smokin’ Aces—a “dark action comedy,” as Universal’s press blitz almost nervously disclaims. You can tell it’s big, brazen and studded with stars: Alicia Keys, Ben Affleck, Ray Liotta and Andy Garcia, to name a few. If you know any of the Carnahan lore, you know it’s as mainstream a movie as he’s made, the thing that came after his walking away from Mission: Impossible III. (Troubles with Tom.) And that it looks a whole lot like the logical extension of a career that began in 1998 with a little bruiser of a flick called Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane.

A decade ago, Carnahan was a nobody with a Sundance breakthrough—a Hollywood outsider making his hometown proud. Now, the 37-year-old filmmaker, who cut his teeth in DIY obscurity and cut his first film on video in graveyard shifts at channel 31 while management looked the other way, has made himself a name.

Jeremy Piven as Buddy “Aces” Israel.

And now, of course, expectations surround him. One way or the other, people want a piece of him. Especially here. Local film scenesters look up to Carnahan with stars in their eyes. Local media outlets line up to give out grateful Carnahand-jobs whenever he’s around. Which, as it turns out, isn’t much. You want a piece? Take a number. You get what he gives.

Local grudges surface, too, eventually filling the air with that faint but unmistakable perfume of sour grapes. Ask around enough and you’ll get someone to say Carnahan has forever outgrown this little place and should never look back, just as you’ll get someone to say he’s left a trail of broken promises to all those people on whose backs he built a reputation. You may even get someone to say both of those things, and get the feeling that maybe both are true. What once was so Sacto about Carnahan was his having something to prove. Now he’s proved it. So what if being from here has become the least important thing?

Carnahan’s Sacramento significance now has more to do with the city than with him. It depends on how we receive him. Whether when viewing his work we can muster more than the extremes of petty jealousy and fawning praise, each in its way embarrassingly small-townish and unbecoming, and better assess what claims this artist and this place legitimately can make on each other. It depends on how willing we are to ask, “Can Joe Carnahan go home again, and why should he?” Under the circumstances, it’s no wonder anticipation for the Sacramento opening of Smokin’ Aces has been so high.

“I feel like I got run over by a pack of greyhounds, then by a Greyhound bus,” Carnahan said, easing his burlyish, smart-casual-clad frame into a plush lobby chair at the Sheraton Grand on a recent Sunday morning. He referred not to his reception at the previous evening’s Smokin’ Aces advance screening, which had been exceedingly positive, but to the Avalon after-party, which had been positively exceeding. “I was the after party,” he said. Carnahan blinked his tired but ever-ebullient blue eyes; somehow his bearing split the difference between thuggish and boyish.

He sat across from Chris Holley, a one-time Avalon bouncer and Carnahan appreciator who years ago recognized the director in line outside the club, got him a table, got to talking and eventually scored a memorable minor role in Smokin’ Aces.

“Avalon is my spot,” Carnahan went on. “Those guys … “He shook his aching head and flashed a standard-issue toothy grin at the half-dozing Holley, who said nothing but grinned back. Carnahan would be off to the airport shortly—“My home is Fair Oaks; I’m running a house in L.A.,” he explained—but he had a few minutes to talk some shop. He swore the reason it had taken seven tries to sit down with him had mostly to do with his 11-year-old daughter’s recent adventures on the soccer field, collectively an ongoing event to which he felt proudly committed.

Hangover notwithstanding, he presented himself with reflective, upbeat humility. “It’s an ideal existence,” he said. “You’re never gonna catch me complaining about any of this. Because I know where I could be, and where I could be is 20 kilometers below the summit. But I got my kids close to me, and I’m working on stuff that I love. I’m not being forced to take work and that’s always great.”

Ray Liotta imposes in Carnahan&#8217;s second&#8212;and best&#8212;feature, 2002&#8217;s <span style="font-style:normal">Narc</span>.

Later in the conversation, with the prefatory disclaimer that he knew he’d sound like a name-dropping douchebag for saying so, Carnahan went ahead and said, “Clooney once told me, ‘I think I’ve got maybe just another five years of being Clooney.’ I think he’s being too modest. But, the point is we all have a shelf life. It’s what we do with that time that matters.”

Clooney—that’s George, of course—is to star in a forthcoming, sky-high-profile Carnahan project, so the filmmaker must be doing something right with his shelf life. Still, as he sank deeper into the chair, exchanging drowsy, wordless looks with the friend plopped down across from him, Carnahan bore an improbable affinity for his beleaguered Buddy Israel, burning out and under fire from all directions in that penthouse suite. Surely, though, he’s a better man, and better off, than that guy.

He is, at the very least, an earner. “This is not something that fell in his lap,” declared Drew Fowler, channel 31’s creative-services director, who worked with Carnahan during his stint as a promo writer and producer there. “Nobody has earned it like he has. There’s a lot of sweat to get where he is, but if you spend any time with the guy, he’s kind of a force of nature. He wasn’t going to be denied. He knew at least from the day I met him, and probably long before that, that he was going to be making movies.”

Carnahan’s fully local, heavily channel 31-supported feature debut, the aforementioned, informatively titled Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane, was a scrappy, swaggering, sometimes-funny actioner in which a pair of used-car salesmen (played by Carnahan and Dan Leis) get caught up in some shady, deadly business involving a ’63 Le Mans with a secret in its trunk. Partly inspired by Robert Rodriguez’s famously cheap and resourceful El Mariachi, which galvanized Austin’s film scene in 1992, the film cost about seven grand to make. And it made an impression.

“When I first sat down to watch Blood, Guts, Bullets & Octane, I was awaiting a homemade ho-hum independent Sacramento movie,” said filmmaker Matt Perry, who teaches a local screenwriting class. “What I saw was a filmmaker who loved language. He loved storytelling. It was clear from the outset that he had something special.”

OK, maybe more than an impression. A shockwave. Recalled Mike Carroll, a veteran KCRA TV news cameraman-cum-filmmaker based in Sacramento’s Hollywood Park (naturally): “I remember getting into my car and driving home and thinking, ‘If this guy can pull a feature film off for $7K, then what’s holding me back?’ And at that moment I stopped writing scripts that would cost small fortunes and focused on writing a script that I could make with my own money. And I did.” That motivation yielded the entirely un-Carnahanish picture Year, a meditative slice of life about four adult sisters and their terminally ill mother, which Carroll wrote, produced, directed, shot and edited himself.

But Carnahan’s auspicious debut and subsequent development rubbed some folks wrongly, too. As the spoils of his success increased, so did the sense that he was drifting away. “It took me a while to sort of get over that aspect of things,” said Aaron Kinney, who did audio work on BGBO and now runs Pass Key Media, a local multimedia production facility. “But I think that he kinda got swept up. I think the attorneys kicked in. I think that in his heart he really did want to bring everybody with him, to promote everybody.”

On the <span style="font-style:normal">Smokin&#8217; Aces</span> set: Even speed-freak neo-Nazis can&#8217;t resist Joe Carnahan&#8217;s charms.

BGBO producer Leon Corcos assessed Carnahan’s career ascendance less forgivingly: “He abandoned Sacramento with his first taste of Hollywood.” Corcos also produced Ticker, Carnahan’s installment in the stylish line of BMW commercials starring Clive Owen, but since has retired from the movie game. His Web site offers a few pungent pearls of advice for would-be Hollywoodites, to wit: “Sincerity is the key to success. Once you can fake it, you’ve got it made.” Spoken like a true burn victim.

“It’s easy now to dog pile,” Carnahan said in the hotel. “Some of my detractors, these are the very same people I was having problems with when I was here and nobody was making any money.” He shrugged.

“Carnahan has no obligation whatsoever to Sacramento. His talent outsizes the place,” Perry said. “There was no other place for him to go but … somewhere else.” For his sophomore feature effort, 2002’s Narc, Carnahan did get far away—in this case, Michigan, where he grew up, and Ontario, where it’s cheaper and easier to shoot. Inspired by Errol Morris’ documentary The Thin Blue Line, Narc was a gritty duet between Detroit cops, one a new father (Jason Patric), the other a deeply wounded father figure (Liotta), together investigating the brutal, suspicious death of a fellow officer. It remains Carnahan’s most mature outing to date: spare, dismal, dauntless.

“You can see why Joe Carnahan is like the godfather of the Sacramento film scene now,” said Apprehensive Films’ Jonathan Morken, who met Carnahan at Narc’s Crest Theatre premiere and nabbed a crew gig on Ticker. “He knows exactly what he wants. He had a vision. He was going forward.” Now everybody has an angle on him, an expectation.

“Now, with Smokin’ Aces,” Morken continued, “it’s definitely going to draw more attention to everybody who’s already doing things here. Anything that’s inspiration is good.”

Does Smokin’ Aces count as inspiration? Maybe, in that it suggests, for better and worse, that you can take the director out of Sacramento, but you can’t take Sacramento out of the director. For all its grandeur and flash, the new film feels unwieldy and untimely; it amounts, half on purpose, to an empty, derivative exercise. Carnahan’s heard the “been there, done that” complaint before, of course, and his policy to remain undeterred has proven constructive: Narc, for instance, may not have made new contributions to the cops-on-the-edge subgenre, as some naysayers complained, but it did draw force and potency from self-determination. It’s partly by contrast to Narc’s restrained example, though, that Smokin’ Aces comes off as overwritten, wallowing in its own style. Temperamentally, it’s closer to BGBO, with its jubilantly annihilative tone, its criminal-on-criminal violence and its mash-up of narrative ingredients into what you might call chili con Carnahan. Just as in person the filmmaker cuts his natural candor with self-effacement, so his newest film seems somehow brash and recessive at once. Perhaps all that matters about him, all that’s knowable, is there in the movie.

It’s tricky, though: Knowing him that way means parsing his influences, too—all those name directors to whom people still can’t resist comparing him. Having acknowledged or brushed off the disappointed comparisons doesn’t mean he hasn’t deserved them, but for argument’s sake, let’s try for some perspective: The Carnahan of Smokin’ Aces looks less applause-cravingly adolescent than Quentin Tarantino, less closeted and humorless than Michael Mann, less hostile to the working class than the Coen brothers, less averse to actual human life than Guy Ritchie, and less self-congratulatory and morally stunted—though not by much—than all of them. True, that’s a lot of lesses for a man who made his name by so proactively wanting more. But whatever his own achievements, he’s also a man who seems untroubled by the anxiety of his influences. Which is to say, artistically speaking at least, that he knows where he comes from.

Under wide Lake Tahoe skies, calculated mayhem.

What he’s come to is a crossroads. Now, Carnahan can spin his wheels and keep at the same-old stuff—you know, movies in which chainsaw-wielding Kevlar-armored speed-freak neo-Nazis “go megaton at the drop of a hat”—or he can elevate himself, assert his storied independence and take a real artistic risk. But what would that look like? “I asked him once, ‘Are you ever going to do a romantic comedy?’ ” Perry remembered. “He got one of those bad-smell faces.”

No dummy, Carnahan knows he’s turned that true-to-himself integrity into a selling point, just as he knows he needs to push himself. That’s why the screen adaptation he wrote with his brother Matthew of James Ellroy’s 2001 novel White Jazz—as up Carnahan’s alley as a project can be—won’t be his next project. First, he’ll try a different adaptation, one he co-scripted with Quills writer Doug Wright, of Evelyn Piper’s 1957 novel Bunny Lake is Missing. Reese Witherspoon, whom Carnahan calls “a doll,” already has signed on to star. “The challenge being there’s not a single gun in that entire picture,” Carnahan said.

Good point there. White Jazz is a feverishly paced, non-linearly structured stream of rampant brutality, corruption and punchy banter among late-’50s wrong cops. It seems practically foreordained for the Carnahan we know from his films so far. By contrast, Bunny Lake is the slow-boiling story of a woman who reports her daughter’s disappearance and finds that nobody believes she actually has a daughter. Otto Preminger made a movie of it in 1965, which became a cult favorite. “I’m not trying to remake Preminger, that’s for sure,” Carnahan said. “But yeah, you always need to challenge yourself. I don’t want to do one type of film.”

Likewise, without a prominent, permanent Carnahan production company in town—à la Rodriguez’s Troublemaker Studios in Austin—Sacramento independent movie-making needn’t only be defined by the rollicking, attitude-mongering Carnahan brand either.

“I don’t think his sensibility is a Sacramento sensibility,” Perry said. “But I don’t think Sacramento has a sensibility. It’s still trying to find itself. Joe’s success is like a signal flare from Hollywood saying, ‘I made it.’ There’s only one problem. And while I don’t mean to dis the filmmakers in Sacramento, it’s true: There are filmmakers here but not great storytellers.”

It’s still fair to hope Carnahan won’t hollow out his own future making movies as glossy and pointless as the pages in a B-list lad mag. Actually, hoping so shows some faith in him, and some regional pride.

As for what specific trickle-downs the city’s scene, in the meantime, should cash in, Kinney said, “I would hope that it would be mutually beneficial at some point. I don’t think that it has been yet. Does Joe owe anybody anything? Well, there are a lot of people who feel like they were sort of left in the lurch. But eventually you can’t blame somebody else’s success for your failure. If there’s attention and we don’t take the cue and run with it, we can only blame ourselves.”

Joe Carnahan on post-fame filmmaking:"The alchemy remains the same. It&#8217;s still hustle and persistence.&#8221;

“Sac should be deeply proud of itself,” Carnahan later said. “We carry ourselves with this kinda little brother mentality. Which is absurd.” He suggested the city seek inspiration within its own increasing complexity. That is, save for “yahoos bringing fucking cowbells to Lakers games. You’re gonna stay in steerage if you keep on doing that shit.”

Carnahan still feels connected enough to the place to get possessive. “I’d love to shoot something here, because nothing ever gets shot here,” he said. “There’s a script that I have that was in Virginia, but I’d been thinking maybe Sacramento, if not more so because it’s a political thing. It’d be a lot easier to do.” He leveled his tired gaze at the hotel window—the J Street traffic beyond. His mind worked.

But the task at hand called him back, and before long his comments returned to the film he’d been back in town, if only briefly, to promote. Probably that too had worn him out. “If they hate the movie, what are you gonna do?” he said. “The British press went really bad on it. They didn’t even give it a chance. They just went in gunning.” Kinda like all those hunters-for-hire in Smokin’ Aces.

This final scene, a little weird, a little sad, takes place in a stage-theater lobby. It’s part charity fund-raiser, part glad-handing photo-op. You can’t tell at first because, for a while, nobody shows up and because the balloons are seriously cheesy, but hundreds of people paid thousands of dollars to do this thing. Some regular folks. Some wild cards. Many hangers on. Gradually, they fill the place up, lending an aura of anticipation: Something’s going to happen. While the buffet creaks under its own weight, the cocktail tables—draped and loosely decked with votives, playing cards, poker chips—draw huddles of cleavage, blonde highlights and fake-white teeth. There’s a requisite contingent of beefy dudes with gleaming bald domes and creative facial hair, too—guys you’d expect to see in a Carnahan movie, basically. It’s one of those events that reeks with expensive cologne applied so zealously that it seems cheap.

The man they’re all watching seems almost unnervingly effusive. He’s giving many hugs. He’s bringing this thing to life. Drinks start getting spilled. Somebody wants to get a game going with the cards and chips. Mr. Personality, meanwhile, perches on a riser and lets people look at him and steal snapshots. Then he spots something through the window and without notice makes a break for the door.

Just outside, they’ve set up a rope to pen some photographers, but only a few have showed up. None of them seem to know or care how to act like proper paparazzi. To keep from going numb in the unexpectedly brisk night air, they pace. To keep from going nuts with boredom, they ask each other if they’ll recognize whoever it is they’re supposed to shoot. For yuks, they shoot each other—shoot the shit.

That’s when the attention-center from inside comes darting out. It’s Carnahan, making like a linebacker straight for this approaching coterie of his movie’s stars: Jeremy Piven, Common and Holley, on their way to the Sacramento Theatre Company’s front doors. They grin and shout greetings back at the director. The photographers come to attention and go to work. “Stop the fuckin’ madness!” Carnahan bellows, beaming, and jumps into the posing line with his boys while the flashbulbs pop obligingly.

However tentatively it began, the evening finds its stride as a hero’s welcome because he makes it into one. Taking charge, he brings to mind a line he wrote for Buddy Israel to say in one brief moment of confidence and arresting clarity: “What do you see right now? You see exactly, and only, what I choose to show you.”

Later, everyone drives across town for the third Smokin’ Aces advance screening to hit local screens, and the third in a row to fill a house and bring it down. Then comes the after-party.