With only $8,000 to finance his first feature, "Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane" (1999), writer-director Joe Carnahan made a huge impact with both critics and film festival audience, establishing himself as a new force for Hollywood to reckon with. But even though Carnahan captured the town's attention, he struggled to fund his second project, "Narc" (2002), a dark and gritty crime thriller that cemented his place as a talented director worthy of consideration. Thanks to the critical praise and awards buzz that followed the release of that film, Carnahan suddenly had his pick of major studio projects. In fact, he was slated to direct Tom Cruise in "Mission: Impossible III" (2006), but left the project following conflict with the star over the film's tone. He instead went back to his indie roots for the critically-panned hipster noir, "Smokin' Aces" (2006), which drew complaints - fair or unfair - that he was being derivative of Quentin Tarantino. Finally, over a decade after his feature debut, Carnahan directed his first major Hollywood movie, "The A-Team" (2010), which he followed with the well-received survival thriller "The Grey" (2012), allowing him to finally find his footing after a long, hard struggle.
Born on May 9, 1969 in Delaware, Carnahan spent his formative years in the Detroit suburb of Algonac, MI before his family settled in Sacramento, CA. After graduating from Fairfield High School in 1987, Carnahan attended San Francisco State University, but transferred to California State University, Sacramento, where he majored in film studies. Following his graduation, he became a producer at UPN 31 in Sacramento and won Producer of the Year at the Promax Television Convention just six months into the job. Thanks to his win and the free production equipment at his disposal, Carnahan took the liberty of making his first feature film, despite a strict company policy forbidding the use of said equipment for personal projects. The result of his drive to "[refuse] to punch someone else's clock" was "Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane" (1999), a comic-noir thriller about two down-on-their-luck used car salesmen (Carnahan and Dan Leis) about to earn $250,000 if they allow a cherry red convertible supposedly laden with explosives to be parked in their lot. Hilarity ensues when the pair decides to break the rules. Carnahan's fast-paced, Tarantino-esque gangster flick was shot in 13 days over the course of six months using a 16mm camera and contained no music due to cost issues. Nonetheless, Carnahan's Hollywood calling card earned him a spot in several film festivals, including the 1998 Sundance Film Festival.
Though "Octane" was released only in seven theaters, netting just $15,000 at the box office, Carnahan managed to catch Hollywood's attention. He began shopping the script for his next film, "Narc" (2002), a character-driven cop thriller that originated as a short film he had made when he was a student. But Carnahan was unable to drum up support for the project, hearing over and over that it was nothing more than an episode of "NYPD Blue." He did, however, pass off the script to actor Ray Liotta, who loved it and attached himself to star as a volatile Detroit detective paired with a reluctant cop (Jason Patric) to hunt down his partner's killer. Almost from the start, Carnahan struggled with funding as he pushed to make his film. After money dried up halfway through the shoot, he managed to secure more funds from various sources, amassing a total of 17 producers when all was said and done. Eventually, "Narc" made the festival rounds and attracted attention from such industry heavies as Tom Hanks, Harrison Ford and Tom Cruise. The critical reception for "Narc" during its December 2002 release was strong, earning both film and director awards-season buzz. But the nominations never materialized outside of three Independent Spirit Awards nods in 2003, including for Best Director and Best Screenplay.
On the strength of "Narc," Carnahan entertained several offers to direct bigger, but not necessarily better projects. He attached himself to direct Harrison Ford in a crime thriller called "A Walk Among Tombstones," but the project fell through and languished in development purgatory. Carnahan was then handpicked by Cruise to helm the blockbuster "Mission: Impossible III" (2006), but the two failed to agree on the creative direction of the material - Carnahan wanted a darker tale about private armies in Africa, while Cruise wanted more thrills and spills. The two eventually parted ways. Returning to his crime-noir roots, Carnahan directed "Smokin' Aces" (2006), a hyper-violent caper comedy about a sleazy Las Vegas magician (Jeremy Piven) who agrees to turn state's evidence against the mob, unleashing a motley crew of assassins out to claim the $1 million bounty on his head. Among the killers were two deadly vixens (Alicia Keys and Taraji P. Henson), three dimwitted thugs (Ben Affleck, Peter Berg and Martin Henderson) and the notorious Tremor Brothers (Chris Pine and Kevin Durand).
Though his most successful film to date in terms of box office, "Smokin' Aces" attracted a large contingent of critical detractors who declared the movie to be too derivative of Quentin Tarantino's darkly comic-noir oeuvre. Not one to take such criticism with a grain of salt, the boisterous Carnahan shot back, saying that his film was an allegory for how misinformation can lead to violence, a lesson he took from the weapons of mass production propaganda preceding the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Meanwhile, Carnahan was set to direct the long-awaited adaptation of James Ellroy's White Jazz, the fourth installment to his famed L.A. Quartet about a murderously corrupt Los Angeles police detective battling his inner demons while the feds investigate him. While that project also languished in development, Carnahan set about directing the big screen adaptation of the once-popular 1980s action series, "The A-Team" (2010). Following the basic premise of four ex-military commandos (Liam Neeson, Bradley Cooper, Quinton "Rampage" Jackson and Sharlto Copley) who escape from prison and perform covert operations for cash, "The A-Team" spent nearly two decades in development until Carnahan took the reins following director John Singleton's departure from the movie. From there, he wrote and directed "The Grey" (2012), a survival thriller starring Liam Neeson about a group of oil workers struggling to stave off a pack of killer wolves after a their plane crashes in the frozen wilds of Alaska. The film fared well at the box office and was well-received by critics.
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Began producing short films with "Karate Raider"
Won critical acclaim for his breakthrough feature "Blood, Guts, Bullets, and Octane"; made acting debut in film
Produced the short film "Taco Heaven"
Directed the Detroit set thriller "Narc," starring Ray Liotta and Jason Patric
Wrote and directed the action-comedy "Smokin' Aces," starring an ensemble cast that included Ryan Reynolds and Jeremy Piven
Co-wrote the screenplay to "Pride And Glory"
Co-wrote and directed the feature film adaptation of "The A-Team," starring Bradley Cooper and Liam Neeson; also acted in film as Mike 'The Operator'
Wrote, directed, and produced the adventure thriller "The Grey," starring Neeson