The ''Aces'' director tells us how he came up a winner after being dealt a bad hand with ''Mission: Impossible III''

By Hannah Tucker
Updated January 31, 2007 at 05:00 AM EST
Credit: Joe Carnahan: Steve Granitz/

Joe Carnahan rose from relative obscurity to become Hollywood’s ”It” director with 2002’s gritty cop drama, Narc. When he was next tapped to direct Mission: Impossible III in 2003, it looked like Carnahan’s magical ascent was only beginning. That is, until he walked off the project after a year’s worth of work, citing creative differences with Paramount. But Carnahan is finally scoring big with his shoot-’em-up drama Smokin’ Aces, which debuted at $14.6 million last weekend. chatted with the high-energy director about Tom Cruise, Iraq, and those inevitable Tarantino comparisons.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You were just a couple dollars shy of having the number-one movie in the country last weekend. How’s that sitting with you?
JOE CARNAHAN: Really well, because I think that those couple dollars are probably the kids that paid for [Epic Movie] and then snuck into ours! You have no idea how many stories we hear of kids doing that. It’s karmic, because I did that same crap when I was a kid. So I can’t be too harsh on them.

How long after you left Mission: Impossible III did you write Smokin’ Aces?
I had started writing Smokin’ Aces initially in ’93. And then, after I left MI:III, I wrote my adaptation of Killing Pablo, which is still probably the best thing I’ve written, in my mind. But I really wanted to get a movie going, and Smokin’ Aces seemed like the most ideal. This was 2003 and we were in WMD heaven. All of that incredible paranoia dovetailed artistically with what I was trying to do.

You’ve said Smokin’ Aces was a reaction to your experience with Mission: Impossible III, which you’ve described as ”artistically suffocating” — can you expand on that?
I had this very same conversation with Matt Damon. I [told him] my real goal was to take the piss out of the Bourne series, because I think it’s so exceptional. So I thought, yeah, we’re going to take a crack at MI:III. And I think we gave it a really great run. Danny Gilroy and I wrote what I thought was the best version of MI:III. But the more we put out there, the less that came back. We just weren’t being allowed to work with all of our tools. It’s like starting a boxing match when you’re all ready to go, and by round six you’re down to your left hand and you’re bleeding heavily and bruised and swollen. That’s how it felt.

I can imagine it must be frustrating to go from a film like Narc, where you presumably have so much artistic control, to dealing with a big studio.
I think we’re fooling ourselves in this business if we don’t think we have a tremendous ego — we all do. But at the same time, you also have this knowledge of what delineates good things from bad in terms of what makes good movies. And I felt like we were being inundated with stuff that I didn’t believe in and didn’t agree with. You’ve got to know when enough is enough. When the individuality or that creative impulse is questioned or eliminated all together — at some point you just kick into survival mode. And for the sake of everything that’s going to come after that, you need to [say], I’m done. I’ve given you guys my absolute best shot, and we’re not seeing this film in even remotely the same way. So let’s all be grown-up about it and everybody step away from the table.

That can’t be easy, especially when you’re working under the pressure of being labeled Hollywood’s Next Big Thing.
Oh, sure. If you listen to that, you’re dead before you begin. I’ve always found it was really tough for me, because I don’t think I’m necessarily the most talented guy or the smartest guy. I’ve always been used to stuff not going my way. So in that respect, I took everything in stride. The thing that most upset me about the MI:III experience was the [perception] that I was relieved of duty when that simply was not the case. But at the same time, I don’t have an ounce of remorse or regret about that process. At the end of the day, Tom [Cruise] did more for Narc than anybody else. He really got it out there and got it shown and got a big studio excited about it. That was huge. And if I saw him, I hope we would be cool and let bygones are bygones.

Compared to Narc, the special effects in Smokin’ Aces are completely off the charts. How challenging was that as a new directorial experience?
Well, Smokin’ Aces was a $20-21 million movie and Narc was $3 or $4 million, so obviously, yeah, there’s a big gap. But most of the effects [in Aces] are in-camera, physical effects as opposed to a tremendous amount of CGI. Don’t get me wrong — there’s CGI in that movie. We used a trans-light, which is basically a gigantic photograph, and we built the hotel penthouse set. So we had to animate that — put cars in the background and stuff like that — but that’s the extent of it. I’m not a giant fan of visual effects, because I think that too often they become the focal point as opposed to the story. So when those effects can insinuate themselves into the film without drawing a tremendous amount of attention, that’s always great. And in that respect, Narc and Smokin’ Aces are very similar. I didn’t want to pile all this attention on the CGI.

You have Jeremy Piven playing a Mafia snitch and Alicia Keys a contract killer. Did you have any of these actors in mind from the beginning, or did you end up throwing darts at a copy of our magazine?
It was the people that really responded strongly to the material. With Alicia, it was kind of a dare: Don’t play the gal-pal of the main character in some stupid romantic comedy. Let’s go have some fun and rip this up. And Common, too — they seamlessly integrated with everybody else in that film.

And it’s great to see all these people playing against type.
Oh completely, yeah.