From director Joe Carnahan (Narc, Smokin’ Aces, The Grey), the Hulu original film Boss Level is an action-drama time loop story of one really, really, really bad day for Roy Pulver (Frank Grillo), as he continues to be slaughtered by assassins in different ways, every time it starts over again. He’s been shot, stabbed, blown up and beheaded, all while trying to save his ex-wife (Naomi Watts) and 11-year-old son (played by Frank’s real-life son Rio Grillo) and somehow get them to the next day.
During this in-depth chat with Collider about the blood, sweat and tears that went into getting this film made through their production company Warparty, Carnahan and Grillo talked about why time loop stories work in every genre, the major challenges that they encountered during production, and getting to do a sword fight with Michelle Yeoh. Carnahan also talked about what most excites him about Cop Shop, while Grillo talked about the possibility of a Purge 6, and why he thinks Kingdom ultimately ended in the perfect place.
Collider: What made you guys want to take on a time loop action thriller?
JOE CARNAHAN: I think it’s one of those subgenres that people have a real soft spot for. Who knows, maybe it’s because of the wish-fulfillment and doing something differently, or alternating fate or destiny. I think there’s something elemental in that, that people really respond to. I’m certainly not a sci-fi guy, and I don’t think Frank is a sci-fi guy. Up until a couple of years ago, Frank still referred to it as The Star Wars. But within the framework of this rambunctious, weirdo action movie, I saw the ability to inject this great heart and sentiment, which made it ultimately worth making versus being largely disposable but fun. I love Commando, but I don’t care about anything other than [Arnold] Schwarzenegger blowing people up. I wanted this to be a little different from that ‘80s type of over-the-top action.
It’s interesting how time loop stories seem to work in every genre.
CARNAHAN: It does. Palm Springs works just as well as Edge of Tomorrow. Where Frank and I wanted to deviate was the idea that you pick up with this guy and he’s just so bored stiff by the whole thing. He’s just done. His great goal in life is just to reach this diner, so he can get drunk and get shot and do it again. He’s checked out, at that point, which I think is great. “There’s nothing more to do, so I’m just gonna feel sorry for myself, drink myself into oblivion, and do it again.” We wanted it to be familiar, but introduced in a way that was unfamiliar.
Frank, I feel like this is one of the most fun characters that you’ve ever played and I also feel like this would be friends with your character from The Purge. It seems like they could team up together and take someone down pretty successfully. Do you feel like those two would make a good team?
FRANK GRILLO: I think they would. It’s so funny because it’s two different genres, but it’s two things that come out of human behavior. There’s the feeling of, “If I could kill anybody and get away with it, there would be somebody.” Everybody’s got that idea. And there’s the idea of, “If I could relive something and fix it.” So, when you think about those two worlds, it’s interesting that you bring up those two characters. I think they would be good friends and they would wreak havoc.
Joe, you’ve said that you got the script from Chris and Eddie Borey, and then you put your own stamp on it and wrote it for Frank. What exactly does that mean? How did you gear it specifically for Frank?
CARNAHAN: I’d never done that before. I wrote Mission: Impossible for Tom Cruise, but that’s a character. I’ve never taken an actor that I know and thought, “Okay, I’m gonna tailor this to what I think Frank’s strengths are.” Frank’s a very funny guy. People don’t see that, but he’s hysterically funny. With The Grey, we’d done this very serious, very dour movie, but there were great moments of levity in it, and a lot of it was him. So, it was taking that, and then folding it under this larger canvas, which was the big spectacle, ‘80s action movie with the unstoppable, goofy, lovable loser at its core. When you start making those changes, it was easy. Because I know Frank so well, it’s easy to write in his voice. You have that great embedding of an actor and a character and they finish each other’s sentences. It was important to me that Frank know Roy in a really innate, very deep way, and he did. When you spend 10 years trying to put something together, you get familiar, and it certainly helped us in a pinch that it was that ingrained and insinuated into our system.
GRILLO: It also helps that in real life, I’m a goofy, lovable loser.
CARNAHAN: We’ll take a victory wherever we can get it.
Frank, has there ever been anything that Joe has written for you that’s surprised you?
GRILLO: Joe is an amazing screenwriter. He really is. He’s got so many scripts of his that I’ve read and been like, “Wow.” Joe can fill a cast with any actors that he wants to because the screenplay is always so great and because he’s the director. I always start out like a little bit nervous because, even though we’re partners, I’ve gotta do it because he can get anybody else he wants to do it. I love everything he writes and I always look forward to when he gives me something to read. I’m one of his biggest fans. Maybe that’s a good reason why we should be partners.
This is a film that really deserves to be on a big screen in the theater so that you can see it and have that audience experience of people going nuts when things happen. How hard has it been to release a film like this during a pandemic, knowing that audiences aren’t able to have that same experience?
CARNAHAN: With what people have been dealing with, this doesn’t even touch the scale of some of the true despair that this ordeal has visited upon people. This paradigm shift away from traditional theatrical exhibition has been long in coming, and with the ubiquity of Hulu and these other streaming services, you have greater access to stuff. You’ve got a wide variety of programming that I think is really exciting. So, is it a bummer that we can’t be in a traditional theatrical setting? We got the wonderful opportunity to show it the ArcLight before all of this stuff befell us and it was great seeing it like that. Also, that experience will be available to all of us, in the future. What that’s gonna look like, I don’t know. But I’m happy that many, many, many more people will be able to see Boss Level than if they’d just gone the route of opening weekend, and then who knows what would happen. I’m done with that stuff and everything front-loaded into hoping it does well on Friday and Saturday, or that’s a wrap. I just don’t like that. It’s a limiting, dismissive way that we put so much stock and energy into what a movie makes on its opening weekend. I hope that’s in the past for us.
GRILLO: People have 75-inch and 85-inch televisions, and great sound systems. The experience, although it’s not the same as on a 30-foot screen, it’s not like watching a TV. It’s theater experience on a smaller scale.
It sounds like making this film was a true labor of love and that you were tested, every step along the way. Was this one of those what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger type of situations? Do you feel like you were trapped in your own Groundhog Day with this, as everything just kept happening?
CARNAHAN: Oh, totally. We began to live the death loop of what Roy was going through. It was art imitating life. You’re stuck in the dregs of, “Okay, now we’re gonna cut your days. We don’t have money to do this. We don’t have money to do that. Forget about this. Forget about that. You find yourself in this loop that you can’t escape it and you know you have to rely on the time you’ve spent and the work you put into it prior, and the amount of sweat that’s been expended and the preparation. You just say, “All right, if this is the way it’s gotta be done, this is the way we’ll do it.” For all of the strife and the grief and the stuff that we got put through, I think it’s all up there on the screen and it’s a better movie, as a result of that. I wouldn’t wanna repeat that process because it was miserable to be in it, but I also felt that we were never not executing at a very high level, even with the stress and anxiety that was going on around us.
How did you deal with that, during the shoot? Were there ever days where you just wanted to scream into a pillow?
GRILLO: Every day.
CARNAHAN: We would just have wine, throughout the day. Our version of screaming into a pillow is a bottle of Cabernet. There were very dark days. Frank and I, in addition to being lead actor and director, were really the only functioning producers. It was us, so we had a whole raft of things on either side of the spectrum that we had to deal with and had no relief. It’s easy-breezy peach fuzz when things are going well, but when the rubber meets the road, you really find out what you’re all about. I’m glad that we learned that about ourselves, as filmmakers, but I wouldn’t hasten to repeat that experience. I’m content to let that guy get chopped in the head with a machete and die in bed because I don’t wanna do that again. But it certainly made us better filmmakers. There’s no question about it. There’s pre-Boss Level and post-Boss Level. We’re both better producers now.
Frank, what’s that like for you, when you’re on set and you’re trying to act, and all of that is going on? How do you cut all of that noise out?
GRILLO: When it’s time to act, I go and act, and Joe makes sure that the environment is a creative one. But then, once cut is called, there were times when Joe and I had to go in an office and sit down and talk about, “Are we gonna be able to execute the next day?” At the same time, we had to figure out what the schedules were gonna be while we were shooting the film. There was just no other way to do it. We knew we had to do it that way, and we did it that way. There were times we had to pull the whole crew together and give them a pep talk because we didn’t know if we were able to pay them the following week. We were reliant on other financiers and there was so many elements to this thing, but we kept it buoyant and flowing.
Could you ever have imagined that you’d do a movie where you’d be decapitated so many times?
GRILLO: No, but I look forward to it again. No, I didn’t, but it was hysterical. It makes me laugh just to talk about it.
Was all of that CGI or is there a fake head of yours somewhere?
GRILLO: There’s a dummy and a head. There’s definitely a head. It might be in my house somewhere.
CARNAHAN: He’s got his own apartment in Studio City. We don’t even talk to him. That dummy is fine. He just did Cop Shop with us.
Speaking of Cop Shop, when will we get to see a trailer or some images and hear more about that?
CARNAHAN: We’re basically done with that movie and it’s just sensational. I’m really proud of that film too. It’s all on the distributors and the powers that be. I would imagine in the near term, you’re gonna start seeing some stuff. They’re certainly excited to get it going and get it out there.
What most excites you about that film? How do you feel that ups your game as the next step from this?
CARNAHAN: There’s an extraordinarily talented young actress named Alexis Louder, who had never headlined a film or been a lead, and she’s just remarkable, in every way, in this movie. She’s a movie star. It’s very heartening and very gratifying to see that happen, and to be part of the mechanism that can do that. Gerard Butler is dynamite in the movie. Toby Huss is an actor I’ve admired for many, many years, and I got to work with him. And I’ve always got Frank there, as the glue, so that we never feel like we’re getting too far away from the shore, in that we know how to do this. I was asking Frank to do very different things and play a very different character and wear a man bun, which is not his favorite. We had a mutual friend of ours watch it and he said, “I think it’s my favorite Frank performance.” He loved Boss Level, but Frank’s performance in Cop Shop was his favorite. It’s completely, totally different, which is great. What’s so fun about this job is that you can go out and do different things and try different things and experiment. I consider myself fortunate to be doing it, especially now. I’m extremely lucky to be doing it. When you do it like this, with people you love and respect, it’s a different level of gratification that I’m very fortunate to be able to experience.
When did you guys realize that you had this relationship that you couldn’t quit, when it came to your bromance?
CARNAHAN: Wheelman was one of those amazing experiences that just came together so fast and so naturally that it took us both by surprise. We went and did it, and then we wanted to do it again. Once you get that kind of alchemy going and you get that lightning in a bottle, you wanna keep going.
GRILLO: A lot of the directors that we admire, they use the same people – Martin Scorsese being the biggest. You create that troupe of people who you trust and who trust you, and you speak the same creative language. Many people never find that. Joe and I were lucky enough to discover something together and we’d be silly not to continue this journey together.
Frank, another director you’ve worked with more than once is James DeMonaco. What do you like about him, as a director, and what brings you back to him?
GRILLO: It’s not unlike with Joe. James is a writer/director. He just directs what he writes or rewrites. He’s a very interesting guy. He refuses to get involved in Hollywood. He lives in New York in Staten Island. He refuses to leave and he marches to the beat of his own drum. He’s an incredibly creative, artistic person in this body where you don’t imagine him to be this. It’s just a joy to be around him I’ve done three movies with him and we’re talking about doing The Purge 6. He’s a guy that I would work with forever. I have a love for him too because of how he lives his life. And that’s Joe. Joe marches to the beat of his own drum. He can work with the biggest movie stars in the world on the biggest movies. I’m sure he’ll direct a lot of those movies, or a couple of them, but he chooses not to. I respect that more than anything. I really do.
Are you surprised at how much your Purge character has connected with people and keeps coming back, and now you’re talking about another movie?
GRILLO: You know, I’m not surprised. I fashioned that guy after the movies that I loved it and it connects with the zeitgeist. It’s a guy who’s out there, looking for revenge. I thought from the beginning that it was gonna be pretty popular, and that particular character has remained popular in that series, so it would be silly not to explore more of him.
I will always hold a special place in my heart for Kingdom and the Kulina family, and as happy as I am that the show found a new life on Netflix, I will always be bitter about the fact that it didn’t happen sooner, to get another season. How do you feel about Kingdom now? Does it feel incomplete, or are you proud of it, as it is?
GRILLO: I’m glad it found a home on Netflix, but when something ends, just because you want more, it doesn’t mean there should be more. I think it ended in a perfect place. It was an accident that it ended where it did, but it was a real beautiful accident. I love the idea and I’m humbled by the idea that people wanna see more, but we shouldn’t do any more Kingdom. That’s my opinion.
If you’re going to do a sword fight in a movie, you want to do a sword fight with Michelle Yeoh. What was it like to get to work with her?
CARNAHAN: She’s flawless.
GRILLO: I was so smitten by Michelle. I had such a crush. I was like an eight-year-old boy around her. The unfortunate thing was that we had more time allocated for that sword fight and we had to shorten it and truncate the process. I was so looking forward to more time with her. But she’s so amazing, she didn’t need more time, I did.
CARNAHAN: She’s amazing. Just to grace the film with her presence and be as extraordinarily lovely and kind and cool as she was, was just dynamite.
It’s fun that Boss Level has so many different kinds of fight scenes and action scenes, with hand-to-hand fighting, gun battles, machetes, swords, and all sorts of weapons. What’s it like to put together so many different kinds of fight scenes, and do you have a preference?
CARNAHAN: As long as it’s cool and I feel like it’s a variation of something we’ve seen before that doesn’t hue exactly to what that thing is and you can alter it ever so slightly, no, I don’t have a favorite. It was really interesting to me to see the sword stuff come together. There’s phenomenal Kung Fu, Hong Kong-inspired swordplay. It’s just gotta be cool or funny or unique. Just trying to make them unique and make them stand out was more important to us. The sense of the familiar is always important. The movie moves the way a video game would move – station to station and level to level, with different locales. Keeping with the spirit of that was important.
Frank, was there one that was the most fun for you?
GRILLO: Now that I’m thinking about it, Joe and I got a big kick out of when I was driving the car and the bus hits me, and I go through the window and land in the bus. Joe would throw random lines that I would say. We just had so much fun.
CARNAHAN: I’ve gotta credit my brother, Matt, who’s an exceptional filmmaker. He made a movie called Mosul, and he wrote Deepwater Horizon and World War Z. My brother is one of the funniest human beings I know, so I always call him and ask him to give me some lines. I’d give them to Frank, who would say them, and then I would laugh uproariously, every time. That was a lot of fun.
GRILLO: We’re grown men doing this.
Do you feel like making this movie was more physically or mentally challenging?
GRILLO: For me, it was both. We were under a lot of duress with the financial aspect of the film and keeping everybody together and making sure that we didn’t send anybody home and we kept the movie afloat. In some aspects, that part of it was more daunting and exhausting, going into the unknown, every day. We kept wondering if we were gonna get shut down. Every day, it was pushing a boulder up a giant mountain. I welcomed the physical stuff because that I was prepared for. It’s the other stuff that I wasn’t prepared for.
CARNAHAN: Making the movie and being on set was joyous. It was all the other stuff that was problematic. It was all the in-between stuff that was really difficult. Making it was a blast. We had fun and we laughed. That was a distraction. The rest was the business of it, which is always unfortunate because it plays against the fun that you’re having, actually making the movie.
Frank, working with your son in this, what was that experience like? Does it make you want to work with him again, or do you have it in your contract now that he can never share scenes with you?
GRILLO: Yes! It’s something that I will always have and cherish, and it was a beautiful experience. His mom got to come down and watch him do it. It’s a singular experience that I’ll always have and I can always watch it. Do I want to do it again with him? Probably not. He’s a little too pushy on set. I’m thankful to Joe because he had the great idea to bring my son in and I’m glad he did because it was a lot of fun. I can’t wait until he gets a little bit older and we get to laugh about it.
Joe, how did you even know that would work?
CARNAHAN: Rio is the product of two really good actors. His mother (Wendy Moniz) is also a phenomenal actress, so I thought, if it was just hereditary, we’d be okay. I didn’t have the time or the faith that I could find some young actor that Frank would miraculously bond. It doesn’t matter how great that kid would have been, you look at your child in a very different way and it’s undeniable on-screen. The camera catches it immediately. When you see him watching his son play the video game, and I was playing Frank’s voice-over during the scene so that I could hear his thoughts, you see the look on his face and it always gives me a lump in my throat because I realize that’s Frank looking at Rio. That’s what’s so special about those scenes together. When he says to him, “Don’t worry, I’ll come back for you,” I could see that 200 times and still get emotional. Just talking about it, I get emotional. I knew that, if it affected me in that way, it would affect the audience. It’s an unexpected moment in the movie where this guy thinks he’s been doing the right thing the entire time and they’ve been getting to his kid, and he didn’t foresee that. It returns you to the Roy who was not paying attention. It’s this very noble idea that, if he can’t do anything about it, he’ll just get to know his kid and just die every day with his kid. There’s something romantic about that. I have a son and I love him to death, and there’s something tragically wonderful about making that decision, as a father. He’s like, “If this is all I’ve got to do, this is what I’ll do.” Until it shifts and the opportunity rises to make good and you realize that there’s still time. The very thing that Roy is fighting for, the entire time, is time that he thought he didn’t have, and yet at the very end, he realizes that he still has time. Not much, but he’s got time.
What’s next for you guys, together?
CARNAHAN: It changes moment to moment. We don’t know. We’ve been so focused on getting Boss Level finally launched and out to the world at large and letting people experience that movie and the good things that are gonna come from that. We have really good material that we wanna go make, but we never know. A year ago, we were gonna make Leo from Toledo. And then, it didn’t happen and we went into Cop Shop out of nowhere. You never know when you’re gonna suddenly detour and take an off-ramp you didn’t expect. But we just wanna keep doing this kind of thing and making these types of movies because these are our core values, so to speak
As a filmmaker, are you somebody who always keeps things on the back burner? Do you know when it’s time to just give up on something, or are you someone who you doesn’t ever give up, even if you’re waiting for 10 years down the road?
CARNAHAN: White Jazz is a script that I wrote with my brother, which was basically a sequel to L.A. Confidential. Frank and I were very close to making that, and it didn’t happen. That character was so in who Frank is. A couple of years ago, the British version of Taschen wanted me to give them my artwork for White Jazz, to include it in a book of the 20 greatest movies you’ll never seen. I said, “You can go fuck yourselves because I’m gonna make that.” So, no, you don’t ever give up on the good ones.
GRILLO: We didn’t give up on Boss Level. The movie we made now is a much better movie than we would’ve made 10 years ago. What we learned from that is, “Okay, so we didn’t make White Jazz two or three years ago. We’ll make a better version of it when it’s time to be made.” It will tell us when it’s time to be made.
Boss Level is available to stream at Hulu.
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