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In homage to such classic films as "The French Connection" and "Serpico," writer/director Joe Carnahan's "Narc" explores the dark underbelly of the drug world with a compelling story about the intense psyche behind those individuals called "narcs," undercover officers who put themselves on the front lines of the war against drugs. Chipping away at the number of dealers on the streets, these brave men and women leave their loved ones behind each day as they throw themselves into the brutal world of drug abuse for one purpose only…to end it.
Joe Carnahan began his career in the entertainment industry freelancing for both ESPN and FOX SPORTS after he won Producer of The Year at the 1996 PROMAX television convention in Los Angeles. While working as a TV trailer-cutter in his hometown of Sacramento, Carnahan wrote and directed his first feature, "Blood Guts, Bullets and Octane." Shot on weekends and edited at night, the 1998 movie was made for about $7,000, starred Carnahan and a group of his friends and became a hit with the critics and audiences alike.
Inspired by a critically acclaimed documentary, "The Thin Blue Line," about an actual slaying of a Dallas police officer in 1976, writer/director Joe Carnahan first developed "Narc" in 1994 as a short film entitled "Gun Point." But the young filmmaker still had a fascination for the subject and wanted to expand the 30-minute short into a feature film that could delve deeper into a complicated murder investigation.
"The story just stuck with me," remembers Carnahan. "It had a resonance that I really wanted to go back to, which is rare for me. In fact, usually I write something and it's out of my system, but in this particular case, I felt there were things worth mining cinematically."
Expanding "Gun Point" into "Narc" and developing it into a film in which a very dark event slowly comes to light from different points of view, Carnahan set his story in the mean streets of Detroit and centered it around a disgraced police officer who makes his way through the gritty drug underworld in search of not only the truth about what happened to the slain officer, but also his own inner truth.
"I was just blown away by the script," says Ray Liotta, who liked the depth that Carnahan wrote into each character. "Both Tellis and Oak, are such complicated souls, and actors just don't come across roles like these very often," says Liotta. "Too many characters are written as either black or white, but these guys have a lot of underlying gray to them that makes them more real."
According to Carnahan, none of his characters are exactly who they appear to be on the surface because people in real life are holding in a lot of emotions.
"Nick Tellis, for example, is a very basic, decent man at heart, who is very troubled," says Carnahan. "Like all of us at one time or another, he made a mistake, and now he has to live with it. He becomes a tortured soul, and Jason Patric portrays him with such an intensity and intelligence that I feel honored and flattered that he made this character a part of his body of work."
Jason Patric was drawn to the depth of the story as well as to Carnahan's passion for the project. "Joe knew what he wanted from the movie and he had a real, naturalistic style with the camera that he was always ratcheting up," says Patric. "In that way, he not only furthered the story, but he also accentuated the struggles that all the characters were going through."
Patric went on to admit that in order to find the character of Nick Tellis, he looked to parts of himself with which he wasn't particularly comfortable. "Everybody has a certain amount of self-loathing," says the actor, "and Tellis found himself in a position where he really had to stare right at his own weaknesses and come to terms with them. Often people have to go on a brutal journey to find out who they are and to get at the truth of things, whether it's the truth about a murder or the truth about themselves."
One of the ways that individuals learn about themselves and grow is through other people, and from Patric's point of view, his character hooks up with Ray Liotta's character, Henry Oak, as part of his journey to understand life and death.
"Nothing about this film is clearly identifiable as good or evil, right or wrong," says Jason Patric. "It's about people on various journeys who face scary things along the way."
Joe Carnahan's "Narc" has the distinction of being the first feature film launched by Tiara Blu Films, a production company founded by Ray Liotta, Michelle Grace and Diane Nabatoff. According to Liotta, the minute it came across his desk, he recognized it as a great project to launch the company.
"The script is so smartly written, the story is so solid, and Joe Carnahan has such a passion for the film that Michelle, Diane and I thought it was a great way to start off Tiara Blu," says Liotta. "Joe's got a great future in filmmaking and we were proud to come aboard to help him start living his dream."
Producer Diane Nabatoff feels the same way. "Joe's script is incredibly well-written. It hits you right in the gut," says Nabatoff. "It's edgy, raw and honest. While it looks like a regular story leading toward a singular goal, all the characters have different agendas that are in conflict with one another, making the film a lot more complex than it first appears. That's the genius of Joe."
Known for backing new filmmakers, such as E. Elias Merhige ("Shadow of the Vampire" and the upcoming "Suspect Zero") and Alejandro Amenábar ("The Others" and "Abre Los Ojos," upon which "Vanilla Sky" was based), the veteran producers of the "Mission Impossible" blockbusters, Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner of Cruise/Wagner Productions, came aboard to support Joe Carnahan and see that "Narc" receives the attention and recognition it deserves.
"I enjoy movies, not just making them, but watching them as well. I also enjoy helping other filmmakers, especially those as dedicated to the art of filmmaking as Joe Carnahan," says Cruise. "When I saw 'Narc' for the first time, I was struck by the raw intensity - the almost voyeuristic approach Joe took in telling this story."
"'Narc' is one of those rare films that comes along and grabs you," adds Wagner. "When you finish watching it, you know you've just experienced something very special."
Commenting on the exceptional acting in the film, Cruise goes on to say that "Ray Liotta and Jason Patric are a powerhouse team and they play off of each other so beautifully that I forgot I was watching a film. Joe's use of their combined talents to drive the story is nothing short of brilliant. It's a thrill for me to be lending my support to this project."
Wagner agrees wholeheartedly: "Tom and I are proud to support a film of this caliber, which showcases the extraordinary performances of Jason Patric and Ray Liotta. Joe Carnahan has certainly made one of the most innovative and fresh films I have seen, and as a new director, he has one of the most unique voices in cinema today. The off-screen story of how 'Narc' was made," adds Wager, "demonstrates how a filmmaker's passion can drive through the most difficult circumstances in order to make a project not only survive but thrive. The passion guts and talent of everyone involved with this film is truly inspiring."
To writer/director Joe Carnahan, the arduous journey of having "Narc" come to fruition was like a phoenix rising, and as far as he is concerned, "Ray Liotta really pulled it from the ashes," throwing himself into the project and going to bat to get it financed.
"We had a great script and a great new director with a real vision," says Liotta. "But the behind-the-scenes stuff of getting an independent movie made is extremely challenging, even when it's as good as this one."
Producer Nabatoff couldn't agree more, adding that "Narc" was probably one of the hardest films to get off the ground, but also one of the most gratifying projects with which she's ever been involved.
"Two weeks into filming, we were told we had no money. Because of a delay in paperwork, our bank loan did not come through on time," remembers Nabatoff. "As we tried to piece together enough to make payroll each week, we were constantly on the verge of shutting down. Ray, Jason, Joe and I all deferred our salaries, and thankfully, the crew hung in there with us until the end."
Shooting for 27 days in the dead of winter at different locations off the beaten path in Toronto, Carnahan and his crew spent 10 of those days working primarily on the last scene in the movie in which the mystery finally unfolds through a series of shocking flashbacks. Set in an actual chop shop that, according to Nabatoff, hit 16 degrees below zero, the intense scene was complete with actual grime dripping from the ceiling that the production crew did not have to manufacture. It was just one of the many powerful sequences that NYPD Detective Todd Merritt, who acted as an advisor on the film, says is "very realistic."
Merritt, who has been with the police force since 1986 and on the narcotics squad for the past nine years has been undercover himself on many occasions, chasing down suspected drug dealers and junkies through back alleys and the streets of New York. Today, he sets up drug deals and sends in the team of undercover narcotics officers that he supervises to make the buys.
The issue of narcs actually getting addicted themselves at times is also quite realistic according to Merritt. "An undercover will try to talk his way out of having to ingest anything, but sometimes it can't be helped. When it does happen, an officer immediately reports the incident and can be removed from active duty for up to a month. In the case of an officer getting addicted, it's different from state to state. For example, in New York, an addicted officer is immediately suspended and that's it," says Merritt. "But in Detroit, where this film is set, they have rehab centers where they send narcs who get themselves in too deep."
Joe Carnahan, who grew up around Detroit, wanted to set "Narc" in that area because his recollections of the Michigan city were very dark, industrial and cold, a feeling he believes lends itself perfectly to this kind of story.
"I'm a big fan of classic 70s cop films," says Carnahan, "and I wanted that gritty feel to the film. Fortunately, I had an amazing crew to help me get the look I wanted. Alex Nepomniaschy is an immensely talented cinematographer."
Nepomniaschy, who lensed the critically acclaimed "Safe," which won the 1995 Boston Society of Film Critics Award for Best Cinematography, shot approximately 75% of the film with a hand-held camera, adding to the film's edgy, raw look. He also used lighting effects that gave the movie an overall greyness.
"I wanted the film to have that roughness movies had 25 or 30 years ago," says Carnahan. "Alex's magic really created the world I wanted to capture."
Co-production designer Greg Beale, responsible for turning the locations in Toronto into Carnahan's vision of Detroit, says that his biggest challenge was creating the set for the climactic scene in the chop shop.
"We found an actual warehouse that was used exactly for that purpose -- to dismantle cars and sell off their parts -- then we augmented the place with some high-end stuff," says Beale. "For example, we brought in recognisable cars like BMWs, and we even dragged in the front end of a Lamborghini. On the outside of the building, I had scenic artists paint a bunch of graffiti, but not just any graffiti -- we did research about the style of 'artwork' local Detroit gangs use and we created facsimiles of their symbols so that people who know Detroit would recognise them."
Music Supervisor Brian Ross worked closely with Carnahan to give "Narc" an undercurrent of music that added a hint of tension and brought to mind inner conflict.
"I went pretty out there," admits Ross, adding that they had two ways to go, with big names or with artists on the fringe who were not as well known in the mainstream. "We chose the latter because we didn't want to detract from the subtle nuances of the characters and dialogue in the film. While we did use three well-known artists -- Tricky, Geto Boys and Busta Rhymes (who plays Beery in the film) -- we also feature lesser known groups like Corporate Avenger and SX-10, to add that extra edgy rock feel."
According to Ross, Carnahan even wanted the End Credits to give off a particular feeling, and so he used a song called "Provoked" to go over them. Written by the Baby Namboos and featuring Tricky, the song is called "industrial/trance music" and it creates a hypnotic effect.
"The final song has a feeling that helps to create emotional closure for the film," explains Ross. "It's not a happy song but not bleak either, it's reflective. It's the kind of song that helps you to think about what you just saw."