Sacramento writer-director Joe Carnahan finds TV a better fit

Katherine Heigl stars as a CIA analyst who advises the president in “State of Affairs,” which debuts Monday on NBC. Sacramento filmmaker Joe Carnahan is the creative force behind the series.
Katherine Heigl stars as a CIA analyst who advises the president in “State of Affairs,” which debuts Monday on NBC. Sacramento filmmaker Joe Carnahan is the creative force behind the series. NBC

Joe Carnahan, the brash Sacramento director who went to Hollywood and became an emblem of the local film scene’s big-screen dreams, now is more of a TV guy.

Carnahan, 45, is the creative force behind the new NBC political drama “State of Affairs.” Debuting at 10 p.m. Monday, the 13-episode series stars Katherine Heigl as a CIA analyst who helps determine how world crises will be reported to the U.S. president (Alfre Woodard) during their daily briefings.

Carnahan took the reins of the new show after writing, directing and executive producing episodes of the FBI-centric NBC hit “The Blacklist.”

Television’s new golden age has embraced and captivated Carnahan, maker of films such as “Smokin’ Aces,” “The Grey” and the 2010 “The A-Team” big-screen adaptation.

“In terms of storytelling, in terms of intimacy, in terms of kind of deep character exploration, I think TV is the only way to go right now,” Carnahan said last week by phone from the home he owns in Fair Oaks. Though he lives in Los Angeles, he often comes here to write, and last week was working on the Feb. 1 post-Super Bowl episode of “The Blacklist,” to which he still contributes.

“We’re making spectacle now in motion pictures,” Carnahan said. “And that’s fine, that’s great. I mean, people go to the theater to see the cinematic experience for everything it is cracked up to be, which is big, giant visuals.” But it leaves little room for the modestly budgeted, character-driven films he often favors.

The Monday “Affairs” pilot episode tracks the terrorist kidnapping of an American in Africa, as well as professional and personal conversations between Heigl’s character, Charleston Tucker, and the president, whose son was engaged to Charleston. The son, an aid worker, was killed in an apparent terrorist attack.

The show intersperses Washington crisis talks with what Carnahan calls “boots on the ground” action scenes, some rendered in night-vision-camera greens and blacks, of military operatives carrying out orders in the field.

“Affairs” joins the trend of shows about powerful D.C. women that includes “Scandal,” “Homeland,” “Madam Secretary” and “Veep.”

That “Affairs” is about women anywhere runs counter to Carnahan’s filmmaking persona. His movies have ranged from moody and fraught (“Narc”) to hyper-stylized (“Smokin’ Aces”) to raucous (“The A-Team”) to soulful (“The Grey”) while sharing male centrism and elements of violence.

That film work has reflected Carnahan, who is – as “The Grey” actor Frank Grillo once told The Bee – “this big, blustery Hemingway-ish kind of guy who has the soul of an artist.”

Carnahan calls his TV career “almost antithetical” to his man’s-man films. He directed the pilot of, and helped set the tone for, “The Blacklist,” which stars Megan Boone and was considered a female-centric show, Carnahan said, before co-star James Spader grabbed more attention. Carnahan also directed the pilot for Chloë Sevigny’s short-lived A&E/Lifetime detective series “Those Who Kill.”

“I think there was always a conscious need or want in my own creative life to align myself with, or prove that I could essay, a strong female character that was a stand-alone,” i.e., the story’s focus, Carnahan said. “If you are progressive, in your own artistic (ambition),” writing for different voices is a goal, he said.

In an apples-to-apples comparison of box office receipts and television ratings, the high-rated “The Blacklist” has been his most successful venture to date. NBC’s on-air promotions of “State of Affairs,” which is taking “Blacklist’s” 10 p.m.-Monday time slot after that show’s fall finale this week, note that the show marks former “Grey’s Anatomy” star Heigl’s return to TV and that it comes from “the director of ‘The Blacklist.’”

Heigl brings to the project a “difficult” reputation that tracks to 2008, when she revealed she had removed herself from Emmy consideration for “Grey’s Anatomy” that year because she did not think she was provided adequate material with which to work.

Carnahan, who calls himself “a huge Katie Heigl fan,” said Heigl’s reputation is “a lot of nonsense.”

“I think if Katie wasn’t genuinely kind of gifted and talented as an actor, these kind of conversations wouldn’t take place. If she was a deadbeat … I don’t think anybody would bother taking a shot at her.”

He said Heigl is an “A-plus student” on the “Affairs” set. Plus, he just likes to watch her on screen.

“Katie has an effortless quality as a performer,” he said. “She has a great humanity on screen.”

Carnahan might be the right fit for Heigl. An unusually straight shooter by Hollywood standards (on a scale of 1 to Kevin Smith, he is at least a 7), he comes with a few creative-differences tales of his own, after parting ways with “Mission Impossible: 3,” which he was supposed to direct, and more recently, with “State of Affairs’” first show runner. But he also inspires loyalty, as shown by actors who work with him more than once, from Neeson (“The A-Team,” “The Grey”), to Chris Pine (“Smokin’ Aces”) and Ray Liotta (“Narc”).

Liotta and Pine appear in the 2014 Carnahan film “Stretch,” the trajectory of which was not a happy one for Carnahan. The film takes a Los Angeles limo driver (Patrick Wilson) through a nightlong odyssey of criminals, drugs and celebrity (Liotta plays himself). The low-budget “Stretch” was supposed to come out earlier in theaters, but Universal dropped plans to release it. The film came out in October on video on demand, and also will play Saturday at the Napa Valley Film Festival.

What happened to “Stretch” is an indicator of the blockbuster mentality now ruling Hollywood, Carnahan said.

“‘Smokin’ Aces’ would be a movie that if it came out in this day and age, I don’t think it would ever get a theatrical release,” Carnahan said. “Corporate culture has eliminated any kind of risk (taking), so it is not going to happen. And it’s a shame, because ‘Stretch’ is something I think would have played. (But), whatever. I can (complain) and moan about that or I can get on with it.”

Getting on with it means enjoying the freedom, with “State of Affairs,” of having 13 hours to tell a story, in a medium that seems more friendly to him.

“I have no discernible kind of desire to wander back into features, unless it is a really great opportunity,” Carnahan said.

Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.