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Interviews

John Gray, Director of "White Irish Drinkers"

lhb-JGrayI'm sitting in the Irish pub, Playwrights Tavern on 46th Street and Eighth Avenue in Manhattan, with John Gray, the writer, director and co-producer of the new film White Irish Drinkers. It's a perfect place to conduct this exclusive interview about his career and the making of the film.

An American writer, director and producer. Gray is also the creator of the CBS television series Ghost Whisperer (starring Jennifer Love Hewitt) and has written and directed many high profile movies for TV, such as the remake of the 1976 telefilm Helter Skelter, Martin and Lewis, The Hunley, The Day Lincoln Was Shot, several Hallmark Hall of Fame features, among others. He recently directed the ABC original series Empire (which starred Santiago Cabrera).

Though the film had a far too short theatrical run, it has had a DVD release and has been offered for special screenings such as being the opening night film at the 2011 Manhattan Film Festival at Symphony Space.

L(H)B: We talked to some of the actors in the film, and now, to be sitting with the creator is quite a coup for us.

You actually paid for this film with your own money. There’s been a lot written about this. What I have read is that it cost $600,000 and you shot it in 17 days and it’s high definition.

JG: Yes, very true. I did the thing you’re never supposed to do, but I was so passionate about making this movie.

I wrote the script 10 years ago and tried all the traditional avenues to finance it, and you can never really make that happen. The script got me some work and people liked it, but I couldn’t get it financed.

L(H)B: So this story has been with you a long time then?

JG: Yeah, it has been with me a long time, and those characters have been living in my head for a very long time.

Over the course of these 10 years, three things happened. One was that I was lucky enough to get a television series on the air that was successful and lasted for five years: The Ghost Whisperer.

L(H)B: A little show called The Ghost Whisperer. I loved that show. You were with Ghost Whisperer all the way through?

JG: Well, pretty much. I was executive producer of the first three seasons, and then I stepped away, became a consultant, and I still wrote and directed episodes.

I stayed very close to it. Those people are my family, and it was very sad when it went away because we all love each other and we had great, great times together.

I'm very grateful to TV. The thing that never varies is that the schedules are tight and the budgets are tight.

And it always seemed to me you have two choices as a director: you can either surrender to that and just kind of do crap -- close-up, close-up, close-up, boom, we're done -- and give into it, or you can choose a path where you're constantly fighting it and trying to challenge yourself.

And I chose that path, and the extent to which I succeeded remains to be seen. I want something [to be] every bit as good as a feature. That's my goal, that's how I want to shoot this. But I always strove to make the work look as good as possible and work with the actors as much as I could.

L(H)B: I was a fan, and I know you'd go into the [antique] shop and you'd see things in the shop. It didn't look random, it looked very specific.

[So] TV really helped you do this movie, all the techniques and whatnot.

JG: But it was time to try and get other things off the ground -- like this movie, for one thing.

And of course, the technology changed. [It] became suddenly thinkable to do a movie digitally for a fraction of the cost.

And then my wife [Melissa Jo Peltier] is a really talented producer in her own right, and also a very good director -- in fact, she directed all the second unit stuff in this movie.

It felt like, how can I expect anyone else to really pony up for this movie if I won’t do it, and I can do it?

So we just made the decision that we’re not going to wait anymore. I’ve got to make this movie. It’s eating me up inside, I’ve got to get it out.

We were lucky enough to get Paul Bernard and Jim Scura, who are good friends, and really very talented producers who have done a lot of low budget movies and are very savvy in the ways things are done. And they were lucky enough to get this incredible cast that just blew me away.

But also I did quite a few movies for television before Ghost Whisperer. I’ve been doing television for a long time; I know how to shoot fast and economically.

L(H)B: Well, you did one of my favorites, the Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis movie {Martin and Lewis]. I love that movie.

JG: In fact, Sean Hayes [who played Lewis] did a favor for me in this movie, and he did a voice on the telephone -- the college recruiter who’s calling Brian.

L(H)B: I didn’t recognize his voice.

Speaking of voice, you got Stephen [Lang] and Karen [Allen] and certainly the boys and to some extent, Peter [Riegert], who of course is an outsider so he doesn’t necessarily have the same accent.

But these people sounded to my untrained ear for that particular place like they really all came from [Bay Ridge] and they all had the same background. I couldn’t find it on the credits, but who worked with them on dialect?

JG: I have to say that really Nick and Leslie -- neither of whom, I believe, had ever set foot in Brooklyn before we did the movie -- they really sort of got there on their own.

I wanted to be careful with them not to go too far. I didn’t want to make it consciously talk ‛like this‛ here, so I wanted to do a subtle thing.

One of my dearest friends is a man named Tim Monach, who is one of the premier dialog coaches, phenomenal. lhb-KAllenHe works with all the big stars, and I met him because we had done a movie with Natasha Richardson and Donald Sutherland [The Hunley] and that’s how we met, and we stayed friends. He’s a wonderful man.

Karen was very concerned about getting the accent right, it was really important to her. She said to me, "Look. One of the important things about me doing this movie is I really feel like I want a dialog coach."

Of course, we had no money, and how do we do this? So I called Tim I said "Look, I can’t afford you, Tim, but you must know somebody." And he said "Karen Allen? I love Karen, we met. I’ll do it for you. I’ll do it for free."

He was doing Wall Street at the time, and so he would get on the subway in lower Manhattan, come out to Bay Ridge -- two, three in the morning -- and work with Karen. She went to his house to have rehearsal.

Those are the kinds of things that allow this kind of movie to get made, that kind of generous spirit.

L(H)B: In most cases, was this your first choice in each one? Peter [Riegert] said that as far as he knew, he was the only one who was offered the role.

JG: Oh yeah, absolutely. Honestly, I didn’t think we would get people of that stature. But my casting director, Russell Boast, who’s a genius, said "You know what? Let’s just try. All they can do is say no. Let’s try."

L(H)B: The three younger actors, Nick Thurston…

JG: Geoff Wigdor.

L(H)B: And Leslie Murphy were just exceptional. They played the two brotlhb-Reigerthers and one of the brother’s girlfriends, and are obviously going to have big futures ahead of them.

I think they’re really very talented. They also look the parts. Leslie in particular reminds me of several young Irish girls I’ve met along the way.

JG: Yeah, and we were very lucky to get them.

L(H)B: The film is semi-autobiographical?

JG: Sure.

L(H)B: I don’t know how far we can go with that, because it’s a very dark subject matter. It’s two young men growing up in an alcoholic family, father is abusive, mother is codependent.

And yet there’s a way out for one of the young men -- which always reminds me of an old Warner Brothers-type movie, where there are two brothers [Brian and Danny] and one is good and one goes bad kind of thing.

But this is of course updated to the ‘70s in Bay Ridge. You’re actually a Bay Ridge boy?

JG: Yes, born and bred. Raised in Bay Ridge.

L(H)B: You’ll have to tell me how much you want to say about this, but was there alcoholism in your family?

JG: It’s something that certainly was prevalent in the neighborhood. I had a much easier time growing up than Brian did, for sure, but I did see a lot of what happened in the movie happen around me.

One of the things I wanted to try to explore in this film was that people think about neighborhoods sometimes like this -- in terms of what happens to you out on the streets. It’s dangerous; get off the streets at night.

But I wanted to take a look at what happens to some of these kids when they close the door to their apartments at night, and that’s where they’re really not safe.

It was about looking at that and also looking at how commonplace it was. In those days, you didn’t think anything of it. Everyone got hit. It was a courtesy of the neighborhood. Teachers hit you, the nuns hit you. You wouldn’t dare tell your parents that the nun hit you because the question would be, what did you do that she had to hit you?

Obviously, today it’s a completely different world, and better for it. So I was interested in exploring that notion.

I think if there’s anything truly autobiographical about it, it’s the sense of feeling like: what if I have a talent that I don’t know what to do with it? Does it mean I have to leave this neighborhood? Does it mean I have to go out into the world?

And that’s what I wanted to explore, because I certainly felt that growing up. I knew from a very early age I wanted to make movies or tell stories, write.

L(H)B: So in the film Brian is an artist with paint, with watercolors and then oil, but that’s your metaphor for art in general -- and yours was writing.

JG: Right. And this was an environment where the emphasis is on survival. Get a job, get a good job, get your high school diploma.lhb-WIDrinkers

L(H)B: Get a civil service job. Absolutely, I understand that.

JG: That’s good solid thinking. But if you feel like, "I don’t really fit that particular mold," is there something wrong with me? Am I a misfit, am I going to fail in life because I want to have this pipe dream?

L(H)B: And there’s no support for it from anyone, so you have to keep it secret.

JG: Yeah. Now in my case, you couldn’t keep it secret because I needed people to help me make movies, I couldn’t do it on my own.

And I have to say that my mother was incredibly supportive of me, even though she didn’t really understand it, wasn’t quite sure how I was going to make a living at it. I think she worried, but I think what was clear to her was how much joy it gave me and how important it was to me.

That scene where Margaret gives Brian the paints -- it comes out of my life. Because my mother once got me my first Super 8 film camera, and she had to buy it on a lay-away plan. But she knew how important that was to me and gave it to me, and it was like getting a bar of gold.

I spent hours and hours and hours working on making movies and cutting them. And she was always very supportive.

L(H)B: You dedicated the film to her.

JG: Yeah, she passed away not long after we finished shooting.

L(H)B: Did she get to see any of it at all?

JG: No. She came to the set one day.

L(H)B: How old was she?

JG: She was 85.lhb-NickLeslie

L(H)B: Oh, that’s as they say, a good, long life.

JG: She had a good run. Lived in Bay Ridge her whole life.

L(H)B: I’m happy to hear that that wasn’t particularly your life, because it didn’t feel like a happy life. The thing that bothered me was that -- and I’m not going to give away the ending -- it’s not going to be over for Brian, really.

I’m hoping that for Brian’s character that it will find its way to not ruin his life in some way, because this stuff has such a way of proliferating in the next generation.

One of the funny scenes in the bar is when the disco guys come in. Where were the disco guys from?

JG: That was sort of a war that went on in our neighborhood, because in Bay Ridge, [there] was kind of a largely Irish population at that time.

L(H)B: It’s Italian now, I think, right?

JG: Well, it’s kind of Middle Eastern now. There’s still a fair Irish stronghold there, and Scandinavian and Greek. It’s a melting pot for sure.

But at that time, for some reason, a lot of disco started popping up in Bay Ridge.

Bensonhurst was our neighboring neighborhood, and I would say probably there were more Italians in Bensonhurst.

The Italian guys would come down to Bay Ridge and come to the discos, and we were jealous of them because they had money, they had cars, they dressed flashy -- and they were all good-looking guys.

So of course we hated them, and they hated us because we were just street scum. Often there were fights, and bad things went on when the two came together.

So in the scene, I just wanted to do a nod to that, where two disco guys walk into the wrong bar.

L(H)B: It sounds like the beginning of a joke, but it was funny. It was a funny bit -- and of course I immediately thought of Saturday Night Fever, and it was the right time period.

I went online and found your beautiful wife -- she’s a stunning woman -- and it says that she is the producer of The Dog Whisperer. And I wanted to know if you have another thing coming out with "whisper" in the title.

JG: No. That was a hilarious thing because not only Dog Whisperer-Ghost Whisperer, at one point we were on at eight o’clock Friday nights against each other.

And also, she’s a brilliant writer and she’s written all of Caesar’s books -- five bestsellers now.

She’s really my secret weapon.

L(H)B: I think it was either in the New York Times article or Denis Hamill -- you’ve gotten a lot of print -- that said that you were a 52 year old director who is making a 25 year old’s film.

And it is a young man’s film. It’s like looking at Cinema Paradiso, where you think it’s an old man’s film but it turns out to be a kid’s film. This definitely had the feel.

It also said -- and this is something that’s quite interesting -- that when the dust clears in the next year or two, everybody’s going to have to make this kind of film, because there can’t be any more billion dollar movies -- there’s no money. At least not right this minute, there’s not.

So it seems to me like you might be riding the crest of the wave, hopefully. Fingers crossed.

JG: First time I’m setting a trend, that’s for sure.

L(H)B: As a person of Irish descent myself, I’ve got a bit of a problem with this "White Irish Drinkers" title. You kind of took it by the horns, as it were, and sort of put it out there -- because you could have called it Brian’s Story or something, and nobody would have known. Have you gotten any flack for it?

JG: Not yet. I expect that we will. A lot of people think "Oh, it’s my life story!" "It must be about my family!" We get a lot of those comments.

But the title is meant to be ironic, and it is how we characterized ourselves in the neighborhood because we resisted drugs. It’s not meant as a slur, and I think if anybody sees the movie, they’ll understand what the title really means and that it’s not another knock against the Irish at all.

L(H)B: The film opened the Craic [pronounced "crack"] Festival. This is the Irish Film Festival in New York, for those who don’t know.

JG: It was a wonderful experience. Terence Mulligan was the mastermind behind this.

We were invited to be in it and then invited to be the opening night film, and it was wonderful. Great to be in a New York festival, and the audiences are just so enthusiastic and passionate.

We had a big opening at the Tribeca Cinemas, and a wonderful party afterwards. It was very gratifying because people really respond to the movie. We’ve had so many screenings at this point at festivals and film clubs, and word of mouth screenings.

L(H)B: All necessary with a small film these days.

JG: Absolutely, you’ve got to do it. And I sit through every one because -- I always learn something, for one thing -- but also working in television, you miss the audience connection. And there’s nothing like sitting there and listening to people laugh, and you hear them sniffling, and feel their reaction.

I can’t get enough of it. Because for many years in TV, of course, it’s just out there on the waves, and you hear by the numbers they like it, but you rarely get a chance to sit with people.

L(H)B: What does "craic" mean?

JG: It is the Gaelic word for fun, for lighthearted fun. I was lucky enough to do a movie in Ireland about nine years ago. It was called The Seventh Stream. It was a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie with Scott Glenn, Saffron Burrows and Fiona Shaw, the great Fiona Shaw.

I was hanging out with the drivers one day and they were talking about another movie they had done, and one guy said "We had great crack on that one."

I thought: my god, there are drugs everywhere. Finally, someone said "No, John, it means fun."

[The film is now is available on DVD and Blu-Ray]

{enclose JOHN_GRAY-WID.mp3}

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