Writer-director John Gray is something of a renaissance man. He’s transitioned seamlessly between TV and movies, directing action features like The Glimmer Man, as well as such acclaimed TV movies as “Helter Skelter” and “Martin and Lewis.” Gray also created the popular Jennifer Love Hewitt CBS series “Ghost Whisperer,” which ended last year after a five-season run. But Gray’s latest project, the feature film White Irish Drinkers, may be his most personal to date.
The gritty White Irish Drinkers marks Gray’s first feature in nearly 15 years. The film stars Stephen Lang (Avatar), Karen Allen (In the Bedroom) and Peter Riegert (“Damages”) in a volatile story centered around an Irish Catholic family willing to do anything to make ends meet in 1970s Brooklyn. Gray (who wrote, produced and directed the movie) admits that the events and situations in the film are based on real people and experiences he had growing up in Brooklyn.
White Irish Drinkers hits theaters March 25. Just before the movie’s release, MM caught up with Gray to discuss the film, as well as whether he prefers working in features or TV.
Kyle Rupprecht (MM): White Irish Drinkers has been a passion project of yours for many years. Why did it take so long for the film to get made, and how did it come about that you were finally able to secure financing for it?
John Gray (JG): Difficult to get made mostly because nothing blows up in it! Except tempers. It’s always difficult to get a character-driven movie financed, even though this one has a fair amount of violence and action. In the 10 years since I had first written the script, two things happened: One was that I was fortunate enough to get a successful television series on the air, and, two, the technology changed so that with digital filmmaking it became thinkable for me to finance the movie myself, and use all of my and my producing partners’ television skills to make the movie quickly and economically. It was shot in 17 days for $600,000.
MM: The film is reportedly semi-autobiographical, based on real people and events you experienced growing up in 1970s Brooklyn. Did basing the film on truth make the writing process more or less difficult? How so?
JG: I think anything you write has bits and pieces of you in it, and certainly I had a lot to draw on in terms of the characters I knew when I was growing up, but still you are faced with how to structure a screenplay and what dramatic choices to make and how to deal with the tone and pace… so in the end it’s never really very easy.
MM: The movie features an interesting mix of veteran actors and new talent. What was it like working with actors of such different experience levels?
JG: In this case easy because all of my actors were total pros, and they were all invested in the material, so they really showed up every day ready to go. We had absolutely no frills on this movie: No trailers, no porta-potties… really no comforts, and it’s a testament to the actors and their willingness to be all about the work that they put up with it!
MM: In addition to the features you’ve directed, you’ve worked extensively in television. Which do you find more challenging, and which world do you prefer—TV or film?
JG: I love both mediums, but what I loved about this experience is that I had total creative freedom. Which doesn’t mean I didn’t seek and listen to feedback from my collaborators, but it meant that at the end of the day the film is exactly as I want it to be, for better or worse. No one else to blame! In television you are serving many masters: Networks, studios, focus groups, etc. But you also can’t beat the speed of television, how quickly decisions are made and how quickly your work gets out there. When I was doing “Ghost Whisperer,” I could get an idea while I was driving on a Tuesday afternoon, and then see it on the air four weeks later.
MM: What do you have next on the horizon? Now that “Ghost Whisperer” has ended, would you rather continue making features or go back to TV?
JG: I’ll always look for interesting things to do in television. For right now, I am optioning a novel which I will adapt and hopefully direct next year, and I am working with my White Irish Drinkers producing partners on another independent movie that I am writing now and will direct in the fall.
MM: If you were stranded on a desert island and only had three DVDs to watch (film or TV), what would they be?
JG: Casablanca, Goodfellas and any movie by Billy Wilder!