John Gray draws on his Brooklyn Irish upbringing – and his own pocketbook – to tell the tale of two brothers torn between loyalty, rage and destiny in the blue-collar indie drama White Irish Drinkers.
Written by Dylan Callaghan
The new indie drama White Irish Drinkers, written and directed by Ghost Whisperer creator John Gray, is a perfect example of a tale from the past being brought to cinematic life by modern technology. A veteran writer and director, Gray grew up in Brooklyn, New York, where like his protagonist, he came of age in the 1970s.
He has never forgotten his life in “the neighborhood.” He wrote the first draft of Drinkers more than a decade ago, before launching his hit CBS show in ’05. It was the kind of feature script that circumstance pushes to the side, but that never leaves its writer’s mind. It kept pestering him through the hugely demanding five-year run of Whisperer until, at long last, he reworked the script, adding a crime thread and restaging several key elements to make it more plausible for indie budget. After circulating the draft and getting praise but no solid backers, he realized that the advancements in digital film technology made it possible for him to shoot the film himself.
Driven more by the passion to see this story come to life than by any great lust for feature acclaim or profits, Gray decided to finance the film out of his own pocket. During a chat with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site, he spoke about the abusive Irish Catholic family at the story’s center, and why correcting the often patronizing portrayal of blue-collar characters was a key motive to making Drinkers.
Tell me about your personal relationship to this tale.
I was born and raised in the neighborhood where the movie takes place. Part of it has to do with the feeling I’ve had often when I go see movies that feature working class characters, or blue-collar characters. So often you see them portrayed as really dumb, just kind of clueless comic foils. That was so not my experience growing up in my neighborhood. The people I grew up with were really smart and really funny and cynical and sarcastic. They might not have had giant vocabularies or college degrees, but they were really smart people who were just with it.
The other thing that I wanted to do was a movie about a neighborhood where it wasn’t so much about the danger on the streets but what happened when you went home and closed the door at night.
Photo: Alan Tannenbaum
Geoffrey Wigdor and Nick Thurston in White Irish Drinkers.
Is any of the abuse that goes on in the film at all autobiographical?
I certainly had an easier time growing up than Brian [Leary, the film’s protagonist] did, that’s for sure. I can say that if what happens in the movie didn’t happen to me, it’s based on things that happened to people that I knew.
The climax of [the film] was completely made up… there was a movie theater in my neighborhood called the Fortway, and like many movie theaters in the ‘70s, it was struggling, and they decided to bring in rock acts. They did get Chuck Berry to play there.
When I was rewriting the script 10 years after I’d first written it, I remembered that because [the original draft] didn’t have that subplot of the crime and a theater owner who thought a [Rolling Stones] show would save his theater. I just kind of took it from there.
When you wrote the original script, what were you looking to write, a crime drama and coming-of-age story?
I was really looking to write a character-driven coming-of-age story set in a very gritty world. Originally, it was set around Christmas time and Brian worked on a ferryboat. When I went back, I wanted to add the crime element, and also I knew I had to tone it down budget-wise. I knew we could never shoot on a ferry, we didn’t want to be on the water, and we couldn’t afford snow and all that kind of stuff.
You couldn’t afford snow.
When you can’t afford snow, that’s how you know you’re on a low budget film.
This is your first time back to the feature film helm since 1996. I know you were very busy with The Ghost Whisperer and TV movies, but tell me how and why you wanted to write and direct another feature.
It wasn’t out of great hunger to do features. I’d done three other features and had really enjoyed that, but I really love working in television because of the speed and the variety of things you can do…
The amount of story?
Yeah, and even apart from the series, with the TV movies, I got to go into worlds you really don’t get a chance to go into. But what happened is that I’d always have this script at hand. I’d pull it out every year and say, “Man, I just see it so clearly in my head! I would love to do this.” I tried all the normal avenues one would take to get it financed and could never really get any traction. Although people liked the script, and I got work based on the script, no one wanted to actually make the movie.
What happened over the course of those 10 years is that technology changed, and digital filmmaking became so prevalent and within reach, and I had this series on TV that was successful, so I had access to some dough. So I thought, I wonder if I should just take a deep breath and make this movie myself and just get it out of me?
I didn’t know what would happen, if it was just something I would wind up showing in my basement or what.
But it was more a case of this particular story calling you than a desire to get back into features?
Yeah, I just really wanted to make this bad.
What makes feature scripts different from a writing standpoint to TV aside from the obvious stuff? There’s obviously the collaborative aspect of TV…
Yeah, and also this was different because it wasn’t vetted by studio execs. You obviously have a lot more freedom in terms of the way you can depict the world, just in terms of language and the reality of what people say and do. For me, it was a chance to write something where I wasn’t really concerned with spoon-feeding the audience, which you have to do so often in television, particularly in series. I found that really refreshing. I could just indicate something and hint at something without having to feel like explain it.
I like to think I never did it in my TV movies, but in series, there’s always that pressure to set it up, show it, and then talk about it.
Now, having said all of that, there’s a lot of dialogue in the movie. There’s a lot of action as well and lot of other things, but I did decide, if I was really smart, I would make this feature more purely visual, something that was going to be super slick. But I just didn’t. I wanted to indulge in some wordplay and try to develop these characters and their relationships without that pressure of, “Come on! There’s a commercial in two minutes. Let’s go!”