John Gray, hitherto best known for creating the television show Ghost Whisperer, wrote and directed White Irish Drinkers, a Bay Ridge-set coming of age story about an Irish-American young man confronting possible futures: jail? A dead end job? Or college? It might be true, as at least one critic has charged, that Gray “couch[es] clichés in self-conscious nostalgia”, but the movie is also conspicuously sincere, especially for somebody who grew up in southwest Brooklyn (like me!). I spoke to Gray via email to ask him about shooting in Bay Ridge, and about his film’s place in the Bay Ridge canon, which previously included just one movie.
In one scene, “disco fucks” wander into an Irish bar and are told to “go back to Bensonhurst”. It felt like a pretty explicit attack on Saturday Night Fever. What are your feelings about that movie, and its legacy as the “Bay Ridge movie”?
Not at all an attack on Saturday Night Fever! I love that film. That scene has nothing to do with Saturday Night Fever, and everything to do with the kind of “culture war” that I remember from Bay Ridge at that time, where every weekend we’d have an army of Italian guys coming down from Bensonhurst to go to the discos. We were kind of jealous of them, because they had money, nice cars, and girls! Most of us “natives” hung out in Irish bars and hated the disco scene, and if any disco guy walked into the wrong bar, there could be trouble.
One thing your movie had in common with Saturday Night Fever was that the main character needs to escape Bay Ridge in order to succeed. Were you conscious of that?
I honestly wasn’t thinking about Saturday Night Fever at all when I wrote this script; it’s based on some of my own experiences growing up in that era in Brooklyn, and my own fear of leaving my familiar surroundings to pursue my dreams.
Many of the exteriors looked like they were shot up around Fort Hamilton Parkway, arguably over the Bay Ridge border into Dyker Heights. Why’d you go that far east to shoot?
We shot two scenes on or near Fort Hamilton Parkway: The exterior of the Leary apartment, and the Liquor Central store that Danny wants to rob, although the back alley of “Liquor Central” was shot on 86th Street and Fifth Avenue, behind what used to be the old Dyker movie theater. We chose those locations for their look, and ease of shooting in terms of traffic control, etc. The rest of the movie was pretty much shot between 74th and 86th streets, along Fifth Avenue.
How hard was it to find in-tact 70s-looking locations?
It was challenging, but in fact Bay Ridge hasn’t changed all that much. We had to be careful of new storefronts, but the basic silhouette of the neighborhood is essentially the same. The biggest challenge was dealing with the thousands of satellite dishes everywhere! These we had to remove digitally in post production.