http://Spidvid.com - We are back with our best Spidcast episode to date this month (listen in below and subscribe on iTunes) with a focus on storytelling and passion. September's Spidcast features the incredible John Gray, who's the creator of TV show "Ghost Whisperer" along with the amazingly talented Melissa Jo Peltier who's the co-executive producer of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding."
John Gray is a writer, director, producer, who is the creator and one of the executive producers of the CBS television series Ghost Whisperer starring Jennifer Love Hewitt. He has also written and directed many high profile movies for television, such as the remake of the 1976 film Helter Skelter, Martin and Lewis, The Hunley, The Day Lincoln Was Shot, among others. He has written and directed feature films as well.
Melissa Jo Peltier is a two-time Emmy Award-winning writer, director and producer. Melissa wrote and directed the primetime documentary special, Scared Silent: Exposing and Ending Child Abuse, hosted by Oprah Winfrey. She's also a Peabody & Humanitas Film & TV Writer/Producer/Director & NYT Best Selling Book Author. And she's Producer of the indie film White Irish Drinkers.
Full Show Transcript Below
Michael: Hi. I’m Michael London and welcome to Spidcast, the future of collaborative video production brought to you by Spidvid.com. On this episode, we’re visiting with John Gray and Melissa Jo Peltier. You’ve recently seen John’s work as a producer on the TV series “Ghost Whisperer” and in TV movies such as “Helter Skelter”, “Martin and Lewis” and a lot more. Melissa’s credits include executive producer with the “Dog Whisperer” and co-executive producer on “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”. They collaborated together on John’s semi-autobiographical film “ White Irish Drinkers”. I’m certain you’ll enjoy their similar but quite unique stories as well.
First up is John Gray. John, welcome to Spidcast.
John: Well, thanks for having me.
Michael: Tell us a bit about your story?
John: Well, I was very, very luck to know, at a young age, that this is what I want to do. I used to think I wanted to be an actor when I was very young kid because I thought the actors kind of did a role and then it started to dawn on me as I made films with my uncle’s Super 8 camera and got more involved with what it takes to actually put a little movie together and tell a story, I realized that there was a sort of presence, another brain that was behind the camera that pretty holds the stuff together. And I gave up the idea of being an actor which I think is good news for the world and really got committed to writing and directing and they both came to be one thing to me.
I was very young when I made that commitment. I was also very lucky because I was so young and because I grew in Brooklyn and knew no one in the film business or the television business; no connections whatsoever. I had no idea how hard it was. I really did have no idea how impossible trying to break it to the business. I just kind of went on my way just thinking this is was what I’m going to do with my life and I’m going to make it happen.
It took about 12 years, I guess, before I can actually start making a living at it but I was just really persistent and always try to make movies on my own, always trying to do a lot by yourself and writing all the time and it opened to me that I got an opportunity to direct some educational films in Washington, DC that were dramatic films but they were for classroom use and it was great experience.
To make the very long story short, there’s the script I had written that got me signed by an agent in LA, and that’s what started my career, in earnest, I was then able to really make a living just writing and openly to directing and I got started in television. My first film was actually an independent feature and I started doing TV movies which I really enjoy because I was able to do really, I felt, really interesting stories. It really had some great material to work with. That’s sort of the really telescoped “Reader’s Digest” version of how I got started.
Michael: John, you touched on something just a moment ago. If you had known just how difficult this business can be, would you have taken the same career path?
John: You know, that’s a great question. That’s a really great question and that’s something that I often think about. One of the reasons why I think I’m so lucky that I didn’t know. Because maybe if someone sat me down and say, okay, you’re 18, (you’re going to reach to) 30, by the time you can actually make a living doing this.
I don’t know maybe don’t want to do that. I don’t know. I’d like to think that I was committed enough to not care, but in my mind I was going to be a (success) tomorrow. I’m going to get this next thing done tomorrow. That’s how the attitude had a little…so I never sat down and went, “Wow, this is taking a really long time. Should I give up?” The more obstacles I found, the more determined I got to do it. It’s really important here you’ll be desperate too because you’ll realize I didn’t think I was suited for anything else in life really than to be a filmmaker. That was really what I felt I was here to do. That’s a good question. I’m glad I didn’t have to answer it for real.
Michael: Tell us a bit about how creating content for television differs from content for the film world?
John: I think the big difference is that if you’re for TV, of course, for broadcast television, you’re trying to get that big here wide audience but at the same time, at least in terms of movies, not so much series but in terms of movies, the subject matter you can tackle is so much more interesting that what you can usually do in the feature world. I made movies about the first Civil War submarine. I did a movie about the partnership between Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. I did a movie about Lincoln assassination.
I was able to indulge a lot of my own personal fascinations by making movies about them for television which, in the feature world, you’re probably never going to get those movies made unless you have some mega star casting. That’s why always love working in television movies particularly. I did a lot of movies for TNT and for CBS. At that time, there are not very many made now, but at that time, it was easier to get to do something little bit different and really kind of interesting and each movie I did was vastly different from the other.
In the feature world, I found it difficult to try to anticipate what’s commercial and what isn't. As a writer, I’m more attracted to sort of character-driven material. That’s very difficult to do in the feature world. I knew I’ve made a few features and I hope to make more features but mostly I’ve tried to stay in that indie sort of sensibility where you just sort of make new what they’ll consider small movies but to me are very big movies about relationships and people and humanity and how we all deal with each other.
Michael: Hey, John, I’d like to hear about your most recent film, “White Irish Drinkers”. Take us through that.
John: It was a script I had written about 10 years ago that I really, really wanted to make. One of the character piece, it was a very goody kind of violent look at growing up in Brooklyn. I could never get money raised to actually get it financed as a feature. For those 10 years, I just kept revisiting it and trying to figure how I can get this made.
A lot of people read the script in the business and liked the script and in fact, it got me a lot of work like writing work, but no one really wanted to make it. It even just felt like, you know, the character that’s small…so what happened during those 10 years then, really three things, I guess, one is that the technology changed so drastically in those 10 years. And then also, I was lucky enough to get a successful television series on CBS that lasted for five years so I had some more financial resources that I’ve never had before. The only thing was that I married Melissa, who’s a really brilliant producer and she kind of convinced me to not give up on this movie and so we have sort of teamed up. I realized that I could probably spend about $600,000 and make this movie digitally and call in on favors in people I’ve worked with for the past 20 years and that’s really how that came about.
We shot it for $600,000. We shot it in 17 days, all in Brooklyn. We have a wonderful cast Stephen Lang, Karen Allen and Peter Riegert and then some really exciting young actors Nick Thurston, Geoff Wigdor, Leslie Murphy, people I think that are going to be huge in the years to come. It is a wonderful experience. It was great making a movie just as what we wanted to make it. There was no studio. There was no network. It was just us.
The movie was released. We got a small release. We were out at about 25 cities. But that in itself is a miracle these days because the climate that the independent films in. It’s on DVD now and Blu-Ray and Netflix and iTunes and it’ll be on Showtime in the fall. It was a great experience. We got the movie out there and it was something I’m dying to do again.
Michael: And we do hope that you get that opportunity again. As you said, “Ghost Whisperer” allowed you the financing to make that film. Take us a little bit of the story of “Ghost Whisperer”?
John: It was really interesting because I’ve never done a series before. In fact, I’ve never even pursued a series. This opportunity just came to me because the executive I work with in CBS had wanted me to meet this woman who the “Ghost Whisperer” was based on. When I met this woman, I realized there was a way to maybe really do a series that for me to be really interesting in this was (meld) horror with emotional character-driven stories. That’s kind of how I pitched it and probably most people who get involved in the series is that they never believe they’re going to go and I wrote the pilot and I figured that that’ll be the end of that and then they said well, let’s shoot it. I thought, well, okay, I’ve never directed a pilot. I’ll see what that’s like and I’m sure that’s as far as it’ll go.
We made the pilot and they said, okay, why don’t you do 13 of them? I was like, “Oh no, I have to do this 13 more times. I don’t know if I could do it”. And they openly gave us a full season pick up and openly we went to do five years. I loved a lot of it. I wrote many, many episodes, directed many, many episodes and that was really fun because it was so fast. You get an idea for a show and then two months later, it’s on the air.
In that respect, it was very (heady) and we loved the cast and the crew’s really like family to me. That part was really great. The part that I enjoyed less was the kind of a show on her aspect of it where the first two seasons where it was really kind of dealing with more administrative things and creative things. Of course, writing, I guess were the biggest creative job but it was dealing with the network and dealing with the studio and dealing with agents and dealing with physical production and things that a producer does and things that I’d never aspire to do. I just consider myself a writer-director and that’s really what I wanted to do.
In that third season, we brought in P.K. Simmons to be the real show runner so that I could sort of step back and pursue other things but also keep writing and directing for this series and that was a wonderful change for me and that’s what openly allowed to write some of the pilots and also to get “White Irish Drinkers” off the ground.
Michael: So you have gotten one of your dream projects off the ground, you’ve had it made, you’ve had it distributed, but John, if you were a 20-something, just trying to break in to the business, what is the career path you would take? What advice do you have for the young filmmaker looking to get in?
John: I think the really advantage that young people starting out today have is again, the digital possibilities of cinema. When I wanted to make a movie, I had to do what I do it either in Super 8 or the Kid or 16mm. It was a huge expense but I mean, now, you see people making movies on their iPhones. To me, that’s really exciting and that’s what I really advice and I always advice everyone to do is get out there and make movies. Learn. Learn how to tell stories to the camera. Learn to how to work with actors.
That’s what I always emphasize because I feel like what’s happening with young filmmakers today is that they’re so involved with the technical aspects of it which are really fascinating and limitless. But I think what we’re losing a little bit is people being interested in storytelling and in creating performances with an actor and collaborating with an actor.
A lot of times, you’ll see a director on the set these days and they just hide behind the monitor and they never talk to the actors. That’s an art, I think, we’re losing and so that’s something I always encourage young filmmakers to learn. I encourage them to read not just scripts but read the great novels, learn storytelling in the best possible way, see every movie you possible can, and take acting classes. Learn what it’s like to be an actor. It doesn’t matter if you suck as an actor, but you have to learn what actors go through. And be a friend to the actor. Don’t be afraid of actors. To me, those are the best things to do. It’s a scary atmosphere today as it always do because the business is contracted and if you’re movie’s been made and there isn't any longer that incredible reservoir of television movies where you can go cut your teeth and learn on. Now, I think, it’s just be who’s any young filmmaker to go out there and make your movie, make it as great as you can, learn from it, make another one, get it out in the internet, get it on YouTube, get it seen and just keep working that way. Just never rest. Just keep going.
Michael: Excellent advice, John for the young filmmakers. Now, as you said, you’ve seen in your lifetime the whole process of filmmaking change completely. Let’s go forward maybe to the year 2021, ten years from now. What do you see? What will filmmaking look like then?
John: It’s hard to guess because who knows what’s the next development is around the corner, but based on what I see now, I think everyone will be experiencing movies to their computers or certainly through the (ether). I think the idea of the DVDs, unfortunately, the hardware’s probably going to go away. I think that movies are going to get easier and easier to make, easier and easier to see, and I don’t know if that’s going to devalue them or if it’s going to make them more valuable. I’m not really sure how those all are going to shape out.
I think that we’ll probably look at it in the future. I believe that probably the only big studio movies that will get made in the future are big ten pole “Planet of the Apes” and gigantic event movies. I think the smaller movies like “The Help” and movies like that, I think we’re probably going to see more on demand or in delivery systems other that theaters because I just believe that it’s not going to be cost-effective in the future to make those movies and market them in theaters. I hope I’m wrong. I really do, but that’s kind of where I see it going.
Michael: Now, there you make an excellent point. The accessibility, the ease of use, the quality of equipment, but it still comes down to the writing. Am I right on that?
John: I think it does. I think, at the end of the day, the things that last, the thing that live on to people’s memories “The Godfathers”, the classic films, the Tennessee Williams’ movies…it’s all about the characters, the writing and the storytelling. The other part that’s great too, I’m the first guy on line to see the big effects movies. They just don’t go away. They will live on in the history of film.
Look at the movie, “Rocky”, couldn’t be a simpler film, done for I don’t know how much money, million bucks, maybe back in those days. People still reference “Rocky”, they still talk about it. They still it was just that movie about people. I think those are the kind of movies that live on and I would hope that there are more people that wanted to make those kinds of movies even though in the future, they may not be as widely distributed as the bigger effects movies but we need those movies and I think they’re starting to be eradicated a little bit by these big effects extravaganzas, which I think, I’m not down on those, I love them. I’m always there for them. But I just don’t want them to have to be all there is.
Michael: I am in agreement with you there, John. Tell us what is next from John Gray?
John: Well, right now, I’m in New Orleans. I’m directing a movie for TNT called “Hide”, which is a terrific thriller, which I did not write, but Janet Brownell wrote it based on a novel. Melissa and I are producing partners have another low-budgeted thriller called “Slander”, which is about hate speech that we’re trying to raise money for right now. We’re trying to do some casting attached. That’s another movie we’re hoping to make independently as a feature. I’ve written another TNT movie and basically just trying to stay busy and keep it all going.
Michael: Thank you, John Gray for joining us today on Spidcast.
Next up is writer/producer/director Melissa Jo Peltier. Melissa continues to produce the “Dog Whisperer” and co-executive produced “My Big, Fat Greek Wedding”. And as you’ve just heard, she is a frequent professional collaborator with our previous guest and is also married to John Gray. Welcome, Melissa.
Melissa: Thank you. I’m happy to be here.
Michael: Tell us about your story and how did you break into filmmaking?
Melissa: Well, my beginning in filmmaking was due to my father who is 90 and literally just retired from teaching. He was teaching at Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement and he was at the time an audiovisual librarian but (by first-rated) filmmaker and he actually taught me how to edit films when I was 9. I made my first movie when I was 8 years old. I was doing plays when I was 4. He has basically taught me film theory before I knew what film theory was. I was bitten by the bug that young and I was just…the national storyteller.
The way I got into the business really was I went to Pomona College in Claremont, California, which I was a really wonderful school and I was an English major there but I was also in theater there. While I was a senior there, I got an internship on a documentary and that sort of sent me down the documentary path even though my goal has been to do drama. I got very addicted to doing documentaries. I got sort of caught up in the excitement of being a fly on the wall and being in people’s real lives and doing what I felt was making a difference because that’s how that social justice side of me show. That was my beginning and because our business was so varied and there’s no direct 1-2-3 path, you can take to do anything. I definitely geared from that over the years but that was definitely my start.
Michael: So you say that you learned to edit from your dad, you mean you we’re actually cutting film stock or digitally?
Melissa: No, it was a long time ago, there was no digital then. I was editing Super 8 film on little, teenie movie. I was with glue, cutting it with glue. I had small fingers so it actually made it even easier because I was only 9.
Michael: What a great experience.
Melissa: It really was. I think one of the things that I learned early off from my dad, but also my mother was a third generation English major and there was a lot of reading in my family. A lot of reading a lot of classic films and theater and I think just the building blocks of storytelling. One of the things that excited me about documentaries was I’ve never thought about how the building blocks of fictional storytelling can be used in telling real life stories. That was something that just thrilled me and took me off in that direction. And those are things I learned (mine) too.
Michael: Well, fiction or non-fiction, you’re still telling a story so it always comes back to the writing.
Melissa: I think so. One of the questions I know you wanted to ask me was advice to young filmmakers and want to be filmmakers and my main advice, I was thinking about this today is to learn storytelling and to learn it from the (great) tragedies, the real ones today to the most avant-garde methods of storytelling today and try to see the patterns because no matter what you can have the most original work in the world, you can be the most imaginative person in the world, but you still work hard about tradition and you will fall somewhere along that line even if you’re pioneering a whole new genre.
I just recently read an article about how there’s a lot of people who wanted to become writers who don’t think they should have to read and they don’t think they should have to read classic and there are…that way, but the truth is, you’re reinventing the wheel if doing that. Also I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t want to experience the pleasure of reading and singing classic songs. To me, that’s one of those natural highs of life.
I think learning the basics of storytelling is one of the most important things that any storyteller can do whether even if you’re a cameraman and you’re just going to shoot, you still want to learn storytelling, story (beads), how stories unfold and how it’s been done and the many, many different ways it’s been done over the years. Whether it’s a mini-story or reality TV or it’s an opera, it’s the same basic principles of storytelling and everything flows from there. I can't recommend enough to young filmmakers to really study great things in every possible film all the way back to the great plays.
Michael: Excellent advice, Melissa. Now, you recently were involved in a project with a fantastic story, “White Irish Drinkers”, tell us about that.
Melissa: “White Irish Drinkers” came about because my husband, John Gray had been doing the “Ghost Whisperer” series, which he created for a number of years and that went off the air and he had written a couple of pilots for network TV and he’s really an incredible writer and the pilots stopped to that point where they were in the running…it was between his pilot and another pilot and which then that happened twice in a row and it’s a good way to make a living. It definitely pays the bills but he was getting frustrated about not being able to tell his own stories.
So he pulled this script out of the drawer and he said, this is what I wanted to make for years. Is it any good? I don’t know and I read it and I just said “I think that this the most honest thing you’ve written and I think we should make it”. We actually decided to throw our money, well it was really John’s money he made from “Ghost Whisperer” and make it and call in whatever favors we could. Nobody works free on it but everybody worked pretty damn close.
To really get out there and make and for me, it was my first experience. I’ve actually been involved in independent films before but it was my first experience really getting down and dirty on the ground making an independent film. And I had two other producers with me, Paul Bernard and James Scura. Jim was more of the guy watching the budget. He was not on the set. Paul was actually doing the first assistant director. John was there also.
But really, between the two of us, we were putting out all the fires our film that’s smaller than a lot of fires but it taught me first of all, that all my TV experience, learning how to do down and dirty and fast, actually paid off because we were able to a feature film in 17 days and do it well.
I think the other think that it taught me in terms of filmmaking was it taught me about the honesty of a filmmaker’s voice and if you can stay connected to that how it really comes out in every aspect of the film, I believe John’s so connected to this film that it was infectious for the actors, the production and to all of us. Everyone up to the last possible minute was amazing, actors like Karen Allen and Stephen Lang were going out on their own with no money, nothing, just going out promoting this film because they believe in it so much.
I think that’s something that I kept with me about the strength of your commitment to a project can really be infectious. There’s part of me I do have to just do it for a living and film it in but when you’re passionate about something and you get the right people behind you, you can really make miracles.
Michael: Passion certainly is what draws many people into this business. What would you tell a young, passionate filmmaker about how to go about breaking into the biz?
Melissa: It’s such a different time when I started in the business because the technology has changed so much. I think that modern technology right now is very important. I think learning the building block is very important. I think being flexible is key. I think in owning what we want is important but there’s people out there who don’t know exactly what they’re going to do in this business are still going to find that by working. You don’t necessarily have to get an MSA to do that. You can get out there and get on the set and work and be a PA and work your way from bottom and see what you really connect with. That’s something that was true when I was starting and that’s true now.
You have to find something that will make you stand out if that’s the only the way you want to get in. knowing your craft better and once again, some of the basic rules of just being a good employee really apply in the business. There are a lot of people and I’ve had this experience because I have a company for 15 years and there’s a lot of people who come out of film school who are very bright and kind of big fish in a small pond and they’ll start out as somebody’s assistant and then they’ll three months later will say, when do I get a chance to produce. It doesn’t work like that. You still have to earn your way just like in any field.
It’s important to really work your butt off. Work hard. Have a great work ethic. Have a great attitude. Don’t expect your dreams to come true tomorrow. Keep dreaming them and keep working toward them but work hard and people will notice your hard work and your attitude, there’s no question. Still, even in our business, it’s not that common, by starting out. People will notice that.
Michael: So, what is next for Melissa Jo Peltier?
Melissa: Right now, I’m looking at a couple of writing projects my book projects, but I’m also working on a film with my husband, another independent film that we’re trying to raise money for. It’s being read by film actors right now and actor’s reps rather. We can’t name them right now but we’re hoping that we’re going to get a pretty important name to play this role. The name of the movie is “Slander” and it’s a small movie but it’s a really, really powerful story that John’s written.
We want to put our whole team together that we have on “White Irish Drinkers” again because that was such great experience for everybody who worked on it and this time, we had a little more money and maybe a few more days to shoot. Everyone who worked on the film was like us we just love the process of filmmaking. So it doesn’t matter that we don’t have (players) and all the perks that you might have on a network television show because actually, it’s more fun to have less money. Once you’ve actually worked with money, it’s sometimes a lot more fun to just do it the way that you did it when you were 9 years old.
Michael: Well, certainly things have changed since then including what we’re doing right now. Share with us your thought about Spidvid and what impact it has on future filmmakers.
Melissa: I think what’s exciting about it is that…and I like this about Twitter which was how I found Spidvid and I liked the fact that you can communicate with people who share your goals and also some of your values and your tastes who might be very far away from you and I think that that’s an important aspect of the organization that you have which is that people can reach out to others and they have a vision that nobody near them connect with their vision. They may just not connect, but somebody 2,000 miles away might absolutely connect and might be the piece of the puzzle that they need to get it finished. I think that’s a really nice thing about today’s technology.
We were isolated starting out when I began and I remember writing letters literally…typewriter and typing letters to producers trying to get meetings with them and it’s much more comfortable to reach out in other ways.
Networking is easier and I think that if you use it right and in a discerning manner, I think that’s a real advantage to the technology.
Michael: Speaking of networking, how can folks get in touch with you and learn more about you?
Melissa: Well, I’m on IMDb, so if they want to see everything that I’ve done, pretty much everything since IMDb started. I’m on Twitter @MelissaJPeltier. Whiteirishdrinkersthemovie.com is the website of our movie. My television production company is called MPH Entertainment. MPHent.com is out website. We’ve done a lot of non-fiction TV including the show “The Dog Whisperer” which we still do. That’s probably the best way.
Michael: Melissa Jo Peltier, thank you so much for taking the time to visit with us today.
Melissa: Thank you, Michael. I really appreciate talking to you.
Michael: That’s it. Thanks for listening to the Spidcast Show. We appreciate your time and attention. You can now join the conversation at Spidvid.com or on our Spidvid Blog. And you can join our collaborative filmmaking community at Spidvid.com. Tune in next month for another entertaining and informative episode of Spidcast.