John Shea’s Grey Lady -June 2014
by: John Stanton
photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger and Cary Hazlegrove
SOMEWHERE THERE IS A VIDEOTAPE of John Shea telling a story about his efforts to produce a version of Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest.” It was filmed for a documentary, but not used in the final cut. He is remembering 1968, when he found his way to Nantucket.
There was an expectation that the audience would follow the players to places around this island that would reflect the island home of Prospero. You can hear the memory of ambition and the certainty of youth in Shea’s voice as he tells the story. It ends with a shrug of his shoulders. The recreational drugs and everyday madness of the decade finally overshadowed his efforts to make the play happen.
“To me Nantucket has always been like ‘The Tempest,’ Shea said recently, as he ordered a late supper at the Starlight, after a long day of production for his new film “Grey Lady.” It has been almost 50 years since those days in the late 1960s and much has happened in his career as an actor and director, but he still feels the same way about the island.
“The social nobility, the islanders themselves, the Calibans, who are the heart and soul of the island and who you never know until you live here year-round,” he said. “You can have a summer home here for 30 years, like I did, but you’re only dating the Grey Lady. You don’t marry the Grey Lady until you live here.”
Shea, who has been spending summers on the island since those days in the late ’60s, moved here year-round three years ago, with his wife, Melissa McCloud, and their children. He is once again counting on the island to provide a backdrop for his storytelling. This time it is a film instead of a play, his words instead of Shakespeare’s, and the friends he is counting on to help him are a bit more dependable.
“Army said to me seven years ago that we should work together again, make another film together,” Shea said. Army is Armyan Bernstein, founder of Beacon Pictures, whose credits include films he wrote and directed as well as ones he produced. Films like “The Hurricane,” about the boxer Hurricane Carter, “The Commitments,” about a Dublin soul band, and “Dawn of the Dead,” are only part of a long list of films and television series. He met Shea after he cast him as the lead role in the 1984 film “Windy City.”
It was through that film, which Bernstein wrote and directed, that he ended up on Nantucket. The story is that filming was to begin in the summer, in Chicago, but Shea refused to give up his summer on Nantucket. He invited Bernstein to visit him here. The deal and the friendship were made at the same time. Production for “Windy City” was put off until October.
“I asked Army what kind of film we should make,” Shea said. “And he said, let’s make a romantic thriller and set it on Nantucket in the off-season, when the streets are empty and the skies are gray. He said I don’t know the details but it should have a cop and a crime and he meets a girl and there’s a mystery. And in the end there’s gotta be a touch of poetry about it that allows it to transcend the genre.”
Bernstein remembers the conversation this way:
“We were out walking near Altar Rock one day,” he said. “And I asked him what was his big dream. And he said he wanted to make a film on the island. I said that we had to find a script or write a script. I knew that all great stories have a similar structure. There’s a guy or a gal, they want something, they go off on a journey, they’re in danger, but in the end they pull through.”
Shea’s other creative partner is director of photography Andrzej Bartkowiak, whose own long career covers more than 40 films, including 11 for the late director Sidney Lumet, including “Prince of the City” and “The Verdict.” He was also director of photography for “Falling Down” and “Terms of Endearment.” The first time he tried his hand at directing was the box-office hit “Romeo Must Die,” a martial-arts action film.
Shea remembers Bartkowiak telling him, “I would love to make your film, but call me when you raise the money. Because I don’t want to get pregnant and then have my heart broken. I don’t want to get involved and then find out we can’t make your movie.”
Eventually, as they began raising a budget, Bartkowiak committed to the film.
“As we started working together in pre-production, Andrzej’s notes to me on the script were about cut, cut, cut. He liked to say that we’re making moving pictures, not moving words. It’s a funny kind of marriage of minds that is such a blessing for this film.”
Bernstein calls Bartkowiak a cinematographer with the soul of a painter.
“There’s no better guy in the world to shoot this film," Shea said. “He’s been my friend for 35 years. He’s lived on Nantucket and knows it and loves it as well as I do. You have three guys making this film with Nantucket history: Army since 1982, Andre since 1983, and me since 1968. This is a film made from the inside out.”
Shea and Bartkowiak worked for months planning each shot, storyboarding the script, scouting locations.“He brought his still camera and I hired actors from Theatre Workshop to play the roles in the film,” Shea said. “And we went to every location and blocked every scene and took photos of it all before we started principal photography.”
REJECTED FROM GOODFELLAS, SHEA SOUGHT TO TELL HIS OWN STORY
Although mainly known for his acting, both on the stage and in films, Shea had an interest in directing since his days at the Yale Drama School. It was a conversation with director Martin Scorsese, when he was casting his 1990 film “Goodfellas,” that provided the focus needed to both write and direct.
“I went to him looking for a role in ‘Goodfellas’ and he said to me, ‘John, you’re Irish, not Italian. You’re never going to be in one of my films. Why not go make a film and tell your own story? There hasn’t been a good Irish-American filmmaker since John Ford. What’s wrong with you guys?’ ”
Shea began writing a screenplay called “The Junkie Priest.” Then he came across a script called “Southie,” a story that plays out around the South Boston Irish mob. He worked with two first-time screenwriters to polish the script, originally called “Brass Ring,” and then directed it.
The as yet un-produced screenplay, the South Boston film and now “Grey Lady,” are all Irish-American stories.
“ ‘The Junkie Priest’ was about an Irish Franciscan priest in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, trying to protect prostitutes from the mob,” Shea said. “Then ‘Southie’ is about the Irish Mob in Boston. Now the
main character in ‘Grey Lady’ is Jimmy Doyle, an Irish-American homicide detective, who has grown up with the mob in his past and pays the price for it. But he ends up coming to Nantucket, a place where he’s never been before, to investigate a crime.”
Bernstein likens the story running through “Grey Lady” to a western. A stranger, a lawman, rides into town, on a ferry rather than a horse.
“It has to do with the sins of the father,” he said. “John’s script is not just a thriller. It has a very literary quality to the storytelling.”
A FILM MADE ON THE GENEROSITY OF ISLANDERS ON MANY LEVELS
It is Sunday morning and Shea is blocking out a scene with his crew and actors in the Steamship Authority parking lot. Production has been underway for 10 days, in locations here and there around the island, but today’s scenes will be shot on the M/V Eagle, the slow boat, and the M/V Gay Head, the freight boat.
“This is a low-budget independent film that never would have been made on Nantucket without the generosity of the island on so many levels,” Shea said. “The credits and thank-yous for this film will probably run as long as the film itself.”
Chalk marks on the parking-lot blacktop stand in for the places on the deck of the boat where the scenes will be shot. The reason for blocking a scene is to figure out the best way to move both the actors and cameras when it is time to shoot that scene.
When the boat steams out of the harbor, the island in the background, there will only be time for one, maybe two, takes to get it right. Much of the scene here is in the background, just as much of the texture of this film comes from the island itself. The backdrop to “Grey Lady” is not the summertime island. It is the island of long winters and late springs, of the struggle to meet mortgages, of everyday life and of people whose attachment to this place trumps all of that.
A strong sense of place underlines Shea’s films. As far apart as they are in many ways, it is something South Boston and Nantucket share.
“If we can capture something about the true nature of Nantucket and the social web and complexity of living here, all the social strata, some of that ring of truth, then we’ve succeeded,” he said. “Places are always changing. The Southie we made that film about doesn’t really exist anymore. The Nantucket we’re making that film about will soon be gone. Hopefully, this will be a snapshot of life here and now.”
The boat comes into view and begins to dock. The first assistant director, whose thankless job it is to make a good portion of production run smoothly, begins telling the crew to get the equipment packed up. “Once you’re on the boat, you’re on the boat,” he said, as if explaining the realities of life on an island to the uninitiated.
MOVIES THAT TRANSPORT YOU TO A PLACE YOU’VE NEVER BEEN BEFORE
A film crew moving from one place to the other resembles a combination military exercise and circus. A long line of equipment and people begin making their way up the gangplank: Wardrobe and makeup, grips, lighting, cameras and the tripods and jib arms and dollies to provide any number of different camera angles, people whose job it is to set up a makeshift kitchen and feed the crew, most of them with either walkietalkies or those little earpieces that Secret Service agents wear.
Once everything is brought up to the upper deck, the loading gives way to the more controlled frenzy of setting up the scene. Shea and Bartkowiak huddle to go over it, then one talks to his main actor while the other begins giving instructions to his camera team. The feel of the boat engines powering up is a constant reminder that the clock is ticking.
“11:45. There are 15 minutes to take off,” calls out the first assistant director in a loud voice. Everything is ready for a rehearsal in front of the cameras. When Shea calls “action” it is not as loud as you would expect. It is a quiet, almost conversational, voice. The scene plays through once. Afterward he talks with Eric Dane, quietly directing him on some small point, then one more rehearsal.
“I love movies that transport you to a place where you may never have been before, and you feel like you are there and experiencing a world that is a real world and being taken there and told a true story,” Shea said.
“The whole murder mystery I have to make up, but when it comes to the island I can draw upon so many experiences I’ve had over the years and begin to model characters after people I know and love, who live on Nantucket. And interweave it all with the fictional story of the crime. It’s the interweaving that blends a little fantasy with fact and hopefully will ground the story with truth.”
Down on the dock, workers are closing up the ramp to the car deck and the gangplank. The wind picks up, adding to the tension on the set. The captain makes his announcement, familiar to anyone who has ever ridden on the ferry, but he adds a mention that there is a film crew shooting scenes on the top deck. The steam whis-
tle blows. The boat pulls away from the dock. The film crew hurries into position to shoot the fist scene.
“FILMMAKING IS ABOUT SURFING THE CHANGES”
Halfway through the trip to Hyannis the winds have picked up to 30 knots. The announcement comes that the freight boat has been canceled. The crew will have to return on the Eagle. Shea and Bartkowiak find a table, along with the first assistant director, and they begin hashing out ways to rewrite the scene that was to be shot on the freight boat.
“Mother Nature has spoken,” Shea said later. “Filmmaking is about surfing the changes. If you are going to call a film ‘Grey Lady’ you had better be prepared to deal with 30-knot winds.”
An hour later the boat has docked in Hyannis, picked up passengers, and is steaming back to Nantucket. The crew is back on the upper deck, filming the restructured scene.
One of the camera crew is Bartkowiak’s son Marco, a student at Poland’s National Film School, in Lodz.
One of the school’s famous alumni is his father. Marco is a graduate of Nantucket High School. Bartkowiak raised two of his three children here.
The crew sets up for a shot designed to follow Dane as he walks across the deck. By now that has become a difficult task. It is a typical spring day on the boat; the horizon keeps giving way to the railing as the boat rolls. People walking across the deck naturally reach out for one of the benches to steady themselves.
The amount of work that goes into filming somebody simply walking across the deck of a boat highlights the fact that moviemaking is not a glamorous business. This is a workday. Lug the gear up the stairs. Set it up. Walk through a shot several times. Cue the actor. Do it again. One more time. Reset the equipment. Do it all over again from another camera angle. Give the editor enough different looks to someday make it into a film.
All of this on a rolling deck. The only one who does not seem affected by it is Jeff Cook, who is here working as a stand-in but who has spent plenty of time on rolling decks as a commercial fisherman.
ISLANDERS “NATURAL ACTORS”
Islander Bobby King Jr. is in the rewritten scene. He had been in Hyannis waiting for the freight boat, but a series of frantic cell-phone calls got him onto the Eagle as it made its way back to Nantucket. He is in a scene with Dane and Laila Robins, who plays The Duchess. His character went uncast until Shea and some of the crew went into the Sea Dog Brew Pub, now called NIXS, for a beer.
“I dragged him out of the Sea Dog the other night,” Shea said. “I told him he had to be in this scene. And I was so proud of him when he improved the scene on the boat today.”
King is not the only islander and non-actor in the film. Rocky Fox, part owner of The Chicken Box, and Billy Sherry, a sculptor, both have roles. Many of the secondary characters in this film are based on islanders Shea has known over the years.
“When it came time to find somebody for the role I had written based on Billy, I had casting directors in New York and Boston but I thought, what the heck, let me go audition Billy himself,” Shea said. “So Billy and I hung out for a couple of hours and of course he’s a natural actor. I feel the same way about Rocky Fox and Lisa Wendelken.”
Shea did the same thing in “Southie,” where only seven of the 40 speaking parts were played by professional film actors.
“They are all naturally good,” Shea said. “I wouldn’t ever put them in a situation where they weren’t good. That would damage the film, but I would also never embarrass them.
“They have to trust me, but I’ve known them all for so long I think they do. At this point, after so many films, there’s just a way of getting the best out of people by allowing them to just relax in front of the camera. A lot of people are naturally talented. My job and privilege is to bring out people’s potential in them.”
Bernstein, the producer, points out the balance between the non-actors and the lead actors.
“He’s not telling them to play the Eric Dane role or the Natalie Zea part,” he said. “He has very good, very accomplished actors in those parts, actors he knows can deliver great performances.”
Shea began learning how to work with actors while he was still a young actor himself. The first lesson came out of a chance to watch the director Costa-Gavras work up close. Early in his film career Costa-Gavras chose him for a lead role in the political drama “Missing,” which takes place during General Pinochet’s rein of terror and stars Sissy Spacek and Jack Lemon. The director became his mentor, letting the young actor hang out behind the camera and watch him work.
“The way he worked, which is how I am working with these guys, was improvising, being patient, creating an atmosphere of the set where they feel comfortable and can open up,” Shea said.
One of the roles influenced by islanders is based on Shea’s own wife, Melissa, an artist. The connection between how the Boston cop and the island artists see the world was part of Shea’s thinking when he wrote the script.
A PLAN FOR EVERYTHING, BUT PLANS CHANGE
“I thought, who will open up Doyle to this island? So I modeled the female character, Natalie Zea’s character, after Melissa,” he said. “For me the artists on this island have always been so brave. True artists here live through a kind of faith in the universe and in their talent, that if they are doing the right thing in their lives for the right reason, that somehow the universe will provide for them and allow them to survive and thrive even on Nantucket where it is so difficult to thrive and survive.”
Shea has been artistic director of Theatre Workshop for the last three years, a job that allowed him to get to know island theater actors.
“In 1968 I showed up and Mac Dixon put me in a play and treated me with respect and at the end of the week handed me a $10 bill and said you’re now a member of our company,” Shea said. “And so he made this really green kid feel like I was being taken seriously, so I took the work seriously. I had already been writing this film for two years when I took the job as artistic director. I got to know every actor, designer and creative person on the island.”
The film will also feature several actors from Theatre Workshop. The jump between acting on stage and acting in front of a camera is not as great as it might seem, Shea said.
Shea and Bartkowiak are still on the upper deck, filming one more small moment, and the Eagle docks and unloading begins. They have kept only the equipment and personnel they need for this last shot on board. Everybody else works their way down the gangplank and fills the SSA parking lot with people and equipment.
There is a fair amount of standing around on movie sets, waiting for when you are needed, and the crew lingers in the parking lot. Finally, Shea appears on the gangplank and jokingly tells the crew what they probably already know. That’s a wrap for today.
“We have a plan for everything, but plans change,” Shea said. “Luckily, we’re both sailors. Andrzej’s sailed across the ocean and I’m a harbor sailor, but we both know you have a plan but you better be ready to tack. The winds can shift. And you better have a great crew.” ///
John Stanton is a documentary filmmaker living on Nantucket. His latest film is “Wood, Sails, Dreams.”