John Gray would be the first to acknowledge that the world of "White Irish Drinkers" — a coming-of-age drama set in a rough-and-tumble Brooklyn neighborhood, circa 1975, populated by drunks, hustlers and wannabe heavies — is not quite the Bay Ridge he knew growing up.
But that didn't stop him from sinking $600,000 of the money he earned as creator of the long-running CBS drama "Ghost Whisperer" into a movie he calls "the ultimate passion project."
"I had an easier time of it growing up in Brooklyn than my characters do," says Gray, 52, who wrote, directed and produced "Drinkers" with help from a cast and crew he was able to recruit on the strength of personal connections and his TV success.
"If there's anything autobiographical about it, it's the sense of feeling a little bit apart, living in a neighborhood where it wasn't common to want to make movies or write for a living.
"It was looked down on, frankly. I felt as if I was somehow less than the guys I grew up with — guys who could build things with tools, guys who were tough. Those were things that didn't come naturally to me. I knew how to tell stories," he says.
Like the movie's conflicted protagonist — a gifted artist, played by San Francisco native Nick Thurston, forced to choose between cultivating his talent or backing his brother's small-time heists — Gray struggled with his longing to leave the only home he'd ever known and risk falling flat on his face.
That he followed his dream is as much a tribute to Gray's courage as his passion for storytelling. He admits he was initially terrified to embrace the gift that set him apart from the other kids.
Yet in doing so, he earned the clout and the wherewithal to make "Drinkers" his way. "It came to a point where I wanted to direct the course of my career," he said last fall, promoting his movie at Toronto's annual film festival in hopes of landing a distribution deal.
"I was ready to take that step, and if I wasn't willing to put up the money, who would? I had a story that resonated on a personal level, and some might call it a vanity project. But I had the creative freedom I needed, and a chance to work with generous actors who believed in the story and committed to it wholeheartedly. I needed them to put human faces on the characters I'd created. On a movie this small, there's nothing else to hide behind."
IF YOU GO
Starring Nick Thurston, Leslie Murphy, Geoff Wigdor, Stephen Lang
Written and directed by John Gray
Running time 1 hour 49 minutes
Note: Thurston and Murphy will answer questions after the 7:15 p.m. April 22 screening at San Francisco’s Lumiere and the 7:05 p.m. April 23 showing at the Shattuck in Berkeley, followed by a meet and greet at Shattuck’s Lot 68 Lounge.