John Shea strides on to the movie set with all the command of an action hero. He’s wearing a black leather jacket over black jeans, his eyes hidden behind Terminator shades. A sea of actors, extras and crewmembers parts on command as the director approaches. He points to the camera to adjust the shot, tells the grips to tweak the set, and then starts going over lines with his leading star. Of all his movies, television shows, and theatrical productions, this might just be the most important role of John Shea’s career. Drawing upon decades of experience and a lifetime of island connections, Shea is attempting to fulfill his dream of directing a major motion picture on Nantucket. Welcome to the set of The Grey Lady.
For the better part of a decade, John Shea has been looking at the island and imagining the set of a blockbuster action thriller. His mind kept a rolling roster of local island characters, shot locations and authentic Nantucket scenes that someday would make for movie magic. This spring, Shea’s dream finally came true when principal shooting for The Grey Lady began on the island, complete with a big-name Hollywood star, military-issue fog machines, and hundreds of actors, crew and local extras.
The idea for The Grey Lady struck seven years ago while Shea was walking through the moors with Hollywood producer Armyan Bernstein, who also owns a house on the island. Bernstein is known for such blockbusters as Air Force One with Harrison Ford, Spy Game with Robert Redford and Brad Pitt, and The Hurricane with Denzel Washington.
“I asked John, ‘What’s your dream these days?’ and, he knew exactly what it was: He wanted to direct a film on Nantucket,” Bernstein remembers. Strolling through the mist of the moors, the two hatched the idea for an action thriller set on the island. “Army said that there needs to be a touch of poetry about the whole story that allows it to transcend the genre,” Shea remembers. With that, he began writing, believing that the island itself would give his film the “touch of poetry” that would distinguish it from other action thrillers.
The Grey Lady is about a Boston-based homicide detective named Doyle, played by former Grey’s Anatomy star Eric Dane, who steals away to the island after his partner is brutally murdered in the city. “In the first scenes of the film, his Boston police partner, a woman, his lover, is killed, and her dying words lead him to Nantucket,” Shea says.
Bernstein collaborated with Shea on developing the film’s plot. “Someone is killing the people Doyle loves, and he comes here in the off sea- son hoping that they will follow him here where they can’t hide,” Bernstein says. “And, here, on this beautiful and moody island, he will confront his enemy…and himself.”
Every detail of The Grey Lady’s set has been designed as authentically Nantucket as possible, from the prop beers from Cisco Brewers, to the clothing from the Haul Over, to the artwork by local artists—even Shea’s own beat-up old Volvo makes an appearance. Actors from the Theatre Workshop and long- time island locals like Rocky Fox and Billy Sherry were cast in the film, while all the extras were hand picked from the community. “Who could be more believably from Nantucket than people from Nantucket?” Shea says. It cannot be over- stated: Shea wants his film to be for the island, by the island, about the island—top to bottom.
“When you live here your whole life, you know what’s true and what’s not true in any given situation,” the director says. “I don’t think a Hollywood guy could come into Nantucket and just unlock the island. The island is actually pretty tight. It takes trust over many years to open up. It’s like a clam that way: Once it opens, it has all this sweet stuff inside, but on the outside it’s tough.”
The tough-looking guy on the set today is the movie’s star Eric Dane, a sycamore of a man with a stonemason’s handshake. Behind his rugged good looks, the actor comes across as a regular guy who still shrugs with disbelief when a group of giddy girls swarm him at The Bean. “It’s amazing that they actually let us film on this island— it’s so beautiful,” Dane says between scenes. “It’s also amazing that other films haven’t been shot here, but I think that’s a testament to this town and how they want to conserve the beauty of this place.” He adds, “I’m having a good time. I love the island. It’s fantastic. I get why you guys live here.”
After seven seasons playing Dr. Mark “McSteamy” Sloan on the ABC medical drama Grey’s Anatomy, Dane has transitioned into the role of action hero. Just before coming to Nantucket, he finished up ten episodes of Michael Bay’s new TNT series The Last Ship, a post-apocalyptic drama airing this year that had the actor doing his own stunts. “I like it—it’s physical,” he says. “It’s hard work, but I like hard work. At the end of the day you feel like you’ve accomplished something—but you do take a beating.”
Here on the set of The Grey Lady, Dane is acting alongside such stars as Academy Award nominee Amy Madigan and the breakout beauty Caroline Stotesbery. Of the director, Dane says, “John is not a good director; John is a great director. The working combination between him and [cinematographer] Andrzej Bartkowiak is stellar. John is so good at working with the actors and Andrzej is so good visually.”
Indeed, the film’s cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak is instrumental in capturing the is- land’s look and feel having spent forty years here. Known most notably for his Academy Award-nominated films Terms of Endearment and Prizzi’s Honor, Bartkowiak brings an eye for action that’s made him one of the best in the biz. He moves around the set casually, tinkering with the myriad of movie minutiae that go into each shot. Amidst the set’s frantic pace, Bartkowiak is composed and lighthearted. He shares Shea’s vision and seems to know exactly how to bring it to life.
Another major player in bringing Shea’s film to life was executive producer Wendy Schmidt, who’s been collaborating with Shea and Bernstein over the last few years. “The three of us shared this essential and deep understanding that the island could play a unique role in the film,” Schmidt indicated over an email from abroad. “In its off season, in its quiet mystery, its bare landscapes hide more than they reveal. We love Nantucket in all her seasons, and thought this film could feature her as a kind of character in a murder mystery story.”
All those involved are pretty tightlipped about how the story of The Grey Lady will ultimately unfold. Shea and Bernstein repeatedly have to force themselves to stop talking about the script so as not to spoil all the movie’s twists and turns that have been seven years in the making. “This is my favorite kind of filmmaking,” Shea says as he’s called back on to the set, “the kind of film that transports you to a place you’ve never been before and you believe that you are there.” Indeed, when it comes to transporting people to the Grey Lady, few are more qualified than John Shea.