63rd Monte-Carlo Television Festival World Premiere - The Gray House
BY Yako Molhov
On Friday, June 14 the 63rd Monte-Carlo Television Festival was officially opened by Honorary President H.S.H. Prince Albert II of Monaco, following a star-studded Red Carpet featuring world-renowned acting and creative talent from many parts of the world. The gala featured the world premiere of Republic Pictures’ limited series The Gray House from Kevin Costner’s Territory Pictures; Morgan Freeman and Lori McCreary’s Revelations Entertainment and Big Dreams Entertainment; Paramount Global Content Distribution is handling distribution of the series. Many stars of the series were in attendance, including multiple award-winning Mary-Louise Parker (Weeds, The West Wing), Daisy Head (Harlots), Amethyst Davis (Kindred) and Ben Vereen (Roots), along with executive producers Leslie Greif (Hatfields & McCoys), Lori McCreary (Madam Secretary) and Morgan Freeman. All of them attended a special press conference the next day when they revealed details about the story and the themes of the series, the shooting process, what the name of the period drama - The Gray House - means; etc.
Freeman, one of the most highly respected figures in television today with a prolific screen career spanning more than five decades, was awarded the Crystal Nymph at the ceremony, presented to him by H.S.H. Prince Albert II. In his speech Freeman shared that it was a great honor for him to join the ranks of Donald Sutherland, Michael Douglas, Dame Helen Mirren who have received the Festival's Crystal Nymph and all of whom he has worked with and joked that they can now stop asking him why he hasn't received the award. “Imagine how it feels when you are sent for, to come and receive such a great honour from Prince Albert,” he said. “These are, to me, pats on the back, life achievement type of awards. I got one or two more and they always feel terrific.”

The Gray House, which is inspired by true events, tells the story of four Southern women – a socialite from Virginia Elizabeth Van Lew (Daisy Head), her mother (Mary-Louise Parker), a formerly enslaved Black woman Mary Jane Richards (Amethyst Davis) and a prostitute (Hannah James), who start to spy for the Union. The four are credited as unsung heroes who helped end the nation’s brutal cleavage in 1865.

Regarding the world premiere of The Gray House, EP Morgan Freeman commented that "last night went very, very well, we had some pretty good feedback". His business partner and EP at Revelations Entertainment Lori McCreary "before the world premiere, we have not shown any of this except to our internal team and I was very nervous because it was a very big audience..." Daisy Head also shared that she was very nervous as she has not seen the entire episode, anything that has been fully put together, "it was amazing". Amethyst Davis admitted that she was crying by the end of it, seeing all the hard work on the screen. When asked about Kevin Costner's involvement in the project, Freeman shared that "there was no contact between Kevin and I, executive producing is outside of the action".

During the opening ceremony, Vereen compared slavery to the Holocaust. “It is our Holocaust. You can’t help but look at it this way. Our Jewish brothers and sisters came up with the word, but we have already lived it. We were taken from our homes, tortured, beaten, killed. Then we had a black man as our president in Washington, with a beautiful black woman by his side. That would have never happened had we given in.” During the press conference after the premiere he underlined the importance of history: "you do not know your history, you do not know where you come from. That's why The Gray House is so important. That we're telling you a story about what happened in all of our histories. Not just in the black and white community, but humankind. We have a tendency to lean towards violence. Isn't that strange? As our source of entertainment. But when the entertainment becomes educational, then it becomes a value to society...And my prayer is that, hopefully, The Gray House will shine a little light on something that happened in history that we covered up." The actor added that "when I first got the script, I did something I don't do. I took the script off - okay, I'll take the money. Then I read the script, and I went, oh, my God. We were dealing with something that has to be told...We're talking about my children's history and what they're going into and where we have been, which in my country is beginning to deny our own history. School kids will not hear about the Civil War. I was on the set in Romania with Romanian blacks who knew nothing about American slavery. 'We're British. We knew nothing about American slavery.' Why? Because it was not taught in their schools. Once we begin to pull that veil back, then we become more of a commutative globe towards peace. And so I thought the most important thing was to be involved in The Gray House, and I'm thankful to the writers and thankful to the producers for allowing me to get involved".

EP Leslie Greif, when talking about how the project got made, shared that "it took us nine years to get to this journey, to raise money, to get nine years of turndowns. The time's not right. No one wants to tell the story. But I go back to our movie is a setting that takes place in the time, but it's a contemporary tale. Unfortunately, we all know what's going on in the world. We all know the craziness in our country, America. And it's a way to be able to shine a light and make it relatable to the young people today, to, as Ben said, people who aren't familiar with history, where you can say, how did people come to power? How do people separate? Why are there internal conflicts within a country? It's not just America. We see everything happening around the world, Africa, Mideast, Eastern Europe. It's terrible. But this story is told through the lens of four heroic women, which is unusual because most of the time it hasn't been told through their lens. They are as heroic because they had to overcome even more than the men at the time. But it's a story about anyone who puts their life on the line, who puts what they believe in the line." McCreary added that: "it's sometimes easier for us to look back and see ourselves now than to have somebody tell a story about today...I have a very good education. I never heard the term The Gray House until Leslie brought this project to Morgan and I. I had heard about Mary Jane Richards, Mary Jane Bowser, the spy, but I wasn't taught it in school. And I think as filmmakers, what we love is the ability to bring these untold stories to life."

When talking about her role in the series Amethyst Davis shared that "I actually had never heard of the story of Mary Jane Bowser. I'm from South Carolina. That's where I grew up. And in our history classes, we were taught the history of the Civil War in an interesting way. So I hadn't heard this story, especially not from this perspective. So I had to look up pretty much everything I could about her. And she was an interesting person because sometimes she would say things one way and then say it a different way, she was a little ambiguous... So I saw myself in her because I felt like she was someone that was underestimated. And I identified with that. And I feel like my whole life, not just as an actress, people would underestimate me. And I take pride in proving them wrong. I love that."

From left to right: Morgan Freeman, Lori McCreary, Leslie Greif, Mary-Louise Parker, Ben Vereen, Amethyst Davis, Daisy Head

Daisy Head commented that the costumes played an important role in the series: "for me, portraying characters is so important. We are literally stepping into another person's shoes. And when those shoes are so authentic and feel so legitimate, it kind of makes my job a little bit easier, let's face it....Clothes are kind of like a second skin. And to be able to feel so authentic, because the clothes that like handmade, most of them are just extraordinary and true to the time. Just to be able to wear them and feel so much more my character in those clothes is a privilege. And I'm so, so grateful." Mary-Louise Parker added that the costumes enhanced everything: "the way you speak, the way you stand, the way you feel, the way you breathe, even". She also shared that she was really inspired by the younger actors, also praising Vereen: "...and this gentleman is a legend to me. Because I'm a theater actress. So he's as high as it gets..."

Greif shared details about the shooting process in Romania and why choosing the Monte-Carlo TV Festival to premiere it: "our story is set in America. But we shot in Romania. We had French, Italian, British, African, Scotland, Ireland, Canadian, American (team). We really were an international production. To tell a story back in time... and celebrate it as not, it's an American story. No, it's a global story. And what better way to do that than at an international festival. What better way to have Republic Pictures celebrate and herald this accomplishment. By saying, no, we're not just isolating it to America. It's to the world."

When asked by TVBIZZ about why Romania in particular was selected as the filming location, McCreary said that they love shooting internationally - they have shot in South Africa, in Bulgaria, in France, in Romania now. Greif was a big proponent of going back to Romania because he shot 'Hatfields & McCoys' there - "he would not let us shoot anywhere else. But he backed it up. We had 10,000 extras, two cranes every day, four cameras. And Roland Joffe - the master of directing: The Killing Fields, The Mission. And I think you saw it last night. This is more filmic than I think most television shows are. And so we had the opportunity with amazing crews". Greif added: "I had done a movie many years ago with Chevy Chase in Romania. Had a good experience. Then I came back because of that experience and brought Kevin Costner. Kevin had no idea he was going to Romania. I think he just thought he was going down south. And he got a plane ticket and he flipped out. Romania? But by that time he was in. And when he came down there we had such a great experience. Because the thing that I found in that particular opportunity, and I just had the same in Egypt, people love making movies. It's about the movie. It's not about the meal penalty. And the turnaround. It's the 'what do we do to make it work' and if there's a problem, we all stick it out together. And I had an experience back in Hatfields. We were shooting a battle scene and the snow fell in the middle of September and the whole field was blanketed in snow. And I was on the line on this one, my house was on the line on that. And I didn't know what to do because I didn't really have the money. That morning we looked at the battlefield. I came out, grabbed a rake; Kevin, who I love, grabbed a rake with me. And he started raking the field. And when me and Kevin went out there my entire crew, everybody from Romania - the grip, the catering - they came out. And they raked that field with me. And in 90 minutes we cleared the whole field. And we got to shoot for the next two days. And because of that dedication. And nobody telling us 'it's not my job, it's not my problem'. I said man if I ever have another opportunity to come back here, I'm coming back because I'm a loyal person. And this was a great opportunity and I had their support. And Romania did not disappoint. It was an amazing crew. And the battlefields - you can see 270 degrees, there's no McDonald's or power lines that we have to spend millions of dollars erasing. And so it's a perfect place for us to do something."

On working with Joffe and setting the visuals for the series, Greif said: "I had worked with Roland before... In the end we're making a movie to entertain, give it some scope and some old kind of movie making, feel and glamour. When Roland and I talked we didn't need to make it necessarily modern gritty, we have a very contemporary score... It has a theatricality because you don't get to see it that often, so let's try to bring back a little bit of an art form, pay an homage but, at the same time, tell a contemporary story."

In terms of the major changes in television and film throughout his career, Freeman said that "everybody is embracing streaming nowadays, by that I mean the major studios and the less major studios, forming auxiliary companies... since COVID people stayed at home watching television, other than go out and spend $20 on a movie..." And regarding the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in movies and series, Freeman commented: "there are things you can do with artificial intelligence... that represent a danger to your own identity, your own personhood. I'm concerned, seriously concerned." McCreary added: "and may I say as his business partner. I'm also a computer scientist. We have heard everything AI. It's getting better. But for 20 years, everyone comes and says 'listen, this is Morgan'. There is a soul in all of us. And especially in this gentleman. That will never be replicated by a machine. The soul cannot be replicated. And so there may be people who think that sounds like him. But it is not the soul. So we can relax."
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