Filmmakers Making A Social Impact: Why & How Filmmaker Colin K Gray of GRAiNEY PICTURES Is Helping To Change Our World
Take risks and follow the unconventional path. You’ll never regret it. The job market is tough whatever you do, so why not pour yourself into something you truly love and that gives you a sense of purpose. You may as well go after your dreams, fight for the things you believe in and take risks! My parents encouraged me to follow my own path early on and I’m forever grateful.
As a part of our series about “Filmmakers Making A Social Impact” I had the pleasure of interviewing Colin K. Gray.
Colin K. Gray is an award-winning documentary filmmaker, screenwriter and social impact storyteller. He recently wrote & directed the acclaimed feature documentary, UNZIPPED: An Autopsy of American Inequality about the affordable housing crisis in America. Uniting every project he tackles is a deep commitment to crafting powerful stories that challenge the status quo.
Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you share your “backstory” that brought you to this career?
Thank you for having me! Put simply, I’m a mutt. I was born in the United States (Michigan), grew up in Ottawa (Canada), both my parents are British originally, I also studied in France during high school and I now call Los Angeles home. My Dad was actually born & raised in Central America (El Salvador & Guatemala) before moving to Northern California as a teen and my Mum lived in North America for over two decades before moving back to the UK where we have a large extended family.
Technically I’m a dual Canadian-American citizen, but because home has been so many places over the years, I really do consider myself a global citizen (a much nicer way of saying a mutt with a very mixed background!). I am from so many places but I’m also the “outsider” wherever I go… not fully Canadian, or American, or British. But this is also perhaps one of my superpowers. On the one hand, feel like I can fit in anywhere, but I also bring that outsiders’ perspective that allows me to look at things slightly differently and/or to see commonality in disparate people and experiences.
The other key ingredient in my backstory is that I come from a long line of family members who have devoted their lives to supporting their communities wherever they live, whether as farmers, in the military, or as teachers & academics. This was crucial because it instilled in me, at very young age, the importance of being of service to others. Both my Dad (as a sustainability focused civil engineer and army reservist) and my Mum (as a social worker and a comparative social policy professor) were very active in the environmental, civil rights and women’s rights movements throughout their lives. I saw first-hand that a career with purpose, dedicated to helping others, wasn’t just possible but expected and essential. The trick was finding my own path!
I got a BA in political science and French literature at the University of Michigan (I remain a current events junkie and policy nerd). I also played water polo for the UM (my favorite sport, alongside hockey) and performed in local bands and student theater productions. As part of my early commitment to environmental causes, I also personally planted over 50,000 trees as a tree-planter in Northern Ontario (it’s a rite of passage, summer job for many Canadian college kids).
Upon graduation, I knew I wanted to devote myself to a global, community oriented career. I was either going to go into international relations and public policy, or I had this crazy idea that perhaps I could have more impact through storytelling and entertainment. I promptly moved to New York to chase the theatre dream. Within 6 months, I was cast in a Broadway touring production (The Buddy Holly Story). It was an incredible experience. I toured for a year. Charles Esten (of “Nashville” fame) played Buddy and I was the Cricket drummer, Jerry Allison. I then moved to LA and didn’t work for a year! My first paid gig was as ski patrolman #2 in Saved By The Bell (seriously!). I was then lucky enough to be a working actor for the next 5 years. I was a guest actor on TV shows like JAG & Living Single and also got the lead role of Frank Hardy in the remake of the Hardy Boys for New Line/Nelvana.
But it was around this time that I found my true calling. In between acting gigs, I had written & directed a public service announcement (PSA) on Aids Awareness for Much Music in Canada. I then started my first production company, WOLO Entertainment, focused on documentary films. I was hooked. Though not an obvious path (since no one in my family was “in the biz”), documentary filmmaking had the possibility of channeling my passions for traveling the world, spotlighting overlooked social justice stories and using storytelling to challenge the status quo.
I then launched my own production company, GRAiNEY PICTURES, with my sister Megan Raney Aarons in 2003. I haven’t looked back since. We just released our 7th feature documentary UNZIPPED: An Autopsy of American Inequality about the affordable housing crisis in America. We also launched a companion affordable housing impact campaign #RaiseTheRoof that provides simple ways for people to get involved and take action in support of the growing movement to enshrine housing as a human right.
Suffice it to say I feel very lucky to have found a purpose focused “career” that has turned my peripatetic upbringing and outsiders’ perspective into a unique strength as a social impact focused filmmaker!
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
The worst mistake I made was on the first documentary I directed & produced with a dear friend from my Buddy Holly days, Brian Ruf (he played the Big Bopper). We decided to document this amazing community event called the Turkey Bowl in Northern California. It was an annual alumni football showdown between two powerhouse high school football team, Los Gatos and Saratoga. Each year at Thanksgiving, their best all-star players would return, suit up and play full contact football for a local charity. Some of them were in their 40s and 50s, many were ex-Division 1 and some were even ex pro players, but they would come back and bring it hard for the hometown crowd and a good cause.
We were convinced this would be an amazing sports documantary, talked our way into getting access to film and gear from a local community college (though Brian & I had never filmed anything ourselves before) and had been filming for weeks — the practices, as well as interviews with local stakeholders and the two legendary high school coaches. The big “get”, the interview we’d been chasing for months, was with the district Superintendent who had played high school football for one of the programs and had later been the principal for the rival school. He was the one person who could shed a powerful personal perspective on what this game meant to the schools, to the alumni and to the community. He finally agreed to an interview. We got it all set-up on the side lines of the last practice the day before the big game. I was ecstatic. The interview was amazing and we knew we had the perfect, authoritative voice that would help stitch the documentary all together.
After filming the epic Turkey Bowl the next day, we excitedly started editing the film the next week. Our amazing editor, Michael Rogers (who incidentally went on to edit my feature doc, Freedom’s Fury), started reviewing all the footage. One day he called Brian & I into his edit suite and said he wanted to show us something. He knew how excited we were for the Superintendent interview. He played the tape. You see me in the frame, adjusting something on the front of the camera. I step out. Then the Superintendent steps into frame… and the picture goes black. Then the next clip starts playing and it’s me walking back into frame to shake his hand excitedly. He exits, then there’s about an hour of footage of Brian & I playing catch on the sidelines, joking around, talking with other players… and that was it!
I was horrified. I hadn’t realized the camera was somehow ON before the interview started. I turned the camera OFF to start the interview. Then turned it back ON once the interview was finished. We didn’t have a frame, a line, nothing. I had totally blown it! I was so embarrassed, and I knew how busy this guy was, so we didn’t even try to explain and ask for another interview.
A year later when we had our local premiere for the community, the Superintendent was there and approached me afterward, mystified why none of his commentary had made it into our finished film. “Was it not good enough?”, he wondered. I stammered some lame excuse about not having enough time to include all the wonderful people we interviewed in the finished film and slunk away.
As embarrassed as I was (am) to this day, it taught be a few invaluable lessons.
One, I should never be a camera person. Two, don’t try to do everything all by yourself. Three, make sure to surround yourself with experts. Last and perhaps most importantly, slow things down, especially in the heat of a moment. Take that extra moment to collect yourself to make sure everything is ready to roll before jumping in. You (and your editor) will thank you later!
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
My work has taken me around the world. I’ve truly been privileged to film in everything from Fortune 500 boardrooms, the slums of Mumbai and the jungles of Panama, to Olympic stadiums, the Gaza strip and in halls of power in capitols around the world. What I’ve learned is that everyone has a fascinating story to tell, no matter their station in life, as long as you listen and bring empathy and openness to everyone you’re lucky enough to chat with along the way.
The stories are endless. I had the honor to chat with President Jimmy Carter when he met with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas prior to the first Palestinian Presidential Elections in 2005. We were filming for a grass roots democracy movement called One Voice (launched by KIND bar founder Daniel Lubetsky). President Carter was as magnanimous as he’s rumored to be (perhaps the greatest ex-President in history), making sure to make time at a crowded news conference to respond to a few questions from an unknown documentary filmmaker. Things then came full circle last year when I co-directed an award-winning corporate social responsibility project called House + Home that celebrated the on-going partnership between Whirlpool and Habitat For Humanity, the global affordable housing organization President Carter has championed for decades.
I also had the honor of working with one of the greatest Olympians of all time, Mark Spitz, who miraculously agreed to narrate my feature documentary, Freedom’s Fury, about the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and the infamous water polo showdown between Hungary and Russia at the Melbourne Olympics. We had reached out to Mark’s agent, on a whim, to see if he would possibly consider narrating the film. Mark shockingly said yes. It wasn’t until he showed up for the voice-over recording that I found out why. Not only had Mark played water polo in high school (which I knew), but his very first swim coach was Ervin Zador (which I didn’t know!). Ervin was the young star player of the Hungarian water polo team in 1956 who we feature in the film. After scoring two goals in the Olympic semi-final match, his head was split open with a sucker punch from Soviet player, Boris Markarov, at the end of the game which became known as the “Blood in the Water Match”. Post Olympics, Ervin defected to the United States where he eventually became Mark’s first swim coach. Suffice it to say, Mark’s narration was incredible. He was so patient (despite the endless takes and revisions to nail the Hungarian and Soviet name pronunciations), and he was so supportive of the film when it was released and even came to our world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Another highlight was meeting King Charles (especially with my British roots). My dear friend, Lucy Liu (who was an Executive Producer on Freedom’s Fury and convinced Quentin Tarantino to also come on board as an EP), was cast in as Alex Munday in the 2000 film, Charlie’s Angels. Lucy & I met at the University of Michigan in a student production of Jesus Christ Superstar (we were dance partners!). We became inseparable and both started out in the entertainment business together, first in New York, then later in Los Angeles. Neither of us knew anyone in the industry and we always had each other’s back. Lucy’s career obviously took off like a rocket, and we remained fast friends (even though I was indie documentary filmmaker working on the fringes of the Hollywood machine).
When the stars of Charlie’s Angels (Drew Barrymore and Cameron Diaz) embarked on a global press tour to promote the film release, Lucy asked me if I’d accompany her for the European premieres in Berlin, Paris and London. It was a whirlwind and a window into a totally different world, especially when the three stars & their friends/partners were invited to a special private dinner with (then) Prince Charles. It was held at his residence, Clarence House, the night before the UK premiere which was hosted by his charity, The Prince’s Trust. I’ll never forget that evening with King Charles and Queen Camilla. They were so fun, smart and gracious and I was blown away when, during the pre-dinner cocktails, King Charles approached me and peppered me with questions about my grandfather, Robert Keith Jeffries (he was a Group Captain in the Royal Air Force and fought in the Battle of Britain in WW2), as well as questions about documentary filmmaking and our shared passion for environmental causes (the King had clearly done his homework!).
Beyond the stars, by far the most interesting and inspiring people I’ve met are the front-line community activists I’ve interviewed over the years. One of the most powerful was Meena Hasini, a former forced prostitute from Forbesgunge, India who devoted her life to rescuing her own children from sex slavery. Her remarkable story was profiled in the first chapter of Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn’s provocative novel, “Half The Sky”. My sister Megan, Lucy Liu and I then had the honor of adapting the first chapter of the book into a scripted short that we directed together called Meena. We had the privilege of meeting Meena herself, in person, while we were filming in Mumbai. Her strength and resilience were humbling and she provided invaluable insights on the plight of thousands of women who are forced into sex slavery every year.
Last but not least, I’ve been particularly inspired by the remarkable women who are leading some of the incredible front line housing services organizations in Los Angeles that we profile in my most recent documentary, UNZIPPED. Though the affordable housing crisis and its most glaring symptom, homelessness, often seem insurmountable, I was amazed at the endless dedication, grit and brilliance that these women leaders bring to their organizations, their clients and their communities. They include Elizabeth Benson Forer (former CEO of Venice Family Clinic), Va Lecia Adams Kellum (former CEO of St Joseph Center and how the head of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority) and Becky Dennison (Executive Director of Venice Community Housing).
I truly believe each of these women could be running Fortune 500 companies, or be running for higher political office, but instead they’ve each devoted their lives to community service. I learned so much from each of their interviews and remain in awe of everything they continue to do for the most marginalized citizens in our country. Their example inspires me to this day and if you’re looking for great NGOs to support, check out their respective organizations, or any of the other amazing front line housing organizations you can find in your own community.
Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?
The people in history who inspire me the most are community activists who meet the world with radical love and acceptance, while also radically believing they can change things for the better!
If I had to go way way back, then I’d probably choose an OG, bad-ass community activist/prophet like Jesus Christ. I’m not particularly religious (and I think organized religion has a lot to answer for in the way it has too often codified intolerance & hatred for others), but the way JC identified with and supported the most downtrodden in society, from lepers to prostitutes, was so radical and loving and obviously still resonates with millions of people to this day.
More recently, civil rights and political leaders like Martin Luther King Jr and Gandhi remain an inspiration, especially with their embrace of non-violent civil disobedience. Though their dreams remain unfulfilled, they helped upend years of systemic oppression in their respective countries.
I’m also inspired by recent historical leaders like Bella Abzug, the uncompromising congresswoman from New York in the 1970s who helped champion women’s rights and the Equal Rights Amendment. Her willingness to tackle entrenched power and advocate for an equal place at the table for women is so needed right now, especially with the recent erosion of abortion rights in the United States.
Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview, how are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting social impact causes you are working on right now?
There are three main causes I’m working on right now.
The first is the growing affordable housing crisis. Over 1.6 billion people live in substandard housing and there is a shortage of over 7.2 million low-income housing units in America alone. On any given night, over 550,000 American citizens are also homeless. This is why we made UNZIPPED and also launched our companion affordable housing impact campaign, #RaiseTheRoof.
The second is the growing environmental justice movement targeting forever chemicals like PFAS and PBB. I’ve started working on a limited documentary series about the greatest mass poisoning in U.S. history and we’ll be launching a companion impact campaign to raise awareness about the increased presence of dangerous forever chemicals in humans and our food supply.
Last but not least, I’m starting to assemble a global team to work on the biggest project of my career, an audacious new story + sustainability metaverse that aims to tackle climate change.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and take action for this cause? What was that final trigger?
My “aha moment” was in my teens when I knew that I wanted to dedicate my life to making a difference. It sounds corny, but I remember being so incensed by bullies in elementary school and the way they’d gang up on kids weaker than them. I was bullied myself when I first arrived in Canada. I was picked on because I was small for my age and was the new “Yankee Doodle Dandy” at the school when I arrived from the States. I got into a lot of fights. I eventually learned how to defend myself (having a big brother probably helped) and as I grew older, and became more aware of the injustices in the world (inevitably absorbing some of my parents causes), I knew I wanted to devote myself to helping others too, however I could. I just didn’t know how or where (but I knew violence was never the answer).
The signal got clearer when I started watching documentaries like Barbara Moore’s “Harlan County”, the TV series “Eyes on the Prize”, Michael Moore’s “Roger & Me”, plus other seminal films and TV series (for me) like “Gallipoli”, “Chariots of Fire”, “Silkwood” and “Roots. Music tuned it in further with all the punk, rock & reggae protest music of the late 70s and 80s that I was listening to, from Bob Marley and The Clash, to U2, Tracy Chapman and Peter Gabriel.
My “aha” moment was the combo of Band Aid’s single “Do They Know It’s Christmas” and the subsequent Live Aid concert the following summer. I was mesmerized by all these musicians and activists coming together to raise money for a global cause, electrified by the power of musical storytelling and communal action.
The final trigger was the combination of dramatic events from1989, when I was entering my senior year at the University of Michigan. First, I was haunted by the pro-democracy Tiananmen Square protests in China, led by students my age, and the brutal crackdown by Chinese authorities on June 4th, 1989. I still have a picture of the anonymous Tank Man above my desk. He was the man who defiantly faced down a column of tanks trying to enter the square to crush the protests. The power of one person to take a stand, to defend the will of people everywhere to be free, inspires me to this day.
Then that summer, I was part of a tree-planting crew in Norther Ontario. It was a transformative experience and helped me realize that you could do something, hands on, to help change the planet. And then in the Fall of 1989, I was awed by all the brave students & everyday citizens who risked everything to challenge the tyranny of autocratic Soviet leadership across Eastern Europe and helped precipitate the collapse of the Iron Curtain. To this day, I am deeply inspired by people power movements across the globe.
Meanwhile, I had been harboring these crazy dreams of actually doing something with storytelling, to champion stories that challenge the status quo, but I had no road map to follow since no-one in my family was in entertainment. But by the end of my senior year in college, my mind was made up. Come hell or high water, I was going to embark on a career as an impact storyteller (they didn’t call it that back then, but I finally had a vague sense of where I wanted to go with my “professional career).
I’ve been incredibly fortunate, since then, to have a fruitful career as a documentary filmmaker and screenwriter. Each of the films I’ve championed has been incredibly hard to fund, finance and release, and I’ve certainly been battling at the margins of glitzier Hollywood my whole life, but I’ve been so lucky to unearth amazing stories, find great collaborators along the way and actually be able to share these stories with a wider audience.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
It’s really hard to gauge impact and know whether anything you’ve done has actually helped someone. In fact, in my darkest hours, I wonder whether any of my little films have done anything concrete to advance social justice over the years. But I do hope they’ve each shone a light on an important issue or cause, and hopefully raised awareness in some small way — whether it’s the enduring impact of people power movements (Freedom’s Fury), the scourge of child sex trafficking (Meena), or the urgent need for more common sense housing solutions across the globe (UNZIPPED).
One family who I hope may have been helped, in some small way, are Nikol and De Shawn Huff and their kids. They are one of the families we profile in Unzipped. We documented their journey from homelessness into permanent supportive housing. Though they now have a roof over their heads, the trauma they endured while living on the streets for over 3 years and the systemic barriers they continue to face regarding employment, mental health and stability are ongoing. But I do hope our film helped catalyze some additional support for them and hopefully also helps raise awareness for the hundreds of thousands of other families who struggle to find shelter and more stable living conditions every day.
Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?
Yes! UNZIPPED is a film that is asking people to completely re-evaluate what we prioritize as a country and as individuals. A film that challenges people to re-evaluate what we care about and how we take care of each other. Systemic change is needed and is possible!
To help with that, we launched an affordable housing impact campaign, #RaiseTheRoof, alongside the film release. We created an interactive Impact Hub with simple ways for people to get involved in the growing movement to enshrine housing as a human right. Just go to our film website, www.unzippedmovie.com and click on the Take Action button at the top. Three things people can do include:
1. Volunteer with amazing orgs like Habitat For Humanity.
2. Donate directly to the #RaiseTheRoof campaign.
3. Host a screening and use our companion Discission Guide for a deeper exploration of the issues. The guide was created with our partners at Housing California, Roadmap Home 2030 and Journeys in Film. By using this discussion tool, local groups can work together to articulate collective hopes, values, and possibilities. This can all hopefully lead to new policies and action that will transform our communities: locally, nationally and globally.
Any/all support is so vital to help address this urgent humanitarian issue! We need to envision new social contracts in America and build new coalitions to help make this happen. Housing should be a fundamental human right and building more affordable housing should be a non-partisan issue.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
1. Take risks and follow the unconventional path. You’ll never regret it. The job market is tough whatever you do, so why not pour yourself into something you truly love and that gives you a sense of purpose. You may as well go after your dreams, fight for the things you believe in and take risks! My parents encouraged me to follow my own path early on and I’m forever grateful.
2. Take a personal finance course. It seems totally counter intuitive, but whether you’re a storyteller, a musician, a director, a graphic designer, or an actor, most of your career you’ll be an independent contractor, working gig by gig. You need to understand budgets, accounting, contracts and personal finance to survive and thrive in this business. Don’t just be an artist, be a financially savvy independent artist!
3. Your undergraduate GPA doesn’t matter. I’ve never once had someone ask me, post college, what my GPA was in school. Sure, a degree matters for many professions (especially if you’re heading to graduate school), but just make sure you graduate and be laser focused on finding a career where you can have impact and purpose.
4. Your friends are your touchstones. I’ll always remember what Lawrence Kasdan said at my university graduation (yes, THE Star Wars/ Indiana Jones/ Big Chill/ Silverado writer Larry Kasdan spoke at my graduation!). Kasdan said that friends are the most precious touchstones in our lives. I couldn’t agree more. I think we are suffering through a social media distanced shriveling of human connection & empathy, that leads to more and more people feeling alone, of feeling that they just need to take care of their own, of a damn-the-rest, tribalistic, myopic, sensibility. I think we actually need much more human connection right now, certainly more compassion, and a helluva lot more support & care for each other.
5. Be love, be light, do everything you know is right. This is my own personal motto… I try to follow this in everything I do. Don’t be afraid to lead with your heart! It’s what led me to my wife and I hope this belief in the power of love is something we can instill in our daughter.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
My brother & I’s favorite book growing up was Dr Seuss’s The Lorax. My brother has this one word tattooed on his arm, under a picture of the Lorax… UNLESS
It’s pulled from one of the ending sentences in the book. “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
For me, it’s that simple. If people don’t commit themselves to making a positive impact on our world, then nothing will ever change. Unless all of us care a “whole awful lot”, nothing will get better. It’s tough work, but there are so many urgent issues that demand our collective action and passion right now, none more important than climate change and the environment, precisely what The Lorax is all about!
We are very blessed that many other Social Impact Heroes read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would like to collaborate with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
Ok, it’s impossible to choose just one. So I’ll put forward three of them:
1. Greta Thunberg — because she’s such a fearless voice for the environment, she’s willing to speak truth to power, and I’d love to collaborate her on our new story + sustainability project we’re working on!
2. Barack & Michelle Obama — because they walk the talk and they’ve recently branched into impact storytelling and filmmaking. Please call me, Mr President!
3. Lauren Powell Jobs — because of all the impressive work she’s doing with the Emmerson Collective and her commitment to sustainability & conservation work.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
It’s a Thomas Paine quote, one of America’s Founding Fathers (it’s pasted to the cover of my dictionary):
“The world is my country. All mankind my brethren. And to do good is my religion.”
Though the language is a little paternalistic, I love the essence of that he’s getting at. I believe a more global, humanistic orientation is the hope for our future and a that a broader religion of “doing good” should be our collective North Star (not our nation state, or our personal religion, or our differences). Though almost 250 years old, when I stumbled upon this quote, it profoundly moved me and still does to this day.
How can our readers follow you online?
Across my socials @colinkeithgray (Insta & FB).
This was great, thank you so much for sharing your story and doing this with us. We wish you continued success!
Thank you! It’s been an honour (Canadian spelling, of course).
Filmmakers Making A Social Impact: Why & How Filmmaker Colin K Gray of GRAiNEY PICTURES Is Helping… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.