Author Mark Greaney talks about turning book series into Netflix movie
MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - A Memphis native is behind one of the most highly anticipated action films of the year, “The Gray Man,” coming to Netflix this July.
Mark Greaney penned the 12-book series that inspired the feature film.
On the brink of the film’s release, Greaney gave Action News 5′s Kontji Anthony an exclusive TV interview on his thrilling ride to the top and how his Action News 5 family roots helped shape his prolific career.
The No. 1 New York Times bestselling author allowed Action News 5 to bring a camera into his sacred writing space, the pool house behind his Memphis home.
“When I’m in Memphis, I’m always back here,” said Greaney. “I’m always working over there on my couch by the fire or over here at my desk.”
The $200 million budget film adaptation broke the record for the most expensive production in streaming service history. The international action-thriller book series stars A-list actors Ryan Gosling as ex-CIA-turned assassin “Gray Man” Court Gentry.
“I’ve always been a fan of heroes who have a lot of vulnerabilities,” said Greaney. Gentry’s former CIA cohort and nemesis, Lloyd Hansen, is played by actor Chris Evans.
“I can’t tell you how surreal it is,” said Greaney about his books getting the Hollywood nod.
Greaney’s rise to the top took as many twists and turns as a Gray Man novel. He studied Poli-sci and International Studies at the University of Memphis. He became obsessed with espionage thrillers after picking up his first Tom Clancy novel, “‘Patriot Games’ and I was 19 years old,” Greaney recalled.
He played drums in a band, sold computer hardware, and worked as a bartender at Paulette’s restaurant for a decade, all the while reading every Clancy book that hit the shelf. Greaney got his dad, none other than Action News 5 journalism legend, Ed Greaney, to start reading Clancy too.
“Each year, we would give each other the Tom Clancy book for Christmas and that was kind of our thing through the 90s and into the 2000s,” remembered Greaney.
Greaney said his father had a profound impact on his life and his thought process as an author. Perhaps, the persona of his main character was rooted as far back as his grandfather, a University of Memphis law school graduate.
Greaney pointed to framed medals on his shelf. “My grandfather was Army infantry in the first World War, and this was my father’s, who was Army infantry in the second World War. These are his medals and his dog tags,” he beamed.
Greaney said his father returned from the war and started managing a Memphis bowling alley.
“Then, he got a job at channel 5 in 1949,” Greaney added. “I think as low on the totem pole as one can be, and he became the assistant general manager in charge of news and public affairs. So, he was there during the King assassination and all these other major events.”
He said going to Action News 5 was like visiting family, as Greaney’s family got to know many of the employees. Greaney took a photo in the channel 5 studio at age 6 to witness a special moment.
“His 25th anniversary. I remember they called him into the studio like there was some kind of emergency. So, he comes busting into the studio and everybody’s waiting there with a cake to give him the surprise,” Greaney smiled.
Ed Greaney’s legacy is so profound that the Action News 5 newsroom is dedicated to his name. To this day, he is the first face you see when you walk through the door on a collage showcasing seminal moments in his time at the station.
Greaney recalled asking his father to read his stories early in life.
“I would give him something I wrote, a few short stories in school and he would edit it, like just demolish it, but ultimately that really, really helped me with everything,” said Greaney.
At age 22, Greaney decided to write his first book. It took 15 years to complete, but it got turned down by publishers along with his next two books.
His father passed away in 2005. A year later, Greaney sought inspiration while working his day job.
“I worked for Medtronic here in Memphis and I was in the international department, and I wanted to improve my Spanish. So, I went down to Guatemala,” Greaney explained.
On a weekend trip to El Salvador, he was taking in his surroundings at a bar.
“I ran across this American guy who I never actually talked to, but I heard him speak to the bartender in Spanish, but I could tell he was American and he was just different from everybody else,” he said. “As I drank a beer, I just made up a whole backstory, not necessarily thinking about a book or anything. It’s just how my mind works, and I came up with this backstory that he’s ex-CIA, but now, the CIA’s out to get him and he has to live off the grid in the developing world. And in the meantime, he tries to right wrongs and whatnot.”
“The Gray Man,” the fourth book Greaney wrote, became the first book his agent helped him get published.
“He sent it out to 10 publishers. Nine publishers said no,” Greaney explained.
Berkley Books wanted Greaney to write more novels in the series, so he had a dilemma: Job or dream job?
“It was this really daunting thing where I thought for months. You know, I have to give up my health insurance. Everything’s a roll of the dice,” he recalled.
Greaney took the plunge and it paid off a few months later in 2009 when the book came out and Hollywood started talking about it.
New Regency Productions studio optioned his book.
“Whoever you sell the option to has the rights to develop it as a film, and then the rights revert back to you,” explained Greaney.
The option bounced from studio to studio in three-year increments with endless A-list actors, including Brad Pitt showing interest. With no film deal in sight, in 2011, Greaney’s agent asked if he was “sitting down” because Greaney’s inspiration, Tom Clancy, wanted to meet about co-writing.
“I just remember being terrified. My first thought was, ‘How do I get out of this?’ But then at the same time, I was like, my agent will never talk to me,” Greaney chuckled.
With that deal sealed, Greaney was contracted each year to write one Clancy book and one Gray Man book.
He always does immersive research for each book to ensure authenticity.
“Doing Tom Clancy novels, I’ve been to Moscow, Beijing, Sweden, and Algeria. All over Latin America. All over Western Europe,” he said.
Greaney remembers going scuba diving to get the story right.
“I’ve always had kind of a phobia about that sort of thing, but I went into the class and I enjoyed it,” here recalled.
Greaney also does paramilitary training.
“I’ve done a lot of training with weaponry, practical training, close-quarter battle training. There’s a firearm school in Middle Tennessee where I go, and they train law enforcement and I train alongside militaries and special forces,” Greaney explained.
He recalled Clancy’s passing.
“We just turned in our third novel, “Command Authority,” when he passed away in 2013. And then quickly, the family asked me to continue the Jack Ryan series,” Greaney added.
For years, Greaney continued writing two books per year: one Gray Man novel and another stand-alone. By 2019, Greaney loved his body of work, but he said life fell short of contentment before his wife, her three children, and her two dogs joined his clan of two canines.
“Personal life was never the best until I met Allison, who is now my wife. Three years ago, we hit it off immediately and when COVID came around, I’d already proposed up in New York. I was like, bring the kids, we’re all going to shack up together before the wedding,” Greaney laughed. “So, we got married during this COVID stuff, and it’s just been amazing.”
Now, with his wife, family, and 38 countries under his belt, Greaney said his inner circle and family legacy keep him rooted in Memphis.
“I live in the neighborhood that I was in when I came home from the hospital. As the crow flies, I lived a quarter-mile away from where I was born,” he said pointing.
He just wished his dad could have seen what he’s done with his life. Greaney released his 12th Gray Man novel Tuesday and has at least two more Gray Man books on the horizon.
He’s hosting an in-person book signing at Novel Memphis in the Laurelwood Shopping Center on Perkins Extension this Saturday from 2 p.m. to 3:30 p.m.
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