When Darien native and movie producer Malcolm Gray was growing up, his parents thought of a “very good system” when it came to watching movies, he said.

“On Friday nights, my three younger brothers and I could rent whatever movie we wanted and my parents would watch it with us. On Saturday nights, we would watch a movie that they chose with them,” said Gray, 34, who is co-producer of the movie “21 Bridges.”

That tradition, which took Gray through his “most formative” years, “really taught me that stories were stories and it doesn’t matter if the movie is new or old or in color or black and white,” he said. “I fell in love with the medium more so than any particular film.”

“21 Bridges” is a cop action thriller starring Chadwick Boseman that runs through the end of December.

Gray, who now lives in Los Angeles, has held several other positions in the movie industry over the years, including assistant to the senior vice president of production at Spyglass Entertainment, where he worked on “The Tourist” starring Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp.

He also worked at MGM Studios, where he was involved with “Skyfall” and “Robo Cop.”

As a creative executive at Sketch Films, he developed the TV series “Sleepy Hollow” and as a film executive at TriStar Productions, he helped oversee projects including “Money Monster” and “Baby Driver.”

Exposure to film

“I grew up renting movies from Roxy Video, which no longer exists, right by the Noroton Heights Train Station,” said Gray, adding that his parents, Joellyn and Kevin, still live in the house where he grew up.

The local movie theater in town reopened when he was around 10 years old.

“Because we lived close by, it was very easy for me and my brothers to walk down,” he said.

He also rented many movies from the Darien Library.

“We live right behind the old location for the public library, which had a pretty good film collection,” he said.

Influences

When Gray was 11, his mother’s college friend Bob Craft who worked in Los Angeles as a location manager, came to visit his family. He explained all the jobs to Gray in the movie business.

Gray said this was the first time he learned there were other types of jobs aside from acting.

“I didn’t have the patience for writing or directing,” he said, adding, “I wasn’t a great actor.”

However, when Craft described to Gray what a producer does, “at the age of 11, I knew I wanted to do that,” he said.

He made some short films with his friends from school — David Coupe, Mike Critelli, and Bob Lydecker.

Joe Squeo, his fifth grade teacher at Royle Elementary School, had a very strong influence on him, he said.

“He was inspirational,” Gray said.

“He was very much focused on stories,” Gray said. “He encouraged me to read a lot, even if it was at my normal fifth grade reading level. I internalized those narratives as films in my head.”

Another Darien mentor of his is Jody Hotchkiss, a literary agent, who was also his neighbor.

Later on, Gray helped out in film classes at Norwalk Community College and in summer programs for children.

The summer when Gray was 16, he went to Los Angeles and worked as a location scout for “Spanglish,” “Alpha Dog,” “13,” and “Envy.”

In this position, “I was driving around trying to find locations for these movies,” he said.

He later went to Northwestern University in Illinois, graduating with a degree in film. He is also an Eagle Scout with Troop 53 in Darien.

Persistence

After moving to Los Angeles, Gray said he focused on getting his foot in the door.

“I took whatever jobs I could, even if they were unpaid,” he said. “I slept on a couch for a year, of very, very generous people.”

He added that the movie business is one that’s “predicated on apprenticeship — paying your dues, working hard finding your way in — and I put that into practice.”

He showed the “same level of persistence that I took sleeping on a couch that my bosses who were much older and successful and more experienced than me had to deal with at their level.”

Every movie is a learning experience, according to Gray.

“You are always fighting to get things made and to make the best movie possible,” he added.

The first movie Gray ever worked on was “The Tourist.”

“We had Tom Cruise star in it but Tom and Charlize Theron dropped out. We thought we weren’t going to make the movie,” he said. However, “the movie was resurrected in a way that was really exciting for us.”

Teamwork is also important, he said.

“It is very much about we are all partners in trying to make a piece of art,” he said. “That’s the way everyone approaches it.”

“21 Bridges”

“21 Bridges” is “really well made on a technical aspect,” Gray said.

“Everything works well and looks amazing,” he added. “You will be on the edge of your seat the entire time.”

As a producer, “we tend to focus on story and character first,” he said. “We tried to prioritize characters who felt very real, who feel very much like they have flaws and dealing with moral complexity.”

He added that the characters have both good and bad qualities with whom people can connect.

The most challenging part of making “21 Bridges,” according to Gray, was filming in the dark.

“It primarily takes place at night,” he said. “We were shooting from around 6 p.m. to 7 a.m. Because we were doing that for five or six weeks, it was taking its toll.”

There’s an “adage in Hollywood that you make a movie three times: writing it, shooting it, and editing it,” he said. “Those are three different movies, and that is the definite case in this one.”

Role of a producer

According to Gray, a producer’s job is to help push a movie forward “down the best path possible and then to find the right actors to embody those roles, and to find the right director to realize our shared vision of the movie,” he said. “That’s my job — to guide the process through rewrites and develop and package it around talent.”

To learn about Gray’s future projects, visit agbo.com.

sfox@darientimes.com