Unstoppable Force: U-M alum produces Lady Gaga’s new documentary
“It’s raining today,” says Motown expatriate Kim Ray, BA ’95, speaking on the phone from her home in Los Angeles. “It feels like Michigan.”
Michigan. Not Tokyo or Toronto or Nashville or New York, among the many other locations to which Ray traveled to document the life and times of the provocative pop icon Lady Gaga for the Netflix documentary Gaga: Five Foot Two. The rain has Ray thinking about “home,” and the very Gaga-like determination that got her to where she is today
“If you want something, you have to tell everyone you want it – and why you want it,” Ray says. “[Gaga] is a fighter, and she wants it.
As the asthmatic child of a single mother growing up in Detroit, Ray also was a fighter and wanted something very much: To be an artist. And she knew it wouldn’t come easy.
“My whole life, I was not given opportunities by anyone,” she says.
Upon earning a photography scholarship at Detroit’s College for Creative Studies, Ray soon discovered she was in the wrong place. “I realized every project I did told a story,” she says. “I couldn’t just take one photo. Everything had to be a series.”
Time for a rewrite
She’d always been a film fan, mixing a diet of mainstream blockbusters like Raiders of the Lost Ark with Sundance indies and weird sci-fi pics. So when it became quite clear she needed more than one frame to express herself, she applied to film school at U-M.
“I got this letter that I was on some waitlist – something to the effect of: ‘You’re not totally accepted, but you might get in. If you have questions, call this number.’”
Ray did have questions. So she called the number, made an appointment with a U-M admissions counselor, and drove from Hamtramck to Ann Arbor. There, she would make one of the most significant pitches in her career.
“I told him my life story. Lots of drama. I’m the first one on my mother’s side to go to college. And a few weeks later, another letter arrived…‘Congratulations, you’ve been accepted!’”
Ray jumped right in. She took 18 credits per semester (anything over 12 at that time was free), including life-changing courses in Buddhism and logic, with plenty of feminist studies and English lit. She was one of just two women in a film production class and learned to shoot on 16mm stock. She edited on a “flatbed” before moving onto video production and tape-to-tape editing.
When she wasn’t in class, Ray waited tables. She performed in a band called Lovely. She made a music video and held an internship at a post-production company. And in whatever spare hours existed before bed, she would run.
“I would run all through the winter,” Ray says. “The streets of Ann Arbor would be so quiet. And I had a Walkman. I would just blare my music. When you’re that young, you have so much energy. I remember thinking, ‘whatever I’m borrowing to go here is so worth it.’ It was a picturesque, collegiate experience. I would see 10-15 movies a week and think, ‘This is heaven.’”
To this day Ray still covets the café mochas and bagel-and-lox sandwiches from Zingerman’s. “I put myself through school and that was a big splurge,” she says.
Reconciling a strict budget is a producer’s most coveted skill, and it has served Ray well. It took her to New York City after Ann Arbor, where she worked for various production and commercial companies. She transitioned to drama development at the A&E Network, where she read scripts and vetted projects with her team. But eventually Ray realized she wanted to be making things herself, “not sitting behind a desk watching other filmmakers make things.”
This time she talked her way into grad school at the University of Southern California, which placed her in close proximity to Hollywood and such genre benders as Chris Carter (The X-Files) and James Cameron (Titanic). In fact, Ray worked for Cameron pre-Avatar, during which she consumed “a bunch” of science fiction written in the ‘60s and ‘70s.” That inspired her to pen the sci-fi short “Violet’s New Life,” about an elderly woman who downloads her brain into a 35-year-old version of herself. Ray wants to write, produce, and direct the project as a half-hour dramedy series.
Ray also has done the requisite stint in reality TV (“loved it”), but experiencing Gaga’s reality on her side of the velvet rope took things to a whole new level.
“It was so surreal to be on the other side of the barricades and to see the throngs of people who were there to see this one person – this five-foot-two-inch, tiny person,” she says.
The adoration and love were powerful, sincere, and palpable, she says. “We filmed people on the street in LA waiting in line for a show. We asked what they thought of the album, why they were here. When I walked back inside I burst into tears. People love [Gaga] so much. And it’s not just celebrity love.”
The artist’s fans relate to the message that being an outsider is OK, that being different is cool, that kindness is cool. “And they attach that message to her,” Ray says. “In the world we’re living in right now, someone with a positive message is a beacon, a total beacon.”
That’s a wrap
Chasing an artist from city to city and landing in the inner sanctum of the Super Bowl may sound glamorous. But when filming began, Gaga was nursing a broken heart, recovering from a longstanding hip injury, and coping with chronic pain.
The crew chronicled the writing and recording of her first album in three years, culminating with a half-time performance at the 2017 Super Bowl. Director Chris Moukarbel, whom Ray knew from previous projects, established trust with the artist early on and remained unobtrusive throughout production. As the “creative producer,” who scheduled, budgeted, and often ran camera on very short notice, Ray was always primed to spring into action.
“Whenever the door opened, we would rush in,” she says, whether the shoot took them to the Electric Lady recording studio or to Gaga’s grandmother’s house. At one point, Ray and Moukarbel were filming Gaga at her doctor’s office, where she was receiving treatment for pain. In a gut-wrenching display of “the show must go on,” Gaga submits to ministrations by both doctor and makeup artist as she prepares for her next appointment.
“Every time I watch the film and see the eye shadow come out, I tear up,” Ray says. “It’s fascinating to see what it takes to succeed at that level. But it was important in making the film to show her as human. It helps that [Chris] and I are very grounded. I mean, I’m from Michigan. So I’m very grounded.”