South Jersey Magazine - May 2007
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Coming Soon to a Theater Near You
by Alexandra Hayes
South Jersey’s picturesque landscape, fertile fields of talent, and unparalleled personality make it big-screen worthy more than you probably know…
Think the primary Garden State contribution to television and film revolves around a particular HBO series about North Jersey mobsters? Fugeddaboudit. While the “Sopranos” has certainly helped put this state on the television map, dozens of films have been filmed here, and a number of movies have been shot throughout South Jersey. Just to name a few: the Oscar-nominated “Atlantic City,” “Snake Eyes” starring Nicholas Cage, and the cult-classic (1979 version), “The Amityville Horror.”
Want some more? Other notable South Jersey movie connections include “Tattoo,” a 1981 film starring Bruce Dern that was shot in Ocean City, and Carolyn Travis’ 2004 documentary “Wildwood Days,” which describes the successful attempts to revive one of South Jersey’s most storied beach villages (as told by such celebrities as Chubby Checker and Bruce Willis). The romantic “Stealing Home,” starring Mark Harmon and Jodie Foster, was shot in Camden and Margate in 1988. Ten years later, two gambling movies took place in Atlantic City: “Sour Grapes” and “Rounders.” And while “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle” took place in several Mercer County locations, a fictional Cherry Hill franchise was highlighted throughout the film.
Some California-based stars hail originally from right here in South Jersey. In the 2007 Tyler Perry-directed film, “Daddy’s Little Girls,” actress Tasha Smith of Camden plays one of the lead characters. And, actor-turned-director Jeff Celentano (“Moscow Heat,” “Under the Hula Sun”) grew up in Pemberton. He’s currently shooting “Order of Redemption” in New Jersey, starring Tom Berenger and Busta Rhymes.
But it’s not just blockbusters that have captured South Jersey on film; art-house flicks and low-budget films about the region are gaining praise. At the 2007 United States Super-8 Film and Digital Video Festival, (in association with Rutgers University), three South Jersey filmmakers tied for first place in the Best Jersey Film category: Christopher Banks of Galloway’s “The Art of Theatrical Ushery,” Anthony Werhun of Clementon’s “Loaded: Drowning the Ego,” and Andrea Witting of Glassboro’s “All Grown Up”.
Joe Friedman, the long-time director of the New Jersey Motion Picture and TV Commission, cites a recent Variety poll, which indicated the state is one of the top five states in the U.S. for filmmaking. “We’re very proud of that fact,” says Friedman, adding, “People know this is a film-friendly state. We go out of our way to help with films, commercials, shows.” In other words, he says, they get everything they need to shoot here.
The state, losing some productions to New York, recently copied a similar law passed in Albany, whereby film productions now receive a tax break if they elect to shoot in New Jersey. Friedman says that recent development—a 20-percent tax credit applied to qualified production expenses—was critical in attracting and keeping productions instate. Because of such “attractiveness,” the NJ Film Commission receives, on average, a dozen inquiries and requests for information every day from production companies.
Diane Raver, executive director and co-founder of the Garden State Film Festival, can further testify to the state’s production popularity. “I’m very proud to report that we had more entries than ever of feature-length films shot entirely in the state of New Jersey, and they were great!” South Jersey’s Rowan University, with its highly-regarded film and television production department, has turned out hundreds of would-be Hollywood directors, writers, actors and producers—many of whom are choosing to shoot “back home.”
Raver was also “in the business,” literally, making commercials years ago promoting Garden State tourism. “I shot here every chance I could. New Jersey has the best crews with the best equipment.” At March’s Garden State Film Festival (GSFF), at least two Californian directors submitted movies they shot in Ocean County.
Producers, Friedman believes, want to feel as though they’re being “taken care of” and township commissions and other government offices have bent over backwards for some productions. Just take a look at all the movies shot in the Garden State’s casino Mecca. The film-amenable Atlantic City government is one example, says Friedman. “They make it easier to film there [rather than in Las Vegas],” he says.
Plus, there’s the state’s varied landscape: from the Pine Barrens, to rock quarries, to beaches, to cityscapes, to suburbia. All of it helps draw filmmakers and production scouts to locations all over. “We have such a location diversity,” says Friedman. “A mini-America can be duplicated anywhere.”
“I think South Jersey has a lot of natural resources. I go where the stories are, and there are plenty of stories here,” adds Tom Sims, a filmmaker based in Cape May.
“Nowadays, everyone and their mother can make a movie,” says Sims, who got his start in moviemaking when hi-tech, digital video camera technology became cheaper. He submitted his film “Bittercress” (which he made along with his company Above the Line Films) to this year’s Cape May NJ State Film Festival and 150 people attended the premiere. Sims’s latest, “New River,” premiered at the end of March and he’s working right now on a holiday-themed comedy. Recently, Sims has noticed an extreme willingness of local crews: “If I was in Philadelphia or New York, for such a low-budget film, I couldn’t have tapped into such a network of people who wanted to ‘pitch in,’ helping me launch this [Bittercress] project.”
“South Jersey has a certain love of the arts. I needed the camaraderie of a local acting troupe, and we pulled it off in seven days. It was a marathon,” says Sims of his quick “Bittercress” shoot.
They Shoot, They Film, They Score!
South Jersey filmmakers, apparently, start their craft at a young age. Like thousands of teens across the country, 23-year-old Mike Licisyn (rhymes with ‘decision’) began his celluloid odyssey by borrowing his parents’ camcorder to make parodies or spoofs in the “Monty Python” tradition. Licisyn graduated from Washington Township High School, in Gloucester County, which has a fully functioning media production department. He then went on to pursue filmmaking at Rowan and says he almost always uses his high school buddies as his crewmates. In fact, during the summer before his senior year, a comedy sketch he made, showing him and his friends making fun of an N’Sync music video, actually made it on MTV’s “Total Request Live.” He even helped a friend from Haddonfield make a movie, as well: “This is what our passion is. We get together and we make movies.”
Raver is a big fan of Licisyn’s Mixed Nuts Productions. “He pulls [crew members] from South Jersey and Philadelphia. The talent he has in his films is outstanding,” she says.
Other South Jersey filmmakers start even younger, and work even smaller. Peter Herron, a student at Moorestown High School, made it to the finals of the CellFlix Festival for “Blind Before Yesterday,” his 30-second movie shot entirely on a (no kidding) cell-phone.
Licisyn’s longest feature, the 90-minute “Township,” has played at venues in NYC and at the GSFF. He uses regionally based actors because he believes local talent is more dedicated to locally produced films. “Especially in South Jersey,” he says, “there’s an incredible and large talent pool to pull from.”
“I really like [shooting in] New Jersey,” he adds. “I think there’s a whole lot here to offer. People that I know who have tried the LA route end up waiting tables. There’s an incredible independent film industry on the East Coast and Jersey is right in the middle. For independent filmmakers, South Jersey is ideal.”