The Garden State Film Festival was a memorable experience, and not least because it was the first festival Nathan was able to make it to. After arriving at Newark Airport in the late afternoon, we rented a car and made the hour or so drive to Asbury Park. We stopped on the way in Neptune for what I can only assume were extremely authentic slices of New Jersey pizza. They were damn delicious anyway, and hit the spot after a long trip.
We checked into the Empress Hotel, which we discovered is home to Paradise, apparently one of New Jersey’s most famous gay nightclubs. The very friendly and helpful woman at the front desk gave us passes to the club, which we unfortunately didn’t have time to use during our packed weekend. A poster in the elevator informed us that this year’s Miss Paradise was one “Velour Sky.”
With our luggage dropped off, we walked along the waterfront to the festival’s opening cocktail party at the Grand Arcade. On the way we passed the Stone Pony, one of the music venues where native son Bruce Springsteen got his start.
We also passed another joint, Wonder Bar, which featured a giant, creepily leering face painted on a billboard. We didn’t think much of it until later when we noticed that this face was everywhere. A little research on Wikipedia revealed that it’s called Tillie, and was originally painted on the wall of Palace Amusements back when the waterfront had a sort of Coney Island vibe. It can be seen in the background of a famous photo of Springsteen and the E Street Band in their early days. When Palace was demolished in 2004, Tillie was removed and preserved, though it’s unclear where the original is now. At some point it apparently became a kind of emblem for the city. I have to say, if I was surrounded by that Jokeresque grin growing up, I think it would have haunted my nightmares.
The cocktail party was packed with festivalgoers, volunteers and filmmakers. We picked up our badges and programs and then
Nathan is a very experienced traveler, and his expert knowledge in the mitigation of jetlag stood us in good stead. We’d both dosed ourselves with caffeine on the plane at midafternoon eastern time, which apparently helps reset your internal clock. It seemed to work, as I slept extremely well and felt much much better Saturday morning.
We headed down Cookman Avenue, which seems to be Asbury Park’s main shopping drag, and convened with the rest of the attending filmmakers at a coffee joint called America’s Cup. We feasted on free bagels and then walked back down the waterfront to the Grand Arcade. Attached to the Arcade is the Paramount Theater, an old-time movie house and the main screen for the festival, where we caught part of a screening of locally-produced shorts.
After a quick lunch at an Italian restaurant right on the water, and an excellent coffee at a local spot called Café Volan, it was time for our screening. On the way over we met up with my old friend Chris, who had driven all the way up from Washington, DC just to join us at the festival. We dropped his bags off in the hotel room and then the three of us headed over to the Berkeley Hotel.
Our screening was held in a converted ballroom in the hotel. We played between Things To Keep, a heartfelt coming-of-age short about a girl going off to college, and The Haamenschmeil Substitute, a mini-feature comedy about an ad exec who gets evicted from his house and ends up pretending to be a famous college professor in order to get free housing. The audience was enthusiastic about all the films, and we got a lot of good laughs. I enjoyed both of the other shorts, and especially thought the female lead in Haamenschmeil, Rachel Grundy, was very very good.
After the screening we did a Q&A. It was awesome to finally have both of us there to talk about our different aspects of the project. Filmmakers from both of the other movies were also in attendance, and we all fielded questions about writing, casting, visual effects and distribution. When it was over, we headed back to the hotel and Nathan took the rental car and headed off for a short visit with his parents in northern Jersey, leaving a free bed for Chris to crash on for the night.
Chris and I pondered our options for movies to watch, which turned out to be a tricky decision. The festival had an almost bewildering array of options, at least four or five screenings going on at any one time. We finally made a decision, and watched a program of a couple shorts and a very good feature documentary called KJB about the creation of the King James Bible. It was hosted by John Rhys-Davies at his hammy best, walking through Westminster Abbey and other historic locations, and punctuated by surprisingly well-written and well-executed reenactments of scenes from the reign of James I.
When the screening ended I stepped out for a minute and when I came back, Chris informed me that I’d missed some tension. Apparently some people there for one of the short films had had to leave before the feature, and so were missing the Q&A. The director of the short film had angrily stated his opinion that, since the filmmakers of KJB weren’t in attendance, the festival should have held the Q&A before the feature. By the time I got back it had been smoothed over, but the whole Q&A still had a sort of awkward, uncomfortable vibe. I was sorry I’d missed the fun.
It was dinner time, and Chris and I found an excellent restaurant called Cubacan on the waterfront. As we got our table in the packed house about 9:30, live Cuban music started up, and we were treated to a delicious meal in a loud, vibrant environment. There weren’t any late screenings to see, and it had been a long day for both of us, so we just headed back to the hotel and passed out.
Chris and I started the day with brunch on Cookman Avenue, after which he headed back to DC, having a long drive and work still to do before Monday. Left to my own devices for a few hours, I headed back up to Cookman, got some coffee and went to a feature screening. Feeling a bit of movie fatigue, I then headed back to the hotel to catch up on work for a couple hours. Then it was time to dress up in my fanciest duds (still not that fancy, really) for the gala awards dinner.
Nathan arrived back from his parents’ place ready to roll, already in a tuxedo. We drove to the Crystal Point Yacht Club in Point Pleasant Beach, about a half hour away. We were nearly there when I realized I’d left the tickets for the dinner in the hotel room. I panicked a little, since it would take an hour round-trip to get them. Nathan just shrugged and said he imagined they’d have us on some kind of list.
And in fact they did. Whew. They let us right in and we headed downstairs to a crowded bar area where we looked out at the yachts berthed in the bay while enjoying drinks and an endless stream of hors d’oeuvres.
Eventually they called us upstairs to dinner. We were seated at a table with several other filmmakers, including two local high school students with films in the festival, a film composer with a PhD from NYU, and a former casting director who now runs a film lab for local students. Her students had five films in the festival.
The awards ceremony was pretty entertaining, featuring a lifetime achievement award for Ed Asner, who made a very funny, mock-self-aggrandizing speech. They then presented several awards for “home-grown” films (produced in New Jersey), including awards to both of the high school filmmakers at our table.
But the capper (for us, anyway!) was when they announced the winner of the Lou Costello Award for best comedy short: Love & Other Unstable States Of Matter! We headed up to accept the award from the festival director, Diane Raver, had our picture taken by a half dozen press photographers, then returned to the table a bit dazed.
Once the awards dinner was over, we had to head straight back to the hotel and get to bed, as we had to be up at 4am (again!) to fly home. But what a fantastic end to another excellent festival experience.