Films About Jersey Dominated Lighthouse International Film Festival on Saturday Afternoon

One Filmed in Tennessee; the Other Focused on World Problem With Local Lens
By RICK MELLERUP | Jun 14, 2017
Photo by: Ryan Morrill

Saturday was an unofficial New Jersey Day at the 2017 Lighthouse International Film Festival. At 1:15 p.m. the comedy “Brave New Jersey” was screened at the Long Beach Island Foundation of the Arts and Sciences. It was followed at 3:30 by the locally produced documentary “The Oyster Farmers.”

“Brave New Jersey,” directed by Californian Jody Lambert, takes place on the night of Oct. 30, 1938, the night Orson Welles terrified America with an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novel War of the Worlds. In Welles’ one-hour night-before-Halloween “Mercury Theatre on the Air” radio show, presented as a series of simulated news bulletins, Martians invade the United States, first landing in Grover’s Mill, N.J., an actual unincorporated community in Mercer County. The Martians and their death rays swat away the defensive efforts of the New Jersey state militia and invade Manhattan, leading to people diving into the East River “like rats” and others dying in Times Square, “falling like flies.” A newsman in New York reads a final bulletin reporting that Martian cylinders have appeared all over the U.S. before he succumbs to poisonous smoke. Luckily, in the end, the Martians are defeated, not by the weapons of man, but by Earth’s germs, to which the invaders had no immunity.

Lambert set his movie in the fictional Garden State town of Lullaby, population 506, the home of the Rotolactor, a merry-go-round-like milking machine designed to milk a dozen cows at the same time. Its developer, Paul Davison (Sam Jaeger), hopes his new invention will put Lullaby on the map. Unfortunately, at a sparsely attended unveiling the Rotolactor proves inoperable. Life, it seems, won’t change in sleepy Lullaby.

But that evening comes the news that Martians have arrived. Given the fact that Lullaby is a couple of hours away from Grover’s Mill on 1938’s highways, the townspeople have time to consider a response. The town’s soft-spoken mayor, Clark Hill (Tony Hale), cautions against panic but is overruled by Capt. Collins, a crotchety World War I Medal of Honor winner who organizes the townspeople into an on-the-spot militia to fight the invaders. The town of Lullaby responds, collecting shotguns, handguns, rifles, scythes and pitchforks to prepare for battle. When a Martian cylinder apparently explodes (actually it is the Rotolactor, which has set off a nearby bundle of fireworks), the folks go on the attack, looking very much like the mob that tracked down Frankenstein’s Monster.

By the next day, after Welles’ charade has been exposed, Lullaby returns to normal, with a couple of old men playing checkers at the general store, as they probably had for years.

The movie has three main subplots.

Davison is one of the few people in the town who didn’t bear arms to fight the Martians. Instead he got in his car and ran away, leaving his wife, Lorraine (Heather Burns), and children in his dust. Mayor Hill, who has always had a thing for Lorraine, comforts her and they fall in love. But when Paul returns, claiming he had simply been looking for help, Lorraine returns to his arms. That doesn’t last long – the movie’s happy ending shows her approaching Hill and telling him she had kicked her husband out of their house.

The disillusioned minister of the town’s tiny church, the Rev. Ray (Dan Bakkedahl), who rarely arrives at his services on time with written sermons and who has taken to the bottle, rediscovers religion and his mission in life.

The town’s schoolteacher, Peg (Anna Camp), dumps her fiancé, Chardy (Matt Oberg), for another man during the tempestuous night. In the end they are reunited, and Chardy is thrilled life will return to normal. Peg’s expression shows she’s not nearly as happy about that outcome.

After the showing an audience member asked if “Brave New Jersey” is a comment on today’s headlines – fake news, fear of aliens (if not from outer space), etc. Lambert said no, the script was being developed three years ago.

A movie website, thefilmstage.com, called “Brave New Jersey” a “delightful comedy” with “a low key charm and embedded sincerity.” It would be hard to disagree with that assessment. But – and this is a big BUT – it was disappointing to learn the movie wasn’t filmed in New Jersey.

“We shot ‘Brave New Jersey’ in Tennessee,” Lambert told the organizers of the Nashville Film Festival. “We couldn’t have made the movie anywhere else. Our producer Taylor William’s mother grew up here, and he knew a few towns that were frozen in time. Ripley, Alamo, Friendship and Maury City doubled as our fictional 1938 town Lullaby. We also found a stunning location called Green Frog Farm, a settlement of historic buildings that had an old church, a period schoolhouse and cabins that we could use for our interiors. It was like a Hollywood back lot in the middle of Tennessee. The locals were incredible, from helping us track down Depression-era carts to portraying the townsfolk whose lives are forever changed by the ‘War of the Worlds’ hoax. We loved shooting here, and we’re excited to show the movie to the hometown crowd.”

If only Lambert and his cohorts had scouted New Jersey. You need a small town frozen in time with surrounding fields? How about Chatsworth? You need a very small, time-appropriate church building? May I suggest the one in the middle of Warren Grove, and add that a lunchtime scene in Lucille’s would have fit right in? You need preserved older buildings? Isn’t that what Historic Smithville is all about? Or wouldn’t some of the blocks of Eagleswood or old Manahawkin have been found appropriate?

If Lambert and Co. had filmed in the Garden State, they might have run into some extras – a few octogenarians -- who remembered Oct. 30, 1938, and the local reaction in rural New Jersey. After all, one woman in the Sunday afternoon audience remembered the Rotolactor, an actual rotating mechanical milking machine that was installed in a “lactorium,” a building for milking cows that opened in 1930 in Plainsboro.

“It was a tourist attraction,” said the woman.

Bringing Oysters

Back to the Bays

“The Oyster Farmers” was filmed in New Jersey. Indeed, it was filmed in Barnegat and Tuckerton and features many locals who have historic Southern Ocean County names connected with working the bay, such as Maxwell and Parsons, as well as some newcomers such as Matt Gregg and Scott Lennox of Forty North Oyster Farms, based in Barnegat. It was also the creation of locals – director Corrine G. Ruff, producer Angela C. Andersen and cinematographer Brendan Walsh – and was financed by a local company, the Jetty apparel company, via its charitable Jetty Rock Foundation. Local historians and museums helped the filmmakers understand and pass on the history of oysters in Barnegat Bay. It would be foolhardy to keep mentioning names because someone – somebody who appeared in the movie or folks mentioned in the credits – would be insulted if left out. Let’s just put it this way: Southern Ocean County residents seeing this film will almost surely recognize a name here or a location there.

The local connections make “The Oyster Farmers” as real as “Brave New Jersey” was, ultimately, fake.

The full-length documentary, three years in the making, first explores the history of oysters in Barnegat Bay (and Little Egg Harbor because, actually, it is a different, if connected, body of water). Indigenous Americans had been harvesting the abundant mollusks for millennia, but according to “The Oyster Farmers,” the heyday of the Eastern oyster was from the second half of the 19th century through about 1920. So many oysters were found in the bay that it was the epicenter of the industry on the Eastern Seaboard. Oysters, the film claims, were the hot dog of the era in New York City, sold on the streets and cheap enough for just about anyone. Of course, they were also a delicacy for the rich and middle class – just think Oysters Rockefeller or Grand Central Station’s Oyster Bar, a relic from 1913.

But things changed due to over-harvesting and several environmental issues that the film quickly glosses over, too quickly for this reporter to take notes on in the dark. Now the bay is responsible for less than 1 percent of the Eastern Seaboard’s production.

Ruff and Andersen, who wrote the film, wisely stayed away from focusing on the reasons of the oyster’s demise in Barnegat Bay. If they had gone deeply into those weeds, their movie could have turned into an environmental diatribe.

Instead the filmmakers tell an upbeat story of rebirth, following the area’s oyster farmers through their paces as they attempt to make oysters flourish in the bay once again. Beautifully filmed – kudos to Walsh and his partners at Oak Leaf Media, Dave Niziolek and Kyle Griffin, underwater photographer Kyle Gronostajski and The SandPaper’s own Ryan Morrill, who added some aerial footage – “The Oyster Farmers” took what could have been a bore – because the growing of oysters doesn’t have the danger and excitement of Alaskan king crab fishing in the Bering Sea – and made it soar.

Now, oyster farming isn’t new. The Romans practiced this form of aquaculture; the French reintroduced it in a big way in the 19th century. Oyster farming took off in places such as Prince Edward Island and the Pacific Northwest decades ago. But it is new to Southern Ocean County.

The farming of oysters in Barnegat Bay was made thinkable by the explosion of interest in oysters that has manifested itself over the past several years.

“Oysters are the new cupcake,” said Andersen at a panel discussion at the Foundation on Friday.

Huff compared the popularity of oysters and the profusion of oyster farmers to craft beers and wine grapes.

“They’ve become a cultural phenomenon,” said Andersen. “We saw it coming.”

“The Oyster Farmers” provides hope that oysters will occupy a larger space on American menus and tables for years to come.

rickmellerup@thesandpaper.net

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