John Ur pauses his Cinematic Road Trip for a moment in New Jersey, where he was born and raised, to discuss several films from New Jersey's native sons.
Along our journey I’ve tried to avoid painting us into a corner. I’ve tried to cross a border from one state and leave through another. This way, while you’re out on the road, you can follow along this route without ever having to backtrack. Unfortunately, there are two problem states – Maine, which only shares a border with New Hampshire; and New York, which divides New England from the rest of the country. Today, we make the jump from Connecticut through the Empire State down into the Promised Land – New Jersey.
Most people don’t think of wilderness when they think of “the dirty Jerz.” But if you were to take Route 80 out to the west of the state towards Pennsylvania, you’d find a sparsely populated land with rolling hills which lead to the Delaware Water Gap, which separates New Jersey from Pennsylvania. Here you could fly-fish the river in the morning and hike up hills along the Appalachian Trail in the afternoon.
You can see some of this area in The Station Agent. This movie was directed by NJ native Tom McCarthy, who has acted in TV shows like "The Wire" and "Boston Public." It’s a lesser known film, a hidden gem, that tells the story of a man who inherits a rundown train depot in the middle of nowhere (Newfoundland, NJ) and goes there to escape the hustle and bustle of Hoboken. Though the movie hits up different spots of rural NJ (Dover, Hibernia, Lake Hopatcong, Rockaway), the majority of it is filmed at the Newfoundland train station, which can be found off of Route 23 and Green Pond Rd. The film offers a glimpse not of complete isolation but small town New Jersey: a place where you can walk out onto a railroad bridge over a river and let your feet hang down as the water rushes below.
You may already be familiar with the industrial urban north east of the state, home to Frank Sinatra and made famous for its gangsters on the large and small screens in "The Sopranos" and Donnie Brasco. In the southern half of the state, farms dominate most of the land – it is called the Garden State for a reason. In season, taste the tomatoes, blueberries or corn and you’ll have a tough time convincing yourself they’re not the best you’ve ever had. You can also visit the Pine Barrens, a forest of pine trees famous for the legend of the Jersey Devil – a hideous creature that will eat your livestock. But the heart of the state, in my opinion, lies in Central Jersey.
If you’ve seen the movie, Garden State, you know the Central Jersey suburbs. This 2004 film by (another) native son, Zach Braff, places most of its exterior shots in his hometown of South Orange, New Jersey. Here, Braff (who wrote, directed and starred in the film) plays Andrew Largeman, an L.A. actor making his way home for his mother’s funeral. While home, he rides around in a vintage motorcycle with a sidecar, meets up with old friends, and picks up Natalie Portman. (Aside: I knew there was a reason I want to make movies.) At one point, their various adventures bring them to a rock quarry in Newark. Wait a minute! A rock quarry in Newark? You might think this is a hoax, as Newark is a very urban city, the largest in the state. Well this is only a slight bit misleading, as the rock quarry they filmed at was Kiernan’s Quarry in South Orange – just a few miles from Newark.
From South Orange and Newark, jump on the Garden State Parkway and head down to the Jersey Shore, which is a region all its own. There you'll find 130 miles of coastline beaches like Cape May (NJ's southernmost city), Atlantic City, Wildwood and Long Beach Island. Every shore community has a different style and vibe – some are quiet (Avalon, Stone Harbor), some are loud (Seaside Heights, Belmar). Some are made for families (Point Pleasant, Sandy Hook) and some have come back from the brink of desertion (Asbury Park).
But the Shore is more than just the beach. Walk a block to the west where the ocean slips out of view, and you’ll find the Wawa’s, sandal shops, and diners that line the coast. This is the territory of Kevin Smith, one of our most famous (or infamous) homegrown directors. Smith has made his mark on the movie industry by writing and directing cheap, crude movies that turn a huge profit. His first feature film, Clerks, made about 3 million dollars after being produced for about 27 thousand. Smith has made a series of movies based on New Jersey characters and places, including Clerks: Mallrats, Chasing Amy, and Dogma (not to mention the less well-received Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back and Jersey Girl).
Local fans of Smith have made the pilgrimage to the convenience store from Clerks – you'll find the Quick Stop Groceries at 58 Leonardo Ave, in Leonardo, NJ. (Those wishing to do the same for the mall in Mallrats would have a tough time as Smith shot it in the Eden Prairie Center Mall in Minnesota.) Chasing Amy returned to New Jersey and filmed in locations all along the central coast: Brick, Asbury Park, Keansburg, Middletown, Red Bank and Rumson. But the best stop for a view of the Shore can be seen in Dogma. “God” (played by Alanis Morissette) takes the form of a human body in order to go play skeeball on the boardwalk in Asbury Park. Although there are no skeeball spots on Asbury Park's boardwalk in real life, in the movie you can see some great early 20th century architecture in the Paramount Theatre and Asbury Convention Center at the north end of the boardwalk. Visit the theater and then walk to the south end of the boardwalk to see the newly-remodeled casino (the non-gambling type).
I wish I could write another few thousand words on New Jersey. Much like Massachusetts, we always feel like we have to stick up for our small state and defend ourselves in the shadow of the Empire State Building. Maybe that's why so many native sons (McCarthy, Braff, and Smith) use New Jersey as their inspiration for making films. If they don't stick up for their own, who will?
Also recommended: Keane, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, School of Rock, Ocean’s Eleven.
Read More: You can find a complete list of movies filmed in New Jersey at the state's Motion Picture & Television Commission website. And get the full rundown of stops on the Cinematic Road Trip here.
Photo: John Ur