Film returns to roots with stars, movies from Garden State

The film industry has always had an exotic, luxurious aura attached to it. The public is so enamored with the concept of sunny California movie back lots and virgin foreign lands that it often forgets where the American movie business has its roots. Forget Los Angeles. Not New Zealand. Japan is incorrect as well. Since the beginning of film, New Jersey and New York have been at the forefront of filming locales. From Edison’s experiments with motion pictures to the present day, the Garden State has been a rock in the cinema world.

“Goodfellas,” “Ocean’s 11,” “Independence Day,” “Zoolander.” A grab bag of titles released within the last 15 years. Tom Hanks, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, Charlize Theron, Johnny Depp, Drew Barrymore, Denzel Washington, Natalie Portman. All are titans of the film industry, well-known and admired names. Why are these names special? Because they are all connected to New Jersey.

The Garden State is recognized in the cinema world as a hotbed for independent filmmakers. From the lewd-but-shrewd Kevin Smith to the big-budget Princetonian Bryan “X-man” Singer to rising star Zach Braff, the small state has been home to many of the industry’s biggest names behind the camera. Braff has earned critical acclaim for last year’s hit “Garden State” (set and shot in his hometown), while Smith has cornered the market on suburban shoots.

New Jersey poses a unique option for filmmakers. Aside from the more urban locales in the greater Newark/Elizabeth area, the state also allows companies to shoot in any real location needed: from the forests of the Pine Barrens to the suburbs of South Jersey to the seaside properties at the Shore.

Steven Spielberg knew this; the Oscar-winning director took Tom Cruise and one the most expensive films in history from site to site around the state, blowing up one piece of property after another. Newark bit the dust. Say goodbye to Howell. Bye bye Bayonne. All were targets of the next big alien invasion in a remake of the classic sci-fi tale “The War of the Worlds,” which, by the way, is infamous because the radio broadcast sent much of New Jersey into a paranoid frenzy in the 1950s.

Things getting blown up or shot at in New Jersey is nothing new. Despite an effort to distance the state image from the organized crime stereotype, some of the world’s best mafia movies have been captured from within the state. Go watch “Goodfellas” or “Casino” for reference material, look for local sites and check out the notorious performances by Jersey boy Joe Pesci.

Whenever a major production moves into town, the local newspapers are lit up with celebrity sightings. Princetonians may remember when Ron Howard chose to shoot a portion of the Oscar-winning drama “A Beautiful Mind” on the university campus. Due to threats made to temperamental star Russell Crowe, a tightly-formed security detail closed the areas off to the public.

Even now, big names are prepping to shoot. Martin “Please For The Love of God, Give me an Oscar!” Scorcese heads to town for the undercover cop/undercover gangster drama. His leads? Two schmoes named Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio. Oh, and for good measure, he cast local guy Jack Nicholson too. The North Jersey-bound flick will shoot from April to September.

Charlize Theron will return to town for “Ice at the Bottom of the World,” filming in August through the fall. For the crime drama to be shot in Monmouth County, “Lucky Number Seven,” former resident Bruce Willis rounds out a cast featuring Josh Hartnett, Lucy Liu, Morgan Freeman and Ben Kingsley.

It would appear that The State That Hollywood Almost Forgot is back with a vengeance. Despite a falloff in the early ’90s, New Jersey has hosted dozens of productions in the past few years. With over $70 million pouring into the state thanks to the entertainment industry in 2003, it would appear that people are finally shifting focus back to the place where movies began. So keep your eyes pealed – you never know what stars you might bump into this summer.