Even after all these years, Orson Welles’ voice still carries.
Specifically, it was the Mercury Theatre’s 1938 radio broadcast of “The War of the Worlds” that was ringing around in Mike Dowling’s head when he was talking to his friend, the writer/director Jody Lambert, about working on something together. But rather than focus on H.G. Wells’ alien invasion tale or Welles’ almost supernaturally chilling retelling of it that led to panic in the streets when listeners were unaware they had tuned in to a work of fiction, as others had done before, the filmmakers were inspired instead to consider a decidedly more human element – the reaction of those who thought they might only have one day to live before submitting to new martian overlords.
While it may seem to the poor souls in the small town of Lullaby on that fateful night that the world is going to hell, as envisioned in Lambert’s “Brave New Jersey” where farming equipment in the wrong light can be misconstrued as spaceships and fear exacerbates real issues in the community, the results are heavenly, with the filmmakers letting loose a talented ensemble to run amok as their characters reveal their true selves in the hours before they believe the world is coming to an end. With actors known more for their comic prowess such as Tony Hale and Anna Camp able to show their great stoicism and thespians more traditionally associated with dramas such as Sam Jaeger and Raymond J. Barry freaking out, the warm-hearted dramedy provides an ample showcase for all to play on both sides of the fence as the fallout from the “War of the Worlds” broadcast leads some to pitchforks and others to cling on tightly to what they have as chaos engulfs the town.
“Brave New Jersey” is rousing for how both Lambert and his cast, which also includes Heather Burns (“Manchester by the Sea”), Erika Alexander (“Get Out”), Leonard Earl Howze (“Live Cargo”), Dan Bakkedahl (“Veep”) and Mel Rodriguez (“Last Man on Earth”), among others, handle both the big emotions and big set-pieces so naturally, keeping the film grounded even when the circumstances grow out of control. Then again, that’s the kind of situation in which Lambert thrives, following his first feature, the documentary “Of All the Things,” where he took a surreal trip through the Phillippines with his father Dennis, the famed American songwriter whose lone 1972 solo album tanked in the States but found a feverish following on the islands, making his return there 35 years later a national celebration. Showing the same amount of affection for everyone in “Brave New Jersey” as he did for his dad in his previous film, the filmmaker makes a winning narrative feature debut and arriving in theaters this week, following its premiere at the Austin Film Festival last year, he spoke about creating a film bigger thematically and physically in scope than one might expect from a small-scale indie, building the film around the “Arrested Development” star Hale when he came onboard and how he found his calling in directing.
How did this come about?
I had gone to college with Mike Dowling, and I had written a couple other things that he had read and really liked, so one day he came in and said, “Hey, we should write a movie about the night of the “War of the Worlds” broadcast” – not the Orson Welles side of the story, which has been covered, but just about a town that hears it and thinks that they have one night to live before the martians invade. We thought that was a really fun idea to do a comedic version of the end of the world story.
It’s a silly premise, but did you see the potential for bigger ideas in it from the start?
As time went on and we did different drafts, we started to say, “Oh yeah, there’s a lot in here.” Each character allows you to talk about different things, like the mayor [played by Tony Hale] talking about regret, or Peg [as a school teacher] talking about the role of women at that time and what their limitations might’ve been in society, and the priest [played by Dan Bakkedahl] allowed us to get at these issues of faith. Then there was this political side of the story that we didn’t want to hit too hard, but when we premiered in Austin, it really resonated with the paranoia and fear that’s in the air with Trump. The reasons why the broadcast really resonated at the time [were partially because of] people’s fear of the Nazis and coming out of the Great Depression, and there was just a lot of unease with where people were at. For some reason just premiering the movie now felt like those things are back in circulation. It made the movie feel really relevant in a way I don’t think we predicted, certainly not when we were writing it.
How did you decide who you wanted to see in this town?
We just started making a list of every character in the town that could be part of the story and started to gradually whittle it away until you had your essential group of characters whose lives somewhat intersect – some do, some don’t – and it just felt like we arrived at the right story over time. We did a lot of rewrites and it’s interesting because when I co-wrote “People Like Us” with Alex Kurtzman, I learned a lot from him about tracking the characters through a story. He was very savvy about how you could end a scene on a cliffhanger and then the next time you pick up that character you know exactly where they were and what was happening. In our earliest drafts, that stuff was missing — like you’d see Paul drive off and leave Lorraine and the next time you’d see her, she was at the base camp and you’d be like, “Well, how did she get there?” The connective tissue was missing, so after we finished “People Like Us,” Mike and I went back and looked at the movie again and just started to make all these little connections again between the characters and their emotional arcs. That draft is what attracted Tony [Hale] and the other actors.
How did you get the cast? It seems like there’s quite a few actors playing against type.
We had this really amazing casting director Denise Chamian, who did “People Like Us,” and I said, “This is probably too small for you, but I’d love to know what you think,” and she called me back and said, “This is great. Let’s do it.” You have to start from the top down, so we said, “Who can play this mayor character?” We were looking for someone who could be funny, sad and vulnerable — all these different things, and she suggested Tony and once he said yes, we [thought] if he’s at the center of this, we need to find people that feel like his comedic vibe. He carries a heaviness, but he’s also so funny and we got really lucky that we found all these really wonderful actors who all seem like they’re in the same world. When a lot of them found out that Tony was doing it, I think they were excited to be part of it because they could see, “Oh, that’s the kind of movie it’s going to be. It’s not pointing out the stupidity of the characters, but it’s really putting you in the middle of this situation and asking what would you do?” And I’m so proud of the cast and I’m just honored that they’re in it. The performances are wonderful and it’s so hard to get a movie made and financed that I think sometimes it’s not the right people. This is one of those movies where it’s the right people in these roles.
Is it true you sent the cast the original recording before getting to set?
Yeah, I thought it would be helpful. I gave them the recording and the text of the broadcast and once we found some of the locations, we sent them pictures, just to immerse them in that world a little bit. We weren’t going for real heavy hand with our ‘30s vibe, so I didn’t overload them with research, just enough to feel like okay, we’re going to go back to this one moment in time, October 30th, 1938 and make them aware of what was going on. The “War of the Worlds” broadcast is still so scary. I think a lot of the cast knew about it, the legend of the night and [how] people freaked out, but to [actually] hear it was helpful.
Did you write the script with this location in mind or did you find the place after?
We wrote the script and then we were like, “How are we ever going to find all of these locations on an indie budget?” Our producer Taylor Williams’ mother was from this small town in Tennessee and he said, “Let’s go down there. I think we’ll be able to find some of the things we need.” So we found that Main Street town and it was essentially frozen in time and barely used — there was one functioning business — and we started poking around and we’re like, “Well, that’s great, but what about all these interiors we need – a church, a schoolhouse?” We had a great production designer, but we didn’t have the budget to build anything.
We were talking to a woman in the town and she said you should go check out this place called Green Frog Farm. It was a historic settlement where this guy had been restoring all these old buildings. He had a period church, a period schoolhouse — all the exteriors we needed. We ended up filming three quarters of the movie at this place, and once he said yes, we really knew we could do it. There’s like a visual cohesiveness where you’re like, “Oh, this looks like one world,” and that’s just like a miracle for a movie of this size. Even the actors probably were thinking to themselves, “How are they going to do this?” [laughs] For them to show up and see these places, it really gave them a boost. I can’t even tell you how lucky we got.
Was the Roto-Lactor, which becomes a major set-piece for the film, something you found there?
The Roto-Lactor was actually a real thing that we found in the obscure history of New Jersey when we were doing research. We knew we wanted the film to end with something that approached an actual battle where [the residents] fought the martians that had landed, but we were like what’s that going to be? When we saw that roto-lactor and we were like, if nobody in town has seen this thing, they’ll believe it’s a ship that has landed. Ours is kind of a miniature version. It was really a bigger thing that could milk like 50 cows, but ours allegedly milks 15. But it was just fun to honor the obscure history of New Jersey a little bit, so when we found that, we thought we should put that in the movie.
Is this one of those intense shoots where being in the middle of nowhere bonds the cast and crew?
Certainly, being stranded in the middle of Tennessee brought everybody together, but it was interesting because the way that we shot the movie was a little bit all over the place because of people’s schedules. Some people never worked together. Anna [Camp] was never in a scene with Tony or Heather [Burns] and Dan Bakkedahl was never in a scene with Tony or the kids. Everybody enjoyed being there, but it was challenging because we never even were able to have one big reading of the script. But it was fun [for the crew] because we shot the whole movie and then the last three days were Dan, Erika [Alexander] and Leonard [Earl Howze] and all the stuff at the church, so it almost felt like we made this other movie and then they showed up and it reinvigorated the crew. There was this brand new energy on set. It felt like every time you could slip into a comfort zone, someone new was on set the next day and that recharged everyone’s batteries.
Was there a particularly crazy day of shooting on this?
Yeah, there were definitely a few. We had these wonderful stunt coordinators and we talked about how that first scene is the chaos of people not knowing what’s coming where they hear the broadcast and there’s a scene of people running through the town square, so that’s very different from the end of the movie where they’re all running in unison towards what they think is the martian ship. They have to feel different, even though it’s all running and screaming. And somehow between the [cinematographer] and the stunt coordinators, we just were able to figure out a way to do that. It was very challenging just wrangling [people] and rehearsing it so that it’s safe and you don’t want anybody to get hurt like running and shooting guns with blanks, but it was also fun because it’s like “Oh my God, we’re making an action movie here,” and we only had one night to get it all done. It was definitely like my Michael Bay moment. [laughs] Like what are we making here? I thought it was an indie about people talking about how they feel and suddenly, everyone’s charging towards fireworks. It was a little nuts.
One of my favorite things in the film is that when chaos starts to break out, there’s a somewhat anachronistic music cue which is part of what’s jarring about it. How era-specific did you want to make the score?
We always knew that we wanted the score to be not your traditional ‘30s Woody Allen jazz vibe and I had wanted to work with my dad [Dennis Lambert] on it, but we didn’t feel he could handle the workload. I had been listening to Delta Spirit a lot and we actually had used one of their songs to storyboard the end sequence, so we just cold e-mailed them and said, “Hey, would you be interested in working on the score?” One of the guys, Kelly [Winrich], had wanted to do film scores before he joined the band, so I think he was like primed and I sent them temp tracks and different things that were in the vein of what I was trying to do with the score. They were just so good and really the three of them — Matt Vasquez, my dad and Kelly — just teamed up to create all these different pieces of music.
With that one [sound cue] in particular, we [wanted to] have it feel like a modern version of a ‘50s [alien] invasion action score and it makes you feel like you’re there and just as terrified as they would be. The score ended up being a really fun process and they just did such a great job [with creating] this modern sound, but with hints of that folksiness of the time because you don’t want to betray that. Then Tony [Hale] sang the song at the end, which was hilarious and wonderful that he said yes. I think he agreed to it before he really knew what he got into, because all of a sudden, we’re all there in a studio and Tony’s laying down a vocal, which I don’t think he’d ever done in his life. We wanted it to feel like his song had finally come to life that he was writing throughout the movie and he did a good job.
As the son of such a prolific songwriter, it seems like you could’ve easily gone that route yourself. How did you gravitate towards films?
Growing up in L.A., I was a kid actor and music was there through my dad, for sure, but my mom was a really big movie buff and she was showing me movies at a very young age, probably not even appropriate for me to be seeing. I saw “The Exorcist” when I was 8. [laughs] And I just ended up gravitating towards movies and that kind of storytelling. I went to NYU for film school, but then switched into the theater program, which is actually where I met Mike Dowling, and Heather [Burns]. But then what I realized with this movie and “Of All the Things” and [another movie] I wrote for Sony about the founding of MTV, is that music has definitely woven its way through what I’ve been doing as a filmmaker. That’s been great because I do feel a really deep connection to it [with] the influence of my dad and being exposed to a lot of different kinds of music as a kid. Making a movie is a fun way to dip your toes in both worlds. It’s weird you’re one day on the set, talking to Tony about an emotional moment and the next day you’re in a studio with musicians talking about how to create the right tone with the music. You get to be a musician and a director.
Has the acting background helped on set?
I think so. It just gives you a way of communicating with actors that’s a little more fluid. You just know what they need, what they want to hear, what they don’t want to hear and sometimes if you hear the scene one way and they’re doing it another way, you have the tools that other people might not have to get that result you’re looking for without painting them into a corner or giving them line readings, which nobody wants. The nice thing is when you feel like you have a cast that is better than you could ever have been as an actor. I was never Tony Hale. I’m not Dan Bakkedahl, Mel Rodriguez or Anna [Camp]. These people are pros who are so good at it, it’s fun to collaborate with them and also let them surprise you [where] I never imagined the scene going that way, but it’s so much better than what I thought.
Was there anything you weren’t expecting that wound up making it into the film?
There’s a ton. Just little moments here and there, little reactions people have. With Heather, she delivers all the time and you really don’t even know how good she is until you see the footage. She’s doing things in this scene that I didn’t even notice when we’re shooting it until it’s up on the screen and you’re like, “Oh my God, she’s incredible.” [There’s] this moment in the movie at the end when Anna [Camp] is sitting at the porch [after] she’s returned to her old life and she hears Chardy, played by Matt Oberg, behind her saying “Everything’s going to be just like it was,” and there’s this expression on Anna’s face.
When we shot it, I didn’t really give her a lot of direction in that moment. I just wanted to see what she would come up with and this moment is so complex and multilayered and it’s like she’s retreated into her old life but everything that’s happened over the course of the night is still inside her. I don’t even remember how it was written in the script, but whatever she did, it was so powerful, the crew was in tears. and it was just one of those moments where you’re just kind of like, “This is a moment between Anna and the audience, and I’m going to step out of it and I’m going to not question it because clearly it’s a powerful moment.” Things like that where you’re just blown away by what people are capable of as actors were so rewarding to see. There’s too many of them throughout the movie to name, but that one in particular has really stuck with me and people who have seen the movie are like, oh my God, that moment at the end where Peg is back in her old life, but she seems like the beast is still inside of her, Anna’s like, “That’s what I was trying to do!”
It’s very satisfying when that happens and it’s nice to sit back and go, wow, from the first time we did a handwritten cover page for the script to the world premiere, this is a pretty remarkable process and a pretty amazing journey to go on with some really great people.