New Jersey has long been recognized as the birthplace of film. Today, more than a century later, an influx of movie and television studios, plus ever-growing location shoots have earned the Garden State the new moniker Hollywood East.
Because of this burgeoning film industry, going out to dinner could mean bumping into celebrities like Diane Keaton, Emma Roberts and William H. Macy, who were recently spotted at restaurants in Montclair, where they were filming Maybe I Do, also starring Richard Gere. Jerseyans may have also gotten a glimpse of Steven Spielberg and his wife, Kate Capshaw, when they stayed at a chic Essex County boutique hotel during the filming of West Side Story in Paterson and Newark. And in Bergen County this summer, locals were recruited to act as extras during the filming there of the hit HBO show Succession.
Since 2018, when Governor Phil Murphy reinstated generous tax incentives for film and television projects shooting in New Jersey, (after former governor Chris Christie had let them lapse), the number of productions has exploded, from 2 in 2018 to 28 in 2021. Many of the films produced here over the past few years have been high profile projects with big stars and directors, such as Oppenheimer, a film directed by Christopher Nolan, starring Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr. and Florence Pugh (shot in Princeton), and Mother’s Instinct, starring New Jersey native Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain, directed by Benoit Delhomme (filmed in Cranford).
Murphy and the New Jersey Motion Picture and TV Commission have been doing their best to lure studios back to New Jersey. And it’s paid off.
“The governor’s incentive program opened the floodgates and leveled the playing field for New Jersey. He made it a priority. He’s very excited [about the film industry in the state], and look how right he was,” says Steven Gorelick, executive director of the film commission.
In fact, Gorelick contends that rather than calling the state Hollywood East, California should be known as New Jersey West.
This year to date, more than 18 films and TV shows were being worked on locally, including DogMan, by director Luc Besson, shot in Newark; M. Night Shyamalan’s upcoming American apocalyptic horror movie, Knock at the Cabin, filmed in South Jersey, and Goodnight Mommy, starring Naomi Watts; filmed in Bedminster.
Gorelick and his team have been working with studio executives and production companies, helping them navigate the state’s tax incentive program, which provides up to $300 million in tax credits per fiscal year to film and television projects produced in New Jersey. Prior to the new tax credit program, revenue from film and television productions in the state was about $67 million (in 2017), says Gorelick. Last year, revenue from productions in the state soared to half a billion dollars, and he projects this year will easily exceed that number.
The commission even has a promotional film on its website, featuring Jersey native Danny DeVito, touting the state’s rise as a center for film and television productions.
As well as its generous tax incentives and interesting locations, New Jersey also has a robust production infrastructure, with experienced crews and new sound stages being built throughout the state. (Sound stages are large, soundproof structures that are used for making television and film productions.)
New Jersey has everything from rough-and-tumble urban settings in cities like Newark, Paterson and Jersey City to the suburbs, the Shore, and the mountains. Much of it has not been featured in a film or television show. Until now.
With these diverse locations, New Jersey is becoming a major draw for filmmakers and TV studios looking for fresh, new places to set their stories. Severance, a popular television show directed by Ben Stiller about a dystopian workplace, was filmed largely at the iconic Bell Works building in Holmdel as the setting for the creepy corporate headquarters of Lumon Industries.
And an upcoming action thriller starring Mark Wahlberg and Halle Berry, originally titled Our Man in Jersey (but now tentatively called The Union) was filmed largely in Jersey City, with Hudson County as its backdrop.
Wahlberg plays Mike, a down-to-earth construction worker from New Jersey who is thrust into the world of spies and secret agents when his high school ex-girlfriend, played by Berry, recruits him on a high-stakes U.S. Intelligence mission.
“We did this great shot with Mark having lunch on a beam, with Bayonne and the New York City skyline in the background,” says Jeff Waxman, one of the producers of the film, which is coming to Netflix soon. “It made the scene that much more authentic.”
According to Waxman, many locales in New York and other popular cities have been regularly used in films and television. Producers and directors are looking for new places, he says, that—like many of those in New Jersey—aren’t spoiled.
“New Jersey is about to become the busiest state to film in—it’s blowing up. [Jersey locations] in the movie make it look great and rich and real. And people are excited to have movies shot in their towns. When you combine that with the tax credits, it’s really going to explode,” he says.
Gorelick agrees, and also touts as an added benefit that these films and television shows can show the Garden State to its best advantage, so that people see beautiful images of New Jersey. “That has been invaluable in attracting businesses to towns and helping to counteract the negative stereotypes that some people have about our state,” says Gorelick.
Jennifer Greenberg has been working as a set decorator for movies and television shows since 1985 and was the key set decorator on Wahlberg’s film, The Union. She’s based in Manhattan and has just started getting more work in New Jersey. Many of her jobs are with Netflix, NBC and HBO.
“There are so many productions in New Jersey right now. Working there was a breeze; I had a reverse commute, and the offices and locations were so convenient,” she says. Greenberg decorates the sets with props, including furniture, flooring, lighting, paintings and photographs.
Before heading to the Jersey locations for The Union, she asked colleagues for recommendations for buying props there and was inundated with suggestions for great thrift shops and antique stores. Greenberg is looking forward to working on more sets in the Garden State.
“It’s on fire there right now,” she says. “There’s so much space in Jersey that’s conducive to studios and so many great locations. The genie is out of the bottle.”
The gritty city of Paterson has become a hub for filmmakers in recent years, with its industrial warehouses and its abundance of beautiful Beaux-arts buildings in its historic downtown. In addition to Spielberg (who had previously come to New Jersey to shoot parts of War of the Worlds in 2004 in Bayonne, Newark and South Jersey), in 2019, the city drew Aaron Sorkin there to shoot The Trial of the Chicago 7, David Simon and Ed Burns for The Plot Against America, and Jordan Peele for Hunters, starring Al Pacino.
Of course, it’s not the first time Paterson had been used as a setting. The Sopranos famously filmed a scene from its first season at the city’s Great Falls, when a drug dealer named Rusty Irish is thrown off the footbridge into the rushing water. (Production crews used a dummy for the victim, but police downstream apparently didn’t get the memo. When locals began calling authorities to say they had seen a body floating down the Passaic River, police sent a rescue squad to retrieve it, only to realize it was a fake.)
Gorelick and his team at the NJ Motion Picture and TV Commission have been extremely proactive about working with studios, directors and production crews, encouraging them to film in the Garden State, assisting them in finding great locations, and coordinating with local authorities. Gorelick has been with the film commission since 1980. The current chairman of the commission, film veteran Michael Uslan, was executive producer of all of the Batman movies.
For instance, when Gorelick learned that bestselling Ridgewood author Harlan Coben’s stories were being filmed for television in Europe, they set up a meeting with the writer to convince him to shoot his next production in New Jersey—and he did.
Coben’s new miniseries, Shelter, on Amazon Prime, was filmed largely in Kearny, and many locals were hired to work on the production.
When Gorelick received a call from an HBO executive asking about the incentive program, Gorelick was able to pave the way for the new season of the hit show Succession to be filmed in Bergen County over the summer—a plus for actor Dagmara Dominczyk, who plays PR whiz Karolina on the show and lives in Montclair.
When director Michelle Danner was given the opportunity to shoot her latest film in New Jersey, she jumped at the chance to come back to her home state; she grew up in Caldwell and attended Seton Hall University.
Her film, Miranda’s Victim, tells the true story of Trish Weir, who was kidnapped and brutally raped in 1963 by Ernesto Miranda, triggering a law that transformed the nation.
The film stars Abigail Breslin, Donald Sutherland, Luke Wilson and Andy Garcia. “Shooting here has been a great experience. It started with George (Kolber, the writer and producer), who lives in New Jersey and is a native. He said, ‘I’ll show you some locations that will make you smile,’” Danner says.
During a typical hot, sticky New Jersey summer afternoon, the cast and crew were gathered at a former Elks Lodge in Red Bank to shoot the film’s violent bar scene.
Danner says she walked all of the locations in Phoenix where the events had unfolded, but found that many of the buildings had been updated and no longer looked the same.
When she came to New Jersey, she found lots of buildings that still looked as they had in the 1960s, such as the police station in Middletown and the Great Hall at Monmouth University, which she used as sets.
“We can’t find places like these in Arizona,” she says. “If we wanted to shoot there, we would have had to build everything. When all of these locations fell into place, I was inspired to tell this story in New Jersey. There are tons of great locations, the weather has been nice, and the pizza is terrific,” says Danner. “The people here are friendly and very supportive. We’re very excited to be shooting here—it was a great decision.”
DaWayne Brashear, who lives in Newark, has been working as an extra in films and television shows since the early 1980s. Last year, he was a stand-in for Morgan Freeman in the film A Good Person, which was shot in Montclair, Maplewood, Rutherford and South Orange. Brashear, 65, would stand-in for Freeman when the production crew was setting up shots and lighting, and Freeman was busy in makeup or costumes. He says that after the shoot, it worked out so well that Freeman asked him to work with him on a commercial that ran during the Super Bowl.
Brashear has also appeared as an extra or background actor in The Equalizer, Wu-Tang: An American Saga, Blue Bloods, and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, as well as the past six seasons of The Good Fight.
Last summer, he was an extra in Succession when it filmed in Bergen County.
“When the shoots are in New Jersey, the commute is great,” he says. “Sometimes I can even ride my bike to locations.”
He’s especially excited about the Lionsgate $125 million mega film and TV studio, which will have its home in Newark.
“There’s absolutely been an increase in opportunities for me in New Jersey,” he says. “I’ve never worked more than I have in the past three years. Lionsgate is going to be sensational for Newark and for New Jersey.”
STUDIOS & SOUND STAGES
Film crews aren’t just coming to New Jersey for its incredible locations. The state is also now home to a growing number of film studios and sound stages, where high-profile TV shows and films are frequently being shot.
These include Cinelease Studios–Caven Point, which opened in Jersey City in 2021, with 70,000 square feet of production facilities and three sound stages. The new FX miniseries Retreat, starring Clive Owen, is being shot there.
There are new sound stages in Moonachie, Passaic and Paulsboro, and more being considered in South Jersey. Palisades Stages in Kearny just finished filming Bros, the first major studio rom-com about two gay men. Kearny’s second sound stage, Ten Basin Studios, was also recently completed. And Netflix is considering new East Coast headquarters at historic Fort Monmouth, which consists of more than 1,000 acres.
Isle of the Dead, AMC’s much-anticipated spinoff to its immensely popular series, The Walking Dead, is currently being filmed at the Meadowlands Arena.
Jason Gold, the senior vice president for production at AMC, who lives in South Orange with his family, says he’s particularly thrilled to be able to work so close to home.
“I’ve worked at AMC for 14 years, and we have done shoots all over the world. To be able to have a production 20 minutes from my house is incredible,” he says. “You can find everything you need in New Jersey in a relatively short radius; all you need is an hour or so to drive to them. And the locations are a lot fresher here. It’s just been a terrific experience.”
Bringing film crews to New Jersey is a boon for the state, but the film commission is also working on developing home-grown talent. It is partnering with c on a free bootcamp for state residents who want to become production assistants.
“It’s a great way to see how movies and television shows are produced and to get your foot in the door,” says Gorelick. “We want everyone to have an opportunity to have an entrée into the industry.”
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