If you’ve never been to a film festival before, the Garden State Film Festival is a great one to start with. If you’re not in New Jersey, you’re actually in good company. People travel from all over the country, as well as all over the world to watch films here against the backdrop of Atlantic City. It’s quite amazing.
As with many festivals, you can pick and choose from film blocks that show several films over a few hours, and this film festival lasts a few days. It’s like going to the movies but theatres are on steroids. You get to see more films for your money, and meet many of the filmmakers and actors, and in the case of the Garden State Film Festival, you get to eat and drink a lot better than stereotypical popcorn and soda.
The tough part – is always narrowing down the choices for which movies to see. I always seem to want to watch everything. But, what makes the Garden State Film Festival special is that there are plenty of cocktail hours, events (like screenplay readings, filmmaker breakfasts, casting calls, and actor q&a panels) plus after parties that make it so much fun.
So let me take you inside my whirlwind of a world and show you a sneak peek of what went on inside one of the best and biggest film festivals on the East Coast. If you expect a typical write up along the lines of - This is film XYZ, I loved it, and onto the next paragraph – stop reading here. If you know me, you know that I write like you’re watching things through my eyes, so in that case, step right in.
Oh, and I ran around the festival like crazy this year, but I actually took time out to eat this time, which leads me to tell you that this blog is long, but as such, it will convey the endless energy required to run circles around Atlantic City, in heels, having copious amounts of fun while attempting to give you a glimpse inside “GSFF.”
First, I have to give so much thanks and credit to the second half of what makes me a part of a dynamic duo – photographer, videographer, and aspiring filmmaker, Patrick Zehr. He hits the ground running (and sometimes diving, crawling, climbing, and even riding backwards on golf carts) to get “the shot”.
He can handle my cell phone and his camera at the same time, all while making sure I don’t leave my purse laying around, and rescues me from situations like…um… when I’m running late, in traffic, and he scoops up our press passes, tells me what my “good side” is for photos (It changes daily – LOL), and reassures me, “We got this,” before events as I run in frazzled in a gown and heels. (Just sayin’… not that I’d know about anything like this – or do I? *wink wink*) (Nothing like hitting the red carpet running – literally!)
As we walked into the glowing purple ambiance at Resorts Casino in Atlantic City, NJ for the Gala Red Carpet Cocktail Party, me in my charcoal grey Marchesa dress with a white lace floral overlay, black Jimmy Choo peep toes, and big Jersey hair (because curly hair is crazy in humidity, and humid it was that evening), we surveyed the crowd and approached Miss New Jersey Teenager Francesca Le'Anna as she was illuminating the bottom of her dress near a spotlight for a photo-op. She looked ethereal.
Next up was the owner of Fantasea Resorts, Bruce Kaye (also honorary chair of the festival) and his wife Deborah, with their friend, who recognized us, said hello, and continued to make their rounds.
This was when the red carpet started to kick off.
It’s always awesome to meet someone in person that you connected with previously over social media for the first time, and they are even nicer in person.
(Yes, seriously, Facebook would not let the production advertise the trailer to their film because it implied sex. Implied sex. When I saw that, immediately, I had to attend the screening just to prove to myself that “big brother” Facebook has no idea what it’s talking about when the plot of this short film was full of comedy with an overtone of Southern accents that left you laughing with a nice twist at the end. And, also, if anyone tries to censor something, it triggers an automatic rebellious response from me that I have to find out more about it even more so now.
Before making my way over to actor Joseph Halsey, I bumped into this year’s Rising Star Award recipient, Joseph Russo, while we were photobombed before he was stolen away to the red carpet with actor (and prior Rising Star Award recipient) Ronnie Marmo.
Back to the
Halsey, who had
several films at
“Stand Up Guy;” he was very gracious and we had our red carpet moment.
I lost Patrick for a second, but he knows me well, and read my mind - and rescued me with my favorite dirty gin martini right as I turned around to see the always jovial Ed Asner. But you see, Ed and I had already done the signature posed photo last year, so he suggested we spice it up a bit – the way only Ed could do. (I love this guy!) Cheers to silly faces and a great guy!
I took a sip of my cocktail, and who appeared behind me, but the lovely Sally Struthers with her companion Christopher Youngsman, who I will always be grateful to for allowing me to sip his vodka cocktail the following night, instead of going back up to the bar in heels, while we sat in a poolside cabana chatting. (True story. He rocks!)
Sally is so savvy. I always learn from her, including tricks for taking the perfect photo, for which Patrick and I have now coined “The Sally”. It’s all in the angle, and she has it down pat. After all, who better to know how to take a great photo than one who has been photographed thousands and thousands of times? I love this lady!
Actors Andy Peeke and Heather O’Scanlon, both who I had met over cyberspace before this cocktail party, were equally enchanting in person as co-stars in a funny film “House Broken”. They were red carpetside doing double-time covering interviews with the stars and festival organizers, but I managed to wave hello before getting caught up in the waves of fans and filmmakers that flooded the room.
Margaret Fontana is the new Executive Director of the Garden State Film Festival, and I was so happy she had a second for a snapshot with me. Chairman of the Board, Nick Falcone, was also there, and I did manage to take a photo to prove it as the night went on!
It was so refreshing to see Founder of the Garden State Film Festival, Diane Raver, enjoying herself this year with a cocktail in hand, fully embracing the festival as she continues to share her invaluable experience with the tireless organizers and volunteers who make these movie memories all possible.
I met actress Victoria Guthrie who had her film “Heavy Objects” screening at the festival as we slid onto a slice of red carpet for a photo op. This thriller is one movie that I was not able to see, but I truly hope to. Check out the trailer to see why:
Then I turned around to see one of my favorite Atlantic City fixtures, event maestro, Joel Ballesteros sitting at the bar, and I walked a few steps and bumped into actor / director CJ Cullen whom I’ve worked with in the past, and before I knew it, it was time to hit the buffet before all of the food was gone!
We were all then ushered into the Superstar theatre for the screening of the feature film “Dough”.
Upon exiting the theatre, Patrick caught this stellar shot with actors Al Sapienza and Joseph Russo, which I think is the best of the fest.
I twirled around for a quick pic with the MVP award winner, Al Sapienza, and then darted off towards the after party where I met actor Garry Pastore whose production company, Willowcreek Entertainment, had a stake in the short version of the film “Almost Paris” called "An American Imbecile in Paris" debuting there that weekend as well. (The feature film version of “Almost Paris” recently screened at the Tribeca Film Festival, too!)
Another martini (Thanks Garry Pastore!) and many hours later, I headed home for something resembling a nap, and a quick wardrobe change for day two.
Running on coffee and a few hours’ sleep, I left the house dressed as my moniker – a true “lady in red” – red dress, red shoes, and red lipstick to match. Starting off my day was the script reading of the screenplay “Welcome to Camelot” by Rachel Goldberg. There were definitely some funny moments as well as graphic ones as the seasoned actors brought the words to life. I particularly enjoyed Kerrianne Spellman’s body language as she got into character even while seated, and Lynn Spencer’s purposeful off-key singing when the scene called for it. The regal Al Sapienza didn’t just read the words, but invoked a theatrical presence into his part. While Joseph Russo read his lines, you could see why he was deserving of his rising star award. The entire ensemble pulled off a captivating performance without a stage or screen. I think that’s a test of true raw talent.
We had a little time to spare so my trusty sidekick, Patrick, and I ducked into Gallagher’s to recharge our batteries and attempt to map out our approach to see some films. Rather than run across town to try to catch a few, we were going to attempt to maximize our time and stay within the boardwalk vicinity to pop in to some productions. Torn between eating or catching a film I really wanted to see “Star Crossed Lovers” (a modern day take on Romeo and Juliet) directed by Francesco Nuzzi and risking falling over from famine, we had to give into our instincts and go with refueling for the many hours more we were about to endure.
Between bites of calamari
and sips of an espresso,
I looked up to see Atlantic
City Mayor Don Guardian
headed towards a screening
block. We exchanged quick
hellos, and Patrick and I
were reminded that we
should attempt our
traditional daily selfie.
What inevitably happens, though, is that screening blocks sometimes run late, and then you wind up missing movies, or come in when they’ve already started. So, rather than run around, we tried to be selective and strategize moving our cars and timing the events right.
Yeah, that, and remembering to eat.
The after party that night was at the Claridge Hotel, a few blocks away, so we had to move our cars (No, I don’t walk city blocks in stilettos!) and figured if we were lucky we’d be able to catch a screening block at the Celebrity Theater before the stars literally came out that night, poolside.
Upon walking into the lobby Patrick immediately recognized actor Bill Sorvino and his wife, Michele (Executive Director of the Golden Door Film Festival in Jersey City), as they checked in for the screening of Bill’s film “Mommy’s Box” the next day. It seemed like everyone we worked with or knew was conveniently convening in the city by the sea.
We ducked into the Celebrity Theater and caught “An Alarming Night”, “What’s Eating Dad”, (I love horror comedies.) “The Last Taxi Driver”, and “A Place in Hell” before bouncing off to the pool party after party near the top of the tower.
As we walked in to the pool area smelling the slightly chlorinated air, the colors shifted from laser-like green, to purple, to aqua as the DJ started blaring the beats. Quickly I scoped out a cabana because there weren’t too many spots to sit, and at this point my red high heels were looking for a place to rest for a few minutes. One by one recognizable faces appeared and congregated near the bar and made their way over to the cabana hideaway. We circled around finding fun and photo ops until the wee hours of the next official morning.
Sleep? Oh don’t be silly.
Ok, well, maybe actor Bill Sorvino slept standing up for 5 seconds, but that’s all the sleep that happened. (Just kidding! These guys are always up for fun photo-ops!)
I remember driving on auto-pilot home reveling in yet another great experience where Hollywood shifted sides of the country for a minute, wishing that I could clone myself yet again to experience the final day of the festivities - while also working the next day on a movie myself.
Many thanks to Margaret Fontana, Nick Falcone, Diane Raver, and the Board of Directors of the Garden State Film Festival as well as the tireless volunteers who made this movie event magnificent. And to all of the talented actors and filmmakers, I wish I could have seen all of your films! One thing I do know is that if your work was at this festival, it’s definitely worthy of watching.