From ‘Bruised’ to ‘As Sick as They Made Us,’ Productions Bulk Up on New Jersey’s Diverse Locations, New Studio Space and Incentives

When Mayim Bialik wrote “As Sick as They Made Us,” the story was set in Los Angeles. But when she put her directing hat on and started developing the project with producer Anne Clements, it became clear that making the independent film in California wouldn’t make sense financially.

Ultimately the director and producer chose to shoot the film — about family drama and dysfunction — in New Jersey because of its film and television production tax credit.

“It was perfect because above-the-line and below-the-line counts [as part of the credit] and we were so close to New York,” Clements says. “So our crew was made up of New Jersey locals as well as some folks from New York.”

For four weeks in June, “As Sick as They Made Us” cast members — including Dustin Hoffman, Candice Bergen, Simon Helberg, Justin Chu Cary, Charlie Weber and Dianna Agron — descended upon the Garden State for a location-only shoot.

Halle Berry shot her directorial debut, “Bruised,” entirely on location in New Jersey. Producer Basil Iwanyk of Thunder Road Films says initially filming in Jersey wasn’t a consideration.

“Our feeling was let’s do this in the Bronx or one of the outer boroughs in a rougher area,” Iwanyk says. “But it was too expensive to shoot in New York.”

Iwanyk outlines the three things that led the production across the Hudson River: the New Jersey tax credit, tough neighborhoods that were ethnically diverse and access to a New York-based crew.

The initial plan was to shoot New Jersey for New York over a four-month period. But Iwanyk says that Berry changed her mind after scouting areas of the state including Newark and Elizabeth.

Berry then wanted to “shoot New Jersey for New Jersey” with the sense that “Jersey is on the other side of the river from New York and there is this aspirational aspect of her character trying to get to the big time. So, in the end, Halle made [‘Bruised’] a very uniquely New Jersey story.”

While New York City — not New Jersey — was the central location used for Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of “West Side Story,” three large parking lots surrounding Center City Mall in Paterson, N.J., proved integral to the production (pictured).

Supervising location manager Robert Striem says, “Paterson afforded us what we couldn’t get in New York City. Those parking lots provided a blank canvas.”

It was a canvas to create crumbling 1950s tenement structures with the interiors — bathrooms and bedrooms — exposed. The parking lot was also turned into a 1950 New York City street that served as a space for actors to perform song and dance sequences.

“We had two enormous 1950s movie sets of extraordinary scope in the center of the city of Paterson,” Striem says. “There is the one semi-demolished neighborhood of the Jets world and then there is the Sharks neighborhood set — no trees, great architecture, lots of empty storefronts.

“We got some big stuff in New York, but none of it gave us the kind of breadth and vast scope that we got in Paterson,” Striem says. “Plus we got cooperation on things that you can’t do in New York, like flying drones. It all came due to an extraordinary amount of cooperation and enthusiasm from Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh and under his mandate, the police department, the business associations, the department of public works, the parking authority and the fire department.”

While diverse locations — it boasts urban centers, classic suburbs, sandy beaches, forests, lakes, rivers, mountains and historic areas — and film-friendly local communities are a selling point for the state, it also boasts state of the art studio space. Located near downtown Jersey City, Cinelease Studios Caven Point opened this year and is already booked solid through the third quarter of 2022.

Gannon Murphy, general manager of Cinelease Studios, says: “We partnered up with Criterion, the developing group out of New York, to open this property.”

Studios such as Caven Point attract production-associated businesses and create jobs, which dovetails with N.J. Gov. Phil Murphy’s goal to create positive economic impact in a growing industry, he says.

“We’ve now got full-time staff that are residents of the state of New Jersey that are going to shop in New Jersey, live in New Jersey, etc.,” he says. Cinelease is mooting expansion in the state.

Michael Tarr of XConnectDC in Deerfield, down in the Philadelphia metro area of the Garden State, touts his studio’s digital capabilities to attract content creators looking not only for soundstages and production offices, but also assets such as digital distribution, virtual studio amenities, lots of server capabilities and an LED wall slated to open in March.

“There’s been this kind of acceleration of digital, this kind of recognition that having three tractor trailers parked on location is old-fashioned, and also not very practical, because of the pandemic,” says Tarr, noting that XConnectDC will also run on clean energy solar power soon.

All this is good news for the state, long-term, notes Murphy. “This is literally reversing the brain drain where people are moving out because they don’t see economic opportunity.”

Carole Horst contributed to this report.

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