Anna Crawford didn’t know it, but she was already dead. She moved desperately along the dark Atlantic City waterfront, her pursuer close behind, but soon her demons took her. In her last act of life, she pitched forward onto the dirty ground — but a little too close to the camera tripod.
So, back it went for take three, as the actress returned to her mark.
“We wrapped up filming Aug. 1, but I didn’t realize I didn’t shoot (the murder scene) until I was editing,” said Keith Vaile, director of the thriller “Urn,” shot in 20 different locations in South Jersey. “The scene’s 20 seconds in the movie, but it will take a few minutes to shoot.”
Smaller independent films such as “Urn,” shot for about $10,000 — and Vaile’s first film, “Jersey Devil,” which was featured at this year’s Atlantic City Cinefest — may soon be some of the only productions being shot in New Jersey, industry experts worry, after a state tax credit ends after one more year.
Gov. Chris Christie has already once suspended the credit program in 2010 for budgetary reasons, and blocked the “Jersey Shore” production’s credit in 2009 for personal reasons, but the program was always scheduled to “sunset” after fiscal year 2015, which begins July 1, 2014.
Until then, productions that meet certain criteria — including 60 percent of total expenses spent in New Jersey — will get a tax credit equal to 20 percent of expenses.
“It’s killing us,” said Ursula Ryan, president of the Atlantic City casting firm Weist-Barron-Ryan. “The state has dropped off in film and TV production since 2010. I don’t know why they cut back (the credits). We’ve fought this forever.”
Ryan said big productions such as the “Law and Order” franchise, which had filmed many scenes in New Jersey, moved all their filming to New York several years ago to take advantage of a 35 percent tax credit. Even the film “Warrior,” filmed partly in Atlantic City, “was mostly shot in Pennsylvania,” Ryan said.
“It always boils down to the same thing: tax credits,” she said. “Pennsylvania has awesome tax credits (of 25 percent). Why should they come and film here?”
HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” is the most notable example, recreating 1920s Atlantic City in New York City, including a $5 million, 300-foot-long Boardwalk set built by the East River in Brooklyn.
“For ‘Boardwalk Empire,’ they say, ‘Oh, the (Atlantic City) Boardwalk’s changed,’” Ryan said. But there are plenty of local stretches of Boardwalk that could have been used as a set, she said, such as the Inlet in Atlantic City, Ocean City or Asbury Park. “But it was cheaper for them to build a Boardwalk than to film here,” Ryan said.
Even the Kristen Wiig comedy “Girl Most Likely,” which is set in Ocean City and includes several establishing shots of the town, was actually filmed in Long Island.
Steven Gorelick, executive director of the New Jersey Motion Picture and Television Commission, said the last available tax credits have mostly been awarded. “But while we have it to use, we will utilize it,” Gorelick said.
In its absence, “towns like Atlantic City are very attractive to film companies. (The state) shouldn’t be underestimated. We have access to the best talent pool outside of California, and our proximity to major metropolitan areas is a huge advantage. And just the geographical makeup of New Jersey, there’s a lot of different terrains within minutes of each other. In Texas, for example, you can drive for miles and miles, and the landscape doesn’t change much.”
Bill Sokolic, an organizer for the Atlantic City Cinefest and Downbeach Film Festival, was less optimistic.
“Unless it’s essential to have a film take place in Atlantic City, where there’s no other alternative, they’ll film somewhere else,” Sokolic said. “New Jersey can be recreated anywhere. Even the shore.”
But independent films with low budgets? “That’s a different story,” Sokolic said. “Even with a tax credit, they probably couldn’t afford to go to Toronto or North Carolina to film. ... I think people are finding ways to make movies here. The cost of making films has come down considerably with the arrival of digital.”
About a third of the more than 60 submissions to this year’s Cinefest were filmed in New Jersey, he said, and of those, about a third were from South Jersey.
One local production receiving a credit is “The Honour,” which kicked off the Cinefest on Oct. 11. The film, about a Christian conservative who learns her daughter is gay, was filmed at a private home in Hammonton and at the Humanity Films studios in Galloway Township.
“So many filmmakers come to South Jersey to film because with the Pinelands and the shore, there’s so much room,” said “The Honour” actress Daria Berenato, of Hammonton.
Vaile, finishing up his third film, has taken advantage of the area’s varied locations. “Jersey Devil,” from 2010, was filmed in Atlantic City, Absecon, Mays Landing, Smithville and Cape May Court House, Vaile said, while “Urn” was filmed in Atlantic City, Ventnor, Mays Landing, Seaville and Egg Harbor City.
“I like to show more of Jersey than just the familiar parts,” Vaile said. “I look for a quiet landscape, like the countryside. None of my films really show city life.”
Even Atlantic City offers shooting locations outside the usual urban landscape, he said. The Formica Way development on Georgia Avenue is so suburban, “when people look at the movie, they’re surprised it’s filmed in Atlantic City. That part of Atlantic City doesn’t look like Atlantic City.”
The murder scene in “Urn” was filmed at a private boathouse owned by a friend, said co-producer Kathy Renze-Dollard, of Atlantic City. Although it stood next to the waters of the bay, with Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in the distance and Tropicana Casino and Resort looming above, it could be any building, anywhere.
“It’s a real desolate location,” Renze-Dollard said. “A dim street light, with back shadows ... it’s a nice sort of image.”
Filming, Vaile said, “can get very expensive, so we use a very small crew.” Using private property, “I don’t have to deal with a lot of people making it, whereas on city streets it’s expensive. You have to hire police and close the streets. ... Filming in Formica Way, we had about 100 people out there looking. We had actors dressed as detectives with badges and guns, and one guy got nervous. They thought they were looking for him. He had a warrant.”
Caitlyn Fletcher, of Sea Isle City, was called back to complete her portrayal of Anna Crawford, the character who finds the mysterious urn. She was the ultimate pro, falling forward on the dusty ground after each and every time Anna is shot, take after take. Afterward, she apologized for her gravelly hands.
“Usually you have to travel to be in a movie like this,” Fletcher said. “But I found a local filmmaker right here, and it’s comfortable.”
For her part, Ryan hopes the state extends the credit so the filmmaking culture developed in the state during the past few decades continues and grows.
“It’s a sad situation,” Ryan said. “And I don’t know if the governor realizes how much revenue it brings in here. Hotels, food vendors, people who want to see how movies are made. ... In L.A., New York, people (show up) just to watch. We could have that here.”
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