Asbury Park, the Movie
COM filmmaker talks about award-winning project
Watch the trailer from Asbury Park, a film by Robert Andersen (COM’10).
Half an hour into shooting a fight scene for his graduate thesis film Asbury Park, Robert Andersen found himself locked in dispute with a formidable opponent: the U.S. Army.
“We had permission to shoot at a construction site,” recalls Andersen. “But the site was on an army base, and the army asked us to leave.”
Eventually, the owner of the construction company persuaded army leaders to let the shoot continue, and the incident is now remembered as one of “a million little miracles” that enabled Andersen (COM’10) to make Asbury Park, a film that won Best Short in the Boston International Film Festival and first place at Redstone West, BU’s student festival in Los Angeles, and was screened at the Atlanta Film Festival, an Academy Award–qualifying festival for short films.
As a child, Andersen says, he was addicted to movies. He would visit the sets of films that were shooting on location near his hometown, five miles outside of Asbury Park, N.J. “There’s something special about seeing familiar places up on the big screen,” he says.
But something troubled Andersen about most of these projects, like City by the Sea, with Robert De Niro, The Wrestler, with Mickey Rourke, and The Sopranos.
“They were all shot at Asbury Park,” he says. “But they’re not about it. Asbury was just chosen as a generic stand-in for urban decay.”
So with his thesis film, Andersen set out to make Asbury Park the star of the show. He did that with a character who is rebuilding his life, as Asbury is rebuilding itself.
BU Today talked to Andersen about his award-winning film.
BU Today: How did you get the idea for the film?
Andersen: My best friend’s brother, Colin Baubles, was my movie buddy. I told Colin I would come back to New Jersey to shoot my thesis film, and he should work on it.
A year before I shot the film, he was killed in a car accident. He was only 21.
After he died, his family gave me his scripts. He had written one about a high school student who gets behind the wheel while drunk and kills his best friend. Reading that story served as a springboard into my film Asbury Park. I dedicated the film to Colin.
Could you tell us about Asbury Park and its role in your film?
Asbury was a huge beach resort community. It was the epitome of the Jersey Shore in the 1950s. It was the destination. In fact, Frank Sinatra mentions it in his song At Long Last Love.
It fell on some really hard times in the 1970s, and became a stark dichotomy, divided by its tracks. The beach side had opulent hotels. The other side was poor, inhabited mostly by blue-collar factory workers. When the economy crashed, factories and jobs went elsewhere. It led to riots, and the town literally burned to the ground.
Political corruption stopped Asbury from developing for years, but that’s changing now. There are a lot of new shops, condos, and buildings on the rise.
Why did you include so many private moments with no dialogue?
I see myself more as a director than a writer, so I wanted to tell the film visually.
And while I was writing the film, I didn’t know that I would be able to attract talented actors. Garrett Lee Hendricks, who plays Colin’s brother, appeared in Law & Order. Colin’s mother, played by Robyn Hatcher, also appeared in Law & Order and in One Life to Live and All My Children.
So I cut back on dialogue and gave them tasks to perform, putting them in situations that would make it easier for novice actors to succeed. And in real life, people don’t always say what they’re thinking — actions reveal their thoughts.
Visual storytelling makes for an active audience. And that’s good. You want the audience to do some work, so they don’t get bored.
How did you find the cast?
Since the film was going to be shot in New Jersey, I knew I would find the best actors in New York. So I sent out a casting e-mail through a friend of mine who is in theater, and I also used a few casting Web sites, like Backstage.com. I got some great responses.
Since student films don’t pay, it’s hard to attract quality actors. I attribute the quality of the cast to the roles in the film. The majority of Asbury’s citizens are minorities, so I wanted to tell the story of a black family. But I removed race from the story. It could be any family. So my actors were compelled to work on the film, because the characters they played aren’t the stereotypical roles usually reserved for black actors.
And finding Chance Harlem, Jr., the actor playing the main character, was luck.
We had filled up all of our time slots in our casting sessions in New York. And Chance didn’t have a reel with sample clips of his acting or a lot of credentials or formal training. So I wasn’t sure about calling him in. But my producer and I told Chance if he could make it to Asbury for a casting call, we would see him.
He lives in Philadelphia, about an hour and a half away from Asbury. He was there before we even arrived. He was the first person we saw, and he blew us away. It was as if the part was written for him. He immediately got the beats and subtleties.
So he went from a guy who was there as a courtesy to blowing us away.
Are you planning to create a feature based on this short film?
Yes. It’s hard to get funding for the film, but with social media, a door has opened. I made an Asbury Park group on Facebook, and a classmate from my high school found it. She lives in England with her husband, who works in film. After he saw the Asbury Park Web site, he passed around my short film, and there has been a request for a feature script.
So there’s been interest in the film, but obviously it will all mean nothing unless I can deliver a great feature film script. That’s where I’m at right now.
I’m reworking a draft with help from a writer based out in Hollywood. I’m also working with a newspaper editor who has been covering Asbury Park for a few years and is very immersed in the scene. We’re working together to capture Asbury Park in the right way.
What lessons have you learned along the way?
Put this film on the shelf. It’s had some great success, but its most important role is as a learning experience.
I’m focusing on other projects. I created a music video for New Jersey–based hip-hop artist A. Lewins. Our visions for the video were very different, and his won out: nice car, big house, and hot girls. I’m eager to work with another hip-hop artist who wants to tell a different story. I’ve also created a trailer for Kenneth Gilmore, an ex-con who spent 31 years in a New York state prison. Gilmore hopes the trailer will help sell his story to Hollywood.
What advice would you give students creating their own films?
Don’t do everything yourself. Without my producer and assistant director Alex Mitrushi (COM’10), it never would have happened. Before studying film at BU, he was a police officer in Dover for 10 years. The set’s drill sergeant, he was the perfect person to keep us on schedule and in check.
And you have to walk a fine line between sticking to your guns and taking advice. Some people will believe in you and some won’t. Absorb everything, but taking advice doesn’t mean you have to change everything you’re told to change. Believe in your vision.2 Comments