The invasion that wasn't

Jody Lambert on the comedy and humanity in Brave New Jersey.

by Jennie Kermode

Making the headlines in 1938
Making the headlines in 1938

What would you do if you thought aliens were landing near your home, your neighbours shared your concerns and you had no convenient means of summoning outside help? On the 30th of October, 1938, that's exactly what some Americans went through due to confusion over Orson Welles' radio adaptation of HG Wells' science fiction classic War Of The Worlds. Brave New Jersey is a new film from director Jody Lambert which explores the reactions of people in a small town on that strangest of nights.

Although it's played as a comedy, Brave New Jersey never mocks its characters or treats them as stupid. I congratulated Jody on the dignity he managed to give them.

Small town blues
Small town blues

"Yeah, for sure," says Jody. "I mean, we never wanted to make fun of the characters or wink at the story in any way. I think that the night of the War Of The Worlds broadcast looms pretty large in our pop culture imagination, at least in America, and I think that to assume that the people who believed it and panicked - that that only happened because they were idiots - is totally wrong. It happened because of a variety of factors. the unease of the country at the end of the Great Depression and on the eve of World War Two was a real thing and it opened the door for people being ready to believe that some foreign superpower was capable on invading the United States. We wanted to make sure that you never felt like our town was just a bunch of yokels.

"We wanted to pepper the script with little bits of historical details without it feeling like we were giving you history lessons, so there's a couple little moments in the early part of the movie that reference the hard times that people are going through and the fact that Hitler is about to have a major presence on the global stage - he had already, but maybe not so much in America. We wanted the audience to be aware that there were larger forces at play, but do it in a way that still allowed it to be comedy."

The story has been dramatised several times in the past. Jody's approach is quite different. I ask him why he decided to take it on.

"I think that the TV movies that have been made kind of focused on Orson Welles - at least cut to him in his studio - and we thought that the idea that people thought that Martians were invading, and what might happen to them over the course of one night when, you know, they think they're going to die at this point in time from a potential Martian invasion, was a really fun way to make a comedy that felt like it was about some deeper issues and allowed us to explore some more complicated themes than a typical comedy might allow you to do. And also touch on those alien invasion, end of the world movies as well. It just seemed like a really fun movie that had never really been done in this way. Me and Michael Dowling, who I wrote the movie with, we just kind of jumped in and said 'Yeah, let's do it!'"

Facing an unknown enemy
Facing an unknown enemy

How conscious was he of those end of the world movies when developing the story? Did he want his characters to behave more realistically?

"We watched some of those Fifties Martian invasion disaster movies," he says. "Although those movies are great they're a little bit dated. We wanted to make sure that we were tracking the journey, emotionally, of the characters from a 2017 point of view, so you were really on this ride with them every step of the way, and what they would be feeling and thinking. The movie takes place over the course of just a few hours, really, but you still want these characters to go through a journey that doesn't feel like a parody of an alien invasion movie. We were really cogniscent of wanting to make you feel like you were on that journey with them."

I note that some viewers may be surprised by the modern sensibilities of some of the characters, who make sense in a Thirties context but don't seem too old fashioned. The relationships between men and women, in particular, are not quite what people might expect.

"That's interesting. In our original draft there was a little bit more kind of stereotypical Thirties dialogue, like people saying 'Jeepers!' and 'Golly wilkers!', you know? We started to strip that out. You're already working quite hard to put people into 1938 from a production design standpoint - there's just so many obstacles to making an audience feel safe and comfortable about you taking them on that journey, and one of the ways we thought that we could benefit was by making their language a little bit more contemporary-sounding and then, yeah, the themes that you're speaking to, maybe particularly with the female characters, being able to look at relationships and the roles that people have in society from a more contemporary standpoint was exciting to us."

The children in the film have a more timeless quality, I suggest. Are children always that little bit more suspicious about things than adults are?

Those meddling kids
Those meddling kids

"Growing up, I was actually a kid actor," Jody says. "Not a very good one, thankfully, or not a very successful one, because that's a tough road. So many movies that I grew up loving, those kid actors and those kid performances were really memorable and powerful, from Eliot in E.T. to Ricky Schroeder in The Champ. So when we started working on the script and we decided to have a couple of kids be in the movie, we wanted to treat with the the same dignity and give them as much of an interesting point of view on events as the adults, and we stumbled into this idea that they maybe smell what's up a little bit more than eveyone else. We thought it would bef fun to put that in from the point of view of the young girl in the movie rather than one of the adults."

How did he approach managing so many different characters in the film?

"Well, one way is that you hire really wonderful actors," he says with a gratified smile. "Actors who are perfect for their parts and bring so much variety and charisma and humanity to all the roles. That really helps. The other thing is that, in the writing of the script, we were very diligent about the audience always knowing where the characters were, so when you cut away from one character you always remember exactly where they were when you last saw them when you pick up with them again. It's a helpful trick to make sure the audience is never confused about what's happening with any character in a big ensemble movie."

Probably the most obvious comedy device in the film, I note, is the milking machine which the town is excited about before the invasion scare starts. Where did that idea come from?

"That was actually a real thing that was in New Jersey at the time and were looking for something that felt like the technology of the future, and something that the townsfolk would be suspicious of because it was a weird thing that had just arrived. So we were trying to find something like that and then we stumbled upon this rotolactor in our research and just thought it was a really fun, kind of crazy device for the movie."

Making cows nervous - the rotolactor
Making cows nervous - the rotolactor

Most of the comedy, however, emerges between the characters rather than from anything external.

"Yeah. Once they hear the broadcast and think Martians are coming it's really not about that anymore, it's about the decisions that they're making and the emotions that they're feeling. The audience knows that no Martians are coming - assuming that they know what the movie's about going in - so at some point the movie kind of moves away from the alien element and into just the characters and how they're dealing with their circumstances on this one insane night."

Was it a challenge doing so much shooting at night?

""Yeah, it's just harder, you know? It's hard on people's bodies, it's hard on their brains staying up all night and sleeping all day. Most of our movie was shot at night so it takes a few days to get into a groove and it was difficult to wrangle all the people, but our crew just worked really hard and we always had a really detailed plan for what had to happen so that we could move quickly under difficult circumstances. It's just the deal with the Devil you make when you write a movie that's set at night. You know that you're going to be in for a bit of a rollercoaster, but it was fun. It was hard, but it was fun.

"We shot the whole thing in 25 days and every day something was a challenge, but when you have really talented, creative people around you as a director, you get to make adjustments on the fly. You try to really whittle down what you need to tell the story of the scene to its essentials so that you can add more takes and more time with the actors, so we did a pretty good job of managing our time and I think that was crucial in order to finish the movie and get it in the can in time."

The film has now been playing the festival circuit for about six months.

"It's been great. We've won a bunch of rewards and gotten really nice reviews and played to big houses everywhere we've gone. It opens here on Friday in 16 cities, and it wll be on VoD. Follow us on social media for updates about a UK release!"

So is he nervous or excited about Friday?

"A little of both. You just hope people show up."

The Martians may not have done that, but Brave New Jersey deserves to attract a crowd.

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