Austin Film Festival Preview: Director Jody Lambert on BRAVE NEW JERSEY

I remember, as a kid, reading about the 1938 “War of the Worlds” broadcast by Orson Welles and the havoc it caused in some rural communities. I found it kind of hilarious how seriously people took this radio play. Well, Jody Lambert — along with co-writer Michael Dowling — decided this true story would be good material for a film, so they created Brave New Jersey.

Starring Tony Hale as the mayor of Lullaby, NJ, the comedy features an ensemble of familiar faces, including Heather Burns (Miss Congeniality) as an unappreciated housewife, Anna Camp (Pitch Perfect, and AFF 2016 pick One Night) as a schoolteacher who yearns for more, Raymond J. Barry (Justified) as a veteran of the Great War, Mel Rodriguez (Getting On) as the small-town sheriff, and Erika Alexander (Living Single) as a woman hoping for inspiration and leadership from her pastor. Accompanied by a folky score that sounds a little more 2016 than 1938, Brave New Jersey portrays a comedy of errors following the Welles broadcast.

Brave New Jersey will have its world premiere at Austin Film Festival this weekend, with a large percentage of cast & crew in attendance. Lambert, who directed the film and has a family connection with another crewmember, answered a few questions for me (via email) before the festival kicks off.

Cinapse: What led you (and your co-writer) to base a film around the reaction to the “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast?

Jody Lambert: We always felt that the night of the War of the Worlds radio hoax was one of those great, true, pop culture nuggets that had never been turned into a film. There were a couple of made-for-TV movies over the years, but they focused on Orson Welles in the studio; we wanted to tell the story of the people who heard the broadcast and truly believed that Martians were coming to kill them.

It seemed like a great idea for a comedy: a small, sleepy town where everyone thinks they have one night to live… all their hidden emotions and desires come out… and what happens the next day when they learn it was just a hoax.

How early on did Tony Hale become involved with the project? What was the rest of the casting process like?

We needed a terrific actor for the lead role of Clark, the Mayor of our fictional New Jersey town. Someone who’s funny and charming, who the audience would root for and fall in love with. Our incredible casting director Denise Chamian said, “That’s Tony.” When he said yes, we knew we had to surround him with actors who’d fit in with his unique comedic style.

We ended up with a Murderers Row of actors: Heather Burns, Anna Camp, Dan Bakkedahl, Sam Jaeger, Mel Rodriguez, Grace Kaufman, Matt Oberg, Erika Alexander, Leonard Earl Howze, Evan Jonigkeit, Harp Sandman, Noah Lomax and Raymond J. Barry. I think it’s one of the best casts you’ll see in an indie this year.

We found locations that felt like they were created just for our movie. It was crazy. We couldn’t have made the movie anywhere else.

The music scoring the film is almost like another character. How did Dennis Lambert and the guys from Delta Spirit come to work on the film?

We started talking about the music way before we started shooting. The film is a period piece, but we wanted it to feel very contemporary and we knew the music was going to be key to creating that tone. We called it “Comedic Sci-fi Folk.” Dennis Lambert is a great songwriter/producer — oh, he’s also my dad — and he’s got a big musical vocabulary to draw from.

I’d been a huge Delta Spirit fan for years so instead of trying to find another composer who was Delta Spirit-esque, we just emailed Delta Spirit. Kelly Winrich and Matthew Logan Vasquez were excited about the movie and they came aboard to create the score with Dennis. Working with the three of them was one of my favorite parts of making the film.

How long did Brave New Jersey take to film? What drew you to shoot in Tennessee?

We shot the movie in twenty-four days, mostly outdoors, mostly nights, with kids and animals and special effects. Every day was packed and intense (and very, very hot). We shot in Tennessee because our producer Taylor Williams knew about a few small towns that were frozen in time and could easily double as 1938. We went to Tennessee and he was right — we found locations that felt like they were created just for our movie. It was crazy. We couldn’t have made the movie anywhere else.

How would you describe your directing style?

I was lucky to be surrounded by so many talented people so I tried to create an environment where everyone — cast, crew, designers, even the extras — felt loose, spontaneous, collaborative, open to mistakes or new ideas, and wanting to contribute.

Anything else you’d like to add?

We were shooting one afternoon and I saw Tony Hale, Mel Rodriguez, Sam Jaeger and Dan Bakkedahl hanging out between setups. Dan wasn’t even working that day, so I asked him why he was on set, when he could be resting at the hotel. He said he just wanted to hang out, see what we were up to and didn’t want to miss out on all the fun. I think that moment sums up the vibe of the whole movie.

AFF screening times: Brave New Jersey plays Sat, Oct. 15, 7pm (world premiere!) at Stateside Theater, and Mon, Oct. 17, 7pm at Alamo Drafthouse Village.

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the author

Elizabeth Stoddard is a native Texan who has lived in Austin most of her life. She has contributed to Slackerwood and Austinist, and joined the Austin Film Critics Association in 2014. She loves classic film and discovering Texas ties in older movies. Twitter: @elizs