John Roberts’ first film was an action adventure film, “Okie the Otter,” which he made with his friends at Hillsborough High School with his first camcorder. Roberts, who pays the bills by producing television commercials, has been interested in film making since his childhood. He’s come a long way since Okie; his 20-minute film, “Walls,” is among several New Jersey films have made the cut, literally and figuratively, in the Trenton Film Festival, which features films and shorts from all over the world.
Roberts, 36, says “Walls” was inspired by his own seven-year career touring the country and recording with the rock and roll band, Mars Needs Women. The filmmaker, who grew up in Belle Mead and now lives in Cranbury, describes his movie as “a film about friendship, rock and roll and the sacrifices that go along with following your dream.” It conveys the emotion and hard work of the music scene and the idea that sometimes it can take a lifetime to become an overnight sensation.
Thousands of filmgoers are expected in downtown Trenton, Friday through Sunday, May 5 to 7,as the Third Annual Trenton Film Festival brings together over 73 short films and 24 feature films with screenings at four venue sites, all within easy walking distance of each other. Festival director Kevin Williams promises “an amazing weekend, with as great a cinematic experience as festival goers are going to find.” Williams says that the quality of films and special events is “better than ever” and that the many guest educators and filmmakers included in the program will make the weekend a special experience.
More than 300 films were submitted for consideration by the selection committee, with entries from around the globe including Japan, Germany, Jordan, Northern Ireland, Italy, Iceland, Philippines, Canada, France, Italy, England and Australia. The final selections represent five continents and the United States from Brooklyn to Beverly Hills. More than a dozen world premieres are on the schedule, plus many films that will be showing in New Jersey for the first time.
Williams says “there’s something for everyone.” The program includes independent, revival, and foreign films. There are animated features and experimental offerings. Four animated shorts nominated for 2005 Oscars will be shown on Sunday, May 7, at 12:15 p.m.
“‘Walls’ is truly a New Jersey film,” Robert says, “and I’m excited about showing it in Trenton.” The movie was filmed on location in New Brunswick, and Roberts’ crew are all rock musicians who want to work in film. “It’s fun to be part of this festival in the town where I hit a lot of Trenton Thunder games every season,” he says.
Eager to hit the road with a rock band after high school, Roberts said he went to college to “appease” his father. “I grew up in an amazing household,” he says, “I had immense respect for my parents.” His father, now retired after 35 years in sales for Johnson & Johnson and his mom, a homemaker, now live in Florida.
After earning an associates degree in TV Communication at Mercer County Community College in 1991, Roberts enrolled at Rutgers, where he continued his studies in video and film production during through 1992. Degrees in hand, he then started touring with the band, Mars Needs Women, traveling country-wide for gigs and managing to avoid the drugs and alcohol that are so prevalent among musicians. The band’s one record for Warner Brothers in 1996, “Sparking Ray Gun,” did not reach great heights, and Roberts decided a few years later — when he was 30 and the record industry took a downturn — that it was time for a career change.
The company he founded, Tsunami Films, with offices in Piscataway, produces commercials for corporations and for Broadway shows. His clients have included General Electric, Johnson & Johnson, M&M Mars, and L’Oreal. He is proud of the ads he has filmed for “The Color Purple” on Broadway as well as “Doubt” and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.” There have been some spots for movies as well as a music video for recording artists, and he produced and directed a pilot for a cable TV travel show.
“I love doing commercials,” he says. “We spend a week preparing for a one-day shoot, and then it takes 12 to 24 hours to shoot a 30-second commercial.” While he appreciates that this work is “an art form,” he says, “I’m eager to concentrate on creative filmmaking that tells a story, where there is time to explore nuances and not be as obvious and upfront as we need to be in advertising work.”
Currently, Roberts is trying to raise money to produce a full-length film that takes off from “Walls” and expands upon the story. With co-writer Jayce Bartok, he has drafted and finished a feature screenplay with the working title “Livingston Avenue.” He would also like to do more “directing for hire.”
While he loves New Jersey, Roberts is eager to move out to Los Angeles “where the work is,” he says. “For every film job in the east, there are 200 in LA.” And when he goes, he says, his girlfriend of 14 years, Kiersten Cluthe, a corporate marketing executive he met in LA when the band was touring, will go with him.
Parties and special events throughout the weekend will add extra sparkle to the Trenton Film Festival, beginning with the opening night gala and screening, which kicks off the festival on Friday, May 5, at 6 p.m., at the New Jersey State Museum. The Trenton-based Celtic rock band, Na Bodach, will rock the cocktail party, which is sponsored by Wild Oats and Stella Artois. At 7:45 p.m. the party will be followed by the New Jersey premiere of “Black Sun,” the story of the New York City-based French painter and filmmaker Hugues de Montalembert, who lost his sight after a mugging. Composer-turned-filmmaker Gary Tarn will be on hand to talk about how he recreated the artist’s world.
The many filmmakers and artists in town for the weekend are expected to gather in the evening on Saturday, May 7, at 9:30 p.m., when the day’s showings are over, at Mill Hill Saloon in Trenton. Williams invites filmgoers to meet and mingle.
The closing film on Sunday, May 8, at 7:45 p.m. at the New Jersey State Museum is the Academy Award-nominated “Street Fight,” a documentary that follows the 2002 mayoral campaign in Newark, a cutting behind-the-scenes look at local politics. Director Marshall Curry will be in attendance. Preceding “Street Fight” at the Museum, the award ceremony and reception with feature refreshments provided by sponsor Wild Oats.
A gift to the community is a day of pre-festival screenings open to the public at no charge on Friday, May 5, from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. at the State Museum. These “Reel Stories” deal with the exploration, examination, and interpretation of unusual life situations. A filmmaker or domain expert will conduct a Q&A session after each film.
New at this year’s festival is the special family section on Saturday, May 6, at 10 a.m., at the New Jersey State Museum. The one-hour program features six short subjects dealing with children and families, which are sure to encourage dinner table conversation about the topics involved.
Filmmaker Gordon Parks, who died this year, will be honored with screenings of his films “Shaft” and “The Learning Tree.” Also, five films by filmmakers from nearby New Jersey and Pennsylvania will be featured in a special Trenton Area Showcase on Saturday, May 7, at 10 a.m. at the Contemporary Club. Throughout the weekend, seminars and panels on the craft of filmmaking will feature expert educators and practitioners.
Volunteers are still needed for many positions including ushering, ticket sales, technical posts, and other. At a recent introduction to the program held at Barnes & Noble MarketFair, several volunteers spoke of the fun they had as part of last year’s festival. So, if you’ve ever wanted to be part of the movies, volunteering will give you a behind-the-scenes look at the silver screen.
Trenton Film Festival, Friday through Sunday, May 5 to 7, www.trentonfilmfestival.org. “Walls” will be screened on Saturday, May 6, at 11:30 a.m., along with six other films that comprise Narrative Shorts #2 at the Contemporary, 176 West State Street (across from the New Jersey State Library).
All-Access Weekend Festival Passes are $75; $10 less for seniors and students. Regular screenings are $8. Tickets for the Kick-Off Party/ Opening Film Fundraiser are $24. The special program of shorts for the family is $4 per person. Tickets and passes may be purchased in advance online See website and U.S.1’s day-by-day calendar listings for full schedule. For more information visit the festival web site or call 609-396-6966.