Steve Chernoski, the writer and director of “New Jersey: The Movie,” says growing up in Ewing made him unsure of exactly where he was from. “Mercer County tends to be the most divided county in the state, in terms of cultures. So I think that any of us who grow up in Mercer County kind of always have that identity complex — am I north Jersey or south Jersey?”
This uncertainty inspired him to make his latest film, “New Jersey: The Movie,” a lighthearted look at where New Jersey divides into north and south. Chernoski spent a year traveling to all 21 counties, asking people where they thought the dividing line is and testing out some of his theories of north versus south. He will speak about the making the film at a screening on Wednesday, August 5, at Princeton Public Library.
Chernoski, who teaches ancient history and political science to sixth through eighth graders in Millburn-Short Hills school district, acknowledges that getting young people interested in local history can be tough. But for him it was a passion from an early age. “I’m a history nerd,” he says. “The smell of new atlases is one of the most beautiful things to me in life.”
His father was a military lawyer for the Navy and an attorney general for the state of New Jersey and his mother was a history teacher. “I got my love of history from my mother,” he says.
Chernoski received his bachelor’s in history education from the University of Dayton in Ohio in 1999 and moved to Upper Township in Cape May County to begin his teaching career. In 2003 he received his master’s degree in genocide studies from Richard Stockton College in Pomona, New Jersey. He now lives in Maplewood, in Essex County.
While working on his master’s degree, Chernoski made “Gibson’s Passion,” a film about the controversies surrounding Mel Gibson’s film, “The Passion.” It includes interviews with scholars, clergy, and people leaving the theater. “I tried to make it even-handed and get both points of view,” he says. “Then I was in the mood for something a little more fun.” “Gibson’s Passion” is viewable on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BpwQ5h4b-Kw and was recently presented at a teachers conference at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.
Chernoski says that living in so many different areas of the state is what really gave him the idea to do the documentary in the first place. “Living in very, very, very far south Jersey and living in north Jersey and growing up in central Jersey, it opens your eyes. It’s like, wow, this place is so small, but it’s so different.”
He gathered a group of Temple University film school alumni to help him make the movie, including producer Alena Kruchkova, who also served as a camera operator; another cameraman, Adin Mickle; and “our very amazing editor,” Andrei Litvinov. “I just surrounded myself with them. I was the writer and director and I had the history. They just followed along and brought their amazing skills to the table.” Chernoski spent about $20,000 making the film. He depleted his savings and raised money with the help of friends.
What struck him most about the differences among the places he lived was the culture — the different accents, languages, sports, speed of life — and speed of driving. He began to develop theories of what made a place fall into north or south Jersey. His overarching theory is that there is no central Jersey. He acknowledges that the geographic division of the state into north, central, and southern counties is accurate. But he thinks that culturally, every place leans either to the north or the south. “Each place tips one way or the other based on certain criteria that we used. We used those criteria, as unscientific as it might be, to kind of lean towns to one side or the other. The line that we found splits counties even, including Mercer County.” This was no surprise to Chernoski, who finds the towns around Trenton, such as Ewing and Hamilton and south Lawrence, very different culturally and economically from West Windsor, Hopewell, Lawrenceville, and Princeton.
He traveled the state to test his theories, seeing which way different places leaned. He visited every county and attended many community events, including minor league baseball games, the Cowtown Rodeo in Salem County, and the New Egypt speedway. Along the way, he asked people where they thought the state divided, using their answers to draw a “people’s line.” Along with the people’s line, the film shows lines drawn by the results of his various theories. “So even if no one likes the line we came up with in the film, they can look at the people’s line,” says Chernoski, “which split Mercer County again.”
One of his most useful theories was the sports divide. “There is no hiding behind central Jersey in sports,” Chernoski says. “You are either a north Jersey New York fan or you are a south Jersey Philadelphia fan. There were people like myself who were split, but you don’t find too many of us. So that was a big one.” One teacher in the film, who resides in Hamilton, says that when she goes to her job in West Windsor she see the sports loyalties shift from Philadelphia to New York/NJ.
Food was also an important cultural marker, such as whether people refer to ice cream toppings as Jimmies or sprinkles, their sandwich as a hoagie or a sub, or their convenience stores as 7-11s or Wawas. “We would joke that in Princeton, Hoagie Haven is the farthest north that the word hoagie goes,” Chernoski says. “It isn’t true, but it was close. Once you get into Montgomery, you are really in sub territory.” Princeton is also home to one of the northernmost Wawas.
While Chernoski entered his research with certain theories to test, new ones cropped up along the way. “For instance, Taylor ham versus pork roll was not on my radar in the beginning,” he says. “But it kind of evolved. Just talking to people, the subjects give you their opinions and you write them down and you say, oh wow, I’m going to look into that. You learn a lot on the way.”
One difference that surprised him most was the fact that how people buy a house differs whether they are located in north or south Jersey. “In north Jersey, they settle at a lawyer’s office,” Chernoski says. “In south Jersey, they do it at title companies. It’s something left over from a bygone era when south Jersey people just did what Philadelphians did. My parents in Mercer County closed in a lawyer’s office. When I bought my house on the shore in south Jersey, I closed at a title company.”
He is showing “New Jersey: The Movie” at festivals and hopes to have it available on DVD by November. He is also working on a book with photographer Christian Lapinski, a photo tour of the state’s dividing line.
He is still deciding between a few ideas he has for future films. Most likely, he says his next project will either look into the Guido culture of the northeastern United States or examine why three European countries that have little in common with each other, did the most to save the Jewish population during the Holocaust.
“New Jersey: The Movie,” Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street. Wednesday, August 5, 7 p.m. Screening followed by Q&A with writer/director Steve Chernoski. Free. Visit www.stevechernoski.com. 609-924-8822 or www.princetonlibrary.org.