The Monmouth Film Festival has a proud reputation for discovering and promoting the finest filmmakers and their incredible independent films produced from all regions of the globe! We don't always have to go very far to find such talented artists. In the case of Director Gerard Zarra and his award-winning short film, The Tramcar Girl, our programming team just needed to take a quick trip down the garden state parkway to Wildwood, New Jersey where Zarra's film was set and produced! Gerard Zarra was featured at the 2017 Monmouth Film Festival at the Two River Theater and his film took home a special Award as the "Best New Jersey Film". The award was presented by Two River Times esteemed film critic Joan Ellis along with members of the festival board. We took some time to speak with Gerard Zarra and asked questions about his film, his beginnings in the industry, and his experience at the Monmouth Film Festival almost two year's ago this August! Here's what he had to say...
What was the inspiration for The Tramcar Girl?
Not surprisingly, the inspiration for The Tramcar Girl was its doo wop beach location Wildwood, NJ. I've been there every summer of my life with my family, and I love to introduce it to new people. I was dating a Long Islander (actress Stephanie Yafeh, who plays the Tramcar Girl), and she was mesmerized during her first Wildwood trip by the Boardwalk lights and retro vibe. Not even the Hampton's can top Wildwood.
My Co-Directors on the project were my good friends Alex Tymchak and Daniel Lewinstein, who I graduated NYU film school with. We wanted to take the spirit of Wildwood, and use it to tell a very old-fashioned American story inspired by some of our favorite classic films. There's everything in there from Grease and Jaws, to The Searchers and The Flamingo Kid.
What was so special about Wildwood, New Jersey? As mentioned, Wildwood really stands out because of its retro vibe. They have done a tremendous job preserving the old motels, neon signs, and plastic palm trees. Whenever I bike-ride through Wildwood, I feel like I'm in a Norman Rockwell painting. The beach is also unlike any other because of just how wide and vast it is. It was an amazing location for filming.
Do you feel the film is received differently to people outside of New Jersey opposed to those who lived here and grew up on or around the shore? I definitely think people familiar with Wildwood will appreciate the film in their own way. There are a lot of local references specifically on the soundtrack and audio mix: Bobby Rydell's iconic Wildwood Days song is featured - along with plenty of familiar boardwalk buzzes and noises like the Polish water ice guy and of course plenty of "Watch the Tramcar Please!" That being said, the film is very American in its DNA...and I think anyone watching it will be able to recognize that same energy from their own vacation towns or just peripherally from our culture.
What led to the decision to tell a story with no dialogue? Part of that was a function of shooting on old Arri S film camera with no sync sound (which we knew we would be using from the get-go). Another reason was inspiration we took from animated films with no dialogue (Disney's Paperman short was a big influence). But honestly we really wanted to just capture a sense of time and place, and evoke the look and soundscape of a summer night in Wildwood. Since that was our focus, eliminating dialogue and presenting our characters more as archetypes moving through this location seemed like the right move.
Can you speak about how you developed the cinematography for this film? We knew right away we wanted to shoot this on 16mm film, which we were able to do with the help of our cinematographer Andrew Daugherty. We faced a bit of a challenge because we were using limited resources to shoot a very formal, classically shot film. By that I mean there were little handheld shots and zero coverage. Every shot was (in theory) planned out and usually locked off on a tripod. That's easier to do when you have time and resources, but we were basically running around Wildwood shooting documentary-style. Balancing those two aesthetics was the fun challenge of doing the film.
In an industry so digitally accessible, why shoot on 16mm film?
People often ask me this question, and my answer always is I need a reason to shoot on digital (usually a lack of money), not the other way around haha. I try to shoot on film whenever I can, simply because I love the look. This particular project really lent itself to shooting on film because Wildwood is such a cool, textured place and we wanted to use a living, breathing medium like celluloid to capture all of the boardwalk's character. I think the rich, colorful image that film produces helps you taste the salt air and boardwalk pizza.
What were some struggles or obstacles that happened while filming? Sand. Any time we had to open up our camera to load more film, we got sand inside of it. We also got sand in one of our tripod legs and it would not lock.
What was the process of getting access to shoot at Wildwood like? It was very easy. We spoke with the Boardwalk Special Improvement District which runs the tramcars, and they were extremely friendly and generous with their time. They put us in touch with the tramcar safety coordinator John "Gig" Gigliotti (Google him if you have a minute) who is a Wildwood legend with endless ties to the community. He was able to do open a lot of doors for us, and also became a great friend.
What got you interested in filmmaking? Where did it all begin? When I was 9 years old, my mom introduced me to Rocky on VHS tape and I was blown away by it. That Halloween, my grandmother sewed me a homemade Italian Stallion robe which I would use to make Rocky fan films with my dad's camera. I haven't veered off the path since. It's all I've ever wanted to do since I was a kid.
What advice do you have to first time filmmakers? It's a common answer, but honestly just get out there with your friends and shoot something. Keep trying and making mistakes. And watch great movies while you're doing it, see if you can pull anything from them.
What are your favorite genres of films and why? I like dark comedies a lot, but generally I don't gravitate towards a specific genre. I just like good cinema made by passionate directors. If you look at Steven Spielberg's films, for example...Schindler's List, Jaws, and Raiders of the Lost Ark are all in completely different genres. But they connect with audiences because of his commitment to craft and his love of cinema.
Any upcoming films you are working on that you can talk about? I'm working on a couple of projects at the moment. I have a narrative film in post-production called My New Pants. It's a weird dark comedy that's kind of Woody Allen meets David Lynch. That should be hitting festivals in the fall. I'm also shooting a couple of documentaries on Super 8 film. One is a short doc on a stand-up comic Brian Theriot, which follows him from Brooklyn to New Orleans. The second documentary which I'm prepping to shoot this summer takes place in Teora, Italy - where my ancestors came from. Dan Lewinstein and Alex Tymchak (my co-Directors on The Tramcar Girl) are collaborating on both of these docs. The best place to get updates on these projects would probably be my instagram @gerardzarra.
How did you hear about the Monmouth Film Festival? I was searching for New Jersey film festivals, and Monmouth kept showing up at the top of the list everywhere I looked.
How was your experience at the event?
Monmouth stands out as one of the best festivals I've ever attended. Red Bank was the perfect location with plenty to do and a surrounding community that supports art. The theater was state of the art, the projection was perfect (rare at festivals), and the programming was great.
What made this festival uniquely different than others you have attended in the past?
Nick Marchese along with his family and team were the differentiating factor. The festival is simply driven by a very passionate team of people and that cannot be understated. I've been to a lot of festivals, and you can tell when the people involved really love what they're doing. I encourage anyone to attend the festival and see how they went the extra mile with every detail.
Your film took home the Best New Jersey film award, a special hand-picked award. How did that make you and your team feel? That was really special to us, because the whole journey of that film started with showing someone the Jersey shore for the first time and watching their eyes light up. And along the way, the film was pieced together with the help of the Wildwood community. To see that it connected with a New Jersey audience in a meaningful way really brought everything full circle.
Would you recommend and encourage other filmmakers to submit and participate in the Monmouth Film Festival? 100 percent. If you ever get tired of the festival circuit or feel shortchanged by it, the Monmouth Film Festival is the perfect antidote. They are really first class in every respect. Thank you again for having us and our film.
Thanks for reading! Keep in the loop for more great Monmouth Film Festival filmmaker interviews! Be on the lookout for this year's 2019 Festival lineup which will be live at the Two River Theater August 8th-11th, 2019!
Interested in watching The Tramcar Girl? The filmmakers have made the film available online for viewing via Vimeo. Give it a watch and experience it for yourself! Watch The Tramcar Girl HERE