Thomas Wolfe was wrong; you can go home again.
That’s the theme of a new feature film that had local and international talents shooting a full length independent film at various locations in Hudson County over the last two weeks.
Called “Sugar!” the film is produced by Jersey City-based Silver Phoenix Entertainment along with Lauren Rayner Productions and Sugar Film LLC. They have put together a cast of stars that includes Tony Award-winner Alice Ripley and Robert Clohessy of “Blue Bloods” and “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Other notable performers include Billy Sample (a former NY Yankee), Michael Pemberton of “The Family Stone,” Kathryn Kates of “Seinfeld”, and Jonathan Tiersten of “Sleepaway Camp.”
A huge majority of the staff and the actors are women, giving this film a special feel even as it is being shot. The above-the-line talent includes the director, writer, producer, and even the director of photography. Lauren Rayner, who produced this film, is well-known in the industry for promoting women film makers and women artists.
“Sugar!” is described by the filmmakers as an adult coming-of-age story about a housewife, Leslie, who gave up her life as a musician for her politician husband. When an old band mate passes away, she decides to revisit her passion for music by secretly forming an all-women’s rock band.
Blaze Kelly Coyle of Silver Phoenix Entertainment, who executive-produced the film along with Robert Kalish, said the movie is about following your dreams at any age.
A mother and housewife, she is married to a man who is running as a Republican for the U.S. Senate from a very conservative part of Indiana. She used to be in a band and used to have a life of her own, and gets a chance to get back the dream.
“The story is about a woman in her 50s whose friend dies, and she has a chance to return to a rock ‘n roll way of life she thought she had lost when she got married,” Coyle said.
The filmmakers have gotten songs from established musicians for use in the film. Joan Jett has agreed to let the fictional band use four songs off her upcoming new album, plus one of her old songs. Graham Russell of Air Supply wrote the movie’s theme song.
The filming makes good use of Hudson County locations, partly because Coyle was familiar with some of them.
The shooting took place at a recording studio in Hoboken as well as several locations in Jersey City, such as Pershing Field and Grand Street downtown. Some scenes were shot in New York as well, even though the fictional setting of the movie is Indiana.
Hoboken’s Shannon Lounge served as the setting for the over the top live performance where the all girl band struts their stuff. The bar didn’t have a stage, so the film crew built one. Coyle said the bar owner was very cooperative and the bar had a good atmosphere.
Living in Jersey City Heights, Coyle said she had a good idea of some of the locations, such as the remarkable arch in Pershing Field.
She said she’s worked closely with the New Jersey Film Commission as well as local officials from Mayor Steven Fulop’s office, who have been very helpful. She said she really loves Jersey City and filming here.
“We have the best views of the skyline,” she said, laughing.
Along with the talents of classic rocker Joan Jett, June Millington – a member of Fanny, one of the first all female rock and roll bands – will play one of the performers in the fictional band in this film.
Fanny influenced nearly every female rock performer, including Joan Jett, so it is fitting that one of their members should be part of this fictional revival.
Sheila Earley, of the Duke Ellington Legacy Orchestra, is also a member of the fictional band.
“They are all amazing women,” Coyle said.
Recovering lost dreams
Shari Berman, the director, has won a number of awards for her short films, and is known for a non-linear film-style. She said like all independent films, this is a relatively low budget production, and had to fit shooting into a tight schedule.
This also means that each scene has to be done with fewer takes. Fortunately, she said, the actors have been prepared and in character.
This is a film about women and their ability to return to dreams they might have thought lost because of life choices made early in their lives, something Fletcher Wolfe, the director of photography, must take into account.
“The scenes must mirror the character, and the changes she goes through,” Wolfe said. “The idea is to project the dynamics of the character, so that the film starts out with images that reflect safety but also something dull.”
“Leslie” is very safe, very protected, but living a dull routine, and the set images must somehow reflect this sense of character, and then must change when the character takes the leap. How this is done is part of the science of movie making, and in this case going from squeaky clean Indiana to the gritty and flamboyant world of rock and roll.
Wolfe said this means using more dynamic coloring and edgier images that reflect the changes in the character. Even in the rush to shoot as many as four scenes in one day, she believes this sense of space and image comes through
Alice Ripley, the film’s star, decided to do the film after reading the script. Nominated for Broadway’s 1998 Tony Award as Best Actress (Musical), along with her co-star Emily Skinner in “Side Show,” Ripley finally won a Tony in 2009 for best performance for her role in “Next to Normal.”
She understood the character she said, and could relate to the character’s need to break free.
“This film is all about her character,” she said. “It is about her lost ambition.”
Where does the actress find the motivation for the character?
“Every character I play comes out of me,” she said, although she frowned when asked if she drew anything from her role in a stage production of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
Both this film and “Rocky Horror” deal with breaking free of boundaries that limit personal growth.
The film is due for release in 2015
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.