Director Greg Chwerchak’s first feature film “grew out of a sunset in Malibu” but is without a doubt a love song to New Jersey. Greetings From the Shore, an independent film that’s been winning numerous festival awards and capturing the hearts of audience members wherever it’s screened, is in select theaters now and its creators couldn’t be more excited. “Greetings has been a labor of love for a lot of people and it’s deeply satisfying to put something like that out in the world,” Chwerchak explains.
The coming-of-age tale, written by Chwerchak and Gabrielle Berberich, tells the story of bright-eyed Jenny (Kim Shaw) who spends her last summer before college at the Jersey Shore where she’s hired at a local yacht club to teach English to a group of very uncooperative waiters. Recovering from the recent death of her father, Jenny befriends a local mechanic (Paul Sorvino) and falls in love with a mysterious sailor (David Fumero), while the yacht club’s hidden world floats to the surface upon the return of the power-hungry Commodore (Jay O. Sanders).
Before the movie’s theatrical release Chwerchak spoke with MM about releasing his first feature and why he wants the world to know how beautiful New Jersey really is.
Jessica Wall (MM): From relative newcomer Kim Shaw to prolific long-time actor Paul Sorvino (Goodfellas, Romeo + Juliet), the cast of Greetings From the Shore is made up of actors with a variety of acting backgrounds. What was it like directing a cast with such a wide range of experience? How did their different backgrounds affect the atmosphere on set?
Greg Chwerchak (GC): The actors in the film are amazing and I can’t sing their praises enough. From the moment we arrived on location at the Jersey Shore, the cast was one big family. The four actors who play the foreigners, for example, had never met before, yet all agreed to share a house at the Shore. They’re playing sailors who’ve been on boats together for years and their characters should know each other inside and out. So the actors moved in together. They cooked meals together, played poker, learned to crab, drank excessively and kicked a soccer ball nonstop. By the time we began filming, their rivalries and affections were second nature. It was amazing. It was like watching four men who’d spent their entire lives together. I think that, in a nutshell, is what makes directing actors in an independent feature different than anything else. No actor shows up to an indie film set for a paycheck; they’re there because they love it, because they relish working with other actors who live and breathe the process. I was extremely fortunate to have such a great ensemble for my first feature. The casting was perfect. Most days I just got to show up on set and watch pros do what they do best.
MM: You’re a New Jersey native and Gabrielle Berberich based the story on her own experiences at the Jersey Shore. What was it like to film at a location so close to both of your hearts?
GC: The Jersey Shore was the first character in the screenplay. Literally. Before Gabrielle and I ever wrote one word of the script, we took a trip to Lavallette, the coastal town where Gabrielle spent every summer growing up. We walked around and talked to locals and began to cobble together all these wonderful moments that had happened to Gabrielle in this town. So before there was ever a “Jenny” or a “Benicio” or a “Commodore,” there was the Jersey Shore. It’s a fascinating place—almost timeless. Families return to rent houses on the same streets in the same towns for generations. Kids grow up with their school friends and their shore friends. It’s hard to put in words, which is maybe why we put it in pictures. New Jersey has taken its knocks over the years, so Gabrielle and I wanted to make a film that was a tribute to the New Jersey that we knew. In shooting, then, there was a pressure. We didn’t want to let down all the Jersey folks that shared our feelings for the shore.
MM: You were able to film the movie on location at Barnegat Island off the Jersey coast. How much did this contribute to the shore emerging as a distinct character within the film?
GC: Shooting on location was vital to the authenticity of the film. A number of people advised us to shoot in Malibu or Santa Monica or someplace easier for production, but it was never a consideration. If we couldn’t have shot at the shore, we would have told a totally different story. The character of the location plays into all of the subplots. It’s an actual island and each character is an “island.” It’s stormy one minute, radiant the next. And for an independent film, there could be nothing better than the natural textures of a real location—the boats in dock, the ferris wheel on the horizon, the old weathered piers, etc.
MM: Coming-of-age tales have been done again and again but there are still those like Greetings From the Shore that manage to keep the genre fresh. What did you do to make this film stand out from its predecessors?
GC: Gabrielle and I just tried to write an interesting story with interesting characters. We didn’t ascribe to the rules of any particular genre—coming-of-age, romantic comedy, drama, fairytale, etc.—and I think that helped us in telling the story that we wanted to tell, not a story whose plot was dictated by genre conventions. We had a safety net, too, because anytime we weren’t sure where the story should turn, we just turned to Gabrielle’s real-life experiences. I think that kept us grounded and it kept the emotion of the characters honest.
MM: You’ve had plenty of practice directing music videos and commercials as well as two short films, but Greetings From the Shore is your first feature. Besides the obvious (bigger scale and different subject matter), how was this experience different from your past projects? Do you plan on directing more full-length pieces in the future?
GC: Music videos, commercials and short films tend to succeed on the execution of one great idea. You can say “Just Do It” or the “Sabotage” video and it’s one great slogan or one great concept executed perfectly. I love those short forms, but it’s a totally different animal from constructing and executing a feature. Directing a feature was for me about maintaining tonal consistency. From working with the actors through working with the composer or the colorist, every stage of the process had to serve the same purpose; if one character was too slapstick or one was too maudlin, it could knock the viewer out of the story. It’s a very different challenge from executing “one great idea,” but it’s vastly more satisfying.
After Greetings opens, Gabrielle and I go straight into our next Jersey feature, Lucky Mucker. Mucker is set against the autumn leaves and slate mines of Western New Jersey. It’s a Romeo & Juliet comedy involving Revolutionary War re-enactors, Oktoberfests and the missing Lindbergh baby (or two). Lucky Mucker is our Western Jersey film as Greetings is our Jersey Shore film. We plan on shooting a number of Jersey films, each from a different perspective of the state.
MM: Greetings From the Shore has won numerous awards during its run on the festival circuit, including audience awards from the Garden State and Red Rock Film Festivals. How does it feel watching your film find success, especially success given by the viewers?
GC: A lot of people have contributed to this film since its inception, so it’s great to see everyone’s efforts rewarded with positive responses. The audience awards are fantastic because that means real people have connected to our work. We had a man come up to us after a screening in Montreal and thank us in very broken English for telling “his story.” I’d always been so focused on trying to tell our little Jersey story that I never thought about how people might relate it to their own experiences in places far away from New Jersey. It’s amazing. It reminds me of why people love films like Dirty Dancing. Most people haven’t been to the Catskills in the 60’s, yet they connect to the universality of that story. Similarly, I think Greetings inspires a certain nostalgia and people seem to enjoy taking a walk down memory lane—even if they’ve never been to the Jersey Shore. I’m very proud of that communal quality to the film; I think that’s one of the main reasons why we tell stories and make movies—for the shared experience.
MM: As co-writer and director, you must have been close to the film from the start. How did you get involved initially?
GC: Greetings grew out of a sunset in Malibu. Gabrielle and I were watching one of those stunning smog-diffused sunsets over the Pacific for which L.A. is famous and Gabrielle commented that as beautiful as it was, it was nothing compared to New Jersey. That might be a funny comment for most people, but I knew what she meant. L.A. has beauty, but there’s something about New Jersey that’s more than just “beauty.” New Jersey has history; it has a legacy of generations and generations of families, first-loves, coming-of-age summers, etc. She and I both knew that and it started a discussion of making a movie that showed other people that. We’ve joked since that we’re the unofficial ambassadors for the Garden State, but we’ve really enjoyed showing people the New Jersey that she and I know.
MM: Are you excited to see Greetings From the Shore released in theaters?
GC: I’m ecstatic. It’s been a long road since that sunset in Malibu and I can’t wait to share our film with the general public. At each step along the way—from writing the script to shooting in Lavallette to showing the film at festivals—we’ve met amazing people. We’ve shared in other people’s coming-of-age stories from Fargo to Anchorage to Fort Lauderdale to back in Jersey. It’s been incredible and I’m excited for the film’s future.