Atlantic City Welcomes the 2017 Garden State Film Festival
When the Garden State Film Festival descends on Atlantic City this weekend, it will include one movie that takes place — and was partially shot — just steps from the screening room in the casino-laden resort town. And another that was directed by the daughter of Martin Scorsese, and starring a pair of childhood friends from Bergen County.
The former, “The Dunning Man,” and the latter, “Almost Paris,” are two of more than 200 independent films that will be screened at the 15th annual festival, which will be held at Resorts Casino and Dante Hall beginning Thursday, March 30, and running through Sunday, April 2. A weekend pass is $45.
Here is a closer look at both movies:
THE DUNNING MAN
The journey of “The Dunning Man” — a drama based on an acclaimed short story by Kevin Fortuna about a downtrodden landlord in Atlantic City who reexamines his life while trying to collect money from an oddball array of tenants — is novel one. In fact, its director, Michael Clayton, has spent the last 18 years as a high school English teacher and had never helmed a full-length feature before.
The project started life a half-decade ago in a creative writing program at the University of New Orleans, where Fortuna, a 40-something budding author, met Clayton, a 40-something budding screenwriter.
For his thesis, Fortuna wrote a collection of short stories called “The Dunning Man.” The title tale — and longest one — was about a man named Connor Ryan who lost his job and gets dumped by his girlfriend, so he moves to Atlantic City, where he is the landlord of a few apartments in a condo complex. Among his tenants are a pair of animal trainers, a hard-partying rap star and a single mother. Ryan is “the dunning man” — someone who collects debt.
Fortuna, 45, isn’t from New Jersey. He grew up in New Orleans and Washington, D.C. and now lives in Cold Spring, N.Y., but he and his family spent summers near Atlantic City. And he got the idea for the story partly because he also owns some investment properties in the struggling city.
“Unfortunately,” he says with a laugh. “My uncle is 84. He likes to say Atlantic City will be great again one day. He just won’t live to see it.”
Fortuna, who works in the internet industry and went back to school to finish his writing degree, says he was frequently told that the book would make a fine movie.
“In many ways, it was a cinematic short story,” Fortuna explains. “But I had no idea how to write a screenplay.”
So he approached Clayton, his friend from the New Orleans program, to tackle the adaptation.
Clayton, 47, who grew up outside Atlanta, received with a dual degree in film and English from the University of Georgia in the mid-1990s. But after graduation, he pursued the latter, becoming a high school English teacher in Tallapoosa, Ga.
He enrolled in the New Orleans program after getting the urge to pen screenplays again. And when he accepted the offer to adapt “The Dunning Man,” he traveled with Fortuna to Atlantic City in 2012 to get a feel for the area.
He had never been there before. And Clayton was immediately struck by the “up and down” aura of the city.
“You’ve got the beautiful stuff, you’ve got a garish pink strip club, you’ve got a beautiful church,” he recalls. “There’s a little bit of everything. From overindulgence to people getting by.
“It’s such an American city to me,” Clayton continues. “It’s the perfect metaphor for trying to live in the world. We tried to show both extremes. We tried to show how crazy Atlantic City can be, but also how human and real and down-to-earth it can be sometimes. Sometimes there are giant elephants, and sometimes you have to pay your power bill.”
Adds Fortuna: “In a lot of ways, Atlantic City is a character in the short story and the movie.”
In fact, many exterior scenes were shot in the shadow of the shuttered Revel casino, the massive, mirror-covered gambling hall that towers over the city’s boardwalk.
Initially, the idea was for someone else to direct the film. But Fortuna — who also serves as producer — says part of the reason he asked Clayton to do it was because of the connection he felt to the material and the city.
“It’s a very creative adaptation of that story,” Fotuna says. “He made sure the screenplay was true to the original story while coming up with some interesting subplots and characters that didn’t exist in the short story.”
Directing, though, was daunting for Clayton, who had made only a handful of short movies in film school years back.
“Nothing was easier than I thought,” he jokes. “I’m so proud of the fact that when you watch the film, you can’t tell how out of my mind I was. It was tough. There were a lot of things going on. It was not a film school set, that’s for sure.”
The movie has been accepted to a dozen more festivals, including one in Nice, France and another in London.
The goal, Fortuna says, is to have someone pay for it to make a broad theatrical release. After all, so far, he has financed the entire picture himself.
“My wife is hoping we could still put our daughters through college,” Fortuna says with a laugh. “But I felt so strongly about the script that Michael wrote that I just didn’t want it to be sitting around in a pipeline.”
At least part of the journey of “Almost Paris” — a comedy-drama about a former banker who moves back in with his parents after losing his job amid the financial collapse of 2008 — began in Tenafly, the small Bergan County borough.
It was there where two of the film’s stars — Wally Marzano-Lesnevich (who also wrote the screenplay) and Michael Sorvino — grew up. They acted together in school plays at Tenafly High School and became roommates when they both moved on to the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University in New Brunswick in the mid-’90s.
“We’re both very proud to be Jersey boys,” Sorvino says. “We both lived in California several times, but we always loved coming back to the East Coast. We prefer to make our lives here.”
Initially, they wanted to film “Almost Paris” in and around Tenafly, but tax credits made Long Island more appealing. The movie is set is Oyster Bay.
Marzano-Lesnevich plays Max, the main character, who once worked at a Wall Street banking firm but comes home to rethink his life and his priorities. Sorvino plays his best friend, Mikey-Mike, a former baseball player who barely made it to the pros.
“It’s a comedy-drama that’s about redemption,” Marzano-Lesnevich explains.
Adds Sorvino: “It’s about learning how to live and how to love again — finding out how life is actually going to be.”
The movie — which debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival last year — is the first full-length feature made by Domenica Cameron-Scorsese, the daughter of Oscar winner Martin Scorsese.
Sorvino knows a bit about coming from a famous family, too. He is father is Paul Sorvino (who worked with Scorsese on “Goodfellas”) and his sister is Oscar winner Mira Sorvino.
Having that family connection “cuts both ways,” Sorvino says.
“At times, it certainly helps,” he explains. “It affords you talking points with people that have been in the business. It does provide kind of an entry in many cases.
“But also I found it can hurt sometimes,” Sorvino continues. “In fact, almost half the time, especially when you’re on the business side, dealing with the suits of the film industry, you find some of the agents and manager or even casting directors, they seem to sometimes have a preconceived notion about what I’m going to be or look like or sound like. Or maybe what the acting is going to be like.
“But it’s something you have to deal with,” he concluded. “The success my family had has afforded me a very interesting colorful life.”
Marzano-Lesnevich’s own father, Walt — an attorney who grew up in Cliffside Park — makes a cameo in the film as a member of a book club.
Up next, Marzano-Lesnevich is working on a few screenplays, including a romantic comedy with his fiancé about a May-December romance. Meanwhile, Sorvino is developing a film about the opioid epidemic in New Jersey.
“It’s just ravaging a lot of our communities,” he says. “It doesn’t spare any age group or demographic.”
Marzano-Lesnevich and Sorvino also acted another independent movie together called “The Depths,” which is set to premiere at the Manhattan Film Festival next month.
“But we filmed that in New Jersey,” Sorvino says proudly.
ODDS AND ENDS
The Garden State Film Festival will also include workshops and panel discussions. Former talk show host Sally Jessy Raphael will receive the festival’s lifetime achievement award and will participate in a panel discussion on Saturday, April 1, at 4:30 p.m. Golden Globe- and Tony-winning actor Brian Dennehy will also be honored at the festival, as will actor Richard Kind, a Trenton native best known for his role on the 1990s sitcom “Spin City.” And Emmy winner Ed Asner, a frequent attendee to the festival, is also slated to appear.
For tickets and more information, visit http://www.gsff.org.