The night of October 30th, 1938 will live in infamy, thanks to Orson Welles and his War of the Worlds radio broadcast, even if its influence has been disputed in recent years. Adapted from the 1898 H.G. Wells novel about a full-scale Martian invasion of Earth, Welles’ broadcast was part of his radio anthology series The Mercury Theater On The Air. The first half comprised mostly of simulated news broadcasts reporting on the chaos and destruction, starting outside the town of Grover Point, New Jersey, which caused some listeners to believe that the Earth really was being invaded by aliens.
The ensuing panic sets the stage for Brave New Jersey, an ensemble comedy from co-writer/director Jody Lambert, which just had its world premiere at the Austin Film Festival this month. Set during that memorable October night, Lambert’s film focuses on the residents of the fictional town of Lullaby as they rally together in disarray, succumb to mob mentality, and anxiously await for an alien invasion that never quite shows up.
The cast is led by Tony Hale as Clark Hill, the Mayor of Lullaby, and features a large supporting cast of characters, each of them interpreting the impending visit from the Martians in very different ways. We got the chance to talk to Lambert, Hale, and some of the cast about what it was like to try and recreate a bit of fictionalized history.
“My co-writer, Mike (Dowling), just came to me one day and [said] ‘We should write a movie about the night that the War of the Worlds broadcast, and not focus on Orson Welles, but focus on a town that hears it and believe it,'” said Lambert, who immediately jumped at the idea. “It just felt like somebody was going to get to that story.”
While a handful of other projects about that night have been made over the years, Lambert and Dowling believed leaving Welles completely out of the story allowed them to focus exclusively on “the group of people that hear it, believe it, and how it affects them.”
“I just loved the concept of this small town missing the fictional part of the broadcast and only given the chaotic part,” said Hale. “I met with Jody, and that’s what really got me in. His passion, his energy and kindness, and [his] wanting to make almost a family experience out of it. The older I get, that’s what I want, those are the environments I want to be in, and so I was like let’s go for it.”
With the role of Mayor Hill in place, Lambert looked next to longtime collaborator Heather Burns to play Lorraine, a wealthy, unhappy aristocrat trapped in a loveless marriage. Burns, who’s known Lambert and Dowling since they were in college together, had been familiar with the script for quite some time. “It was such a good piece of writing; they kept coming back to it and honing it over the years. I would help them out with readings, play different characters, and when they decided to make it I was thrilled.”
Though Hale takes on a more prominent role compared to his repertoire of supporting characters, he says that he “didn’t feel an overwhelming weight of carrying a movie,” and credited both Lambert and the community the cast and crew created while in rural Tennessee.
“Everybody’s just kind of in this together. We’re shooting and trying to make it work, and going out to bars at night and talking about it. In other films, if you’re playing random characters, you kind of come in for a week and leave so you don’t really create that community. We were all there the whole time. It wasn’t like there were three or four days when you weren’t shooting. I would shoot then somebody else would shoot, and we were shooting the same day so we would see each other. We really got to know each other, and that’s what made it so worthwhile.”
“Being in Tennessee we bonded because we didn’t know anyone else,” explained Burns. “None of us were from there, so we were forced into this new world with a bunch of people.”
“I think what happened was Jody got Tony involved and then found people who had a similar kind of energy,” said Matt Oberg, who plays the well-meaning Chardy Edwards. “In terms of the mix of the sincerity and the comedic, I think Jody did a good job finding people. He needed a primary amongst them who could do both in a convincing way.”
This behind the scenes camaraderie is apparent throughout the film, even though several actors don’t get the chance to share the screen with every co-star. “I don’t ever act with Tony or Heather, ever” said Anna Camp, who plays Peg Prickett, the local schoolteacher. “I would kind of check in and be like, How’s your story going? How’s the tone?’ Obviously, we trusted Jody to bring us all together and bring us up to the same level and everything, but it was fascinating watching and seeing the [parts of] the movie that I didn’t even know were happening.”
With the story focused solely on the townspeople, Lambert wanted to make sure he wasn’t satirizing these characters or their predicament. “It was important that we didn’t make fun of anybody. We didn’t want it to feel like, ‘Oh, look at these yokels who fell for it.’ We wanted it to have a sort of period — I think sincerity is a good word for it — because you are trying to make a comedy out of an end of the world movie. We felt like we wanted to create a town and a bunch of characters that were very innocent. It was a different time. People’s values were different. People’s abilities to communicate their emotional needs were different.”
“I wanted to make sure it was truthful and committed and not care if I got laughs or not,” said Camp. “Play for the honesty of what this woman was going through. Jody pushed me into an honest, truthful [performance]. I think that makes the film way better.”
“He wasn’t afraid of sincerity in any way. I appreciated that,” added Oberg.
As far as the historical context of the film, everyone had a slightly different idea on how to approach it. Lambert researched what a small town in New Jersey would’ve been like during that time, as well as sent copies of Welles’ original broadcast to the actors, which Camp described as “horrific.”
“Some of the screams of these people and the sounds. My God, I would be terrified if I had heard something like that back then.”
“[The broadcast] was helpful, but no, I didn’t do much research,” said Oberg, who believes that “people are people and were back then too. They had the same sort of fears and hesitations and concerns, so that’s how I justified my lack of preparation.”
“I think panic is just panic,” said Burns, who instead opted to watch several films from that era “just to see what would have been in the minds of these people, what the Zeitgeist was, what was cool at the time. I think that affects us more than we know. It was an incredible year for film, [but] in terms of the panic, I think that to me was just play it for what it is.”
“In life, you have those moments of where you sit in the tension, and you’re like what the hell is going on, I got to get my head together, it’s not so chaotic,” said Hale, whose sentiments started to echo his character’s. “Everything starts getting into place and you just try to make a plan and start connecting. You find those relationships because you need each other, you’re like ‘You know what’s happening? I know what’s happening, and we got to figure this out.'”