TAKING FILMMAKING PERSONALLY
GREG SANTARSIERO AND
There are no flesh-eating zombies, blue CGI warriors or meteors headed for planet Earth in the plot of Ice Grill, USA. And while there are a fair share of odd characters—street hustlers, CEOs, school girl prostitutes, cowboys, pimps, disgraced pro athletes, and clean urine merchants to name a few (with metaphorical vampires thrown in for good measure), nothing in the narrative of IGU is too far outside of the everyday realm of possibility living in the untapped cinematic goldmine that is Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Finding our way to authorship and filmmaking in our late teens, even with a penchant for the twisted tales of Lynch and Kubrick, we were naturally compelled to tell the working class tales of the good and decent people we saw struggling around us every day. Growing up on a South Jersey island just feet from AC, through intense observation and neck-deep life experience, we could find the virtue in the midst of constant immorality. Growing to love the lyrical linguistic wordplay that was part and parcel of spending all of your free time playing pickup basketball with various street personalities and listening to bootlegged hip hop mixtapes… Discovering Shakespearean drama in the mundane occurrences of everyday life, drawing inspiration for the most colorful characters from our own interactions with colleagues, co-workers, friends and loved ones.
Unlike the larger, densely populated cities of the Northeastern states, which often consist of dozens of segregated ethnic communities, Atlantic City is a true melting pot. In fact, it’s barely a "city" at all, for a five minute Jitney ride would cover its length with a minute left to spare. Yet omnipresent in this condensed, vivid tapestry of cultures is a darker, seedier foundation. It is a city built on vice, a city that sells a dream one billboard at a time, preying on the hopes and desires of its blue collar society. Being a citizen and a participant in this grand scheme takes a psychological toll. The first time you see a broken man lose his mortgage payment on a hand of blackjack, you can’t help but start asking some really big questions. Contribute to the machine that orchestrated his demise, and you start questioning your place in the world. And yet it’s home. You love your family no matter what, even with all of its black eyes, chipped teeth and scars. You can’t crop your drug addict uncle or degenerate gambler aunt out of your family portrait. The portrait wouldn’t really be your family without them. To deny them would be to deny yourself.
Crafting this sort of deeply personal tale, mixing semi-autobiography with real world-inspired fiction, ensured that our story would be authentic, would be unique and would also help to cast a light on our home, a place in the world, quite possibly, that our audience may have never seen before. Tapping into the artist’s inborn love/hate relationship for his surroundings, the chances for honesty in art (born of candid introspection and self-analysis) are all the greater. One can envision themselves being the voice of an entire people, touching a nerve, while artistically articulating emotions everyday folks themselves may never have had a chance to put into words.
To represent a place and a people in your art is a great responsibility. Not only is your first and foremost priority telling a substantial and entertaining story in a polished, distinct and compelling manner, you owe it to your home to "keep it real". Authenticity must at all times be a central matter of concern. The speech, settings and overall attitude of your film must appropriately represent the community it depicts. No greater failure can be imagined than setting out to represent a place, your home, and missing the mark… Selling out the essence of the place from which you hail, in the name of broader mainstream appeal. If your work doesn’t resonate with the locals it depicts, something went wrong in the process. Being vigilantly on guard against such grave transgressions and defending a standard of realism, assures your finished film will ring true with those that matter most. This tremendous responsibility is compounded when holding yourself as a role model, setting yourself as an example for other young Jersey artists, meant to demonstrate that it is OK to have ambition greater than the circumstances into which you are born… That sometimes this sort of “aspiration born of desperation” can amount to something special.
Another factor working in our favor in crafting Ice Grill, USA was that we cared deeply about our source material. To some great degree, our lives–our influences, inspirations, relationships and experiences are being represented on the big screen in IGU. That sort of self-investment, beyond time and treasure spent, is added motivation to go the extra mile, to see the project through, to deliver it to its audience. The film should be a physical manifestation of your soul, an extension of your being, there to theoretically live on into eternity, to become part of your legacy. Every seemingly insignificant detail becomes a test. Every line of dialog must strike a familiar note and must be delivered in a familiar pitch. When you attach that sort of weight and meaning to your artistic endeavors, it becomes very difficult to even overlook the minutiae. This isn’t just some gig or random video project, this is your life.
Our career approach, perfectly encapsulated in the ongoing multi-year process that has been the growth and cultivation of Ice Grill, USA, is that, one way or another, whatever it takes must get done. Sure, there were leaps of faith along the way, but we never accepted failure as a possibility. When confronted by overwhelming odds, rather than ask ourselves "if" we could overcome them, we figured out "how" to make it happen. We challenged ourselves, with no room allowed for excuses, to accurately depict the very unique area that raised us and the colorful cast of characters that shaped us along the way. But more than a clever strategy for distribution or as a means of garnering indie filmmaking accolades, we were drawn to the gestation and guardianship of Ice Grill, USA as a calling… A true vocation. For us, this process has never been about merely making money, building our reputation or getting laid. The individual consequence of it all has always been too great. Filmmaking is a very powerful medium… Take it personal.
Mark Bernardi and Greg Santarsiero have been "taking filmmaking personally" since the day they began writing their first script. Santarsiero, a graduate of Saint Joseph’s University and Bernardi, a Fordham University grad, met in middle school and bonded over their common passion for hip-hop music, pick-up basketball, politics and meaningful film. As artists, they have devoted their careers to telling the working class, multicultural, morality tales of real people like those in their South Jersey home, but in their own vivid, unique and signature way. Their collaboration has led to the odyssey that has been the creation and marketing of the award-winning Ice Grill, USA which they have just recently made independently available to the public. They have several new projects in the works, planning to break ground on their next cinematic blue-collar ode in 2012. You can follow their epic filmmaking journey on Twitter: @GSantarsiero, @MBernardi and, of course, @IceGrillUSA.