Trenton Takes What the World Makes

The inaugural Trenton Film Festival kicks off with low-budget sci-fi, hard-hitting documentaries and underground gems.Related Story: Ernie Worthy

By: Jim Boyle

Laura Prepon stars as a video store clerk in Robert Hall’s Lightning Bug.

   On May 7, Trenton will become part of an exclusive club that includes such members as Philadelphia, Park City, Utah, and Cannes, France. That’s when the city’s first film festival opens with a screening of Robot Stories at the New Jersey State Museum.
   The event marks the culmination of 18 months of planning and preparation by the Trenton Film Society, whose members worked tirelessly to make sure the inaugural weekend would be a memorable one.
   "I’m starting to feel the pressure as it gets closer," says Festival Director Kevin Williams. "We put together a really stylish program. All the screenings are quality films that have great word of mouth. In some cases, the audience will get a chance to meet the director and actors. We really want to give people a great first impression, not just of the festival, but of Trenton. A lot of restaurants will be staying open extra hours so that people can see some great films and have a nice dinner."
   The selection process was grueling. After getting the word out through industry magazines and Web sites such as and, Mr. Williams received more than 200 submissions. Each film was viewed by 24 jurors separated into eight groups of three, using a scoring method that eliminated 60 percent of the field. After additional consideration, and the additions of well-known movies such as Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the final tally stands at 16 features and 45 shorts. Spread out over three days, screenings will take place at the New Jersey State Museum, the Mill Hill Playhouse and the Trenton Marriott at Lafayette Yard.
   "We looked at the technical aspects of the movies," says Mr. Williams. "The direction, cinematography, editing. We wanted to get stories that people will talk about. We looked at each one and asked, ‘Is it interesting?’ Hopefully, people will be able to take something away. They’ll go have a cup of coffee or dinner and discuss what they saw."
   Attendees of opening-night festivities will definitely have something to talk about after viewing Robot Stories. A welcome alternative to big budget science-fiction fare such as Minority Report and the upcoming I, Robot, the film consists of four stories dealing with the struggles between man and machine. The vignettes, all directed by Greg Pak, include "My Robot Baby," about a couple who must care for a robot child before adopting a human baby; "The Robot Fixer," about a woman repairing her comatose son’s broken toy robots; "Machine Love," about a robot that enters the office environment; and "Clay," about the dying members of a world where memories are uploaded by computers and merged with all human knowledge.
   Completed in 2002, Robot Stories has spent the last year traveling to countless festivals, earning more than 30 awards, including Grand Prize at the Rhode Island Film Festival. Mr. Pak also nabbed the Emerging Director Award at the Asian American International Film Festival.
   "We’ve definitely built our own momentum," says producer Karin Chien, who will attend the screening. "We try to play in as many major markets as possible to fulfill our goal of increasing the value of the movie."
   The festival circuit can be demanding for an independent filmmaker. The cast and crew can spend months traveling anywhere and everywhere so they can get the word out. It’s completely necessary if they want people to become aware of their low-budget efforts. If they’re lucky, the right people will notice.
   "That’s the ultimate goal, usually," says first-time director Robert Hall, "to get picked up by a major studio for distribution."
   Mr. Hall is just beginning the festival rounds for his debut effort, Lightning Bug. It made its world premiere at the Philadelphia Film Festival just weeks ago, and Mr. Hall was told by event officials that it had the largest attendance ever in the festival’s 13-year history. The film also won Best of Show at the George Lindsey Film Festival at the University of Northern Alabama, near where Lightning Bug was shot.
   Described by Mr. Hall as semi-autobiographical, the film follows a teenage boy, Green Graves (Bret Harrison), whose only interest is the art of movie make-up. Growing up in a small Alabama town, he spends his free time in his tiny mobile home bedroom re-creating his favorite monsters and dreaming of moving to Hollywood. Green finally gets his chance to escape when he uses his talents to organize the annual haunted house and plans to buy a plane ticket with the money he’ll earn. The film also stars Laura Prepon (That ’70s Show), Hal Sparks (Queer as Folk) and Don Gibb (Revenge of the Nerds).
   "I wrote it when I was 25," says Mr. Hall, "and spent four years trying to raise funds. Nobody wanted to give me money to make it, so I financed it myself."
   It wasn’t too difficult for Mr. Hall to find the cash. A self-taught makeup artist, he caught his first break when a production company came to town to shoot a low-budget horror flick, Body Snatchers. Mr. Hall managed to find some work on the set and used the opportunity to try his luck in Hollywood. In 1996, he started up his own make-up company, Almost Human, and found work with several B-movies and television shows such as Angel and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
   The remarkable difference between Robot Stories and Lightning Bug reflects Mr. Williams’ conscious effort to design as diverse a program as possible. It’s a philosophy that becomes even more glaring while perusing the short-film schedule. In addition to a screening of the 2004 Academy Award nominees for Best Animated Short, including winner Harvie Krumpet, the itinerary also includes Meter Maid, which won first prize in January’s Films of the Trenton Film Society contest. Also among the offerings is the documentary short Stories from the Frozen Zone, directed by Mercerville resident Phil McAuliffe, recounting a handful of New Yorkers’ stories about their experiences during 9/11.
   With seminars about film criticism and the business of screenwriting, it’s a packed weekend sure to keep even modest film buffs extremely busy. As for Kevin Williams, he’s already thinking about next year’s event, including moving the date up to take better advantage of West Coast filmmakers traveling East for the Philadelphia Film Festival. But first, he’s going to breathe a big sigh of relief.
The Trenton Film Festival will begin with a kick-off party and screening of Robot Stories at the New Jersey State Museum, 205 W. State St., Trenton, May 7 at 6 p.m. The festival continues through May 9 with screenings of feature films and shorts, as well as seminars, at the museum, Mill Hill Playhouse, Front and Montgomery streets, Trenton, and the Trenton Marriott at Lafayette Yard, 1 W. Lafayette St., Trenton. Tickets for screenings cost $8, $6 students; seminars cost $15. All-access passes cost $50 before May 5, $75 after. Single-day passes cost $20, but do not include seminars. For information, call (609) 396-6966. For a full schedule and film synopses, see: