By: Jeff Schwachter
When folks think of the film industry they tend to conjure up images of Los Angeles or New York or maybe even Georgia, but not South Jersey. Now that Millville’s Glasstown Productions has won a Gold Telly award, however, it may be time to count Cumberland County among the country’s film production hotspots.
Announced late last month, Glasstown Productions picked up a coveted Gold Telly for its 27-minute documentary film Ask Seek Knock — The Story of Brianna Wittman.
The riveting documentary tells the true story of a young New Jersey woman battling back after sustaining serious life-changing injuries stemming from a 2012 car accident.
Jason Penza, who directed and edited the award-winning documentary, remembers first learning about the big win.
“I was sitting in my office and it was a normal day,” says Penza, creative director and video editor for Glasstown Productions. “I knew the date they were going to announce the winners, I have it on my calendar, but I didn’t know what time or anything.”
Soon the e-mail arrived in Penza’s inbox.
“I am realist,” says Penza, “so I don’t expect to win anything. I skipped the Gold winners in the e-mail and went straight to the Bronze winners and noticed we won a Bronze Telly for best editing. Pretty awesome. But then I noticed we won another Bronze for another film [In Their Shoes: Laurie Zaleski] so I kept scrolling around.”
Next to names like HBO, ESPN and PBS, Penza noticed Glasstown Productions.
“I was kind of scrolling through the document and was like, ‘Whoa! We won a Gold!’ And then I looked to the left and there was ESPN and then I looked to the right and there was HBO, and underneath was PBS and I was like, ‘Oh, my God, we won beside all of this amazing programming, that’s pretty cool.’ I was so unexpecting it that I didn’t even realize what had happened. And then I called my boss, and my parents and my wife—not in that order.”
Penza acknowledges that to people outside the film industry it may seem just like another award.
“I think it was really nice to win Gold, but for people who are not in the industry, it’s just an award,” says Penza, 26. “But to win alongside HBO, ESPN and PBS—all very well-known names—I think it holds a lot more merit that way. It’s like, oh, this is really like a real thing. It’s legitimate. It was pretty exciting.”
Ask. Seek. Knock. — The Story of Brianna Wittman has also received nominations in a few film festivals and has won one.
“But the big one was being nominated for best documentary in the International Christian Film Festival,” says Penza. “I personally do not have Christian beliefs, but I knew this film did and it’s a niche, so I played to that advantage and submitted it to all types of Christian film festivals.”
Penza had no idea the film would eventually win a Telly. Especially for a little film company from Cumberland County.
“We’re a small production company in a non-film-oriented location,” says Penza. “We’re not known for our movies [in South Jersey] so I think it was a cool thing. Now, the family is not from South Jersey, they’re from Moorestown—so it was a lot of driving—but yeah, as far as Glasstown winning a Telly, I’d say it was a win for South Jersey.”
Because the film utilizes a lot of archival footage to tell the story, Penza had to rely on the family’s old phone video and photos for a lot of the film. At one point, he went to their house and they gave him an entire hard drive of material.
Penza spent months sifting through the footage.
“There was a lot of reviewing the footage over and over—and there was randomly one point when they sent me more photos and I was like, thank goodness! Now I can use six more photos,” says Penza. “I either had an abundance of something or nothing of the other.
“It wasn’t too bad in the beginning. It got harder as we went along because I started running out of [the archival footage] very quickly. And I was really getting desperate. I mean in 2012, when a lot of the story was happening, we all just had flip phones. Photos were tiny, and videos were even smaller. So, I was so limited. I had to really get creative and take leaps and hope that it made sense conceptually.”
Penza says he became desensitized to the story after working on the project for so long. Pre-production started in February 2017 and the film was completed in November of that year, with an April 2018 premiere.
“Because I edited it, I spent six to seven months looking over and over at the same thing again,” says Penza. “In the beginning it was tough, but because I was in the trenches I got desensitized to it very, very quickly.
“Now, when you watch something with other people your senses get heightened, which is why when you go to the theater and something funny comes on you’re more inclined to laugh because everyone around you is laughing. Same thing with crying, same thing with emotions in general; it’s just how humans work. So, when I watch it with other people and there is an emotional moment that I know is coming up I usually get more emotional because I’m reacting, but to be honest I’m looking around the room watching the crowd hoping people cry because that’s my job as a storyteller—to make the audience feel emotions. If you’re laughing when you’re supposed to be laughing by the way I structured things, or if you’re crying, etc., I’m doing my job right.”
If you are interested in watching the documentary, it is currently online on Vimeo and can be viewed in its entirety on the official Telly website.
Penza recently finished work on another documentary, which premiered in April at the Levoy.
“We just wrapped up our next documentary and had the premiere recently,” says Penza. “It’s called Chuck — A Funny Farm Story. Now we’re getting that ready for the film festivals.”