In conversation with NJ filmmaker Rob Thorp

When you say New Jersey, I think everyone can at least picture something, as opposed to maybe some other states. It has this interesting, gritty kind of toughness, [and] there’s this weird kind of connection I think people have with [New Jersey] who grew up here and they can’t escape it.

Rob Thorp sits down every evening for a couple of hours and writes. He might be working on a new script, a short story or, of late, a novel. His practice begins with writing by hand, which allows him to slow down before jumping onto his computer. Monday through Friday, Thorp dives into his writing practice after a full day of teaching high school English and film studies classes in Bridgewater. 

“I’m very blue-collar about art,” Thorp says. “I don’t believe in waiting for [inspiration]. I’m a daily practitioner. [I work in] achievable pieces so I never really lose the thread. I think that if you just leave it to chance, it’s probably not gonna happen. I didn’t get serious about writing until about five years ago. And I would just do what a lot of people do, like, ‘Oh, I have an idea, I’m gonna jot it down and [wait until I’m in] the zone and feel good about it.’ But then not much [would happen]. I started to take it seriously and love the process. When you work full time and you have other things in your life, you have to really find discipline with it.”

Thorp often diffuses creative blocks through rides on his motorcycle, which clears his head and forces him into the present; though he says, “keeping engaged creatively is usually the best solution” and tries to switch gears when he’s feeling stuck, experimenting with other types of writing to “keep the craft strong.”  Through teaching, Thorp met his collaborator Bill Schlavis, musician and co-founder of their production company, Rucksack Films.

Rucksack Films will release their second feature-length film, Shark River, by the beginning of this summer. The film follows a newlywed couple (Julie and Ray) who elope, and while traveling they are met with unsettling, dystopian events that push them to return to Julie’s home of Shark River in Neptune, NJ. Thorp grew up visiting his aunt in the same area, and drew inspiration from childhood interpretations associated with Shark River’s name (like the assumption that one would find shark teeth in the water.) 

I chatted with Thorp recently about his background in film, how NJ informs his filmmaking and the current state of film.

What was your introduction to film? Do you have an early memory of a movie that impacted you and how you see the world?

Both of my parents love movies. My dad was very into the old Hollywood classics, like war films and things like that. On Saturdays, if the weather was bad, there would be a John Wayne movie on or something big like The Godfather. And my mom was into more offbeat stuff, so she would be watching channel 13 or a black-and-white foreign film. I remember her show[ing] me the original Wuthering Heights with Laurence Olivier—I was probably eight, and it had a big impact on me. And then in high school I took a film appreciation class. We watched the Fellini film, La Strada, and I was like ‘Oh man, this is how I see the world,’ you know, through film. And it just hit me like a ton of bricks, that that was what I wanted to do. 

You grew up in East Brunswick, and attended the New York Film Academy and took classes at Harvestworks. Both programs emphasized the technical aspects of filmmaking, but what was it like roaming around the city and learning as you went, working through essential challenges like finding actors?

It was a really enlightening experience. I think we all spend a lot of time waiting and wondering and it was good to just get in there. All of the teachers were artists. My writing teacher was David McKenna, who wrote American History X, and Liev Schreiber came in and taught acting.

How has the culture and landscape of New Jersey—and the mythology, if you will—informed your filmmaking? 

I think [all of that] has definitely formed me as a filmmaker and artist. When you say New Jersey, I think everyone can at least picture something, as opposed to maybe some other states. It has this interesting, gritty kind of toughness, [and] there’s this weird kind of connection I think people have with [New Jersey] who grew up here and they can’t escape it. It’s got this gravitational pull on them. One of the main characters [in Shark River], Julie, has this Jersey-esque vibe to her. She’s sarcastic and tough and has [these] qualities that I think so many [people, specifically women] I know in this state have, like my sister and my friends who are like that—creative and a little different. The movie ends on the beach and there’s nowhere else [for them] to go. So there’s this large, edge-of-the-world feeling to [the Shore]. 

Did you do most of the filming in New Jersey?

Yeah, 100% of it. We wanted to use parts of Jersey Shore that maybe only people from here would totally recognize. We didn’t shoot, you know, the Convention Center [in Asbury Park] or anything. We shot the Belmar Motor Lodge, on Route 35 across from the Marina, and back roads in Wall. 

Any thoughts on current film trends, or things you’d like to see more of? 

I want to see people make more messy films. I feel like “indie” films have gotten so perfect and stylized and A24’ed. And they’re gorgeous, but I feel like it’s become this aesthetic end point that is largely unachievable for a lot of indie filmmakers to get to. And I think there’s room for that, obviously, but I’d like to see a lot more room for what used to be on the market. You know, something like Clerks would never be produced today—not that that’s a film I love that much at all. But I like that it exists and, you know, something [that] doesn’t have to look perfect or pretty or adhere to some kind of aesthetic (which is a word that I kind of hate now.) You can go out and try something and it can still be really cool and interesting and it doesn’t have to look like someone curated it.

Rucksack Films has produced ​​The Dirty Thirty (2016, Feature), Shark River (2022, Feature), Ethical Man (2014, Music Video), Goodnight My Love (2015, Music Video), and Max Milgram (2014, Feature script). Thorp’s solo work includes Mali (2023, feature script), Ghostly George (2022, feature script), The Boy Roach (2020, feature script), Leaflight (2020, short film), Pandemic Fix (2020, short film) and Gateway City (2020, short film).  Thorp’s projects have won awards for Best Feature Screenplay at the Paris Play International Film Festival, Garden State Film Festival; Semi-Finalist at the Rhode Island IFF, Austin International Film Festival; Official Selection at the Northeast Film Festival, Beverly Hills International Film Festival; and for Director at the New York Movie Awards, Indie X Film Fest, Milan Film Awards, Hollywood Gold Awards, and Florence Film Awards.