From Bordentown to the big screen
In just one night, Bordentown native Joseph Greenberg went from having a quiet evening at home with his two-year-old daughter Penelope to making a six-figure deal with Twentieth Century Fox and collaborating with acclaimed producer Noah Hawley.
Greenberg, a 39-year-old media specialist at NFL Films in Mount Laurel and aspiring screenwriter, was in the process selling his script “Man Alive,” an elevated science-fiction film.
The script began to pick up traction two years earlier, when it won first place in the 2014 Final Draft Big Break Screenplay Contest’s Science-Fiction/Fantasy category. At the time, Greenberg had no managers or agents. While his goal was to one day see his script become a feature film, his passion for storytelling is what drove him to write the script.
“I always loved horror movies growing up, and I found that movies that are elevated—a horror movie but maybe with a smart script—were things that really resonated with me,” Greenberg said. “Those were the stories I wanted to tell.”
After he attended the Big Break awards ceremony, held at the Paramount Lot in early 2015, it wasn’t long before people started to notice his knack for storytelling. He immediately started to get calls from companies looking to represent him, and once he was set up with a manager and agent he flew out to Los Angeles for a grueling “water bottle tour.”
Greenberg went to 25 different meetings in five days. They were mostly casual, general meetings, where assistants offer to get you anything you need—usually a bottle of water—right when you walk in the door. The tour led to a few offers, and Greenberg and his team were getting ready to sign with a small production company.
“My guys were preparing a counter offer when we got a call, out of nowhere really, from Fox asking if the script was available,” he said.
Despite the fact that the script had been floating around Hollywood for two years, Greenberg had just three hours to make the deal on April 21 with Fox on the other side of the country.
“I was standing there with a baby spoon of mac and cheese in my hand like what do you need me to do?” he said.
His agent and manager took care of the details, but they put Greenberg in touch with Hawley. Hawley, who is the creator/executive producer of the FX series “Fargo,” wanted “Man Alive” to be his feature directorial debut and shared Greenberg’s vision for the film.
The film is Greenberg’s take on “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” An alien presence has absorbed everyone on earth, except one man who was able to keep his own conscience. Despite being immune to the alien presence, the protagonist struggles with being the only true human left.
“It’s basically this story about what it is that makes us human,” Greenberg said. “What is it we need, because this alien is making the world perfect—eliminated pollution, war—but for some reason this guy is going insane. We strive for perfection, but were not perfect creatures so we’re never going to get there.”
After talking to Hawley about the script, Greenberg knew he was the right man to turn it into a movie.
“I really liked what [Hawley] had to say, and I think he has a great vision for the movie he wants to make,” Greenberg said. “I called my guys, and said, ‘I love him let’s do this.’”
As his team was taking care of getting the deal done in California, Greenberg was back in New Jersey with his wife Cassie—who works in development for Philadelphia theater companies—binge-watching “30 Rock” in an effort to try to remain as calm as possible.
“It’s this really life changing moment for a screenwriter to break their first script,” he said. “And knowing that it’s not just a production company, it’s a major studio that wants to pick up your first script, that doesn’t really happen anymore.”
Finally, at 1 a.m. the deal was done. Greenberg sold his first script, but he admitted everything happened so fast he didn’t really have time to be nervous—he was mostly in shock.
Greenberg has loved watching movies for about as long as he can remember, saying he grew up in a movie household where they’d go see a film once or twice a week. His dad, Bob, would take him and his sisters to the old Bordentown Drive-In Theater or to matinees at Quaker Bridge Mall.
Not only did this spark his interest in film, but it gave him vast knowledge about many different film genres that he used during his “water bottle tour” of meetings. Being able to speak “movie shorthand” helped connect him with those already inside the industry. Since he spent most of his life absorbing everything about movies he could find, the industry vernacular was second nature to Greenberg.
“My mom [Susan] was a nurse and my dad has his store [on Farnsworth Avenue] and we were just good solid middle class people,” he said. “And they somehow had a son that loved his horror movies and wanted to spend his weekends running around the woods with his VHS camcorder with his friends.”
From his time at Bordentown Regional High School to receiving his bachelor’s degree at Rowan University—where he now also works as an adjunct professor—Greenberg knew he wanted to work in the film industry. However, he quickly learned the movie business can often be an unforgiving one.
“When I first got out of undergrad I applied to four different film schools,” he said. “Not only did I not get into any of them, I got all four rejections on the same day.”
Greenberg had a few college friends who moved out to Los Angeles, and his parents encouraged him to join them. However, Greenberg knew if he went to California right after school, he’d be one person out of a million all trying to do the same thing.
If he was going to make, he was going to make it in Bordentown—a place where his family has lived for three generations.
He took a job at NFL Films, which was the biggest post-production house on the east coast, and started writing and filming as often as he could.
Greenberg created his first film in 1999, and he shot it right on the corner of Thompson and Second streets. He had to go to the council and ask permission to block off traffic for a day to set up and shoot the scenes.
“The only reason I was able to do that for next to no money was because I was from Bordentown,” he said, adding that there was a trust between him and his neighbors.
Bordentown became an enormous resource for his work. He was able to shot a few short films and one full-length film right in his hometown due to the support from his fellow Bordentowners. Greensburg used diners, motels and other landmarks in the township as sets for his films—something he wouldn’t be able to do elsewhere.
If he was out in California and wanted to spend the night in a diner filming, Greensburg said it would have cost him about $10,000. Filming in his hometown, however, gave him the opportunities to hone his craft that he wouldn’t have found elsewhere.
“Even if it wasn’t directly related to this script, all of that has helped me shape the craft and put me in this position to take advantage of this opportunity when it presented itself,” he said. “I don’t know if I could have done this if I had not stayed in the Bordentown area.”
Greenberg recently returned home after a two-week trip to Los Angeles, where worked on rewrites with Hawley’s production company, 26 Keys Productions.
His original vision for the film was much smaller than what it has become—Fox has plans to make this a $30 million movie, compared to the initial $6 million Greenberg was hoping a smaller production company would put into it—and Greenberg knows that ultimately film is the director’s medium. Once the rewrites are done, Hawley will take over from there.
However, Greenberg is excited to see where they take the script and believes in Hawley and Fox’s vision for the film. Now, with a sold script under his belt, Greenberg is ready to find the next project that ignites his passion for storytelling.
“I’m really enjoying the ride and I want to see how far I can take it,” he said.