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Interview With Sean Guess

By Gary Wien

As a kid, Sean Guess held boxing matches in his basement and tried to emulate Rocky Balboa. Realizing he could never take a beating like Rocky, he turned his passion to filmmaking. Born in Orlando, Fl, Guess is making a name for himself along the Jersey Shore. His current project reflects his love of Asbury Park and of its musical heritage. NewJerseyStage.com spoke with Guess about the upcoming film, his background, and how he has dealt openly with his struggles of mental depression.

Tell me about the "Asbury Park USA" film.
"Asbury Park, U.S.A." is about how artistic people in the present attempt to crawl out of the shadows of legends like Bruce Spingsteen, Southside Johnny, and many others that have put the city on the Map. Michael Summers is the lead singer of a band called The Cookman 7 and his band competes in city with a veteran band called The A**holes. The A**holes' lead singer is jealous of Michael and mocks his late father who once played with Springsteen in our story in the famous massively big group Dr. Zoom and The Sonic Boom. 

Is the cast set?
We have Michael Summers being played by Johnny Grasso, who moonlights in the daylight as teacher and coach in Asbury Park High School. We also have other principals such as New York City based actress Mimi Jefferson playing one of Michael two mothers, who was a singer compared to Janis Joplin before she blew out her voice and his maternal mother is played by Janet Rosen. We also have cast A**holes lead singer Dick Butts who is played by Dave Pirrocco, who has been as sound engineer for Keith Richards, Cyndi Lauper, and Jon Bon Jovi. Johnny's love interest is played by the beautiful Gina Puorro from Bayville.

With actors from New York City,Chicago, Philly, Los Angeles and many cities in Jersey, I would say about 80 percent of the cast is in place.

Have you started shooting yet?
We are looking to start principal shooting in the late fall, God willing.

When do you hope to have it released?
I would say late 2012.

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You have a true passion for Asbury Park. What is it about the town that you love?
My late mother Dianne Guess used to bring me down here all the time as a kid. I remember her going to the VFW bingo and afterwards we would walk around the town. One of our favorite spots to sit on those afternoons was by the JFK statue. Mom just made the city come alive.

Also my father Jim Guess was instrumental in turning me on to Southside Johnny when he won "This Time It's For Real" at a spin wheel game. He played it over and over. So Pops put the soundtrack to the city for me. As stupid as it sounds I really wasn't even aware of Bruce Springsteen until later on and only because at Jukes concerts at Great Adventure people would yell "BRRRRRRRUUUCCEEE!" I loved the Jukes so much I use to get pissed off as a kid. I was protective of them. It was only when I was a teen I realized that the Jukes and E-Street band were all one big family.

What do you think outsiders don't understand about Asbury Park?
The problem with people who haven't been to the city in the last five years is that the city isn't the beaten down city of the 80s. Asbury in 2011 is back. This city is alive and well and living in New Jersey. You come into town now and there is an energy that eerily echoes the excitement and energy that people remember fondly from the 70s. I wanted to capture that energy in my film Asbury Park, U.S.A.

Growing up in Ocean Township, you obviously saw a lot of changes to the town over the years. What are some of the things you miss in Asbury that are no longer there?
The hardest part of growing up in Ocean Township, was you knew the city had greatness in it. And it was going to be heartbreaking because you knew for the city to ever come back it was going to lose some it's landmarks.

The hardest for me was The Palace. Even closed up, it was ours. Tillie looked down on us and it was as if it was smiling knowing that things were not over. So when it came down, I knew in my heart the city would never put Tillie back in the city. I knew she would be gone. I knew once people forgot about the Palace and stuff, it would be forgotten. And I don't judge the council or city for that, I just knew it was a fact. The hardest thing for a city is to change to progress.

I am so happy Debbie and Lance Larson have a little piece of the Palace alive on the Wonderbar with Tillie smiling down.

Since you're around my age, I assume you remember the Palace. What are some of your memories of that place?
I remember being at the Palace with my mother, especially in the card room playing cards on those machines. I also remember being with my cousins Christa, Gary, and Marc running around together on the rides and playing games, especially the carousel with it's gold rings and the ferris wheel with all the New Jersey cities. I also have a memory of my late mother and my late cousin Kevin being buddies when he stayed down one summer in that same card room and some way it is bittersweet because they are both gone now.

Finally, as a teen in the 80s, I remember being a buddy with Billy Smith in the Asbury Park Rock 'N' Roll Hall of Fame. I remember even donating some pieces to the museum from my Jukes collection. Smith and Bumbell's collection was amazing, I still dream that someday the city will have a collection as great as that again.

And I am proud of people who now attempting to do the same thing at Shopps. Their spirit is in the right direction.

You started Guess Films in 2002, how did you get involved with films?
I went to the Red Bank International Film Festival and saw "The Hack of Asbury Park", believe it or not and it fired me up. I worked with Mike Rafferty, who they named the Old Man Rafferty's in Asbury Park after and also a bunch of friends. I was too green and the film failed. I did remake that film in 2005, it was called "At The Movies".

Was this something you always wanted to do?
I wanted to do it bad, but until the video era, it just didn't seem rational. It was a pipe dream. Something that couldn't happen in Jersey. I was poor, how the heck was I going to make a movie. Then I tried it and I learned if you try, it can happen.

Do you act as well as direct?
I do act. But not in every film. I usually prefer to stay behind the camera. I want to make my actors better and I just decided it is better to be the director. With that said, I may do it sometime in the future if it is the right time.

What was it like to have Robert Hegyes of "Welcome Back Kotter" as an instructor in college?
Robert Hegyes taught me how to be a professional. He was always humble and lead by example. With him it wasn't about ego. He made you want to remain humble if you ever had that shot at super fame, which I can't say I reached. But he showed me that's how the pros do it.

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Tell me about your previous films and what you learned from each of them.
At The Movies (2002) - I learned that friends can help take your dream from the page to a reality.
Cut - (2004) - That you can bounce back from failure and sell out a theater with good press and great promotion.
Trapped In Jersey (2005) - That People love New Jersey. And also I had a lot more to learn.
At The Movies - (2007) - You can finish what you started. The most fun I ever had, even if we were shooting at 2 a.m.
Fans Anonymous - (2008) - Special, the last film I worked on with my mother. Never show your film after 10 p.m.
Nothing For Christmas - (2010) - Heartbreaking to make because my mom was dying. That I could go through hell personally and still make a good movie. That the cast and crew were amazing supporting me, especially Dave Pirrocco.

What are some of your favorite career highlights?
My career highlight was my showing of Cut with my mom and dad being so proud and the show being sold out. It doesn't get better.

Who are some of your favorite directors and actors?
My favorite directors are Oliver Stone, Spike Lee, Sly Stallone and Kevin Smith.
My favorite actors are Al Pacino, Jim Carrey, Adam Sandler, Russell Brand, Sly Stallone.

Who would you say are your influences?
I would say Lee, Stone and Stallone. Kevin Smith came later on in my life. Also the poet Langston Hughes.

Finally, you have been very public with your struggle with mental illness. How does that affect the way you approach making movies? What advice would you give for others in the same situation that seek careers in the arts?
I am manic depressive. I have been since the age of 22. It is a struggle and requires people helping me out a lot to make these films possible.

My health does effect scheduling sometimes, but it also during writing gives me great empathy in my writing.

I would say those with mental health issues be honest with people. That doesn't mean you have to say hi, I'm bob, I am sick within the first five minutes. If you are honest, people want you to see you succeed. I have been blessed by people's friendship and kindness. And I can't express how grateful I am. You are only as great as the people who support you.

Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at gary@newjerseystage.com.

originally published: 08/08/2011

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