My wife Debi and I first visited Northlandz last winter. We thought it would be fun to spend an hour looking at miniature trains, and the reviews we’d read were positive, if a little subdued. After we paid the man at the entrance for two tickets we were directed to a walkway that we followed through the entirety of the experience. After about half an hour we saw a sign that told us we were 5% through the exhibit. We thought it was a joke. Three or four hours later we realized that it was not a joke.
We’ve seen other exhibits of miniatures before, but there was something very different about this place. It wasn’t just a replica of the real world, it was a whimsical re-interpretation. It also struck us how much of Northlandz was hand-built, rather than just assemblages of retail kits. Well over half — of what we later discovered was several acres of miniature terrain — was built by hand, with a distinct personality and a real sense of humor. Much of this was made with toothpick-sized “planks” of wood. The scale of Northlandz is staggering. The fact that so much of it has been engineered and built piece by piece is still incomprehensible to me.
On the drive home, my wife and I talked about how many people must have been involved, and how many years it must have taken to build something that elaborate. To our shock — post-Googling — we found the entire place was built by one man, Bruce Zaccagnino, over four-and-a-half years; the same man that was running the register when we first arrived. When you see the place for yourself, you’ll understand how unbelievable that is. (Which you can get a peek of in our film.) Bruce Zaccagnino sells tickets, keeps over a hundred trains running, and maintains the entire building, all by himself, every day.
We were also disappointed that few of our friends in nearby Manhattan or Brooklyn had ever heard of Northlandz, which seemed an unbelievable shame. We thought, We have to do something! Debi said, “Let’s make a film about Bruce and tell his story,” and our work on Some Kind of Quest began. We approached Alain Sylvain of Sylvain Labs with the idea because we knew he would be excited about the idea and we knew he could help us make the film. (He gets very passionate about personal projects like this, and he quickly agreed to be our executive producer.) Another Sylvain Labster, Krystal Plomatos, joined the team, working together with Debi to build a relationship with Bruce; they did all the interviewing for the film. Without Debi, Alain and Krystal (not to mention the entire production and post-production crew) this film would never have made it out of my head.
There’s a section of the film where we ask Bruce specifically how long it took to make some of the most impressive sections of Northlandz. For example, there are several impressive hand-built bridges in Northlandz, some as long as 20 feet in length. Some carry considerable real-world weight as long model trains run across them. We asked Bruce while shooting if he had an engineering background, and he replied, “I just read and memorized a bunch of engineering books.” This would have seemed outlandish coming from anyone else.
Another interesting fact is that the construction of Northlandz actually began in Bruce’s basement, but he quickly ran out of space. So he scouted around his hometown of Flemington, New Jersey to find a suitable site to build the rest. Once a plot of land was purchased he designed and constructed (with the help of a contractor) the enormous building that Northlandz resides in today. Then he spent years building out the whole thing. Then he ran out of room…again. His ambition today is to build two new wings onto the building. If he can get enough visitors, and raise enough money, I have no doubt he will do it. We’re proud of our film, but it barely scratches the surface of what Bruce has built, and I can’t implore you enough to go out and see it with your own eyes.