Coming of age in Princeton: Filmmaker looking to capture the spirit of ’67-’74 in forthcoming documentary

Brad Mays was surprised to receive a phone call from Liz Garman Davies, an organizer of the Princeton High School Class of 1973 25th reunion, one day in 2008.

Like Garman Davies, Mays had once been a member of the Class of ’73, but they had not spoken in some time. She had the idea for members of the Class of 1973 to submit videos of themselves talking on camera, and she hoped Mays, a professional filmmaker, might then edit those snippets into a 25 or 30-minute video stroll down memory lane.

He was game to take on the project, but in the end, he received too few submissions, and received them too close to the reunion, to make a coherent short film out of them. But one clip that Mays did receive stood out from the rest. It came from Colin Dougherty, “a really brilliant guy, and one of my crazy friends” from the late 60’s and early 70’s, Mays said.

“He got his wife to return to the site of the former IDA. He talked about the IDA demonstration where I got into so much trouble,” Mays remembered, speaking to the Princeton Echo by phone from his home in Los Angeles.

IDA, as long-time Princetonians know, stands for the Institute for Defense Analyses, a weapons research think tank that was affiliated with the Department of Defense as well as Princeton University. In May 1970, some 900 people, including university students as well as “townies,” marched on the IDA and demanded that it be removed from campus. Mays recalls that Abby Hoffman himself had shown up at the high school recruiting students for the march.

Though the demonstration was largely peaceful, there were eventually some fights with law enforcement, leading to the arrest of some of the protesters, including Mays.

As Mays watched Dougherty’s video clip about IDA, a vision began to take shape.

“It was a serious thing — it was lighthearted, but it was also serious,” he said. “My wife (Lorenda Starfelt) saw this — we were working on a political documentary at the time, that was taking us all across the country — and she said ‘Brad, this is what you should be doing. A film about Princeton in the late ’60s.’”

Mays considered it. He decided that if he made the movie he thought he could make, it could be more than a highlight reel for a reunion. It could do the festival circuit. It could even end up on PBS.

So Mays called Dougherty, told him he loved what he’d done, but that he wanted to shoot it all again, professionally. And with that, filming on I Grew Up in Princeton had begun.

* * *

Brad Mays is 57. He grew up in Princeton Junction, attending Dutch Neck Elementary School. He was a misfit, miserable right up until the time he started ninth grade. In the late 1960s, kids from West Windsor attended Princeton High.

But the transition to Princeton was transformational. In the new school community, he began redefining himself. He was elected to student council and, he said, “within about five months I was absolutely hanging out with a hip crowd, and I was changing. That was the time and place when I became who am now.”

He got involved in theater at the high school, and in 1970 got an internship with McCarter Theatre, where Arthur Lithgow was artistic director. 1970, of course, was also the year of the demonstration.

After he was arrested, his life started to unravel. By 1972, Mays was gone. His parents, he said, “completely freaked out that their son was turning into something they had never seen before.” They moved the family to Baltimore County, in Maryland.

Mays attended Towson State College (now Towson University), and from there went on to work at the Baltimore Theatre Project, a performing arts center known for experimental theater. From there he ended up in New York City, producing and directing off-broadway shows.

He also made his first feature film while he was in New York: Stage Fright, a fictionalized account of the trials and tribulations of a Baltimore-based experimental theater company, debuted at the 1989 Berlin International Film Festival. Before another year had passed, he had moved to Hollywood.

There he began working as a screenwriter and script doctor while continuing to work in theater. In 2002 he directed for the stage an acclaimed adaptation of Euripides’ The Bacchae. Over the year’s he’s worked on more than 15 feature films, short films and theater productions. Today, he says, he is strictly a filmmaker.

After leaving Princeton, Mays graduated from Franklin Senior High School in Reisterstown, Md. in 1973. Which, perhaps, makes the phone call he received from Liz Garman Davies—and all that it has led to—all the more remarkable. (Garman Davies is the film’s executive producer.)

While the IDA protest serves as a centerpiece, Mays hopes his film can capture everything about what it meant to grow up in Princeton between 1967 and 1974.

“I’m basically defining to the best of my ability a time and place that I think transformed a lot of people—in addition to me—in a very similar way,” he said. “And I’ve got a lot of correspondence from people now who say, ‘Those were the days.’ I’m still trying to figure out how I got to be the person I am now.”

In July 2012, Mays was in town to record interviews with anyone who wanted to participate. Many of them he reached through a popular Facebook group that is also called I Grew Up In Princeton (see sidebar). He expects to be in town Feb. 20-27 and again in April to record still more interviews. One of his objectives for the February trip is to get more perspective on the African-American experience of that time, which he says has been lacking in the material he has so far collected.

Mays says the movie will contain a fair share of new information about things that happened in that era. Among the things Mays says he has discovered and will reveal in the movie is how the protesters shut down the IDA building. He said there have long been rumors, such as that demonstrators poured concrete into the cooling system, but he knows now that that wasn’t the way it happened.

“How it was done was so resourceful and brilliant, it’s a jaw-dropping thing. This really state-of-the-art-system was shut down through one of the most low-rent ideas imaginable,” he said.

He tries to keep the interviews laid back and conversational. When he senses his subject is comfortable, he turns the camera on. He said if someone he interviews wants to see their footage before the final cut is done, he’ll agree to it.

“I want to get various voices. I want to get a mosaic. I’m not writing a position paper. I’m creating a mosaic. The more conflicting perspectives i have, the better the film is going to be,” he said.

Among Mays’ collaborators on the film is composer Jon Negus, who is writing original music for the film. Negus, who graduated from Princeton High School in 1978, didn’t know Mays well back then, although his sister, Niki, was Mays’ classmate. Like many people, he first heard about I Grew Up In Princeton on Facebook.

Negus, 52, lives in the Chicago suburbs with his family. He has been a music producer for 30 years. He said when he heard about the documentary, he volunteered his services.

“The time period is a really interesting time. I thought it would be interesting to explore the different musical styles going on at that time and incorporate that into the movie,” he said in a phone interview. He said he has been in touch with some musicians who were around Princeton in the 60’s and 70’s and plans to use them to record the score.

Mays has been cutting scenes of the film as he goes, and in January released a 6-minute, 35-second trailer that can be found on YouTube with a search for “I Grew Up In Princeton.” Negus has seen some footage, and said he feels it represents the Princeton of that era well.

“What i recall of that time period was a lot of freedom, kids kind of pushing the envelope of doing things, from skipping a class or being out late, to going to these protests,” he said. “It was a really interesting time in Princeton, and i just got in on the tail end of that. I would watch my sister and the people she’d hang out with playing guitars and singing all the songs of that era, and it was a really cool time.”

Negus said he tries to get back to Princeton, where his father Ken still lives, at least once a year. Even though he’s been gone 30 years, he said when he returns to town some things look exactly the same as he remembers.

“It’s more congested than what I remember,” he said. “But it was a great place to walk around growing up. We walked everywhere. Where I am now, I have to drive everywhere.”

As of now, Mays intends to have the final cut of the film completed for Oct. 19, when it is scheduled to be shown during the 30th reunion of the Class of 1973. He already has plans to submit it to film festivals in the U.S. and around the world. He expects when all is said and done he will have 100 hours of recordings, from which he hopes to make a movie somewhere around 100 minutes long.

Mays admits there have been times when making the film has become so hard he’s wanted to quit. In 2011, his wife lost her battle with cancer. Because she had put so much work into the film, she will be credited as the producer of the film.

“It was she who defined what the theme of the film should be, and I worship the ground she walked on,” he said.

He also has congestive heart failure, which, among other things, makes carrying equipment around difficult at times.

“I’m always afraid that I’m going to die. My wife is gone. I have a few films left in me, and this is one of them,” he said. “On an existential level, if I don’t make this film, the film’s not going to get made. I was supposed to be dead five years ago; I’m not. I take my meds and I try to watch what I eat. If you’re the real thing, if you’re a real artist, eventually the heavy stuff meshes with your art and your identity as an artist.”

Comments

comments