During the past five years award-winning Indie filmmaker and Princeton High School alumnus Brad Mays has done a lot of thinking. It’s been a period of change for the filmmaker. After losing his wife to cancer and moving from Hollywood, California to Hollywood, Florida, he reconnected with old friends, and, as he worked on his latest feature-length documentary, he found common ground with some of the Princeton adults he once regarded as “the enemy” during a time of protest against the Vietnam War.
Mr. Mays will be back in his hometown to premiere his film, I Grew up in Princeton, in the Performing Arts Center at Princeton High School (PHS), Friday, October 18, at 8 p.m., on the eve of the 40th reunion of his 1973 class.
The filmmaker got his start as an intern at -McCarter Theatre before going on to direct dozens of stage, television, and independent film productions. About five years ago, his late wife suggested that since he was an accomplished filmmaker he should compile a video journal for the upcoming reunion of his graduating class. But when Mays began interviewing fellow graduates, he found a recurring theme dominated their conversations. Vietnam.
“The Vietnam War was a tipping point in history for my generation,” said Mr. Mays. “As I started having initial conversations with former classmates, Colin Dougherty and Elizabeth Carpenter come to mind, it started to crystallize that this wasn’t just a ‘reunion’ video, but an in-depth look at a troubling time and a series of events that impacted all of our lives.”
“The film brings all of us back to that time, but this isn’t nostalgia,” said Mr. Mays. “Sixty people tell their stories and in so doing present a collective story. A huge part of that story is the “brouhaha” that took place over the IDA [Institute for Defense Analysis], which became a symbol of the Vietnam War and the focus of protests. At that time, IDA was thought to be in cahoots with the war machine and plotting bombing routes in Cambodia. If that had been true, it would have been noble to protest against it,” but, said Mr. Mays, as he now knows and as the film reveals, the story was a little more complicated. “I didn’t go looking for skeletons in closets, but they found me.”
“One event became the centerpiece of recollection for most,” Mays recalled. “It blew the town apart, the University apart, an event that combined all of the toxic elements of that time. But I won’t say more as you have to see the film.”
Mr. Mays’s extensive interviews included current and former Princeton residents: cartoonist Arnold Roth, former IDA Director Lee -Neuwirth, former Superintendent of Princeton Regional Schools Phil McPherson, famed artist Nelson Shanks, author Zachary Tumin of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, and political activists James Tarlau and David Schankler, both former members of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).
What emerges is a deeply personal “coming-of-age story” that yields perspective on the role of perception in a town that was split racially, economically and sociologically. I Grew up in Princeton documents the town during the political and cultural change of the 1960s and 1970s. It features footage of Martin Luther King, Jr., African-American author James Baldwin, radical activists H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael, and president Richard M. Nixon.
The film’s scope takes in a broad range of topics, from experimental public educational programs and the war to the expressions of exploding arts and counter-cultural communities, both on the Princeton University campus and within the local community of “townies.” It has an original score by composer Jon Negus, who also grew up in Princeton before studying jazz at the University of Miami and making a name for himself on Chicago’s music scene.
“I did a lot of navel contemplation as I went through the editing process,” Mr Mays revealed. “I must have spent 1000 hours editing the film and I am very proud of it.”
The process provided an opportunity to rethink some of his own views. Of his interview with former IDA Director Neuwirth, Mr. Mays said: “I was expecting Dr. Strangelove. Instead I found a very liberal guy, a very gentle and cultured man who sat me down and showed me photographs that he had taken of the demonstrations at the time, which was clearly a very distressing time for him and his family. Today, I feel privileged to be in his company.” In spite of the rumors about bombing in Cambodia, the people at IDA were actually doing cryptography, Mr. Mays said.
This comes out in the film, which Mays describes as “a very aggressive and visceral experience that takes you right back there. It’s an honest piece that shows the backdrop of anger and paranoia at that time.” Others have described it as “funny and horrifying at the same time.” By all accounts it’s a must-see for Princeton.
While thinking about the film’s biographic title, the filmmaker discovered that he had grown up more than once in Princeton. “When I was bussed in from West Windsor to attend PHS, I found a community that embraced me. Going back to Princeton to make this film has been a second maturation process. Princeton keeps you young, going back was like being baptized again,” he said.
In spite of the line that advertises it, “Stories you never expected to hear about a town you thought you knew,” the film is far from an -exposé said the filmmaker, who suggests a closer affinity to the work of Studs Terkel.
The screening will take place on the eve of the 40th anniversary of the class of 1973. Mr. Mays is hoping that former Superintendent McPherson might be there. “What a great guy he is,” said Mr. Mays. “He wanted to deal with national issues in the local setting of Princeton, and he did. He also upset a lot of people.”
By many accounts, I Grew up in Princeton is a “funny, absorbing, and occasionally shocking portrait of a very special time and place, a mosaic of memory, imagery, and music.” It is bound to set Princeton talking.
Mr. Mays will be back in his hometown to premiere I Grew up in Princeton in the Performing Arts Center at Princeton High School (PHS), Friday, October 18, at 8 p.m. For tickets, visit: https://iguip.eventbrite.com. For more information, contact Admin@igrewupinprinceton.com, or visit: www.igrewupinprinceton.com.