Swarms of tour groups descend upon campus each week, cameras and guidebooks in hand, hoping to catch a glimpse of the picturesque campus that has been the location and subject of countless films. Wading through the Holder Courtyard cloisters, an unmistakable glimmer of recognition connects the tourists to movies old and new: A Beautiful Mind, Across the Universe, Princess Diaries 2, and Admission, to name a few. In the newest addition to this list, Princeton supplies not only the location and content, but also the actors, producers, screenwriter, director, equipment, and funding. The Observer Effect, written and directed by Eric Hayes ’18, premiered on Friday to a nearly full house at The Garden Theater.
Hayes was introduced to the audience as “a pioneer for Princeton film,” and though he blushingly waved the moniker away, it is fitting. As an officer of Princeton Film Productions and a contributor for other Visual Arts Department projects, Hayes has cast a spotlight (no pun intended) on Princeton’s small but growing film community. Whereas most student filmmaking is the result of a class or thesis project, Hayes is known for dedicating himself to film and photography beyond the classroom. What started as a 20-minute short film grew into a 40-minute feature film, which will hopefully continue to develop.
His latest venture, The Observer Effect, has been in the works for the past year, after Hayes was inspired by Stephen Hawking’s lecture, “Does God Play Dice?” This lecture challenges Einstein’s idea that the universe is on some level entirely pre-determined, based on many of the paradoxical mysteries of quantum physics. “At its core the movie is about the agency (and lack thereof) that we have in our lives,” Hayes explains, “from our social influences right down to the physics that govern the universe.”
Students will immediately connect with David (Jared Brendon Hopper), the film’s protagonist, who pulls Red Bull-induced all-nighters to finish a paper, has his work torn apart by a professor, and wanders through campus with a rather blank look between classes. David’s life is shaken when he becomes the research assistant for Professor Bell (John Logan), a physics professor working in the deepest trenches of a laboratory basement. Bell’s experiments with fluctuations in time and space force a cynical David to reassess his thoughts on free will, determinism, and second chances. The film is clearly influenced by Christopher Nolan, who is credited at the end of the film, but Hayes also drew inspiration from more playful thought experiments on time hopping. Hayes reached out to Danny Rubin, who wrote the original screenplay for Groundhog Day, for advice about exploring these ideas in a fun and approachable way.
While the plot may at first seem heavy, The Observer Effect is laugh-out-loud funny. Hayes’ screenwriting includes gems just for Princeton students (think: finance internships) and for a general audience. The cinematography itself has a tongue-in-cheek humor to it, such as a shot of David drinking water that cuts to a shot of the Woody Woo fountain, or a shot of a squirrel lazing about in a tree while students around him rush to class. The cast also has surprisingly great comedic timing, especially Alan Johnson Joss, in addition to strong emotional performances from Jared Brendan Hopper, John Logan, Evelyn Giovine, and Victoria Lee, among others.
David’s rushed and vacant movement through campus is juxtaposed by truly beautiful shots of Princeton—the sort of campus tourists see as they visit for the first time, and the sort we students only see on the last day of a semester after the stress of finals week has washed away. One of the film’s greatest achievements is highlighting the uniquely stunning parts of campus, as only a student crew could: beams of afternoon light shooting through the slotted panes of Icahn, moonlight reflecting off the glossy stones of Holder, and the imposing sternness of John Witherspoon’s jade-green statue staring downward before the stained glass of East Pyne. Hayes and the production crew showcase our home just as well as, if not better than, the professional crews that have come before them.
The film’s original soundtrack was composed by Casey Kolb ’15 and performed and recorded by a 32-piece orchestra in Budapest. As if this is not impressive enough, the soundtrack is great. Moody and tonal with dramatic escalations, the original composition fits snugly with Hayes’ thought-provoking piece. The soundtrack’s only non-orchestral addition is The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony,” fittingly used in a compilation of shots at the beginning of the film as David walks around campus, in a scene reminiscent of the song’s other famous use at the end of Cruel Intentions. There are a couple of minor glitches in sound mixing—which Hayes acknowledged before the premiere—that could be addressed in further post-production editing. Overall, though, the film succeeds in auditory originality, both from its unique soundtrack and solid dialogue.
Of course, the film was not without its challenges. Hayes notes, “Film is the most collaborative art form there is, and the advantage of making a movie on a college campus is you have an abundance of talented and creative people all in one place. The tricky part, especially in a place like this, is that everyone is consumed by schoolwork and the many things they’re involved with.” This theme runs through The Observer Effect, which features students stressed about internship applications, GPAs, and the eating club culture.
Still, Hayes hopes that the completion of a feature film by students with full schedules will push the filmmaking community forward. “Arts like theatre, music, and dance are well-established at Princeton, but film is still a growing part of campus,” Hayes said. “In this day and age I think it’s a shame that movies aren’t given more attention here and part of the goal of this project has been to get people more involved and excited about filmmaking at Princeton.”
And how exciting it is. The Observer Effect marks a growing community on campus that demands resources for artistic exploration. More funding for student arts, greater academic options for artistic study, and expanded career advising for non-traditional professional paths await future Princetonians because of the work being done today. Hayes, the cast, and the production team have showcased our campus like a new sort of tourist guidebook, showing the promise of a forthcoming Princeton.
Who knew the next Nolan was in your Spanish class?