The documentary was picked-up for distribution after its success at the Global Nonviolent Film Festival where it received the Best Director Award for Mays.
By Daria Trifu
A veteran of dozens of stage, television and independent film productions spanning some thirty years, Brad Mays first became interested in theatre and film while attending high school in Princeton, New Jersey in 1970. Shortly after appearing in his first school play, Joseph Heller’s We Bombed In New Haven, he was invited to participate in a work/study program at the McCarter Theatre, a professional repertory company housed in an elegant proscenium house in town. This valuable experience, in which Mays appeared in both speaking and non speaking roles in Macbeth and Caesar At The Rubicon crystallized his love for the stage, and when his family moved to Baltimore, it was not long before he became involved in an experimental theatre company, the Corner Theatre ETC. There, Mays had a chance to participate in some pretty far-out stuff, most notably several plays written by Gordon Porterfield, a highly controversial Baltimore playwright. It was in this environment that Mays was given his first chances at directing main-stage productions for paying audiences. Among these less-than-stellar efforts were: Ionesco’s Jack Or The Submission and The Future Is In Eggs, Lovers by Brian Friel, Mart Crowley’s The Boys In The Band, and John Whiting’s The Devils Of Loudun.
Following studies at Towson University, Mays directed and co-starred in a very well-received production of Equus, which he followed up with Euripides’ The Bacchae. Again, the reviews were favorable and audiences encouragingly large. During the next two years, from 1981 – 83, Mays directed productions of Chamber Music by Arthur Kopit, White Whore And The Bit Player by Tom Eyen, and Brecht/Weill’s Threepenny Opera.
Mays’ first New York effort was an evening of one-act plays written by his long-time friend Linda Chambers. Joan, Stones, and Requiem were performed at the Cubiculo Theatre, which once housed the National Shakespeare Company. This was followed by a highly inventive staging of The Water Hen, by Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz (Witkacy to those in the know), which critic Mark Matousak praised for its “masterful comic direction.” After two more plays, Altitude Sickness and The Stipulation, both written by David Weisberg, Mays took his first shot at independent film making with his production of Stage Fright (1989), which played at the Berlin Film Festival. By the end of that year, Mays was living in Hollywood.
The first work Mays was able to get in the entertainment mecca was script writing and doctoring, which he did for several years for a variety of producers. During this time he also continued directing plays: Dragon Slayers by Stanley Keyes (screen writer for Stage Fright), a two-act version of Joan by Linda Chambers, and a second attempt at directing Euripides’ The Bacchae in 1997, which was immensely successful and received not only superlative reviews but three LA Weekly Theatre Award nominations: for Best Production Design, Best Musical Score, and Best Direction. Determined that this achievement would make for a wonderful independent film, Mays and life-partner/producer Lorenda Starfelt undertook to do just that. The results were fascinating if uneven: The Bacchae (2000), with whom Mays and Starfelt shared an less-than-happy collaboration with producer John Morrissey, boasts excellent performances but suffers from an uneven visual scheme.
Following the turmoil of The Bacchae, Mays began film editing as a way of paying the bills. Resilience (2005), Shakespeare’s Merchant (2003), Dodo (2006), Showgirls – Provincetown, MA (2008) and Crystal Fog (2008) are just a few of the numerous films he edited for other directors. Among the plays he directed during this period were Marat/Sade by Peter Weiss, Euripides’ The Trojan Women (which he filmed as a stage documentary), and a controversial multi-media production of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, which was nominated for three LA Weekly Theatre Awards: best revival production, best actress and best direction. Just as Mays had predicted would happen, the production received the Best Actress Award for Vanessa Claire Smith’s riveting portrayal of the play’s main character Alex, a teenage psychopath who is destroyed then ultimately revived by his love of classical music. A Clockwork Orange was the last play Mays staged in Los Angeles, and he is inclined to regard it as his legit theatre swan song.
In 2006, Mays directed and edited the documentary feature Sing*ularity, which depicts the innovative methods employed by Ann Baltz’s famed OperaWorks Program for the training of opera singers. The following year, he directed the romantic comedy The Watermelon (2008), produced by Lorenda Starfelt and written by Michael Hemmingson. The Watermelon received its world debut at the San Diego Film Festival. Later, the film won the Diamond Award at the 2011 California Film Festival. Several other films quickly followed – the political documentary The Audacity of Democracy; A Way Back In, which was featured at the Idyllwild International Festival of Cinema, and subsequently won several awards; the award-nominated 2011 comedy web series Customer Diss-Service, and the 2012 comedy short, The Donut Shop, winner of The People’s Choice Award at the 2012 San Francisco Black Film Festival and Best Comedy at the 2013 San Diego Black Film Festival.
In 2009, Mays was invited by producer Annie Wong to participate — along with Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka, theatre scholar Richard Schechner, and acclaimed actor Alan Cumming – in a discussion about The Bacchae for the acclaimed PBS series Invitation To World Literature, which is now a permanent feature of Annenberg Media’s educational website.
Mays’ most recent feature films are the documentary I Grew Up in Princeton, a unique exploration of what life was like in the shadow of one of the world’s great universities during the cultural and political upheavals of the late 60s/early 70s; Road Rage, a bleak comedy about falling in hate, which premiered in March of 2016; Aiden’s Butterflies, a short film portrait of a young boy doing his part to save Monarch Butterflies from extinction; and Jubilate Trego, a loving feature tribute to one of the greatest American choral directors of the 20th century. In September of 2019, Mays premiered his feature documentary film Two Trentons: An American City Speaks at the New Jersey International Film Festival, where it won the Best Documentary, Honorable Mention award. In 2020, he directed the music video Leviathan, for Detroit producer Blake Harrington. He also worked as cinematographer on Rags Of Time: J. Robert Oppenheimer, for his friend, director Patricia Robinson-Linder.
On September 16, 2022, the Global Nonviolent Film Festival announced the inclusion of both Two Trentons: An American City Speaks and Mays’s 2022 release, 3 Degrees of Connection, as official selections in their 11th annual film competition. Festival co-founder Bruno Pischiutta, in his televised introduction to 3 Degrees of Connection, referred to Brad Mays as “one of the best documentary directors in the United States”. The festival’s jury ultimately awarded Mays with Best Director of a Feature Documentary for Two Trentons – An American City Speaks. The Seaside Sustainability Film Festival of Gloucester, Massachusetts also featured 3 Degrees of Connection as an Official Selection in their first annual presentation.
Since 2020, Mays has also completed writing two plays: A Tissue of Lies: A Story of Horatio, Fortinbras and Wittenberg Following the Overthrow of Denmark, and Culture War: Savonarola and the Medici’s. He is also working on a screenplay for his next dramatic feature, The Prepared Mind.
What is your documentary about?
Brad: Like all my documentary films, Two Trentons derives its narrative thrust entirely from interviews and filmed events, without employing a scripted narration of any kind. Thus, the emerging story is multi-faceted, representing a plurality of realities, told by people representing a wide variety of social and economic conditions, educational and cultural backgrounds; uncluttered by outside agendas, including — hopefully — my own. Having said that, Two Trentons is the story of a city at war with itself. Once celebrated as an industrial Mecca, Trenton has, over the decades, fallen on increasingly hard times. As a city without a tax base, social services have eroded, as has the upkeep of local infrastructure.
City planners have continuously dropped the ball as well, leaving the Capitol of New Jersey largely dependent on the work of charities. The result of all this neglect, of course, is a city populated by the under-educated, the frightened, bored and indifferent. The people who inhabit this city have become numb to life itself, to even the very notion of hope. So here you have a city — two cities. One is the state capitol, with the shiny buildings and the beautiful neighborhoods. That’s the city people where people who work in government buildings, in administrative jobs, commute to on a daily basis, from across the river, because they don’t wish to live in a town where the lurking malaise only comes to the fore at night, but is nevertheless ever-present. The two Trentons are the Trenton of the day, and the Trenton of the night. And let me say this – Trenton is a scary place at night. Not scary like Baltimore, not scary like Philadelphia. It’s truly unnerving. And while I acknowledge that every American city faces serious moral, economic, political and social challenges, Trenton remains a particularly troubled town. Mental illness runs rampant, with very few paths to alleviation, although that is changing.
When I first began this film, I knew virtually nothing about any of this. I was a blank piece of paper. And as I say, it was only by interviewing dozens of people from every station of life, many of whom spoke courageously, that a true picture of Trenton came into focus. And out of this mosaic of violence and despair, there emerged a grassroots movement from within; an important and viable arts community. A passionate, fearless community of artists and musicians, of architects and actors and poets, determined to breathe new and indelible life into a city that, for many, has already flat-lined. So ultimately, even in Trenton, there does exist a strong element of hope for the many who live there. The story is still being written — even in Trenton, grace can happen.
And yet even the art world doesn’t provide a safe haven, there, does it?
Brad: Yes, well…there is that, isn’t there? I guess I’d better talk about it, huh? As good a time as any, I suppose. So, shooting on “Two Trentons” took just over a year, and had proceeded in a rather orderly fashion. I like to have roughly 200 hours in the can before moving on to editing, and I had nearly that amount. We had good interviews, some of it quite compelling. So here we are in June, and it’s the final day of shooting, at an even called Art All Night, put on by an outfit called ArtWorks Trenton.
This event had become a sort of crown jewel of the so-called Trenton Renaissance, a twenty-four hour celebration and showcase of the city’s voluminous output of painting, drawing, sculpture, music and the like, created by local artists. Anyone and everyone could contribute and participate, a truly egalitarian event, right? And I had already shot extensive interviews with the three Artworks Trenton individuals who head up the organization. Really good, informative interviews. So anyway, it’s the last day of filming and I’m there at Art All Night. Things go smoothly, predictably, and I pack it in and go home. Very early the next morning, I get a phone call from one of my best friends, Norma. It’s roughly 5:00 AM. The first thing she says is “are you all right?” I say, “Yeah, I’m fine. Why do you ask?”, and she says “You were at Art All Night, right? There was a late night shooting there…” So I say, “Norma, I’m heading back out, now! Thanks!” I hang up the phone, drive back out, and get there by six. I start gathering footage from a variety of sources. I call my producer, Joe Hulihan, and say, “the movie’s no longer wrapped!” Talk about an understatement, right? But then, to make a long story short, I am contacted by the ArtWorks Trenton folks, who inform me that they no longer wish to appear in my film, please remove anything about us. Just like that. At first I was thunderstruck. But then, after a little digging, I did find individual artists who wanted to talk, about the shooting, about Trenton’s art scene and, most particularly, about ArtWorks Trenton. Karey Maurice, a struggling artist with some serious health issues, living on the outskirts of Princeton, was quite eager to talk. So then, with a renewed sense of purpose, I’m off and running, once again. Without the ArtWorks Trenton people who, from that point moving forward, treated me like the enemy of art. And, of course, the Art All Night shooting remains as the film’s narrative centerpiece.
You mention your film’s producer, Joe Hulihan. Can you tell me how he came to be involved in the project?
Brad: Every indie filmmaker should have a producer like Joe. Great guy, a once in a lifetime collaborator. A few years back, I had just finished a promotional short for Mercer Street Friends, a Quaker-based charity organization, doing work for Trenton’s indigent. The finished film was screened at their annual fund-raising dinner, and was very well received. So afterwards, I am approached by this unassuming, very soft spoken man who asks me, straight up, if I might be interested in making a similar film — a feature-length film — about the city of Trenton. Now, I get approached with this question with considerable frequency, so I am quite well schooled in the art of remaining circumspect. So I say, “Yes, of course. I would be very interested, with proper financing.” So I gave him a figure, and he answered “sounds reasonable.” He told me that he’d be contacting me in a month or two and, surprise surprise, he did. He wrote the checks, he scheduled the interviews. He’s a man of science, you know, an MD specializing in neuro-science. A very busy man, and a wonderful human being.
So money was not an issue?
Brad: Not at all. Even after the Art All Night debacle necessitated an extension of our existing production schedule, Joe never blinked.
Describe the production and post-production work on “Two Trentons.”
Brad: As an independent filmmaker, I do everything. I shoot and shoot and shoot. I favor Canon cameras, most particularly the Canon FX-300 (I own two of these), and the Canon EOS 300 Mark II, with interchangeable lenses. I like to shoot interviews with stacked cameras. I have an editing suit (a fancy term for a large closet), where I do all the editing, mixing, mastering — everything. I own 3 MacPro Towers, and two MacPro laptops. I’m an independent filmmaker. I take that term seriously, and I keep it simple. I do everything. I shoot until I think I have enough to start cutting, then I begin the editing process and keep at it until a story emerges. When I feel certain that the film is being honest with me, I keep paring it down until I have something that feels viscerally correct. I should mention that my favorite documentary filmmaker is Fred Wiseman, and I try to model my own work on his, to some degree. I eat, breath, drink and live the project I’m working on, until my inner Shakespearean voice screams “enough, no more, ‘tis not so sweet as it was before!” When I’m nearing the end of post-production, I tend to do three or four versions, until the film no longer causes me to wince in pain. At that point, I’m finished. On Two Trentons, I had a wonderful composer, Jon Negus, who provided me an excellent score on short notice (sorry, Jon). My other chief collaborator on this film was my business partner Barbara Curtis, who was present for much of the production, did all the graphic art work, and assisted with the editing. So basically, Two Trentons was a five person operation: Joe, his daughter Katie, who sometimes operated second camera, Barbara, Jon and myself.
And when it was finished, what then?
Brad: We began entering it into film festivals, and crossing our fingers. Existential crises time, where all the self doubt and insecurities rear their ugly heads, sprout hair and fangs and bad breath. My philosophy is, “If the film has merit, it’ll find an audience.” It takes time. No quick results. Fortunately, Albert Nigrin of the New Jersey International Film Festival responded favorably, giving us a leg up. The film premiered in 2019, and won Best Film – Honorable Mention. Two other festivals accepted the film – The Garden State Film Festival, and the New York City Indie Festival, but not before the Covid epidemic hit with a vengeance. The results were catastrophic, insofar as the film’s public life was concerned. I thought the film was dead in the water, and I became quite dejected. By that time I was well into working on another film, 3 Degrees of Connection, so I managed to put the Two Trentons situation out of my mind. My significant other, Sue, kept reassuring me that the film wasn’t dead in the water, as I’d thought, and that it would ultimately have a renewed life. And then, of course, the Global Nonviolent Film Festival accepted it. And here we are.
After the Festival, your film was acquired for distribution by Global Cinema Online, a Division of Canadian media company Global Film Studio. Where is the film showing now?
Brad: Yes, I was so pleased with their distribution proposal and we signed the contract just after the Global Nonviolent Film Festival ended. Two Trentons is now streaming worldwide on GlobalCinema.online, a fantastic channel for nonviolent films, documentaries, animation, TV series and more. My film has its dedicated streaming page here: Watch TWO TRENTONS
Do you have other films that you made and that you would like to mention?
Brad: Well, I just finished work on the afore-mentioned 3 Degrees of Connection, which was also accepted to the Global Nonviolent Film Festival this year. I co-produced that with Ric Moore, a truly fascinating guy with an off-the-charts intellect and a decidedly understated manner. Another film, Jubilate Trego: The Choral Legacy of William Trego, was a labor of love piece about a man widely considered to be one of the great choral conductors of the post-war 20th Century. I’ve done three dramatic features: Stage Fright in 1987; The Watermelon in 1996, and Road Rage, in 2016, with the late great Adam Roth. I also did a short called Aiden’s Butterflies, which played the environmental film circuit in 2019. There have been others. Many others.
What is your next film?
Brad: Well, I’m booked on a couple of projects with Exclamation Theatre in Philadelphia. As far as films produced and directed by myself, I am working on a new dramatic script tentatively titled The Prepared Mind, which I hope to shoot sometime late next year. We’ll see.
Do you have any advice for other filmmakers?
Brad: Find a story that is authentically you, then go out and make it the best way you can. D!