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East Pyne courtyard film set for ‘Oppenheimer’ creates campus chaos

<h6>Audrey Yang / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Audrey Yang / The Daily Princetonian

The quiet majesty of East Pyne was shattered on Thursday, April 14, as news spread across campus that Academy Award-nominated director Christopher Nolan was on campus shooting his upcoming film “Oppenheimer.” Hundreds of people crowded around the courtyard, some on the ground in the hot sun and others pressed against windows, jostling one another for the chance to glimpse a celebrity. 

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On one side, crowds formed around caution tape that extended from the courtyard’s eastern entrance all the way down Firestone Plaza to the University Chapel. On the other side, near Nassau Hall, a smaller group of students jockeyed for a view of the film set.

“Dude, I’m so missing class for this,” one student yelled to his friends. “It’s Christopher fucking Nolan!” 

Uniformed Public Safety (PSAFE) officers manned orange barricades blocking the entrance to the courtyard as students swarmed towards the building. 

“Two steps back, two steps back!” Production staff told the crowd.

Multiple students commented that it “felt like Lawnparties again,” referring to A$AP Ferg’s headliner performance last fall, when multiple students were injured as the crowd pushed towards the barricades around the stage.

“The more you move around and push forward, the more they’re gonna come out here and yell at you!” one PSAFE officer told the crowd, asking them to stop.

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Matt Damon, Cillian Murphy, and Jack Quaid stood close to the archway on the Firestone side of the building on breaks between takes. People on all sides were clamoring for the smallest glimpse. 

“I counted at least three smiles from Matt Damon aimed personally towards me,” Fletcher Block ’25, told the ‘Prince.’

Paige Morton ’25, who scored a video with Matt Damon, said in an interview that “he was really nice and really willing to take pictures with students, which I thought was really cool.”

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Rumors swirled that Florence Pugh, Emily Blunt, and Robert Downey Jr. were on campus, but that wasn’t true, according to crewmembers speaking to the crowd. One crewmember said Downey Jr. had left town after previous days of filming.

The film is based on the 2005 book “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer” by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin.

Dr. Michael Gordin, a professor of the history of science at the University, speculated that the scene filmed in East Pyne likely was set “after late-1942, when the Manhattan Project officially began and Oppenheimer had his post [with the Manhattan Project].” Gordin further theorized that the scene in Princeton may be related to Oppenheimer’s recruitment of other scientists for the Project. “But it is only a guess,” Gordin added. A crew member confirmed his guess, however, telling The Daily Princetonian that the scene being filmed took place in 1945. 

Fortunately, the crowd didn’t get too wild, but students were determined to get even the most fleeting look at the actors. Anyone who managed to enter East Pyne would’ve found tons of people crowding around every window, cameras open on nearly every phone. Staff cleared out the largest window areas, mentioning that people might be visible in the shot if they crowded too close. Across the courtyard, a crowd of people on the third-floor men’s restroom nearly leaned out the window; a crewmember yelled at them to close it.

Professor Daniela Mairhofer of the Classics Department has an office with windows that look directly over the courtyard. When asked if she had received any prior warning or instructions from the crew, she said she hadn’t. “Not beforehand,” she said, “but when they started filming, a crew member came to my office and told me to turn off the lights … I am sitting and working now in the dark, all in the line of duty for a (hopefully) good movie.”

Mairhofer invited us to her office to watch the filming up close, where the ‘Prince’ team was able to snap a few photos.

It seemed like everyone on campus had an opinion. 

“I think it was a very unique experience to watch the filming. I didn’t find it to be disruptive but more so I found it to be a fun activity in the afternoon,” Eliot Peck ’25 told the ‘Prince.’

Kevin Kruse, a history professor at the University, stated in a tweet that “The film crew for ‘Oppenheimer’ has taken over the Princeton campus and, no, ha ha, they don’t give a shit if you’re trying to get to class.”

When asked about how the University determines which projects are allowed to shoot on campus in the context of the disruption, Deputy University Spokesperson Michael Hotchkiss told the ‘Prince,’ “The University reviews requests to undertake film projects on campus on a case-by-case basis. All filming is carefully planned with a focus on safety and minimizing any disruption to the University community. Generally, Princeton seeks only to recover any costs to the University that are incurred by the production.”  

The University Office of Communications did not respond to a specific question about whether PSAFE officers were additionally compensated or supported for their role in enforcing the barriers and filming perimeter.

After filming for over an hour at East Pyne, some of the cast and crew took a break in Whig Hall and then moved to the University Chapel to continue production.  

Mujtuba Yousufi ’24 was able to score a picture with Christopher Nolan in the chapel, and told the ‘Prince’ how he made it happen. 

Mujtuba Yousufi '24 with Christopher Nolan
Courtesy of Mujtuba Yousufi

Nolan has been nominated twice for best picture, twice for best screenplay, and once for best director in the Academy Awards, and has directed hits like “The Dark Knight,” “Inception,” and “Interstellar.” 

Yousufi said that he went into the chapel to pray, but that Father Zack and his friend left soon after.

“I’m friends with a lot of [people in the] Aquinas Institute so I saw the priest just outside the chapel and I spoke to him and I asked him if I could go pray in the chapel,” Yousufi said.

“I was there at the chapel and I waited an hour watching them film,” Yousufi said, adding that there were many Princeton employees inside the chapel, “letting the film crew know what they were allowed to interact with ... At the end, Christopher Nolan went up to the Princeton employees and went to thank all of them.”

That’s when Yousufi made his move. A Princeton employee introduced them, “because my mother wanted [me] to take a picture,” Yousufi laughed. “He’s, like, my favorite director … this is the highlight of my semester.”

Head Sports Editor Wilson Conn, Head Prospect Editor José Pablo Fernández García, Head Prospect Editor Emerita Auhjanae McGee, and Chief USG Correspondent Annie Rupertus contributed reporting to this piece.

Hope Perry is the Head Podcast Editor at the ‘Prince’ who has covered USG, U.S. politics, and student activism. She can be reached at hperry@princeton.edu or on Twitter @hopemperry.

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