Enjoying the climb

Academy Award-winning producer returns to campus to share wisdom with students.

Adam Loyd
October 10, 2019
Film producer Evan Hayes chats with Exeter students

The crux. In rock climbing, the most difficult section of an established route. Its execution, imperative to a successful climb.

“It’s the moment of truth,” Evan Hayes ’98 explained to Theater Instructor Rob Richards’ filmmaking class.

The Academy Award-winning producer of “Free Solo” spoke with students about his personal “moments of truth” as an Exeter student, in the early stages of his career and while making the critically acclaimed film.

The 2018 documentary follows renowned rock climber Alex Honnold’s attempt to become the first person to scale the face of Yosemite National Park’s massive monolith El Capitan — a nearly 3,000-foot route — without a rope.

Pointing at a projection of Honnold’s path up the rock face, Hayes explained the sheer magnitude of the untethered ascent.

“The height of this is the Empire State Building, plus the Chrysler Building, plus 500 feet,” he said. “It’s not small.”

The night before his visit to Richards’ class, Hayes screened “Free Solo” inside the Goel Center and answered questions from members of the PEA community. For Hayes, presenting his film to an audience comprised mostly of teenagers brought him back to one of the many moments of truth before the film’s premiere at Colorado’s famed Telluride Film Festival.


“The first time we ever screened it for an audience was for Telluride Middle School and High School,” he said. “I stood in the wings of the theater and watched the level of engagement the students had with the content and thought, ‘I think this is going to work.’”

Top of the mountain

Hayes took home an Oscar for his work on the film which won the Academy Award in the best documentary feature category. With his 8-pound, 8-ounce golden statuette displayed proudly on the Harkness table, Hayes shared with Richards’ students the types of challenges producers face throughout the moviemaking process.  

“Filmmaking is really hard work” he said. “You’re essentially building a mini company every time you want to make a project.” 

Hayes talked about the potentially perilous conditions the unique subject matter and filming location of “Free Solo” presented to his cast and crew.

“Hundreds of pounds of rope, no craft services; if you knocked a rock off you’d kill Alex,” he said while sharing behind-the-scenes photos from an especially arduous day of production. “But we spent 70 days on the wall, nobody got hurt once.”

Film producer Evan Hayes chats with students

Prompted by Richards, Hayes talked about what he took away from his post-grad year at the Academy.

“I learned to learn here,” he said. “Exeter gave me focus and taught me to really value intellect and working hard.”

Senior Tatum Schutt expressed her interest in Hayes’ career path asking, “How did you go from Exeter to being a successful producer?”

“Hard work and luck,” Hayes answered quickly, before describing a passion for film that began as a child. 

“My brother is 17 months older and every weekend we’d rent six movies,” he said. “That was a big part of it, I had the opportunity to see tons of movies.”

Gaining a foothold

Hayes detailed other pivotal moments from his time as a young adult that would influence his career path including working as an assistant in the art department on various television shows and his decision to shift focus from environmental studies to film after taking an influential intro to film elective at the University of Southern California. 

“I took that class and just went ‘wow,’” he said. “This is not just entertainment, this is art, this is storytelling, this is so much more complex!”

From there, Hayes embarked on decade-long stint at Working Title Films, making his own climb from receptionist to senior vice president. He talked about his early days at the company when, despite not having the clout of his more experienced colleagues, he would “behave like a producer” by reaching out to people he found interesting to start the conversation about turning their stories into movies.

“When I meet young people who want to produce, the best advice I can give is, ‘be a producer,’” Hayes told the students. “You’re not going to be a producer when someone tells you you’re a producer.”

Now partner and head of original content and development at ACE Content, Hayes said he hopes his personal story and the film will inspire students to pursue their dreams. 

“I like to remind kids that anything is possible if you put your mind to it.”