Edward James Olmos is a director and Oscar-nominated actor who has starred in TV series and films like Battlestar Galactica, Blade Runner, Stand and Deliver, and Selena. His new directorial feature, The Devil Has a Name, debuts in select theaters and on-demand Oct. 16.
My favorite director of all time is a man by the name of Robert M. Young, a documentary and dramatic filmmaker of the highest order. He created so much understanding of the usage of film to document human behavior. He was a documentarian first.
His father, Al, was one of the pioneers of film development. He started a very well-known film laboratory called DuArt Film Laboratory. Al Young was truly a giant in the world of cinema. [DuArt was the first lab to process Eastman Kodak’s color film.]
Bob’s father was also a great filmmaker, so he was exposed to that world. His brother Irwin took over DuArt after his father passed away and Bob continued to make his films. He was one of the first men to film sharks underwater. Jacques Cousteau created the “aqua lung” and Bob and his father helped developed the casing the cameras were placed into so that they could shoot underwater.
From there, Bob spent many, many years underwater—and then on land. He documented the last migration of the Eskimo in the early ’60s. He went and documented the war in Angola. He was a white man with a camera on his back and he traveled 400 miles during the war on foot documenting the war. He had made three documentaries for NBC and his fourth film was shelved because its content dealt with the Italian mafia in a little town called Cortile Cascino in Palermo, Italy. He was so upset. It was like killing his baby. Then he went and started making dramatic films on his own.
Bob Young to me is obviously one of the finest American filmmakers, if not the finest, that we’ve ever had. But we don’t all know that. I always tell Bob, “They’ll find out about you in about a hundred years.” I say, “Think about it. It’s the highest compliment I can give you. The test of time is going to prove you to be who you are.” Other filmmakers like Coppola, Scorsese and Spielberg, they’re all brilliant filmmakers, but their films don’t come close. You can watch [Young’s] Triumph of the Spirit and you can watch Schindler’s List and you see the difference in the conceptual understanding of manipulation, gratuitousness, romanticization, glamorization. That’s what makes a Bob Young film special. He takes it all out. When you see Triumph of the Spirit, you’re going to say, “Holy mackerel. This is amazing.” It really is.
Bob’s first major motion picture was Nothing But a Man, with Ivan Dixon and Abbey Lincoln. [Robert produced, co-wrote and shot the film. Michael Roemer directed.] That was one of the greatest movies ever done on the African-American experience—even to this day. Malcolm X declared it to be the best film ever made on the African-American experience and Spike Lee declares it to be one of the best films ever made, period. It’s in the National Film Registry.
Alambrista! was a really incredible story that he did on a young man coming from Mexico, trying to look for his father who was working in the fields. It came out in 1977. They created the Caméra d’Or in France for this movie. The first time I ever worked with him was on that film.
Our working relationship started in a really small trailer in the parking lot of PBS that could barely house him and me standing up. That’s where I went for an audition for Alambrista! That’s where his office was … just him by himself inside of this little trailer. I talked to him for about 45 minutes. He talked more than I did. He told me all about the movie and about how he worked. He told me all about his life. I just said, “Oh my God, this is really a true filmmaker using film at the highest level of its integrity.”
There are very few filmmakers who match him in the usage of film. Most filmmakers tell great stories, but they romanticize it and exploit the material. They play results. They’re great films, don’t get me wrong, but Bob didn’t work that way. His movies are different. As time has gone by, his films have become classic examples of the strongest integrity-filled, intellect-filled usages of American cinema ever.
I produced this movie and I hired him to be the director and writer. It ended up being one of the most extraordinary Westerns ever made. [I hired him] because of his aesthetic, an aesthetic that I have used all my career, whether it be as an actor, a writer, a director, a filmmaker, a person in life. It’s an aesthetic that is very simple, but it’s very difficult to achieve. You then create pieces of work that are true to the document. You’re documenting human behavior. You always put the camera where the story is. When you do that, you make really different kinds of movies. Every single aesthetic that I use is his. I learned the single most important aspect of filmmaking is to be secure enough as the director and filmmaker to allow growth around you. That is really important.
The Academy restored The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez in 2016. It took them quite a while to restore because Bob had shot it on Super 16 and then blew it up to 35, which is the first time they had ever done that.
This one became a tremendous piece of work. Tom Hulce should have won the Golden Globe for Best Actor. They gave it to Dustin Hoffman for Rain Man, which was really almost the same kind of movie. It was dealing with two brothers who help each other, one is mentally disabled and the other one is helping him live. They both had the same premise but they were completely different kinds of stories. And people who saw both of them liked Dominick and Eugene more. They thought it was a better movie, and I did too.
If you haven’t seen it, you should. That movie dealt with a true story about Thessaloniki Jews that were thrown into Auschwitz-Birkenau and what happened to them. How one Balkan boxing champion, played by Willem Dafoe, fought while he was in Auschwitz and saved his own life and fed his family by beating Jews inside the camp. He too was a Jew, but he would box them until he won. The boxer that won would stay alive for another fight; the one who lost was executed. So he was killing his own people.
Bob is the only filmmaker, to this day, to ever be allowed to go in and film a dramatic piece of work inside of Auschwitz-Birkenau. It’s the only film that’s ever been shot inside. That’s sacred ground. That’s not to be played with. Everywhere you walk there were ashes.
Watch that movie. You’re going to be so happy to be turned on to this filmmaker. Your whole life’s going to change.