Robert M. Young | Photo courtesy of the director
Miguel Piñero’s Short Eyes is one of the most decorated American plays of the 70s. The Puerto Rican–born Piñero, who died far too young in 1988 at the age of 41, was a celebrated poet, playwright, actor, and cofounder of the legendary Nuyorican Poets Café. Short Eyes, written while Piñero was serving time in Sing Sing for armed robbery, explores the volatile dynamic created when a white man convicted of child molestation is imprisoned with otherwise black and Latino inmates. Due in no small part to the content and his desire to stay true to the spirit of the story, Piñero had little interest in pursuing the Hollywood path when adapting his work and instead sought out a group of independent-minded people for the creative team.
The person who ultimately directed the film version of Short Eyes was Robert M. Young. Young began his career in filmmaking working on documentaries. He was part of the team that produced the NBC White Paper series that received a Peabody Award in 1960, with Young working on the episode “Sit-In” that covered civil rights protests in the South. He also cowrote one of the great American indies, Nothing But a Man (1964), with the film’s director Michael Roemer. His first narrative film as a director was 1977’s Alambrista! which was awarded the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, though he is perhaps most closely identified with a series of collaborations with Edward James Olmos including Triumph of the Spirit (1989), Talent for the Game (1991), American Me (1992), Roosters (1993), and Caught (1996).
We’re screening Short Eyes on May 19 in conjunction our exhibition Martin Wong: Human Instamatic. Piñero was a close friend and intimate of Wong’s and helped support him early in his career as an artist. Some of Wong’s paintings are inspired by poems written by Piñero to Wong.
Mr. Young was kind enough to speak with me in a telephone interview from his home in California about his film and working with Piñero.
DF: What did you know about the play Short Eyes before you became involved with the project? It was a highly-acclaimed play.
RMY: It was a marvelous play by Miguel Piñeiro. It was made with actors who had lived in Sing Sing and when Joseph Papp got involved that’s how it became really well-known. With the success of the play, a lot of people started to get interested in Miguel and Hollywood became interested in making it into a film. But Miguel wanted to stay true to the play; he wanted it to be coming out of real life. He was just that kind of person.
DF: He didn't want to make a Hollywood version of this play.
RMY: Right. He was very concerned that it be right. But it’s really hard to get a film made. At that time Miguel was doing drugs all of the time and he had no money. Then somebody, kind of a producer, in New York told him they would put up money for a film and he would have enough to buy drugs. Hollywood became interested when everyone was talking about what a great play it was but it wasn’t going to happen that way and when that guy came along they started making a film and shot it for five days.
The guy in New York got his money from the success of Super Fly, which had all of that great music by Curtis Mayfield. And this guy thinks if he gets involved with another film with Curtis Mayfield in it he’s going to make millions of dollars. And that is why he’s in the film because he is not in the play.
DF: How did you get involved?
RMY: Okay, so what happened is they were using actors who had come from Sing Sing, and these are not ordinary guys, you know. They started shooting for about five days. And people were saying this is a lot of a crap, you know, this is not working. And some of the crew guys go to the guy who had gotten the rights and told him it wasn’t working and that the director didn’t know what he was doing. And so the guy with the money tells the director—and this is a goddamn truth—"If you come back on Monday they'll kill you." And that doesn't necessarily mean with a knife or something, you know. In Sing Sing, you're on the second floor, you have a rail, and it'd be very easily just lean over, and you crash over the…
DF: Yeah, “accidentally” fall.
RMY: And you're finished, you know. So he didn't come on Monday, and what are they going to do? So, it happened I had just worked with two wonderful guys on the Short Eyes crew: Peter Silva, a very accomplished cinematographer, and Mike Barrow, a great lighting guy. And they told Miguel about me and he got to see the film I had just finished shooting and was now editing Alambrista! Miguel watched about 10–20 minutes of it and said “this is the guy who is going to direct Short Eyes.”
I'd not met him yet. But I came in to meet everybody, and I read the script, I looked at the film and what they had shot. It's terrible. It's terrible. And the script was terrible too. It had changed. And so I said to Miguel that we’d need at least a couple of months to write a real script, you know, to do it right because you have to go back, write, and redo it. But the producers were worried about losing money because they had already shot about five days and they were just putting up the money because of Curtis Mayfield. But Miguel had seen Alambrista! and he loved what I was doing and I saw that the material was so incredible that I wanted to do it. There was no money for it of course; I wasn’t going to get paid. But Miguel was so fantastic. We holed up in a hotel to rework the script and started the next week.
Now, let me just say this very out of hand, and completely, honestly, as it's the truth: I never used one word that was not from Miguel. Miguel was the one who wrote this script, okay? And of course you have to make some changes from a play to a film but he made them with me.
DF: Do you have a specific memory, or a good story about Curtis Mayfield?
RMY: You know, not particularly. He just came in at the point when we were doing his scenes. I got to know him a little bit. I thought he was an incredible person. I loved him, and of course I'm sad what happened to him. He was a genius.
DF: It must have been an unusual production for many reasons.
RMY: Definitely. Sometimes the guys would go out at lunch and shoot up, do drugs. They’d go get heroin and then have to get back to the shoot. Sometimes nobody would come back or they would come back much later, or sometimes someone we’d need in the next scene wouldn’t come back. And there was the incident when Miguel and the actor who played Cupcakes, Tito Goya, were arrested during production for something I’m not going to get into and they were in jail in the same place where we were shooting. So we shot a scene where they were getting out of their cell and they had really been in a cell in the same jail the night before. It was really different from what I had imagined making a film could be like.
DF: Once you really started production, how long did it take?
RMY: I can’t remember exactly, maybe five weeks. It was very interesting. In fact, it reminded me of some of my documentary work. I had been with the rebels in Angola…
DF: You were used to unpredictability.
RMY: Yes, I found it exciting when I didn’t what's going to happen.
DF: The film deals with highly-charged, challenging material no matter the era when it was made. What do you remember about the reception of the film?
RMY: One of the important reviewers wouldn't watch it. He said it was too violent for him, he couldn't deal with it, and that's one thing I remember. But it got great reviews. And the producer received quite a few accolades but he was originally in it for the money with the Curtis Mayfield angle. And I got put on probation with the Directors’ Guild because the producers couldn’t afford to pay me the appropriate amount. I didn’t make anything on the film, not even the $15,000 I was supposed to get. But that's sort of the story of my life, you know? I feel when I get involved in something it has to mean something to me. It’s not about money.
DF: Any last memories of Miguel?
RMY: I would see Miguel and or maybe one of the other guys from the film on occasion years later and take them out to lunch or dinner. I would have to stay until the bill was picked up otherwise they would go back and pick up the tip left for the waiter. They lead interesting lives. I saw Miguel a month or a couple of months before he died. He was in the hospital and I brought him a computer. He didn’t have one to write on. He was a wonderful, wonderful guy.