DuArt: The Young Brothers and Their Family of Filmmakers
Remembering the Young Brothers and the New York City film processing lab and indie institution DuArt.
Our 24-film series The Process: A Tribute to Robert and Irwin Young plays at Metrograph from August 12.
“The Young Brothers were insiders in the film industry—their father, Al, founded the New York City film processing lab DuArt in 1922—but in the careers they pursued, they consistently put themselves on the side of society’s outsiders. Robert, who co-wrote the screenplay for pioneering portrait of Black life in America Nothing but a Man, continued to focus on marginalized subjects in his own work as a director. Irwin, who died earlier this year at age 94, picked up his father’s duties at DuArt, in 1960, where his policy of prioritizing projects by passionate but cash-strapped independent filmmakers—as well as in his work as a patron to filmmakers and an accidental archivist—helped to cultivate the culture of indie cinema in NYC. Focusing on the lives of poor people and the films of poor filmmakers, together the Young Brothers made American cinema inestimably richer.”—Introduction to The Process: A Tribute to Robert and Irwin Young.
An oral history by Nicolas Rapold from newly conducted interviews and a handful of archival material.
SUSAN SEIDELMAN (Smithereens):
The first thing you noticed about Irwin was his sweet and genuine smile. He had a smile that glowed. I met him in 1976 when I was a NYU film student making my first black- and-white, 16mm, short film. At that time, DuArt was the lab that all the NYU film students used.
JOEL COEN (Barton Fink):
Not only was DuArt the best lab back in the day, it was the only lab that was as friendly to student filmmakers from NYU as it was studio productions from Hollywood. That was all Irwin—open to all comers, especially if you were on the fringes. It was a community lab for filmmakers, no matter who they might be.
LINDA YOUNG (DuArt President, daughter of Irwin Young):
On a typical day at DuArt, Irwin would walk through the plant, checking in with the different department heads and workers alike. He would spend a lot of the day roaming the many floors of the DuArt building checking in on developing, printing, negative prep, timing, chemical mixing, and quality control. Irwin could also be frequently found in his office, meeting and making deals with filmmakers, ranging from first-timers to those who were experienced or famous.
DARNELL MARTIN (I Like It Like That):
I worked there before I became a filmmaker. DuArt was my film school. I would transfer film to tape, so I was able to see dailies. I was able to hear directors talk over their dailies. I was able to see the kind of coverage that was needed. So before I walked on a set, I knew the pieces that you needed to build. And I shot a lot of kinescope, which was very old television, which is really interesting because a lot of great filmmaking came out of those early television shows. Sidney Lumet cut his teeth on them.
LIZZIE BORDEN (Working Girls):
During the late ’80s, it was just such a fertile time for indies. Irwin was a legend. He was always talking about how he understood independent filmmakers because of the struggles his brother, Bob, went through. It made him really empathetic.
EDWARD JAMES OLMOS (American Me, The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez):
When I met Bob, he was doing Alambrista! (1977). He met with me and made me feel confident and strong. At this time there was nothing being done—nothing—dealing with humanistic stories about Americans of Latin descent in this country, and immigrants. I had seen his documentaries on NBC in the ’50s and early ’60s. He did White Paper, a 60 Minutes-style show.
We would often have a family movie night where the 16 millimeter projector would be hauled out and threaded up with one of Bob’s films. There was an amazing series of underwater films. And I remember hearing him tell me that he was always attracted to the story of the other, or the underdog, or that wasn’t being told. When he was just out of college, he had to go serve in the South Pacific and saw other places. I think his mind was exploding, thinking, “Wow, here are all of these stories that I want to be telling.”
LOUISE GREAVES (partner of William Greaves, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One):
Where would New York independent film be today without Irwin and Bob? Irwin felt film was an important cultural asset and important to the country. He trusted Bill [Greaves] would do his damnedest to come up with the money... eventually! DuArt ended up having the preprint elements of Symbiopsychotaxiplasm (1968) in their vault. Somehow or other that got lost in the shuffle. But he never billed us for storage. And it is now in the National Film Registry.
DuArt film laboratories was the cornerstone of the development of independent filmmaking in this country. I’d say 85 or 90 percent of every film that ever came out of Latin America that has any kind of substance that came through its doors, Irwin developed it for free. That’s thousands and thousands of dollars!
We did our first three features, Return of the Secaucus 7 (1979), Lianna (1983), and The Brother from Another Planet (1984), the first two shot in 16mm, with DuArt. I never met Irwin in those days, [I was] dealing directly with Howard Funsch. We did blow-ups of the 16mm movies there, which came out pretty good. My only other strong memory of working there was how incredibly slow the elevator was.
ROSS MCELWEE (Sherman’s March):
Irwin set up an arrangement, if I remember correctly, with the Sundance Film Festival where he would offer an Aaton 54 LTR camera for indefinite loan to the winner of the Grand Jury Prize. Sherman’s March won in 1986, so I was the recipient. The Aaton was (and still is) a terrific camera for handheld documentary filmmaking. I had already made four films (regular 16mm) which had been processed and printed there. His support of and encouragement to dozens of my fellow documentarians was legendary.
LORRAINE GRAY (With Babies and Banners):
I was in my early twenties living in Washington, D.C., and I struck out on my own as an independent documentary film director on With Babies And Banners (1979) [about the General Motors strike in 1936–1937]. What Irwin did is he looked at young filmmakers, and he said, “Oh, I like this person’s idea. I like the way this person operates. I want to be a part of this particular film and this person’s trajectory.”
VICTOR NUNEZ (Ruby in Paradise):
In 1979 the New York Film Festival had a sidebar of American independent films. I made a film, Gal Young ’Un (1979), from a Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings story. Suddenly at a screening—I was told he might do this—I see Irwin. It wasn’t that he leaped over the aisles, but he said “Victor Nunez! I want to print your film!” He and his team, he had a wonderful group of gentlemen. All wore ties. They really took making things look good seriously.
ANDREW YOUNG (Children of Fate, son of Robert Young):
The first job that I ever had was working as an assistant in the maintenance department at DuArt. I think I was a teenager. They used to send me up into the air conditioning ducts to clean them out because they were trying to keep the air system clean because of the negative rooms and everything. When you’re processing film, things had to be done right or it was a disaster. And so that kind of became part of his moral fiber.
After I became a filmmaker I created this film program for children who are incarcerated. I never really got permission. I just kept going in to Spofford [Juvenile Detention Center] at Hunts Point in the Bronx. They shot on film, they cut on film, I taught them how to DP. It was amazing, the best experience I ever had except having a child. But I did it with my own money, and I was running out of funds. I needed to get their films processed and prints made. Irwin did it pro bono. He took care of it. There were times I had to beg people for money when I was a kid. And I know what that’s like, and he was not that guy. You just asked him, and he was like “Okay.” He was, I think, uncomfortable with people having a need. He didn’t want to make you feel bad about that.
Irwin never put on an act of any kind. I sensed sincerity. And creatively I guess in a way Robert was Irwin’s other self.
I always brought the aesthetic I brought from Bob. The aesthetic was simple. You don’t romanticize. You don’t glamorize. You don’t exploit. You don’t manipulate. And the most important part is you’re doing all this with your camera, your clothing, your acting. You take all of that out as much as you can, so there’s no manipulation, no romanticization, no glamorization, no exploiting. It’s like the difference between The Godfather (1972) and American Me (1992). They’re both stories about families that created mafias. But no one comes out of American Me humming the theme song. And nobody wants to be a part of the Santana family.
When Bob was at NBC he wanted to get the point of view of the Angolan rebels, who were fighting for their independence from colonial power. While filming he filmed a shot of napalm bombs that had been dropped on the Angolans by the Portuguese. And when the film was being edited, his boss at NBC made him take that shot out! Later my wife Susan and I made, Children of Fate (1993), because we did a follow-up on the Cortile Cascino (1962) film Bob made for NBC. Cortile Cascino was the name of a slum in Sicily. [Cortile Cascino] was made in the early ’60s, but it felt like it was a journey back to the Middle Ages.
MICHAEL ROEMER (Nothing But a Man):
There was something about Bob’s concrete relationship to the world that seemed very important to me. Bob and I left NBC in anger—I think they didn’t want to put that much poverty in the American living room so they basically destroyed the opportunity to see the film. We were just determined never to have that happen again so I said, why not make a fiction film? He had made a documentary about the sit-in movement in Tennessee [occupying segregated lunch counters]. We had no money, so we just took an old car and drove around, sometimes trailed by a sheriff’s car... We just met a lot of people. I kept saying, what’s the story? Bob said, you’ll come up with something. One day in Mississippi, it struck me to use a story I had written about a couple who was recently married, and suddenly Nothing But a Man came together. I was completely naive. But my own experience as a German Jew and growing up in an anti-Semitic country in the 1930s—a pretty scary pace—I made an identification with being an African American.
Nothing But a Man was a film that Bill admired very, very much.
When Bob was shooting Alambrista! in 1976 in Stockton, Bob called me up, and said, “Hey, can you help me?” and I said, “Of course, anything you need man.” I took a plane there and he meets me and tells me what he’s doing with this very important scene. He drives us to the set, and it’s bristling with people. Then a girl comes up and says, “The beans are ready.” I had no idea. He goes in the middle of the street and says, “Okay everybody listen up. We have food here. Let’s all eat together!” And slowly people came, and they fed everyone in the street. There were almost no actors on that set except for myself and Julius Harris and Domingo Ambriz. And they were going to shoot the “shape-up”—when farmers come with old school buses and load them up with workers. So the buses came, with guys picking people: “You, you, you.” But then rocks come flying down from the top of the roof at the camera—at Bob and the camera department and our crew. But he had created a family of the people on the street. So the people now were on our side, and they start to get angry. And they start to throw the rocks back! It was extraordinary. That’s basically the first day I ever worked with Bob.
LIZZIE BORDEN (Working Girls):
Irwin loaned me the Super 16 camera that DuArt had that he also loaned Spike Lee, Ross McElwee, and other filmmakers. And then that whole camera package got stolen. The idea of shooting in Super 16 was a great idea. I shot Working Girls for $100,000 because of Irwin. And I think he loved hearing about how we did it and seeing the dailies come in. I had built a set in my loft—the entire brothel set fit in my loft! And Irwin was no prude.
SPIKE LEE (She’s Gotta Have It):
She’s Gotta Have It, my very first film, was shot in Super 16. DuArt Labs did the blow-up for both. I think that only a trained eye could tell that it wasn’t originally shot on 35mm.
Our editing room was right across the street from DuArt, so we got to experience the original soup Nazi (even shorter-tempered than the people at B&H Photo) and the crowds of ’80s scenesters waiting to get into Studio 54.
The other thing was Linda Young was great because it was a female presence. Irwin having daughters really helped. It wasn’t a macho atmosphere as other labs can be. They didn’t condescend, which was great.
Somebody in the textile workers union in New York had found a box of rusty old cans in their textile union closet, and I brought it to Irwin. I said, “Oh my God, this is from the 1930s!” So Irwin said, “I don't know if this is going to help but there are two humidifying chambers in the entire country that exist now. And I know where one of them is.” We just took the chance and boom—that’s it—he made a master! And it was this incredible footage of working women in the mid-1930s, going down into the basement, having these secret meetings. So that was put into With Babies And Banners. And women’s history was a ridiculed thing at the time. Nobody got it. But Irwin got it. He knew how important it was.
CLAUDIA WEILL (Girlfriends):
I was concerned if I finished the film in 16mm, it would never get taken seriously as a feature—and Irwin agreed. He agreed to make a blow up for Girlfriends (1978) at no charge initially. (I paid him when I sold it to Warner Brothers.)
I have kept going back to DuArt after my husband died because I’m working to keep his films available.
The less you can spend on a film, the more you can feel free to say and reveal things. Every time I would call Irwin after that, he’d say, “What can we do?” He understood the cash flow situation with indie films. It took 10 years till I got to make Ruby in Paradise (1993). I remember thinking, “Will DuArt even remember me?” Irwin acted like I had just been gone a week.
ROGER DEAKINS (cinematographer, Barton Fink):
At the beginning of the job, the lab was producing terrible dailies. In the same scene we’d have three takes that looked too green, and the next three takes would be magenta. I said, “Well, that’s it.” So instead of processing in L.A., we sent our dailies all the way to New York. We were shooting in L.A., we sent them to DuArt in New York, which for my money was always the best lab in the country. And they did a fantastic job.
There’s a shot in Gal Young ’Un, a kerosene lantern being lit. And Irwin walked in when we were timing it. He said, “Now that’s a beautiful shot. It’s got the lightest lights and the darkest darks.” So there was a side of him that appreciated the image in a very specific way. He had a level of appreciation that I have met in various lab people and DPs, a certain aesthetic that’s tied into the process, the mechanics of the image-making.
I was able to talk with Irwin a few weeks before he died. We talked about the big stuff, the big picture. He said, “You know, it wasn’t about the money. It was about the contribution to society.” He talked about how his father, Al, had influenced him and always made sure that he knew that it’s not about making money here. You have to keep the lab going, of course. But that’s not the point of the lab. That’s not the point of your life.
Bob was an extraordinary documentarian—documenting human behavior, animal behavior, and life, period. That’s his life. And nobody in the industry helped the independent filmmaker as much as the Young family.
Making movies is life-saving. If I was like emperor of the world, I would make everybody make films. And I’m sure Irwin would have supported that.
Nicolas Rapold is a writer and editor. He hosts the podcast The Last Thing I Saw.