The development of Stony Island began long before there was a script, from spending time with and shooting images of my brother Richie and his friends in the old neighborhood.
I had been doing this work for over a year when I met Tamar Hoffs, another Chicagoan. Tammy was one of the writers on a film called Lepke, starring Tony Curtis. I had been the director of photography. Tammy had a younger brother, Carmi Simon, who had a similar story to my brother: Carmi and Richie were both musicians, white kids who loved the blues, Muddy Waters and all the great artists from the South Side. I shared my research and images with Tammy, and we began working together on a screenplay. We called it Stony Island after the main street that ran past Hyde Park and the University of Chicago, through the neighborhood where her family lived and further south from where I had grown up. This area was a vortex of black/white South Side culture and had real significance to both of us.
In those days, raising money for an independent movie was unheard of. There were at most, six or seven independent feature films made in the entire country. After struggling for many months we were able to raise $300,000 by selling shares to family friends and others who were willing to take a chance on a movie about kids and music. We had to learn how to legitimately raise money and form legal partnerships. We used political connections to avoid costly permitting and found young lawyers to help us with legal documentation.
We put together a small crew, the grip electric crew, with only four people. My former assistant cameraman, Tak Fujimoto, was the director of photography. John Wier from the University of Illinois, who taught me how to load film, was part of the camera crew. A college classmate of mine, Tom Holman, and Richard Goodman recorded the music. Tom and I made our first films together at the University of Illinois; he would later invent THX and is now the head of the audio for Apple.
We started to put a band together for the film around my brother, Richie, and his neighborhood friend Stoney Robinson. I was introduced to Gene “Daddy G” Barge, who was then producing Natalie Cole’s first album. Gene was known as “Daddy G” from his days with Gary and the US Bonds and was tremendously respected. He worked at Stax Records and produced and arranged for Chess Records, working with Muddy Waters and Donny Hathaway, Maurice White, Phil Upchurch and Minnie Ripperton as side and background musicians. Gene was an artist in his own right and had his own hit records. He brought the talented rhythm section of that Natalie Cole album with him. We rented a warehouse in Chicago to rehearse and shot all the music live on location in 12 days using a 16-track remote truck from Detroit.
At that time, Mayor Daley was against making movies in Chicago. Tammy’s father was an important Rabbi who had marched with Dr. King, and some patrons of his temple were important politicians, including Marshall Korshak, who was a powerhouse in the Cook County Democratic party. Marshall met with us and called in one of Mayor Daley’s most powerful alderman, saying: “Now listen, Eddie. These are friends of mine. We don’t want any problems with unions, we don’t want any problems with permits.” And we were left alone. We just ran around with a camera and nobody bothered us.
We wanted to shoot a scene during the great St. Patrick’s Day parade; however, during pre?production, Mayor Daley died. The city was in shock, and there was this huge national funeral. I grabbed a camera, and with my brother Richie and Suzy Hoffs ran down to Bridgeport and the Daley neighborhood church. Ted Kennedy, Nelson Rockefeller and President Carter were there. All the Democratic bosses came, and we worked it into the movie. We didn’t shoot the St. Patrick’s Day parade then, but years later, when I was doing The Fugitive, I ended up doing it with Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones.
I heard a David Sanborn album called Taking Off, produced and written by David Matthews. It had this Aaron Copland, big?city urban sound, with great energy, heart and warmth. It was just what I wanted the score to sound like. I went to show David Matthews the movie, and he didn’t quite know what to make of it. The movie was still in pieces, but I convinced him to do it. He got Dave Sanborn and the best session players in New York to play; the whole score cost $25,000.
We came back to California and I asked Dov Hoenig, who had worked on Lepke, to edit. Mary McGlone, my girlfriend, and Dov worked on cutting the movie in Los Angeles. After we finished shooting, this young executive from Universal Studios saw reel one and said to me, “You know, you don’t have to finish this movie to sell it. I’m really interested in buying it right now for Universal.” And I said, “Well, Sean, I think Warner’s has a better music company. I think I should wait and finish the movie.” But by the time we finished Stony Island a couple of other teenage movies, music movies, had failed, and there wasn’t studio interest in ours. Fox actually gave me some money for editing and tested the movie with these kids they brought in from the inner city, hoping they would be really excited, jumping around. Unfortunately, their teachers had told them, “Don’t make any noise. Sit in your seats and be very quiet.” So that didn’t work.
World Northal was an independent distributor that had done some very successful films, including Peter Weir’s The Last Wave and Quadrophenia, a film about The Who. They bought Stony Island for almost the whole negative cost and released it in Chicago to rave national reviews. But this was in 1978, and when black kids began going to traditionally white theaters to see the film, theater owners got scared that they would lose their audience. They pulled the movie. We were devastated. They decided to release it as a blaxploitation film, titled My Main Man From Stony Island. But it wasn’t an exploitation movie; it was a film about kids making it together! It confused our audience, and that was it. There was no VHS or DVD in those days. We really didn’t know what else to do with our first child.
However, Stony Island became a calling card for me. I had become a director. It was invited to festivals in Chicago, Santa Fe and Deauville, France (for their festival of American cinema). We went to the precursor of Sundance, Robert Redford’s Utah/US Film Festival and, along with four other independent filmmakers, were invited to a conference at The Aspen Institute.
Now, with the Internet and digital distribution, the renewed interest in R&B and all the throwbacks to the 1970s, the period of Stony Island has become iconic in American culture. It’s a wonderful time to release this film of hope and mentoring to the world. Because we were able to create a high definition transfer and re?master and remix the original tracks in 5.1?surround audio, Stony Island looks and sounds better than ever. We are very grateful to be working with Cinema Libre on this new launch. MM
Stony Island is being released for the first time on DVD by Cinema Libre Studio tomorrow, April 24th, 2012. For more information on the film and its DVD release, visit www.stonyislandmovie.com.