It’s been over three years since I filmed my first interview for the documentary, and I realize that a day must soon come when it’s time for me to show people something. There’s certainly plenty to talk about in the meantime, too – including a large number of interviews with people whom I have yet to give a proper writeup. I can’t be coy about it anymore, and I know a point must come when I’m ready to work on the film full time.
But first, let me backtrack a bit to the time when my Richard Amsel fansite (www.richardamsel.info) was initially underway. I had interviewed only a small number of people for it, as so little information was available to me back then. My initial drafts of the artist’s tribute and biography were completed on February 8, 2008. I remember that date well, for it was soon after I closed my Microsoft word document that I went to the internet and learned of John Alvin’s death.
I was crushed. Having spent those last few weeks focusing on Richard Amsel’s life and passing, I was already in a melancholy frame of mind. And now another one of the greats was gone, well before his time.
I had wanted to write to him – not just for a commentary on Amsel’s work, but, more importantly, to express my enthusiasm for his own work, and thank him for all the joy and excitement it had given me over the years.
In the course of my documentary, the three illustrators whom other artists most commonly mentioned as part of the last "Golden Age" of poster illustration were Bob Peak, Drew Struzan, and Richard Amsel…but I’ve always felt that Alvin's creative oeuvre absolutely deserved equal standing.
An adequate roster of that oeuvre is almost impossible to contain here. There was his legendary, Michelangelo-inspired poster for E.T. -- one of the most famous movie posters of all time, and one of Alvin’s many contributions to the films of Steven Spielberg: JURASSIC PARK, EMPIRE OF THE SUN, TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE, ALWAYS, THE COLOR PURPLE, and such Spielberg-produced films as GREMLINS, ARACHNOPHOBIA, THE GOONIES, and INNERSPACE. There were posters for Mel Brooks (BLAZING SADDLES, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN), Blake Edwards (10, VICTOR/VICTORIA), Tim Burton (the BATMAN series), and Ridley Scott (ALIEN, LEGEND, BLADE RUNNER). There was his Maxfield Parrish-inspired poster for THE PRINCESS BRIDE. A mythic portrait of Peter O’Toole for LAWRENCE OF ARABIA’s celebrated rerelease in 1989. The list goes on and on...
Yet it is Alvin’s work for Disney that perhaps best demonstrates the artist’s particular brand of magic. Contrary to the sometimes garish, kitsch style featured throughout so many animated movie posters, or the “montage” / “floating heads” creative staple relied upon by most illustrators, Alvin’s art succeeded by tantalizing moviegoers with images shrouded in mystery, simplicity, and maturity. The work teases, hints, even winks at us – iconic images that both entice and whet the appetite, while not giving any secrets away. They are often clever and, more importantly, imbued with a delicate sensitivity. They have grace, heart, awe, and wonder.
Make no mistake: John Alvin was one of the greats. In his absence, I reasoned getting an interview with his widow, Andrea Alvin, could provide the film with a critical perspective on both Amsel’s work, and the art of the movie poster.
We originally planned to meet in October 2017, but following my father’s death we had to postpone.
The interview was finally conducted last June 25th in Andrea’s home studio outside of beautiful Rhinebeck, New York – an area I had not visited since my Vassar College days. (I was particularly relieved to see that UPSTATE FILMS, the art house movie theater where I saw the 1992 “Director’s Cut” of BLADE RUNNER, was still alive and kicking. Coincidentally, my interview with Andrea fell on the anniversary of the classic sci-fi's initial 1982 release.)
I always get nervous about approaching people to ask them for an interview. But from the very outset, Andrea’s kindness and generosity allayed my fears. When we finally met, she greeted me with a hug and a smile.
Andrea is also a remarkable artist herself. Both she and John attended the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. “I was a couple years ahead of him, actually, and we met through a mutual friend. And he finished, we got married, and he finished his last semester while we were still married.” She then laughs, “Something I said I would never do!”
Much of Andrea’s current work involves still lifes of whimsical objects -- colorful old toys, candy, antique playthings – as well as period-looking movie posters. There’s a photorealism to them, but also a warm sense of nostalgia.
Since John Alvin’s death, Andrea has fought to preserve her husband’s legacy. One outlet was a lavishly produced book, THE ART OF JOHN ALVIN, that covers a wide range of his work – including many unused and heretofore unpublished comps, giving us a rare insight into his creative process, as well as so much work that might have been. Yet it wasn’t just her marriage to John that makes her the best authority of his work; while together, they also formed a creative partnership, and she contributed her own talents to many successful film campaigns.
“John and I worked together quite a bit on many of the posters that he did,” she said. “Me as more of a designer and concept person, and John as kind of the head of the studio and also illustrator and designer.”
We chatted some time about her and John’s career in the entertainment industry before I broached the subject of Richard Amsel. I started by recalling an interview where her husband expressed his admiration for Amsel.
"Two of my greatest influences are Richard Amsel and Bob Peak," John Alvin once said. "Because of Peak and Amsel, more creative avenues opened for people like myself."
Andrea's sweet friend wanted to participate in the interview, but I wasn't able to secure a release form.
I asked Andrea, “Did John ever talk about Richard’s work?”
“Oh absolutely,” she answered. “He really liked it and admired it. And we couldn’t wait for the TV Guide covers to come out to see what he had done next, and we were big fans of early Bette Midler -- love that Bette Midler album! He always admired him. He always thought that he was just a wonderful designer and artist. His work was very different from John’s. There was no reason to be jealous of the work.”
She added, “He really loved THE STING. He loved the pieces that were influenced by Alphonse Mucha, because John was also influenced by him, and you can see it in John’s drawings that very deliberate line quality. So he just admired it. He really loved the Indiana Jones pieces… things that Richard Amsel became known for, but unfortunately died much too early to keep going with a lot of those franchises. I think MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS was his? Yeah, really a wonderful piece. …
“Richard’s work was very graphic and yet you could see the drawing and the rendering in it. So it had a graphic design. John often times had pieces that were just graphic or he airbrushed them so you got this very simple image with this beautiful ethereal light, and I think that was one of John’s really strong suits, and made it very different, and I think that he admired that Richard had this ability to take the graphic element…
“I know he loved the way Richard would take other artists from art history that -- like Gustav Klimt or Alphonse Mucha, or I don’t remember who else -- but he would take those and interpret them into his own style and John admired that a lot. So did I. …“I thought he was a wonderful draftsman, but his design -- for me -- the design of the page was ultimate in his work. So he had that fluidity -- that Mucha kind of drawing -- with that fluid line. But his compositions and the way that he designed the page. And that’s what I did a lot of with John, when we were working together with our studio, when I did a lot of the preliminary design, like ‘Where do things fit?’ Like Batman Returns, Batman Forever were both my designs, and again those were because contractual problems made it a very interesting problem. And it was kind of like the art school -- going to Art Center College of Design -- there were a couple of teachers who would give you a list of ‘These elements have to be considered,’ and there might be twenty of them, and it was really difficult, but it primed us for doing that kind of problem solving.”
I asked if John Alvin and Richard Amsel ever met face-to-face. Both were profiled in an extensive LOS ANGELES MAGAZINE article, and Amsel was certainly aware of Alvin’s work. “I don’t think they really met,” Andrea said, “but after John did the E.T. art, the Academy of Science Fiction and Fantasy … they have their own awards show, and that year they added in a category for the poster, because E.T. was such a big deal, and I know Richard had a piece in it. Might have been SECRET OF NIMH?”
“Actually it was THE DARK CRYSTAL,” I told her.
“THE DARK CRYSTAL, and so they put in a poster category -- I don’t remember who else was nominated -- and we were both at the award ceremony and John won, but we were kind of whisked off because he was a winner, so we really didn’t meet.”
“Do you remember when you first learned of Amsel’s death?” I asked.
“I don’t remember specifically, but it was, you know, it was tragic. He was so young. He was so young. John was young -- John was 59 -- but Richard was what, in his 30s?”
“37.” I posed another sensitive question: “What would you say to Richard if he was here?”
“I’d just like to tell him how much I loved his work. And I really did. Of all the… if you take the movie poster illustrators, I really liked his work. There’s not a lot of them that I’m -- you know, John’s obviously I’m very partial to -- and some of Peak’s … but I really liked Richard Amsel’s work. So I’d probably just like to tell him how much I liked it and it meant to me."
My heartfelt thanks to Andrea Alvin for her time and generosity. There were other things we discussed about her late husband and Richard Amsel...but those will have to be saved for the film.