Judith Davis Goldman and the bittersweet advantages of time
Many years of work and research have been poured into this project, long before I filmed my first interview with David Byrd in the summer of 2015. Progress has come in fits and starts; personal events, money, scheduling, and the day to day hassles of life have gotten in the way from time to time. It frustrates me, as I’m sure it does for many of you, especially those who have followed this project since it was first announced in late 2015.
But the passing of time has also given me a significant advantage in the long run. Had I rushed to complete the project from the outset, I’d have only a fraction of the material I have now. I’ve filmed more interviews, found more art, have more resources and creative collaborators than I did before.
Most importantly, I’ve uncovered many truths that would have never surfaced, had I simply taken some of the original narratives I heard at face value. Asking questions, prodding people, getting legal council – eight years of diligence and scrutiny – have enabled me to find many (though not all) of the answers I’ve been looking for.
Inevitably, the process has also alienated me from a number of people. That certainly was never my design. The unavoidable truth is that some people, for their own reasons, simply hate what I’m doing, and have taken steps to actively hinder my progress.
This has been a challenging project, emotionally and creatively, as it is not my intention to besmirch anyone in the telling of his story. Yet if we continue to address (or whitewash, or sidestep altogether) the circumstances of Richard’s illness and death in the same hushed tones and ashamed whispers as had been done almost forty years ago, we are not only disrespecting and dishonoring the man’s life and legacy, but also the thousands of people of that time – and the millions of people of our time – who have been forced to die quiet deaths at the hands of AIDS.
My aim has always been to help preserve Richard Amsel's creative legacy, rather than to own or exploit it. I also have a responsibility to tell his story truthfully, warts and all. And this has made me persona non grata in some circles.
In late 2020, I did a few interviews announcing both the development of a retrospective book on Amsel’s work, as well as an official, exclusive agreement made with the Amsel estate. The news was presented rather straightforwardly at the time. But there’s a significant backstory behind it – a whirlwind of personality clashes, unsubstantiated claims, and contradictory narratives. Finding answers has taken me time.
Explaining what happened to Richard Amsel’s work after he died could warrant a feature film in itself. Same could be said for the making of this documentary. But here’s the most compelling admission: I believe Richard Amsel’s story is still unfinished – or unfolding, at least. There are discoveries yet to be made. Perhaps we’ll never uncover all of them.
As a famous line uttered at the close of CITIZEN KANE goes, “I don't think any word can explain a man's life.” Nor can any documentary, or book, explain Richard Amsel’s.
But let me backtrack a little bit, and go into some detail about how certain truths came to be known. It started in late November, 2010 – long before the idea of doing a documentary or book came to mind – when I received a short but informative email from someone in New York:
I have several pieces of Richard's work and I was a very close friend of his... I'm the model for the woman in Beyond the Limit. I took care of Richard when he was sick.
This is the first time I saw your site. What's your story?
Her name was Judith Davis Goldman. We immediately connected online and over the phone. In the following weeks, I eagerly listened to her stories about her time and close friendship with Richard – including his movie screenings and parties, his love of all things Disney, his wicked sense of humor, even how they attended a rather humorous birthday party for Brooke Shields.
Judith Davis Goldman in 2016.
As we were living on opposite coasts, it would be over a year before Judy and I would finally meet in person. It was only then, at the close of our lunch, that I mustered the courage to ask her for details about Richard’s illness, his final days, and his passing.
But that is another story, one which I’ll save for the documentary to tell.
It’s hard to believe that I’ve known Judy for almost 13 years now. As with David Edward Byrd, this project has helped me to develop close friendships with people I still hold very dear to my heart.
Both David and Judy bore witness to the early development of this project, and the maddening experiences I had in dealing with some of the Amsel family. It was not always easy, and there were times I fear I had inundated David and Judy with countless phone calls and emotional breakdowns.
David Edward Byrd in 2015.
Filming David and Judy’s testimonials, while done separately, also shared a distinction: their interviews involved two rounds of exhaustive filming, each several years apart. (David's were in 2015 and 2022, while Judy's were in 2016 and 2019.)
It’s challenging to ask someone to recall specific events from decades past. Memories fade or become jumbled. The added pressure of articulating events accurately and coherently – on camera, no less – can be a lot harder than it looks.
From an editorial point of view, this isn’t exactly ideal. The years between each interview obviously made it impossible for us to match any of the newer footage with the old, so we didn’t bother to try. And as we’ll be toggling between the new and old footage throughout the film, I’ll likely need to specify the year of the footage shot alongside David and Judy’s names.
In the end, the need for accuracy and clarity far outweighs any potential shortcomings with the visual or production value.
On a personal level, David and Judy’s continued support has meant the world to me. In context of the film, their testimonials – especially Judy’s – have been absolutely essential.
Indeed, this project would simply not have been possible without them.
There’s another key figure in the Richard Amsel story I have yet to address. I’ll be following up later in the week with a new post about him, as well as the answer to a question some people have been debating for years…
Who owns the Richard Amsel estate?