The tragedy of silenced voices...
A month ago I finally got around to taking my five-times-delayed honeymoon cruise to Vancouver. It was lovely, but we both caught terrible colds (flu?) at the tail end of the vacation, while staying in the Omni Hotel near the port in downtown. We were both terrified that we’d caught COVID, which would have prevented our return to the United States, not to mention seriously jeopardized our health. Fortunately, we tested negative, and aside from a serious screwup on the part of our travel agent with our return booking, we only had to contend with a few sick days upon our return home.
It’s funny how two years of waiting can “build up” the anticipation of a simple weeklong trip. Now that it’s over, I know I have to get back to work.
While I’m frustrated that COVID is still something of a bottleneck in (at least comfortably) doing a few more interviews, I’m hoping to get the ball rolling again. This includes making another trip to the east coast in the near future, for at least two more critical interviews that have been long in the works.
This morning I completing something I’ve long contemplated for the film, and it was a bit of a surreal experience.
One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced in making this documentary involves a frustrating contradiction of sorts. While Richard Amsel’s work is known worldwide – so much that it’s become ingrained in popular culture – there’s a dearth of material on the man himself.
There are few photographs, a small handful of publicity photos, and even rarer candid snapshots provided by friends. There are home movies, but most of them with no optical track, and Amsel himself is often the one holding the camera.
It’s proven to be a heartbreaking challenge, in that a relatively public figure like Amsel should seem so distant a subject. I might as well make a documentary about someone who died in 1885 instead of 1985.
What did Amsel look like? Sound like? What did he think and feel?
The best resource we have – at least regarding the former points – is an interview he and David Byrd gave for an October 1978 episode of THE EMERALD CITY, a late night public access show catering to New York’s gay and lesbian community. It’s the only known filmed interview Amsel gave about his work.
David Byrd gave me a copy of this footage back in 2009, and I’m able to include it in the film thanks to the kind permission and assistance of The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center National History Archive in New York. (I later passed this footage along to filmmaker Kevin Burke, who would use it in the opening of his own documentary on movie poster art, 24x36.)
To watch the segment is to journey back in time. Amsel was only 30 years old, David 37, but both already well established in their careers. The two were close friends and shared many of the same creative sensibilities (not to mention a deliciously bitchy wit), but their mannerisms couldn’t be more different. David’s bubbly, animated personality is on full display (and is still going strong for all his 81 years now). Amsel speaks in a more softspoken baritone, with occasional hints of a Philadelphian accent.
David told me that the interview was conducted in his Chelsea apartment, and that they both became smashed on the alcohol consumed throughout the taping. I always got a big kick out of that.
For the documentary, I want to share as much insight into the man as I can without jumping to any presumptions. It would be the highlight of arrogance for me to ever think I could speak for Amsel; better to let those who knew him share their remembrances and insight, even if their testimonials sometimes contradict each other.
Yet there were other sources I culled information from. Amsel was quoted in a number of published interviews about his work. He also wrote a number of postcards and personal letters that I’ve been privy to. Most telling, however, was Amsel’s last will and testament – written and signed one week before the artist’s death, while he was being treated at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital. Even with its customary legalese, it’s a somber, eye-opening read.
This begged the question: How to best present Richard Amsel’s “voice,” when the voice itself has long been silent?
After watching an episode of THE BOOK OF BOBA FETT last February, I was stunned to learn that actor Mark Hamill’s voice was generated through the use of an AI speech synthesizer. Rather than having a current-day Hamill attempt to speak with the same youthful voice as he had nearly 40 years ago, digital wizardry, sourced from Hamill’s voice in the original STAR WARS trilogy and radio recordings, could replicate a young Luke Skywalker.
Could such technology work for “resurrecting” Richard Amsel’s voice? I desperately reached out to the two companies Lucasfilm had used, providing them with audio excerpts of the Emerald City program.
David’s tape provides a precious record of Amsel’s appearance and voice, but is technically stymied by all the limitations a 43-year-old analog source could possibly have. The footage is grainy, blurry, faded, with noticeable audio hiss. Not helping matters is that the interviewer, to my eternal fury, had a penchant for interrupting her guests every other sentence.
This left me with less than 90 seconds of “usable” audio, where only Amsel’s voice was featured. I spent hours trying to digitally enhance, clean up, and “de-hiss” the clips.
Sadly, neither Resemble AI nor Respeecher were able to reconstruct Amsel’s voice from the clips. This meant I had to do it the old-fashioned way: I found a voiceover actor to mimic Amsel’s speech.
It wasn’t easy. I put out ads in several casting calls, and kept my fingers crossed. In the weeks that followed, almost everyone who auditioned sounded absolutely nothing like Richard Amsel. It was as if they had not even read the job description. But there was one young man whose voice was “in the neighborhood” of it, so to speak, and I knew that it would have to be good enough.
We did the recording session remotely this morning. Amsel spoke with a certain rambling cadence that’s hard to mimic. My direction of the actor was all over the place, and similarly rambling. (Don’t get me started on how to direct someone on the fine points of a subtle Philadelphian accent.) But the actor was focused, professional, and the recording session went much faster than I had anticipated.
While I’ll forever regret my inability to have Amsel speak for himself, this “voice-alike” is likely the best available option.