Updated: May 25, 2022
For many years I’ve been captivated by the Roy stories of Barry Gifford, which use a very spare and direct prose style to trace a boy’s childhood. Unlike a lot of autobiographical fiction, they’re not sentimental at all. But what especially appeals to me is that their power over the reader is gradual and cumulative; you don’t even have to read the stories in any particular order, but the more of them you read the more vivid they feel. Because they really do put you in a very particular time and place, mostly the 1950s and mostly in Chicago.
I’ve wanted to make a film about Chicago for a long time, and it seemed to me that using the Roy stories as a lens for viewing the city’s history would be the perfect launching pad for a documentary. My approach was really inspired by Terence Davies’ Of Time and the City, Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog, and the work of Bill Morrison. In Roy's World we freely mix Gifford’s biography with the fictional versions of his life as presented in the Roy stories to create a dream-like, composite portrait—an impressionistic exploration of both Chicago and Gifford’s work. Befitting a documentary about a writer, words are the thing: Gifford’s recollections of the period, told in voiceover, mesh with narration of the stories by Willem Dafoe, Matt Dillon, and Lili Taylor. All three actors are fans of Gifford’s work and were excited to be part of the project.
From the very beginning it was important to me that the film ditch a traditional “talking heads” approach. That meant no onscreen interviews, with Gifford or anyone else. No celebrity endorsements. And I also wanted to make sure there weren’t any cutaways to contemporary views of Chicago neighborhoods, meant to demonstrate “how things look today.” Instead, in Roy's World we strive to keep viewers fully immersed in that vanished time and place. To make you feel like you’re actually there—which is exactly what Gifford’s stories achieve. Onscreen, photographs and other materials from Gifford’s personal files are intertwined with archival materials (including rare home movies, amateur footage, family photographs, and industrial films) to spotlight facets of everyday life ignored in most documentaries about the period. Animated segments by Lilli Carré and Kevin Eskew, illustrating key stories that trace Roy’s progression from childhood to adolescence, provide another way of representing the Roy stories. And binding everything together is an evocative jazz score composed by celebrated vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz and performed by the cream of the crop of Chicago’s current jazz scene. In fact, Jason composed the score and we recorded it before I even started editing. I wanted the music up front, not just lurking in the background. To sort of have a conversation with the stories and the visuals. So the sound and mood of Jason’s music pervades Roy's World and carries you along.
The end result is, I hope, a documentary that conjures a lost time and place without coming off like a dry history lesson; that draws from primary resources to offer a neighborhood-level view of city life, of how ordinary residents worked, raised families, and interacted with one another; and that, through the Roy stories, suggests how these people, and Gifford in particular, were affected by societal factors such as corruption and racism—all themes which are still timely and relevant. And I sure hope it nudges viewers to check out Gifford’s writing!