Rob Christopher on “Roy’s World: Barry Gifford’s Chicago”


From Left: Filmmaker Rob Christopher, the poster of “Roy’s World: Barry Gifford’s Chicago,” and author Barry Gifford photographed by Tiago Russo Pinto.

“Come on, Roy, let’s get out of here,” said his mother.

The taxi was still waiting with the motor running and they got in. The driver put it into gear and pulled away from the curb.

“You get what you needed, lady?” he asked.

“Mom, why didn’t you tell the man that you aren’t a Negro?”

Roy’s mother’s shoulders were shaking and tears were running down her cheeks. He could see her hands trembling as she wiped her face.

“Because it shouldn’t matter, Roy. This is Chicago, Illinois, not Birmingham, Alabama. It’s against the law not to serve Negroes.”

“No it ain’t, lady,” said the driver.

“It should be,” said Roy’s mother.

“How could they think you’re black?” the driver said. “If I’d thought you were a Negro, I wouldn’t have picked you up.”

This unforgettable exchange provides the quietly shattering conclusion to “Chicago, Illinois, 1953,” one of many brilliant short stories brought to life in Rob Christopher’s new documentary, “Roy’s World: Barry Gifford’s Chicago.” Gifford, the acclaimed author best known to movie buffs for collaborating on the script to David Lynch’s 1997 film, “Lost Highway,” as well as writing the book Wild at Heart that Lynch adapted into 1990’s Palme d’Or winner, grew up in the Windy City and loosely based the misadventures of his youthful protagonist, Roy, on his own childhood experiences. These vignettes, compiled in the 2013 novel The Roy Stories, provide an unflinching portrait of the city that Christopher has blended with archival materials and evocative animation in hauntingly poetic fashion.

Produced by Michael Glover Smith, whom I previously interviewed about his own directorial efforts, “Cool Apocalypse” and “Mercury in Retrograde,” and edited by Marianna Milhorat, the film features narration by Willem Dafoe, Matt Dillon and Lili Taylor. Though “Roy’s World” has yet to secure a premiere date, it has already garnered an impassioned endorsement from Lynch, who agreed to contribute a quote for the poster. Christopher recently spoke with me about the extraordinary talent he assembled for this project, Gifford’s literary genius and the vitality of storytelling itself.

What initially got you interested in Barry Gifford’s work?

When I was in eighth grade, I discovered David Lynch by seeing “Twin Peaks” on TV. It was through that show that I became a Lynch fanatic. I actually did not see “Wild at Heart” when it was in the theater. I wasn’t old enough to go see it because it was rated R, but later in college, “Lost Highway” was playing at the 600 N. Michigan theater in Chicago, and I caught an afternoon screening of the film on the day it was released. It blew my mind. As I exited the screening, I paused at the box office and then bought a ticket for the very next show. So I saw it twice in a row, and then I came back on Sunday and saw it a third time.

It was kind of like a ride. There was a sort of puzzle box aspect to it, yet it wasn’t a movie that you could truly decipher in a logical way. Like a lot of Lynch’s movies, you just have to understand it instinctually. That’s when I first really started paying attention to Barry Gifford, and it was probably around then that I read Wild at Heart after having seen the movie. What surprised me was that all of the really weird stuff in the movie is actually in the book.

There are numerous digressions in “Wild at Heart” involving characters we never see again, such as the man lying bloodied on the side of the road, and the guy who approaches him and says, “Man, that happened to me last week!” before doing that weird arm movement.

I thought all that stuff was coming from David Lynch, but it was actually coming from Barry Gifford, and that made me really intrigued. When I came across some of his Chicago stories, I was astonished because, in a lot of ways, they seemed to have been the work of a completely different writer. Barry’s southern stories like Wild at Heart are overripe, noir-ish, extremely violent, and almost cartoonish, in a way, whereas his Chicago stories are more intimate and—though not necessarily gentle—very human-centered.

The characters seem like real people living in a neighborhood that actually existed. I just became intrigued by the two different sides of this writer, and then to realize that he was born in Chicago and grew up here was a revelation, because I didn’t know that about him at all. By this time I was writing for the Chicagoist blog, and I stumbled across Barry’s website, so I decided to e-mail him and see if he wanted to do an interview. And he did. We did a phone interview, and then stayed in touch through the years. He came here to Chicago to do an event at the Steppenwolf called “Nelson Algren Live,” which was a celebration of the titular writer that also featured Russell Banks, Don DeLillo, Martha Lavey and Willem Dafoe, who was one of the readers. Barry was kind enough to allow me to tag along and hang out with this amazing group of people after the show.

While Barry was here in Chicago, I helped drive him around town, including a trip up to Rogers Park, where we’d visit certain areas and he’d say, “This was my old school, this is the alley where I liked to play baseball with my friends, this is where I used to work at the Redhot Ranch.” It was like a Barry Gifford tour of Chicago. That was several years ago, and it must’ve planted an idea in my mind of doing a film about Barry’s version of Chicago at that time. In 2015, I made my first film, “Pause of the Clock,” which is on Vimeo and I think about 20 people liked it, but they were the right 20 people. [laughs]

In the documentary “David Lynch: The Art Life” and his recent book Room to Dream, Lynch spoke about how his time of “living in fear” in Philadelphia informed his artistic sensibility. Did Chicago play a similar role in Gifford’s work?

Absolutely. First of all, his home life was very unconventional. His father ran an all-night store at the corner of Chicago and Rush, which was ostensibly a drugstore, but it was also a sort of haven for figures from the criminal underworld. So his father was involved with organized crime, and his mother was a former beauty queen from Texas who was 20 years younger than his father. When Barry was 12, his father died of cancer, which resulted in him growing up with a single mother in the ’50s, which was not easy.

For a lot of the time, he was on his own, and that upbringing informed the way that he became an observer. His mother went through a whole series of disastrous relationships—I believe she was married four or five times over the course of her life—while Barry was living his own life, growing up on the streets of Chicago. It was a very interesting place to be a kid because, on the one hand, it’s the second-largest city in the U.S., renowned for its corruption, where bribes were just a part of the territory. But it’s also a city of neighborhoods, and kids could roam around the city without any parental supervision. It wasn’t seen as a big deal.

I heard the voice of Sailor, Nicolas Cage’s character in “Wild at Heart,” just as you said, “parental supervision.”

Yeah, I’m sure that’s where he got that line from! [laughs] I think growing up, more or less, on his own instilled in him the ability to just observe people, to just hang back and study people, and form his own opinions about them. For whatever reason, he started writing from a very early age. He wrote his first story around the age of 12, and was also the sports reporter on his grade school newspaper, a few articles of which I dug up for the film. They are very funny, and some of his early poems are in there too. I think that whole milieu really informed his writing. At the same time, he also had relatives who lived in the deep South, down in Florida, so he absorbed some of that in his writing as well.

What about the experience of getting to know Barry on a personal level led you to decide on the style for this film, which is never about Barry in the particular?

When I first got the inkling to do a documentary about Barry, I brought it up to him and said, “If I do this, I don’t want to make it a talking heads documentary, because I’ve seen too many of those where it’s basically an infomercial for its own subject. It’s spending all this energy convincing you what an awesome person this guy is without just letting him demonstrate how awesome he is, or how cool his writing is.” That really struck a chord with Barry, and I think we were on the same wavelength about it. He also never insisted on any sort of approval over what I was doing or exercised any final cut control. I just sketched out my ideas for the film, and he was on board with them.

I flew out to Berkeley, where he lives, and did two days of really intense audio interviews. I had a list of questions, but it was more or less a conversation, and my thought was that if I dove into these conversations, I could use that as a framework for the stories. One of the things about the stories that interests me the most is that they are autobiographical, but they are not a memoir. He uses his memories to create fictionalized versions of that time period. Picasso said that “art is a lie that helps us see the truth,” and Barry’s stories function in the same way about Chicago in the 1950s. I figured that Barry’s interviews could be a connective tissue between the stories, giving us a sort of background for the them and contributing some autobiographical details without it being a talking heads movie. My motto was, “Let the stories speak for themselves.”

Dafoe clearly has a soft spot for Gifford’s work, considering Bobby Peru in “Wild at Heart” is one of of his most iconic film roles. Of the three vocal talents, he’s the one viewers would most closely associate with Gifford himself.

Hands down, at least in my personal experience, Barry Gifford is one of the all-time great dialogue writers ever. All the beautiful dialogue in Wild at Heart, The Roy Stories, even “Lost Highway”—so much of that comes from his gift for capturing language and the way that people talk. It’s not necessarily the way that people really talk, but the way that people wish they talked. Any actor would want to play with that, and Willem really locks into that. We were recording the stories in New York, and Willem was almost letter-perfect on the first take of every section.

How did you go about selecting the other two vocal actors, Matt Dillon and Lili Taylor? Was it important for you to have a woman read certain stories?

As I was first explaining my concept to Barry, he suggested that I get Willem Dafoe and Matt Dillon to read some stories, and because they’re both big fans of Barry’s work, they were onboard. There was a mind-blowing weekend where I flew out to New York with my digital recorder and a lavaliere mic, and I recorded all the stories in one weekend. I knew that I needed a third voice, and it needed to be a female voice, because both in Barry’s personal story and also in The Roy Stories, his mother is a very important part of his background. In the stories, she’s reflected in the character of Kitty, so I knew that I needed an actress to play that voice.

I’ve been a huge fan of Lili Taylor’s ever since “Short Cuts,” and I knew that she and Matt had done a film together called “Factotum,” so when we finished recording Matt’s voice-over, I brought it up with him. Matt thought it was a great idea, and helped me get in touch with her. Lili is from Glencoe, originally, and has an Illinois accent that is perfect for Barry’s stories. She was not familiar with his work right way, but she read some of the stories that I suggested that we record together, and she got excited about it too. I think Barry has a great empathy for his female characters, and that’s not the same as being sentimental. In general, that’s what I really love about Barry’s Chicago stories. They are vivid and tender, but he doesn’t sugarcoat anything. You understand what Kitty is going through, and why she is making these bad choices by finding the wrong men to date, and so on.

The racism Barry observed in Chicago and portrays in his work provides a more grounded view of American history in general, further enhanced by his own experiences in the South.

In The Roy Stories, Barry does not pull any punches. He knows that there’s plenty of racism right here in Chicago. You didn’t have to go to the South to find it. Because Barry was on a baseball team in school, he played the sport all over the city. He’d play with white kids and black kids, and he was not afraid to go to different neighborhoods. He was seeing it all through these writer’s eyes, even though he was just a kid. In the film, he talks about the fact that when he was growing up, he never heard his parents say anything racist or homophobic, and he’s not quite sure why that was. His father’s side of the family was Jewish, and that could’ve been part of it because I’m sure they experienced discrimination themselves. That lack of prejudice was a great gift and a blessing for him.

The film begins with a deliberate pace in order to foreground the words and the writing, so we are almost meditating on it, and you allow that pacing to inform the rest of the film.

I’m paraphrasing Tarkovsky by noting that the first ten to fifteen minutes of your film should be slower than the rest, so that people who accidentally came to the wrong theater can have a chance to leave. I took that approach with “Roy’s World.” I want you to realize that this is a slow, meditative film from the very beginning, and if you’re not onboard with that, that’s fine, but that’s what it’s going to be. I also open the film with a story Barry had written later in life that is not Chicago-related at all, and I accompany it with a French impressionist painting. That was to make you wonder, ‘Why are we opening a movie about Chicago with a painting?’ In one sense, I’m warning people that this is not going to be your typical documentary.

What was the challenge of visualizing the work in a way that doesn’t get in the way of the work?

That was very tricky, and it mostly involved a lot of immersion into the stories, looking at thousands of photographs and footage of the period, while trying out different approaches and seeing what worked best. Barry was very gracious and let me scan all the personal photos that he had from the period. He also shared his home movies, which were great things to use. He didn’t tell me what to use, he just went, “Here’s some material, use it or not use it.” Occasionally when reading a story, I would have some sort of image that I would try to find, but more often than not, the story was somewhere in the back of my mind while I was looking at stuff from the period, and there would be a sort of rhyme going on. I would put those two things together, and they would create a beautiful third thing.

I love the minimalist approach to the animated sequences in this film. The fragmented imagery is extremely vivid, allowing you to conjure the rest of the picture in your mind.

I have to credit that idea to Matt Campbell, who’s a programmer at the Denver Film Festival, where my first film played. As I was telling him about my ideas for “Roy’s World,” he asked, “Have you thought about including some animation in it? I just saw this great documentary called ‘Tower’ that utilizes animation.” After he said that, I made sure not to watch “Tower,” because I didn’t want it to influence my movie. I still haven’t seen it, actually.

It’s very good and very different from “Roy’s World.”

That’s what people have told me, and I’m glad that I didn’t accidentally steal from that film, but it did plant the idea in my head to somehow incorporate animation. I really wanted to go with somebody local, somebody who knew Chicago, because what will somebody from New York bring to an animated segment about 1950s Chicago? I started asking around, and two different people, on separate occasions, recommended Lilli Carré to me. I looked at some of her stuff and I liked it. We met a couple times and hit it off, so she went to work on animating the story, “Chicago, Illinois, 1953,” which is when Roy is still a kid, less than 10 years old. It’s about racism from a child’s point of view.

At a certain point, it became clear that she was not going to be able to do all the film’s animation herself. Originally, we were going to have three animated segments, and we cut it down to two because we ran out of time. In order to get good animation, you can’t just do it overnight, it takes a long time. Lilli is the co-creator of the Eyeworks Festival of Experimental Animation, so in addition to being an animator, she knows lots of animators, and she recommended this guy named Kevin Eskew to me, who had just done a bunch of animation for Gus Van Sant’s “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot.”


“Chicago, Illinois, 1953,” animated by Lilli Carré in “Roy’s World: Barry Gifford’s Chicago.”

Kevin lives in LA now, but he actually went to DePaul for animation, so she introduced us. I didn’t let him see anything that Lilli had done because I wanted the style to be totally different. I had a completely different idea for what his segment was going to be, which is a story called “Bad Girls.” It’s set during the early ’60s, when Roy is a teenager. We’re on the cusp of something new, so I wanted Kevin’s animation to be really different. Lilli’s segment was in black-and-white, Kevin’s is in color. Lilli’s is almost childlike with very roughly drawn pictures…

Almost like what Barry would’ve sketched as a kid, too, reflecting how he would’ve processed these events at a young age.

Exactly. Kevin used a more cut-up collage-type style. Late last fall, I went to Graceland Cemetery, and shot a bunch of footage on my phone, just walking around among the falling leaves and gravestones. I sent it all to Kevin, and I was like, “Maybe this could inspire you.” We ended up using this as the basis for rotoscoping a lot of imagery, and then he brought another visual element that I suggested. It turned out to be this amazingly beautiful thing that added to the story without stealing from the story.

Was there ever a moment when you considered making a series of short films based on Gifford’s work?

That was never my intention, but in a complete coincidence, Barry had been contacted by producers who wanted to turn The Roy Stories into an animated series. Who knows if this would happen? A lot of development projects never go through, but I think It would be a brilliant idea for a show. Barry’s stories have been written over a 40-year period, and they were certainly not written with any chronological continuity, so I had to bring that to the material. Editing is the most challenging part of the process to me, but it’s also the most fun, and this movie was really made in the editing room. We needed to have the right sequence narratively, but the mood of the stories had to flow into each other in a way that made sense. You can certainly see that in David Lynch’s movies, even the ones that are really experimental like “Inland Empire.” That movie is about how the moods flow together, and how they can be broken or heightened, and that’s what I was trying to do with “Roy’s World.”

Sometimes Lynch just throws you in the middle of a scene. In “Inland Empire,” there’s a cut to Laura Dern asking, “What?”, and it’s the first line of the scene. 

I wanted my film’s first animated segment to feel like it was coming out of the blue. You’ve watched the film for a certain length of time, and you’re like, “Okay, I understand how this movie is going to go, I’m pretty sure I understand what’s happening,” and then I wanted to throw an animated segment in there to show the audience a new way of experiencing these stories. Barry’s voice-over gives you enough connective tissue to take you from one story to the next without having to specify the year or particular location. It’s not that kind of a movie.

“Wild at Heart” and “Lost Highway” both get you in a groove before pulling the rug out from under you. Is that also reflected in Gifford’s work as a writer?

He’s always about curveballs, and he’s not afraid to be very short. Some of the Roy stories are literally two pages long, and oftentimes will end with a very ironic twist that serves as a punchline. It gets to the climax and the story’s over. It doesn’t wear out its welcome. For this film, Lynch was not my only influence. What actually convinced me that this approach could work was Terence Davies’ film, “Of Time and the City,” which is about 1950s Liverpool and takes a sort of impressionistic approach to capturing its essence. It’s a very haunting movie like many of his films, and I wanted to try something similar.

I could see echoes of Davies’ “The Long Day Closes” in your film, in the sense that it’s about memory.

It has a very slow, stately pace too. It wants to marinate you completely in that time and place. It’s not explaining, “Here’s what this neighborhood looks like today,” or, “Here’s what eventually happened to these people.” You’re in this time and place for the whole movie, and you can dream about what the characters ended up doing later. “Roy’s World” is a very simple, straightforward film, and I think the problem is that many moviegoers have forgotten how to experience something simple and straightforward.

The films playing at the multiplex are loud, noisy and have a million things going on at once to ensure that you don’t think for yourself. It is of paramount importance to these movies that you are kept bombarded at every moment. “Roy’s World” consists solely of stories, which are essential to what it is to be a human being, and the best stories allow the reader or the audience to complete the story themselves. You fill in all of the missing details, you think about what it means or how it makes you feel. The story itself doesn’t necessarily have to do that for you. If a story is written the right way, or if a movie is constructed the right way, then that’s going to happen organically.


“Bad Girls,” animated by Kevin Eskew, in “Roy’s World: Barry Gifford’s Chicago.”

The visual fragments in “Bad Girls” make us feel as if we’ve seen the whole cemetery.

As a movie lover myself, that is what thrills me the most. Like in Lucrecia Martel’s work, if something is happening just offscreen, or if something happened just before the scene started, you’re never informed about what it is, and I love that mystery. Barry’s stories demonstrate that you can have very plainspoken prose and language, and still have the beautiful sense of mystery. If there’s one thing that I hope I captured in “Roy’s World,” it is that.

It would be great to have the film be released on a disc because there could be some really cool bonus features on there. Midway through production, we had a jazz concert at Constellation with Barry reading stories interspersed with a band performing music that was composed for the movie by Jason Adasiewicz. That was just a beautiful evening. We video-recorded it, so that would be a great bonus feature. I would also love for this movie to play on PBS for its “American Masters” series because we Chicagoans do not honor our artists very well. Nelson Algren had to die and move away from Chicago before anyone gave a damn about his work.

Where are all the Studs Terkel monuments?

Exactly! Barry’s work is too timely and too beautiful to get that sort of treatment, so I really want “Roy’s World” to get the widest possible distribution because I want people to get the same enjoyment out of his work that I have.

Was there a story you wanted to put in the film that was the trickiest to visualize?

One that comes to mind is among the last stories in the film, “Roy’s First Car.” I knew that the story was important and that it needed to be in the movie, but for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what would work visually. Then, as often happens, I was taking a shower one morning, and an idea just popped into my head. I get the best ideas standing in the shower, and for some reason, I had this idea to find a Buick Manual from 1955. So I did, and scanning those pages, using those diagrams as images and combining it with some other footage that I had found in the Chicago Film Archives and The Richard J. Daley Collection of UIC finally made that story work for me.

I feel like a lot of the best stuff happens as a result of intuitive problem-solving, with the journey of Lynch’ “Mulholland Dr.” from failed TV pilot to revered film being a key example.

As a filmmaker, you have to go with your gut. Again, I’m paraphrasing here, but Soderbergh once said that as a filmmaker, you have to sublimate yourself to “the thing.” You have to do whatever “the thing” tells you it wants to be, and if you don’t obey “the thing,” then you are just causing yourself a world of hurt, because each film has its own perfect form, and you’re just trying to figure out what that is. You have to listen to what it’s telling you, and you can’t do that very much using your intellect. It has to be your instinct.

We recorded the music before I started editing, actually, which is the way that Philip Glass likes to work. You basically compose a whole bunch of stuff before you even start the movie so that you have a music library that you can draw from as you’re creating the film. Jason Adasiewicz did an amazing job on the soundtrack. I wanted to evoke the ’50s without seeming to imitate the music from the ’50s, so I think it creates a sort of urban noir mood, but it’s also not trying to be music from 1955. It’s a beautiful third thing, kind of like Barry’s stories, so I couldn’t have asked for better. The music and the stories are having a conversation throughout the whole movie. We have a couple tunes that you hear five different ways, and in each version, the instrumentation or the rhythm is a little different.

What was it like showing Barry the film for the first time?

That was really stressful. I flew out to San Francisco and rented a screening room to show the film, and Barry brought several family members and friends out for it too, so if I had bombed, I would’ve bombed in front of everyone. But luckily, he loved it. He didn’t tell me to change anything, he just loved it the way it was. As we were saying goodbye at the end of the evening, I asked Barry if he would e-mail David Lynch personally with my movie and ask him to watch it. Barry did, true to his word, and in a matter of less than two weeks, Lynch wrote back to him in an e-mail that was in ALL CAPS, just like Gordon Cole. [laughs] He loved the movie, and I was very humbled by his response. I had gotten to meet Sabrina S. Sutherland, who was an executive producer on “Twin Peaks: The Return,” at the Festival of Disruption, so through her and Barry, I asked if Lynch would be willing to contribute a quote for the movie poster, and he was, so that was a dream come true.


David Lynch’s quote on the poster of “Roy’s World: Barry Gifford’s Chicago.”

Has this experience made you want to expand your horizons even further as a filmmaker?

It’s an addiction. You really have to fall completely in love with an idea because you’re going to be committing years of your life to it, and this has given me so many ideas of what I want to do next. Michael and I have talked about collaborating on a short film. It’s going to be part of an anthology film that he wants to create called “Five from Chi,” which will be comprised of five short films about Chicago from five different directors.

There’s a story by Guy de Maupassant that has been haunting me for a while, and I think it could make a really good short film, so I’ve written a treatment and Michael and I are talking about it. That’s just one thing that’s rolling around in my head. When all the neurons are firing and people are responding to it, there’s just nothing like filmmaking—which is good, because it’s mostly thankless work. Part of the reason why this film took so long to make was because there aren’t a lot of investors for an unconventional documentary about 1950s Chicago devoid of talking heads. [laughs]

How did Michael become involved in the project?

We were friends and acquaintances, and I faced the fact early on that I needed a producer for this movie because it was too much for me to handle. I don’t know a lot about the producing side of things and I’m not very adept at. So I went to Mike and asked if he’d suggest a producer for my movie, considering how he’s plugged into the Chicago filmmaking world. A couple weeks later, he came back to me and said, “I have the perfect suggestion—me.” I was like, “You’ve never produced before, you’ve never even made a documentary before, why should you be my producer?”

So he went through a long list of reasons of why he should be the producer, and he convinced me, and thank goodness because he’s been supportive 110%. He’s always been there with a great suggestion on how to make the movie better. He’s also plugged me into networking opportunities that I never would’ve thought to approach. Everybody needs to have a collaborator like that on their movie, and I feel really blessed that I was able to bring him onboard.

At the preview screening I attended, the main feedback regarding revisions concerned the very final scene set in Barry’s studio.

That was the only live-action footage that we shot for the movie, and we are actually revising the scene. You’ll have to watch the finished version to see how we changed it. It’s still all done in one long take that provides a full 360 degree view of the studio, and to me, in the final scene, it was really important to break all the rules that we had set earlier in the movie. Suddenly we’re in the here and now, observing the writer’s studio where all these stories were created, and if you’re a careful viewer, you’ll see little clues that link back to all the stories that you’ve just heard, because that’s Barry’s way of writing. He surrounds himself with objects that can fire his imagination, so I wanted to just explore that space. At the very end of the shot, we do see Barry, but we don’t see his face. We just see his hand on his writing desk.

Does it help you to surround yourself with things, like the pre-written score, when in the midst of your creative process?

Absolutely. I was looking at all kinds of newspapers from the time, including neighborhood newspapers, and footage from the Chicago Film Archives that provided a rich repository of period material. At a certain point, I knew that I was going to have to stop researching because I would never reach the end of this stuff. Just seeing these artifacts fires my imagination.

For more information on “Roy’s World: Barry Gifford’s Chicago” and to keep updated on future screenings, visit the film’s official site. Also make sure to check out the Producer’s Statement penned by Michael Glover Smith.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s