Adam McDaniel on Richard Amsel - An Incredible Journey...
2020 was an interesting year for author, film-maker, screen-writer and artist Adam McDaniel. The fires that ravaged Southern California threatened to engulf his home, he left his job of nearly twelve years with Warner Brothers and his wedding cruise was cancelled twice due to the COVID pandemic.
That would have got a lot of us down but McDaniel is the sort of person who takes his lemons and makes lemonade. He enrolled in a training programme with animation legend Don Bluth, held a lower key wedding in December and set out to finish a journey that began, unbeknown to him, a few decades before.
Discovering An Artist
Adam was an eight-year-old art fan when he came across a black and white newspaper advert for a favourite film.
An advertisement for "Raiders of the Lost Ark" from The Philadelphia Inquirer - Friday, July 23rd, 1982 (Donna Di Giacomo)
Unusually for the time, the artist’s signature was visible and it read ‘AMSEL’.
It is a name that the young art and movie fan would see time and time again over the next few years. On VHS cassettes like John Wayne’s “The Shootist”, on multiple covers of bi-weekly TV listing magazine ‘TV Guide’ and on movie posters for some of his favourite movies such as “Flash Gordon”, “The Dark Crystal” and “Mad Max: Beyond The Thunderdome”. The word ‘AMSEL’ would jump out at him.
Courtesy of TVGuideMagazine.com
Then, it stopped. 'AMSEL' disappeared and the young McDaniel assumed that this prolific old artist had finally put away his brushes to enjoy a well-earned retirement.
It would be fifteen years before he stumbled across the name again. Now twenty-something and starting a new millennium in L.A. where Christie’s were holding their “Masters of Cinema Art” auction.
Featuring original artwork by the likes of John Alvin, Drew Struzan and Steve Chorney, the sale also offered works with a very familiar signature.
Christie's auction of Richard Amsel's sketch for The Shootist (1976) starring John Wayne
It was here, speaking with an auction curator, that McDaniel learned that far from retiring an old man, ‘AMSEL’, or rather Richard Amsel, had in fact passed away, at the tender age of thirty-seven.
Discovering The Man
Other than a 'Variety' magazine obituary and a short article, there was little record of the life and of the man behind the signature. No book. No film. No website.
So, during a sabbatical McDaniel took the information he had been able to gather and published RichardAmsel.Info.
Over the course of the next few years, people who had known Amsel found the site and reached out. A pencil outline of a man began to appear.
Born in Philadelphia on the 4th December 1947, Richard Amsel showed prodigious artistic talent from a young age. While at the Philadelphia College of Art, the 21 year old student won a national competition to provide a movie poster design for Ernest Lehman's "Hello Dolly!"
Working from a small east side New York apartment, by the end of the 1970's his work had graced TIME Magazine, had appeared on numerous magazine covers and albums sleeves, and provided the key art for over twenty movies.
Richard Amsel's movie posters for The Sting (1973) and Death On The Nile (1978)
But, as a new decade dawned, so did a new threat. In May 1981, the first reports of a new disease appeared in bi-weekly newspaper “New York Native”. A month later it would be clinically recognised. Despite cases being prevalent in heterosexual intravenous drug-users, it would be known for a time as “gay-related immune deficiency” and as “gay plague”. The U.S. government would do little to help, with President Ronald Reagan failing to mention AIDS publicly until 1985.
By the end of the decade, it would claim almost a quarter of a million U.S. lives. Richard Amsel was one of them. A victim of the complications of AIDS on 17th November 1985. A life cut tragically short.
AIDS had torn through the New York gay community. Most of the people Richard Amsel has been close to had also succumbed to this terrible disease.
However, dotted around the U.S., there were friends, colleagues, family, even lovers who shared their remembrances of an extraordinarily talented and thoughtful man. A multi-faceted character who guarded his privacy and compartmentalised his work and social lives. A man who was at times shy, but at others gregarious, sharp and witty.
RichardAmsel.info became a celebration of the man and his work and the seed of an idea began to germinate.
Preparing A Film
2013 saw the release of Erik Sharkey’s superb documentary about another movie poster legend, “Drew: The Man Behind The Poster”. The same year, McDaniel was interviewed on Amsel for Kevin Burke’s wonderful documentary “24x36: A Movie About Movie Posters”.
Both films proved that a passionate film-maker could produce a quality work with limited resources. They were the ‘kicks in the ass’ that McDaniel needed to do something.
Since 2015 he has criss-crossed the U.S., capturing well over 100 hours of interview footage with those last remaining few that knew Amsel and his world.
He has amassed an astonishing library of images, including high-quality digital images of Amsel's original artwork, new photographs and transparencies. Each has been painstakingly digitised, colour-corrected and restored by McDaniel's hand. Some of Amsel's most prominent works will be seen in a new improved light.
McDaniel even trained himself in digital animation in order to bring stunning animations of Amsel’s work to life.
Crucially, years of sleuthing and the engagement of an attorney finally resulted in the identification of the legal owner of Amsel's estate and the exclusive rights to a film and a book.
Decades of work now sits ready.
As we start 2021 and another new decade, what is his next step? To begin the editing process and to create "Amsel: Illustrator of the Lost Art".
Who would have thought that a journey that began with an eight year old boy and an image in a black and white newspaper would last forty years? That it would lead to a deep connection with a man who died when the little boy was twelve?
Speaking with Adam ahead of this blog post, it is clear that he feels a very deep responsibility to produce a film that not only does justice to the art, but also to the man, to his life and to the times that he lived in.
It will be the labour of one man who, as a little boy, saw a name on an advert for a film and was changed forever.
A great movie poster, like any great piece of art, can do that.
You can read more about "Richard Amsel: Illustrator of the Lost Art", including how you can help bring it to the screen, on its website.
Adam and the Art of the Movies team.
Our thanks to Adam McDaniel for sharing so much of his journey with us over video-conference.