AFI Member Spotlight: Deborah Goodrich Royce – American Film Institute

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AFI Member Spotlight: Deborah Goodrich Royce

Deborah Goodrich Royce has enjoyed an unusual career path — from soap-opera screen actress to Miramax story editor to arthouse-theater owner and, now, to novelist. Her debut book “Finding Mrs. Ford,” a literary page-turner about an affluent New England woman whose privilege is upended by the appearance of a man from her past, recently released to critical acclaim. Kirkus Reviews calls it “An impressively original, immediately engaging and thoroughly entertaining novel by an author with a distinctive narrative storytelling style.”

Deborah was a film and television actor for 10 years, with a long-running role on ALL MY CHILDREN, followed by appearances on such shows as ST. ELSEWHERE, BEVERLY HILLS 90210 and 21 JUMP STREET. A move to Paris in 1992 sparked her transition to a literary career, beginning at Canal+ before she returned to New York and began work at Miramax.

When she’s not writing, Deborah is busy bringing an amazing slate of sophisticated movies to audiences in Samford, CT. In 2004, Deborah and her husband restored and reopened the Avon Theatre Film Center, a 1939 landmark that is now a beacon of exhibition for the community. The nonprofit theater is dedicated to independent, classic, foreign, and documentary films, and has hosted film luminaries from Jane Fonda and Peter Bogdanovich to the late Robert Altman and Gene Wilder. A member of AFI’s National Council and long-time supporter of the Institute, Deborah spoke with AFI about her life and work for our monthly membership spotlight.

AFI: How did you pivot from story editor at Miramax to novelist and everything in between?

I stopped acting when my husband and I moved to Paris, where I fell into this job of reading for Canal+. I fell in love with the work. When I moved back to New York, I went to Miramax, which was an incredible place in the ‘90s. For me, it was like writing school. Though I was editing writers, I was learning from them, and as a story editor, you are reading a lot of novels as well. I always had been a big reader of novels, so it was very pertinent to what I am doing now.

AFI: Given your background in screenplays, why did you choose the format of a novel for “Finding Mrs. Ford”?

When I sat down to write five years ago, it just wasn’t a question that I was going to write a novel. It’s just what I wanted to write. I like the format. In many ways, it’s an easier format than a screenplay. When you think about the mechanics of a screenplay, you’re writing from a very complex, multifaceted vantage point because you’re not just writing what’s happening, you’re thinking about camera angles, editing. It’s a very particular thing.

AFI: Tell us about the Avon, which you restored 15 years ago, and is now a landmark repertory theater in Samford.

We purchased a cinema in the early 2000s, we reopened in 2004 and we offer first-run independent film programming 355 days a year, and then on top of the regular first-run programming, we host a whole variety of series in conjunction.

AFI: What have been some of your favorite recent programs?

We have a cult classic series, documentary series, and our newest series, which I am very proud of, it’s called the Black Lens. It’s meant to provoke a larger conversation on the subject of what it means to be an African American and what that means to all of us. I am not an African American, but I would like to be able to participate in the conversation, which is central to what we’re trying to do.

Having the conversation using the prism of film is, first of all, what I am interested in. It’s the venue that we have, and it makes for a very vibrant setting and forum in which to have that conversation. Over the course of the last year, we have shown three films as part of the series, and we’ve had sold-out audiences. We are hosted and moderated by Harriette Cole, who was an editor at Ebony magazine. She has brought the most interesting range of filmmakers to the Avon to really explore this idea of being black in America and through film.

AFI: Tell us about the films you’ve programmed in this series.

MEMPHIS MAJIK is a documentary about a dance style that’s popular in Memphis called Jookin. It’s about the overarching social setting of Memphis, about the history of racism there, and about a wealthier and more prosperous segment of the African-American community in the early 20th century and how that has or has not continued to this day — all seen the particular style of dancing. You could compare it to hip-hop dancing, but it’s its own thing.

THROUGH A LENS DARKLY is about the history of still photography in the African-American community, how black Americans were photographed by others when they were slaves, with horrible objectification. The film is also about how, post-slavery, the African-American family would go for a studio portrait, and what this was like, with everybody getting dressed up, documenting their middle-class standing. The film we opened with, THE BLACK PANTHERS: VANGUARD OF THE REVOLUTION, we questioned if this was the right film to launch our series. Would it be incendiary? The film is actually moderate and balanced. One man came from two hours away who had been a black panther, and it was a packed house.

AFI: In the fall, the Avon will screen the new documentary TONI MORRISON: THE PIECES I AM, which has sparked a vital dialogue around the urgent need for diverse voices in criticism and writing.

That’s part of the dialogue we wanted to have. I am a novelist, and my first book came out a few weeks ago. I am obviously not going to write a book filled with 15 different 50-plus-year-old white women. Can you write characters that aren’t like you, and where is it appropriate and where is it not appropriate?

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