During his career, production designer Roy Forge Smith, who died this week at 87, worked with such directors as Terry Gilliam (Monty Python and the Holy Grail) and Mel Brooks (Robin Hood: Man in Tights). His most frequent collaborator was writer-director John Gray, with whom he worked on seven TV movies, including Martin and Lewis, The Lost Capone, The Day Lincoln Was Shot and The Hunley, and two seasons of the CBS drama series Ghost Whisperer, which Gray created. Here is Gray’s touching tribute to his late collaborator and friend, which includes anecdotes from Smith’s long career.
I first became aware of Roy when I saw his work in the movie MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL. I was years away from having a career when I saw it, but I was so blown away by how REAL he made that movie look; the dirt and the mud and the grit – the texture – he did not romanticize the middle-ages in any way, and I felt like I was right in the middle of it. I made a promise to myself that if I ever had the chance, I would work with this guy with the very intimidating name: Roy Forge Smith.
It was a dream that came true – Roy became my production designer on 7 movies and also 44 episodes of Ghost Whisperer. We worked together all over the world, and he was called on every day to do the impossible – and he did.
He built 5 different nightclub interiors for MARTIN AND LEWIS, an entire western town and a bunch of slick Chicago speakeasies for THE LOST CAPONE, built the Lincoln White House on a backlot in Virginia which still stands today for THE DAY LINCOLN WAS SHOT, built an entire downtown Charleston street on a backlot in South Carolina so that we could bomb the hell out of it for THE HUNLEY; but in my mind his biggest coup was using his considerable nautical skills and engineering knowledge to figure out how the civil war submarine Hunley actually worked, years before it was finally raised from Charleston Harbor. Historical experts were amazed at how right Roy got it when they finally could see the real sub. Roy built 4 different versions of the famous submarine for that movie, including a working diving seaworthy sub, as well as creating the interior of the sub with every part of the hull removable so we could shoot from all angles. Not to mention building the Union ship The Housatonic, which we also blew up and sunk.
Roy was the master of doing things simply. It’s the biggest and most important thing I learned from him (among many many things); in the midst of complexity, look for the simplicity.
Once I was directing part of a big mini-series in Rome; there was already a production designer in place when I got the job. I remember complaining to Roy about how this Oscar winning production designer had placed permanent pillars in Mark Antony’s courtyard, set in such a way that I could not get the shots I wanted. Roy just smiled, and said, “That’s why we build things on rollers.” Simple.
Just as importantly, Roy was a great raconteur, and had had an amazing life so full of stories I could never have heard them all. Born in London, growing up during WWII, working for the BBC; I cherish the many many memories I have of location scouting with Roy, the stories in the van, the stories at dinner, the stories between takes. I took every opportunity to pick his brain – he was a true renaissance man; there was nothing you could mention that Roy didn’t know something about. He was one of the most curious people I ever met. I’d be walking along a road with him; he’d stop and pick up a nail; and then give me the history of this particular kind of nail, when it was manufactured, what it was mainly used for.
Typical Roy story: His first movie as a designer. He is tasked with creating a gothic cemetery. With pennies in the budget, he designs and creates 100 Styrofoam headstones and monuments that look fantastic; aged, full of texture; very detailed. But Styrofoam. It comes time shoot the scene, but the director has neglected to inform Roy that he is using a helicopter shot to establish the cemetery. Roy can only stand there and watch as the cameras roll, the helicopter swoops in, and there is a sudden tornado of flying headstones.
I’ll miss his gentle humor, his kind heart, and his wise advice.