ROY NOLAN—Have Movie Camera, Will Travel

By Harriet Hart


roy-nolanFive minutes in the company of cinematographer Roy Nolan and you know you’re with an enthusiast. His blue eyes twinkle; his smile lights up the room like floodlights on a movie set. Roy, a retired documentary film maker, moved to Lakeside with Margarita in January, 2007, after traveling throughout Mexico and Latin America. They found a perfect retirement spot on the south shore of Lake Chapala.

Roy’s plans to take it easy evaporated when he met Marvin Harcock and heard the Golden Strings Youth Orchestra: “Marvin inspired me to make a documentary film about retirement here on Lake Chapala.” Margarita was production coordinator and conducted 75 interviews with local residents while Roy’s camera rolled. Reformatting Retirement was premiered last October in Ajijic.

Roy’s father was an electrical engineer and hoped Roy would follow in his footsteps, but Roy, armed with a Kodak Brownie, decided to become a fashion photographer so he could travel and spend time with beautiful women. In Montreal, he got a job with the National Film Board of Canada.

He worked with a top animator on The Blackbird, met Canadian icon Pierre Berton and helped film his Oscar winning documentary City of Gold. After seven years at the Film Board, Roy “shovelled my VW Beetle out of a snowdrift but when a snow plough came by and covered it up again, I shook my snow shovel in the air and said ‘no more!”

He intended to move to LA but a chance encounter with a panhandler convinced him to rethink his destination. “I had a meeting at Schwab’s Restaurant. I was about to plug the parking meter when this drunk told me I should give him the coin instead. “Do you want to end up like me?” he asked. “I dreamt of acting.” Roy took one look, gave him a buck and left town. “I drove all night to get to San Francisco, arrived to see the sun rising over the Golden Gate Bridge, and didn’t leave for 40 years.”  

“Filmmaking was just in me. I produced almost 100 films in my career from five-minute shorts to feature-length films.” His first feature film was Last Free Ride, about the Sausalito houseboat community’s battle with the establishment. “It was a hip pirate rock and roll movie,” Roy chuckles. 

Roy had many celebrity encounters. He filmed Johnny Cash performing at Folsom Prison: “I worked with Johnny’s wife, June Carter, who was a blast. One day she was sitting in the electric chair and one of our crew strapped her in.” He filmed Bobbie Kennedy in San Francisco. “He chatted with me. Later that day, I watched his assassination on television.”

Travelling on a Canadian passport, Roy went to Cuba in 1966 to make the film Fidelisimo. The producer shouted to him in English, “Roy, shoot Castro!” and the next thing Roy knew there was something hard pressing on his ribs, a handgun belonging to one of the leader’s bodyguards.

When Roy arrived at Lakeside, he’d produced, filmed and edited but never written a script. Now he’s a one-man band who does it all. He’s currently working on three documentaries about Lake Chapala: one about the north shore, one about the south and one for Todd Stong with an environmental focus, plus another about the five generations of artists who got their start with the Neil James Children’s Art Program.

Roy turns 76 this July, but strikes me as the same teenager who decided in the 1950s that holding a camera was what he was born to do. He lived his youthful dream: to travel and hang out with beautiful women…and men, too. Well done, Roy.

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