After a chance conversation on the set of The Flash, stars Rick Cosnett and Jesse L. Martin, talk to Exit 6 producer Mark Brennan about dead rabbits, the power of the people and co-directing their debut short film The Letter Carrier.
Recently I had one of the most engaging and rewarding conversations about the process of filmmaking I have ever had. That discussion was with Rick Cosnett and Jesse L. Martin about the making of their new short film The Letter Carrier. It was a deep and insightful chat, the kind you have with good friends, talking completely on a level, learning a lot about the shared creative journey of others and even a little about yourself.
So, you can imagine my complete and total despair discovering moments after the 60-minute call that, due to a technical error, not a single word of this utter privilege had been recorded.
It would have been a tall order to convey the breadth and depth of the topics covered even if it had all recorded as planned. What will never be lost to me, however, is the fascination I felt listening to these two remarkable men speak about their process, their experiences and their heartfelt appreciation for everyone involved in making their film happen.
So, with that lasting impression fixed in my memory (along with a lot of coffee, meditation and hypnotherapy) I will do my best to recall and impart upon you Dear Reader, the gems that Rick and Jesse shared with me about the making of The Letter Carrier.
Set in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia in 1860 where a mother hides her family away from the threat of slavery that is still looming large over the United States, it's a fable about the eponymous Letter Carrier who roams the mountains looking for children to snatch up and sell as slaves.
Jesse L. Martin was told stories of The Letter Carrier when he was growing up, stories that would eventually compel him to write a soliloquy and series of songs based on those tales. However, it was never in his thinking to turn that work into a film, as he originally imagined it would be used for a theatrical telling.
Jesse: "It wasn't obvious to me as a short film at all. I had written what I thought would be a performance piece for the theatre, particularly with all the music used in the storytelling."
It wasn't until spending time with Rick Cosnett on the set of The Flash and telling him about the material, that this tapestry of music and folklore would be developed into a collaborative short film project. A film that Rick saw right away.
Rick: "For me it was the imagery evoked by the soliloquy which sets up the legend of The Letter Carrier (written by Jesse in iambic pentameter) and all the issues it immediately brings up about the history of this country and the humanity of us all, which in my opinion we need to see more of."
It would be the directorial debut for both professional actors, and as actors, of course, casting and the casting process was something very close to their hearts. Drawing on their own experiences of auditioning, they were keen to create space for the actors where they could express themselves; a space that has not always been afforded to them in the past.
Rick: "I think I've realized the best way to really 'see' people in an audition situation is to make it as comfortable as possible for them to be able to open up and share something. So we had them choose their own song and gave them a lot of freedom with the material we did give them. The auditioning process is a hard one and I would welcome any suggestions as to how to make it easier on actors because too often it's not the best way for people to really show you their true talents and abilities. We tried to be as accommodating as we could in the room. Some people were so brilliant but we just couldn't fit them in to any of the characters we had written and some people were just an amazing fit."
As the film was shot in British Columbia, the casting pool was from the same area, which wasn’t the widest. Even so, Jesse and Rick were blown away by some of the Vancouver-based talent that auditioned for them. In fact, one actress, Julia Harnett, was so overwhelming that what was a male character in the script was rewritten into a female one just for her.
Rick: "Julia's casting affected the story in a beautiful way. We ended up with 3 sisters, a mother and one son. It suddenly became about a family of strong women and a son desperately trying to find his place in this threatening and violent world."
Not only did sitting on the other side of the desk ensure that they found the faces and voices they wanted to tell their story, it was also something of a learning experience for them as actors too.
Rick: "Going with your gut is always a concrete place to start as a filmmaker and your life can be made so much easier by casting the right person. As an actor I would say to never hold back, always be willing to give something special even at the risk of being terrible."
Once assembled, the talented cast were required to flex their musical muscles as much of the dialogue in the film is actually carried by song. Another colleague from The Flash, Carlos Valdes, would prove pivotal in not only arranging the a capella music but also incorporating the natural sounds of the scenes into the soundtrack itself.
Jesse: I felt so trusting and confident about handing over my songs to Carlos and trusting that he knew best as to how they should sound and be arranged.
Rick: "I've said it before and I'll say it again. Carlos Valdes is a musical prodigy. With the work that he did, Jesse and I were completely awe struck. He arranged the songs and harmonies and helped record them live, which was very difficult out in the forest, but he also took all the natural sounds from their environment and created rhythms in the songs that play out in a really meaningful way. I won't ruin it for you. We also had a sound designer work on the sounds in between the songs but the work that Carlos did I cannot say enough good things about. It elevates the meaning of the story in a beautifully authentic way."
You’ll no doubt have noticed by now, as I soon did, that Rick and Jesse share a natural creative wavelength they slip into with ease. One of the aspects of making the film I was most keen to explore was the working dynamic between two directors - especially with one so attached to the source material. After briefly considering Skype's refusal to connect their calls to each other as a potentially bad omen, it turns out their working relationship fit together like hand in glove.
Jesse: "As this was my first time directing there were a lot of firsts along the way that were big lessons for me. I learned that I could share the directing responsibility. I wasn't certain I could at first. Rick turned out to be a "creative Brother". Someone I really got on with and could share the load of production."
To which Rick seamlessly dovetails…
Rick: "Things did get crazy, we had a LOT going on and it was an ambitious project in many respects. Capturing the live singing and choreographing the action with the camera moves and capturing the rhythms and heart of the piece was no small feat. We were blessed with an incredible DOP Kim Miles and we were pleasantly surprised at how we bounced off each other and passed responsibilities between us. I was very comfortable helping the actors through their process and journeys physically and emotionally and Jesse was really comfortable with overseeing things behind the lens but we would often switch out, which kept things fresh. It was brilliant having another perspective - two minds were definitely better than just my one, and lo and behold we never clashed and are still the best of friends! Thank god."
Fans of The Flash will understand and appreciate the comparison I offer them of their partnership to that of Firestorm; a two-man superhero team operating in one body. We all laugh heartily (at least that's how I remember it) and I have their blessing to include that gag here, which I have done seamlessly. Cough. Of course, that’s not to say the first-time directors were not met with challenges.
Jesse: "The biggest firsts were things like putting together shot lists on paper and on the day, the physical space would call for something completely different. Learning to adjust and adapt on the fly. We had a lot of help in that way with a great director of photography and a stellar script supervisor."
Rick: "Time constraints. That included Actor's availability and light. I think that's probably the case on a lot of films because once one thing goes down it can be a bit of a domino effect so we always have to allow for that. We had such a wonderful crew though there were really no issues."
It’s clear that, as well as each other, they both relied a great deal on the talent and tremendous passion that everyone involved in the project had for it, including the supporters of their Kickstarter campaign. They both agree it was the people involved that not only made the film what it is, but the experience of making it what it was.
Jesse: "The amount of effort everyone put into the movie was astounding. I remember we needed dead rabbits and I realised you don’t just 'buy' dead rabbits. We had a young man come along and just start making them for us, and he worked so hard, all because he believed in the project."
Rick: "Getting to connect and bring all these passionate people together purely for the love of making a film was a very special thing and definitely the best part about it. We were blessed with 3 days of sunshine in spring in the Canadian forest. Seeing people in roles that they aspired to which, being a smaller scale production, they got to do on this film and seeing so many people shine in their department was impressive and touching. We formed even closer bonds with a lot of people too."
Upon completion of the film, the duo spent every second in the edit watching the film come together. It wasn’t until the cast and crew screening that they were able to identify the finishing touches required to the sound mix in order to ready the film for its festival run. It’s on the festival circuit they hope the film will gain a new life of its own.
Jesse: "What I'd love the audience to take away from it is a sense of folklore, as if the story is and old tale that has been told over and over in many ways and that the songs ring in the same way that children's songs that are known, in some version, all over the world do. I also believe that this story was told in a way that allows for many different interpretations by the audience. That was a goal from the beginning."
Rick: "I hope audiences form their own understanding of the film. What it means to THEM. For it also to evoke important questions about the way we relate to each other and our world and ultimately can improve how we treat both."
Working on a television show, where a host of talented and creative people spend an extraordinary amount of time together, it seems like a no-brainer for that talent and creativity to spill out into personal projects. What's abundantly clear when talking to both men is that making this film has opened a door for both of them, one which hopefully leads to an exciting future as filmmakers.
What advice would they give filmmakers looking to make their first short film?
Rick: "Just begin. Start. Ask for help and go boldly in your direction and you will be amazed at what you can achieve. Think for yourself and be as smart as you really are."
And finally, for any of you wondering how I was able to include so many quotes from a conversation I have no record of, I’m signing off by confirming the wonderful gents these guys are – they were kind enough to ease (some) of my suffering and send them over again.
For more information about The Letter Carrier check out the official website.
You can follow Rick Cosnett on Twitter: @RickCosnett