One of the joys of covering the movie beat is seeing a great artist whose work you believe in receive the recognition they deserve. When the 2021 Oscar nominations were announced on March 15th, I jumped out of my chair and cheered when Elvira Lind’s “The Letter Room” was named among the nominees for Best Live-Action Short Film. This 30-minute tour de force is the first narrative effort written and directed by Lind, a Danish-born filmmaker who previously helmed captivating documentaries about singer Ryan Cassata (2014’s “Songs for Alexis”) and dancer Bobbi Jene Smith (2017’s “Bobbi Jene”). Not only has “The Letter Room” emerged as a serious contender during awards season, it is one of the best films of any length you are bound to see in 2021.
Lind’s husband, Oscar Isaac, is utterly mesmerizing as a corrections officer who becomes transfixed by the private letters penned by a woman, Rosita (a magnificent Alia Shawkat), to her lover on death row. Just days prior to its nomination, “The Letter Room” premiered on the Topic streaming service, where it is currently available to view. With the Oscar ceremony just weeks away, Lind took time to speak with Cinema Femme via Zoom about her approach to breaking the form, her serious intent with the film and her love of Isaac’s comedic instincts.
You’ve always managed to achieve a level of intimacy with your documentary subjects that is rare in the nonfiction realm. How do you go about earning their trust?
Well, it takes time to do that. Ensuring that you have the time to build that trust is crucial to this kind of work, because if you are rushing the project, it’s not going to work. You must have patience and trust that things will come to you slowly. Of course, there often is not enough time. People want something fast and you are under pressure to tell your story as quickly as possible because otherwise, you won’t get funding. You’ve just got to be really stubborn and trust that things will come. I work from a very instinctual place, so I take time to get where I need to be. I have to figure out what it is that attracts me to a certain subject matter, which is usually another human being.
I didn’t direct “Bobbi Jene” because I wanted to make a film about dance. I wanted to make a film about Bobbi because I love the way that she is moving in this world. How she is using dance is what’s interesting to me, and by focusing on that, the film becomes very personal. We have to understand her in order to understand what she creates, and the same is true with Ryan in “Songs for Alexis.” In that film, I’m telling a story about family connection and the struggle that can happen when your son is going through a transition, both for the parent as well as the child. My aim in these films is to not let the theme overshadow the people.
In my 2017 essay on your documentaries, I wrote about how you explore character through nonverbal behavior, such as the dance moves of Bobbi Jene Smith that reflect her inner life. The same could be said of the failed basketball hoops shot by Richard in “The Letter Room.”
I am fascinated by the things that people do of which they are unaware. It invites us to apply our own feelings or ideas about them. My favorite thing in documentary filmmaking is when I notice a particular aspect about someone before they’ve discovered it. It’s incredible when that sort of moment is captured on film, so I’ve always looked for that in my documentaries, and now I look for it in my fiction work as well. If you have an actor like Oscar who is very good at his job, you can make that happen again. These subtleties that reveal so much about a person always come from movement. You don’t see them when people are talking because they are aware of what they’re doing in that moment. When you have them engaged in a physical activity, they are busy doing something else, and then other things start to come out more.
When you began developing your skills as a filmmaker in Cape Town, was becoming a documentarian always your primary goal, considering how your nonfiction work has always broken the form?
It does. I’m always very inspired by fiction for my docs, and vice versa. Actually, “The Letter Room” ended up being way more stylized than I initially thought. I was inspired by a Danish film called “R,” which was one of the first films that Tobias Lindholm did with Michael Noer. It was highly inspired by true events and the non-actors who were featured in it. There were real people from prison who acted in the film, which therefore makes them actors, much like the real people who play semi-fictionalized versions of themselves in “Nomadland.” When I was writing “The Letter Room,” the tone that came out was different, and the character of Richard just didn’t fit in that world. I’ve always wanted to make a comedy and a documentary comedy as well, because I really like them. I think “The Letter Room” is hilarious, though I know that other people don’t see it that way. Some of the things that Oscar does are really funny to me, but then there are things in the film that aren’t funny, so I get that there are different layers of it. His way of approaching the character made me laugh so much.
I’ve seen Oscar bring down the house in so many films, from “Ex Machina” to “Inside Llewyn Davis,” though he’s never been categorized as a comic actor. Did you craft the role of Richard for him?
I had already written it and formed it, and I had an idea of who he was. Then Oscar just took him on, and he became someone I couldn’t have thought up myself. He heightened it and added his own ideas, while really respecting what I had written. He found it very funny, and we like each other’s sense of humor. He wouldn’t have done the film if he didn’t think it was fun for him to do. It wasn’t like he felt obligated to take the role because I wrote it. I gave it to him and said, “I’d love for you to do this. Of course, I had you in mind for this the whole time, and I can’t imagine anyone else doing it, but someone else could possibly do it.”
He didn’t have to say yes, but he really wanted to do the film and he came at it with a lot of energy. I think Oscar is one of the funniest people I’ve ever met in my life. He is hysterical even in the small things that he does. He has this very dry humor and he can keep a straight face in a way that is incredibly funny. That’s one of reasons why I fell in love with him, because for me, humor is so important. He wooed me with his humor, and it was really fun to create something together that sort of celebrates how funny I think he is.
What made you decide to tell this story through the perspective of a corrections officer?
One of my main ambitions for this project was to tell a different story about the prison system and why I think it is malfunctioning. I wanted to focus on a small part of it and narrow our focus to one thing, such as privacy, which is something that we can all relate to easily. Imagine that all of your letters were read by someone else, and some were kept from you for reasons that you didn’t understand. You long every day to hear from your family and your kids, whom you haven’t seen for years. It’s such a dreadful situation, and it’s incomprehensible to me that we treat anyone like that. I don’t see how it benefits people to keep them locked away for that long. An important message in the film is how we don’t just punish the people who are incarcerated, we punish everyone who lost them.
If you look at the history of how unfair trials have been and the imbalance regarding who gets incarcerated, which is primarily people of color, countless children in poor neighborhoods have grown up without at least one of their parents. How hard must it be to find yourself left behind with kids because the person you were with did one stupid thing? We must remember how punished everyone is when that happens, and when we look at something like the death penalty, it’s on a whole other level. I can’t even understand how in a modern society we still think it is okay to kill people for doing something that they shouldn’t be doing. I know now with DNA testing, there are better ways to see if someone actually committed a crime, but I still think that whole thing should be aborted immediately.
The pivotal meeting between Richard and Rosita subverted any expectations I had for it. How did you go about directing Oscar and Alia in that scene?
Alia was always my first choice for the role of Rosita, and it was really wonderful working with her and Oscar in that scene. As for how I approached directing them, I just did what I felt was the right thing to do. It was important that I listened to them. Since this was my first attempt at fiction, it was nerve-wracking to work with really good actors who have tons of experience. You don’t want to be that stupid director who says something really dumb. I’ve also lived with an actor for a really long time, so I know that certain things really piss them off. I’ve been in a room full of actors sharing stories about the worst things directors have said to them on set, and I was determined not to say those things myself. My instincts came into play, and I used my human skill sense as much as I could to help people feel comfortable and safe enough to open up. I had an amazing team of really talented people who were so passionate and loving, and together, we created a good environment.
The ways in which our minds interpret what is presented to us and how we go about giving one another a sense of closure are endlessly fascinating themes that you explore so brilliantly here.
The film is also about an ethical conundrum, and I made a deliberate choice not to include a clear-cut moral. I don’t like it when films try to tell you what you should specifically feel or what is the clear difference between right and wrong. In this situation, Richard feels better about his actions than he should. He thinks he’s doing something great, and at the same time, we’re laughing at him along with Jackson—the prisoner played by John Douglas Thompson—when he says, “This motherf—ker…” Yet Jackson also appreciates the gesture from someone who wants to make him feel better. He can laugh at how stupid it is while also wanting it to continue. Sometimes a gesture to make another person feel happy is more important than what is ethically right. John is an amazing actor and a wonderful man, and something that we discussed a lot was that we didn’t want to make Jackson appear stupid. I wanted to make it clear that he knew what was happening, and that was actually the one thing that took a while to get right. It had to be so on point and we tried different versions until we finally got it. It was a great moment.
I must also single out the music, which does a wonderful job of bringing us even further into Richard’s restless psyche, at times mirroring the drumming of his fingers.
My fabulous editor Adam Nielsen, who edited both of my documentaries, is a huge music aficionado. He loves jazz and drums. A very important part of our editing process is figuring out what the universe of our film is going to be like. I always imagined Richard having an inner Salsa song happening inside of him at all times, so Oscar would often listen to something beforehand. We are good friends with Rubén Blades, who started Salsa in the ’70s and is an icon, and some of the music we included in the film is actually from one of his earliest albums. We wanted to use congas because it just felt right, and it’s hard to recreate the exact sound of Blades’ original work. The film’s composer, Paulo Stagnaro, did a fantastic job with the other percussion on the soundtrack. He would watch the scenes and then play drums to it, accompanying the images as he saw them live. We recorded it, and what he created was simple but very powerful. It also wasn’t trying too hard. If you put really emotional music on the footage, it just wouldn’t have worked.
Do you plan on making a feature-length version of “The Letter Room”?
Let’s put it this way: when I first wrote the story, I put more ships in the water to send off. There were too many plots that couldn’t have been resolved in the amount of time that I had, and at 32 minutes, it’s already on the longer side. Many festivals don’t even take shorts that are over a half-hour. I imagine that the story could go other places. There is a version of the film where what you see in the short is the first thirty minutes of the feature. I like the quest that Richard is on, as he steps on the edge of what is considered ethically wrong or right. It’s a fun place to be, and I could certainly stay in that universe much longer.
What has this recognition from the Academy meant to you?
It means a whole bunch because now a lot of people will watch the film, and what else could you want? That’s a huge advantage. Some people will hopefully like it and some people won’t, but that’s okay. If the people that I would like to work with in the future like it, then that’s wonderful. I’ll get to meet people and we’ll start creating things together, which is exciting for me. My producer, Sofia Sondervan, has given me a lot of courage. She’s always the one that has been trying to get me to do fiction, so she has a strong stand now. She’s like, “Let’s continue,” and I’m like, “Okay, you’re right. I’d like to do this.” It just makes us want to keep fighting for our next projects.
Hybrids of narrative and documentary techniques have been a big thing in Europe for a long time, and I’m excited that they are getting more space on recognized platforms, thanks to the success of films like “Nomadland.” I think it’s wonderful because it helps us learn about other cultures and it gives us more access to diversity. It’s great to see people who are allowed to be more human onscreen, and we are getting more texture from viewing different stories. I find people who all look the same and have pretty teeth to be incredibly boring.
“The Letter Room” is now available to stream on Topic. ABC’s virtual telecast of the 2021 Academy Awards airs at 7pm CT on Sunday, April 25th.