While working on the first season of The Flash, Jesse L. Martin, Rick Cosnett and Carlos Valdes decided to bring their many talents together to create a musical short film called The Letter Carrier. They launched a Kickstarter campaign (that was, fortunately, successful) and got the backing of fans and others in the business, including Joss Whedon.
Now that film is a reality and tells a period story of a mother hiding her family from slavery in the Blue Ridge Mountains. An old family story haunts the children of the family: the tale of The Letter Carrier, a man who roams the mountains in search of children to sell as slaves. The story is told through a cappella song with original folk music written by Martin.
In an interview, Martin and Cosnett spoke about their collaboration with Valdes and how The Letter Carrier came to exist.
How did you guys decide to partner together to do a musical film like this?
MARTIN: It literally sprang out of just being social, to be honest. We were all hanging out and talking about ideas and I sort of introduced Rick to these poems that I’d written that I had literally just turned into melodies. And Rick was talking about wanting to direct a project. Before you know it, we decided we’d direct this project together and because it involves music – Carlos is a musical genius: he would be embarassed if he was here to hear me say that, but the truth is, he really is a genius. I was able to very easily hand over my little music babies to Carlos and feel perfectly confident that he would arrange them in a way that was suitable and absolutely beautiful. So it was literally born out of a conversation we had on my balcony in my apartment here in Vancouver.
COSNETT: I was so astounded when I came across this stuff that Jesse had written. I was so inspired by it. I really felt like it needed to get told, it needed to get out there. This could just be the beginning, who knows?
MARTIN: Exactly. It was never meant to be a film in the first place. We only made it a film because Rick wanted to direct. So did I, but I didn’t know it until we started talking about it. I’d always meant for this to be a play. I still have dreams of it being onstage. But I’m very glad that we decided that we were going to do a short film about it because I learned a lot about the actual story. I learned a lot about filmmaking. And I learned a lot about working with others. I know a lot about the process of theatre, but I’ve been an actor in film and television for a really long time, but when you’re involved in every element of it, it’s a whole different story. There was a huge learning curve for all of us involved and I think we learned a lot.
COSNETT: We really did. It was very much a workshopping process, the whole thing. And out of that came some really magical stuff. But we were just kind of figuring it out as we went along in a lot of ways as to the heart and soul of the whole thing. So in that way, it really made it very special because we got to explore, experiment a little bit, as well, with this first time around. And yeah, who knows? Hopefully, it will be a Broadway show one day.
Why did you decide to fund the film through Kickstarter?
MARTIN: We had no other way of funding it. Not to mention, I was aware of Kickstarter, but I couldn’t imagine how we could’ve gotten the funds otherwise unless we just took it out of our own pockets. And in some cases, we did even though the Kickstarter did very well. It doesn’t matter how much money you have, there is always a need for more funds, it seems. Even with a short film, even with people working for, literally, no money.
COSNETT: Yeah, to try and take care of people, so that they’re not coming out of pocket. Even though they do end up doing it, at least you can cover some of it. So, yeah, it really is way, way, way more expensive than I ever thought.
MARTIN: We really did think we would be able to do this for very little money, and boy, were we wrong. And also, we are just extremely fortunate to have so many supporters through Kickstarter. It was mind blowing how much people came for us and donated to the film. We would never have got it done if it wasn’t for that.
So, Jesse, you wrote the story and the music? Where did the idea for The Letter Carrier initially come from?
MARTIN: When I was a little kid living in Virginia in the Blue Ridge Mountains, my aunt Emily would tell us bedtime stories all the time. But in one case, I’m pretty sure she made it up, but she told us a story about The Letter Carrier and how he comes to steal children. And I’m pretty sure she told us that because our letter carrier, at the time, was a guy who somehow ended up coming to us really late in the evening, well, early in the evening: the mail didn’t come in the morning, it came at night. So there’s already that element of spookiness that the letter carrier is coming at night. Our letter carrier was an expert whistler. Because we lived in the mountains, we could hear him long before he showed up to our mailbox. So I think the purpose was to scare us when the mail was coming, so that we’d go to bed. And it worked: we were sufficiently spooked by the story. And I never was able to get it out of my head. I’m not even sure I remember the story that well: I just remember those were the elements of the story and that it was scary for me at the time. And it was a good scary: it wasn’t like I was absolutely terrified, it was more just like scary and fun. We would bundle into bed and get all excited because we were going to get scared and it’s dark and suddenly, you hear this whistle and it’s like “Oh, god, he’s coming!”
So that’s where the story came from. It took many, many years later, before I’m sitting around thinking about getting an idea on paper. I was really interested in poetry – still am – and I decided that story was still in my head, so decided to flesh it out through poetry. I wrote several different poems related to that story, literally just making them up in my head. Like if I were to turn the story that my aunt told me into poetry, how would I do that? So I wrote these poems, and before I knew it, they turned into music because that’s a big part of my life.
Even as a kid, there was always music. There was always live music in my grandfather’s house. My grandfather played the harp every single night and whoever was there were invited to join in and a lot of people did. So I always heard this sort of blues, folk, gospel infused jam sessions in my house. So that kind of music lent itself to turning these poems into melodies. And once they were melodies, then I was like ‘okay, then what else can I do with these melodies?’ And before I knew it, we were putting together this story.
Had you always thought of making this into a musical?
MARTIN: No. And it’s funny, because I still don’t see it as a musical. I always thought of it as this is the way that these people communicate in sort of like a coded language in the same way that drums in history were also coded rhythms, like the idea of the dance movements in capoeira were coded back in the day. They meant more than just dancing. So I always thought of doing this piece as if this is the way that this family communicated to each other.
COSNETT: We used as many raw, natural sounds as possible. We didn’t want to have any instruments involved that weren’t from their environment, which was another big part of telling the story in a very truthful way, in its own unique way, I suppose.
One thing I noticed is that this isn’t the sort of musical where people burst into song. The music seems more organic.
MARTIN: These songs were sort of inspired by the notion that in dark times throughout history, there were always children’s songs that sort of reflected that time. Like during the black plague, the children had a song, “Ring around the rosie, a pocket full of posies. Ashes to ashes, we all fall down.” Which is a dark song for children to sing. Like we all grew up hearing that song, not even thinking about by how dark it actually is. I was inspired by that notion, and if you listen to the lyrics of what is being sung in our piece, you’ll see that they’re quite dark. They really do reflect what was going on at the time.
Could you tell me a little bit about the actors in the movie?
COSNETT: Absolutely. Part of the whole deal was that we used actors from Vancouver. And the whole crew was from Vancouver. So we really were on the hunt to find appropriate actors up in Canada for the project. We thought it would be very difficult, actually, and we turned out to really find some incredible people who really surprised us. There’s one in particular, Tyler Layton-Olson, he really, really just has the most incredible magnetism. We didn’t have him in mind specifically, but when he showed up at the audition, it really was special. And then when he was on set, and having him behind the camera was something quite magical because he really brought the whole story to life in a way that we really weren’t expecting.
MARTIN: Not at all. I mean, there were so many surprises, starting with casting. There was a character that I’d written – there were supposed to be two male characters in the film. One is little Boo Rad and the other is a character named Cyrus. And then there was a young woman who came in, who absolutely blew our minds in her audition for the mother, but she was entirely too young to play the mother that we wanted in the film. But she was so incredible that we had her stick around because we were trying to figure out a way to include her. Her name is Julia Harnett and she blew us away so much that we changed the character of Cyrus to Cyra because we wanted her in the film that badly.
COSNETT: And it just worked out so much better to have these women around this one young boy. So, yeah, it became even more multifaceted than it had been already by having all these women and this one male and then the letter carrier. It really gave a new meaning to the whole thing. So we were really lucky in that sense.
So what’s next for the film? Are you going to do any film festivals or anything else like that?
MARTIN: That is the hope. Of course, you have to be invited to do these things. So we’re diligently submitting and trying to be contestants in film festivals. We’re waiting to see how all that works out.
COSNETT: We want as many people to be able to see it as possible And we think it’s a very important that people should see. Yeah, we’re going to try and get the scope as big as we can and we just got into L.A. CineFest, into the semi-finals for that. And there will be some more, hopefully, decisions being made over the next few months as to others that we’ve entered. We really feel responsible to take it as far as we possibly can.