Elvira Lind on Richard (Oscar Isaac) in her Oscar-shortlisted The Letter Room: “He has aspirations and that incredible need to become someone who can change things and do something that is good.”
Corrections officer Richard (Oscar Isaac) has long wanted a transfer to the communications department of the prison where he works. Be careful what you wish for. His suggestions about improving inmates' lives through animal-assisted therapy technique, fall on the deaf ears of the Warden (Eileen Galindo). Still he quickly embraces the challenges he is presented with as master of the letter room. Ordered to wear gloves at all times, his gestures make it clear that Richard has never used a letter opener in his life before. A new world opens up. There is Cris (Brian Petsos), a man on death row who receives the most poetic love notes from a woman named Rosita (Alia Shawkat) and there is Jackson (John Douglas Thompson) who longs to hear from his estranged daughter.
Elvira Lind: “It’s the small details for me that tell the bigger story often.”
In the Oscar-shortlisted The Letter Room, Elvira Lind smartly explores the protagonist’s loneliness by way of his relationship to food. A scene during which he violently cleans the barbecue is a perfect expression of pent-up anger. When being told that “we only have protocol for what happens inside the facility” he ventures out to discover how complicated we humans truly are.
With these finely observed snapshots of lonely living, Jacques Lacan’s theory that “a letter always arrives at its destination” comes true in mysterious ways.
From our Brooklyn to Brooklyn connection, Elvira Lind joined me for a Zoom conversation on The Letter Room.
Anne-Katrin Titze: The last time we met was at the Quad Bar with Bobbi Jene.
Elvira Lind: With Bobbi! That’s right. Oh my goodness. So nice to see you again!
AKT: Nice to see you again! We talked about smells and objects and the chair in the water.
AKT: I actually noticed quite a few things that were similar in The Letter Room.
EL: That’s true.
AKT: First of all, congratulations for being Oscar-shortlisted.
EL: Thank you.
AKT: What I liked so much again in this film were the details, the little things that you pay attention to. I’m thinking of the run in the stocking of Richard’s supervisor. I’m thinking of the sign Out Of Order for the vending machine in the prison to signal to us that things are not really right here. You do this in such a beautifully subtle way that makes it real.
Elvira Lind on Richard (Oscar Isaac): “They were feelings he had to hide in his work. ”
EL: Thank you for noticing those things! I appreciate that. That’s great. Yeah, it’s the small details for me that tell the bigger story often. I like those.
AKT: I also noticed that you really emphasize how Richard eats. Food is very important from the beginning. First he has a milk moustache, then we see him fry something. I don’t know, is it plantains?
EL: Plantains, yeah.
AKT: There is a connection to his culture lost in a way. The loneliness is being emphasized by the way he cooks for himself, which is very touching. I loved that element of it. Then comes the scene with the flan [he eats at night out of the fridge, standing up]. Can you talk a bit about how you were using food?
EL: I think I like that he has this complicated relationship to food in a way that I know is a quality a lot of women have. I feel like a lot of his emotional life and his feelings and his relationships to things were sort of less in the masculine world. They were feelings he had to hide in his work. And having this thing with food where he has all the access in the world to food, as opposed to the people that are not free to live their life the way that they would like to. So he has the access but he still denies himself the pleasure, or he sort of “hate eats”. He eats with disgust or sort of engorges in a burger and fries and milkshake but then hates himself while he does it. It’s an interesting thing, because when we have all the choices in the world to eat whatever we want, to do whatever we want and then we still have a hard time to enjoy it.
Jackson (John Douglas Thompson) exercises, while Emerich (Tony Gillan) and Richard (Oscar Isaac) talk gap teeth
And then there are these people who sit there and have these awful meals inside prison. It’s ironic and sad. And also what do we do with our freedom and liberty? But it also tells the story of how complicated we are as human beings, I think. And it has a lot to do with his loneliness because for me food is something that you cook together and enjoy together. It becomes part of his loneliness that he is not sharing his meals and eating out of the fridge his dessert instead of allowing himself to enjoy it. There is this loss, just like romance in his life is lost but exists on screen and he can feel it and be excited about it but it’s not part of his life. All those things are very linked. It’s an incredible privilege to be able to have a good meal and that’s something that we take for granted or we get upset with ourselves for enjoying it. We should be very very grateful when we get to eat whatever we want in this part of the world.
AKT: Absolutely. Also the human connection that he lacks. Yes, he has his little dog but not really anyone in his life. When we talked about Bobbi Jene we spoke about the importance of smells and the smelling scene. I was laughing when he takes off the glove and he smells Rosita’s letter. The longing.
EL: The longing, yeah, exactly.
AKT: I love the little aside at the beginning when Richard brings up animal therapy before he knows that he is going into the letter room. He has all these suggestions and the bureaucracy stops him.
EL: Right. You want to work in human relations? There are none! It’s a dreamworld. He has aspirations and that incredible need to become someone who can change things and do something that is good. Also maybe some more egocentric reason where it’s more about his own need. But maybe that’s always how it is. We do good things because it also makes us feel good.
Rosita (Alia Shawkat) with Richard (Oscar Isaac)
AKT: I had a little discussion with my spouse about the fact that Richard has Rosita’s address and that if Cris ever responded the letters would go to her house. He [Ed Bahlman] said: ”Does that make sense? Would she do that?” My explanation was that after seven years of not getting a response she takes the risk.
EL: Yeah, she knows. Maybe the husband is someone who never checks the mail, just like he may never do any laundry. Maybe it doesn’t matter, but she is not really expecting him to write back. I think she knows he won’t ever write back. She is also doing it for him and for her to feel better. Again it’s this double thing. To make herself and him feel better and she feels guilty for moving on. She’s not in there.
AKT: She’s not in there. You packed a lot into 32 minutes.
EL: In the beginning I packed more in there! I had to take things out.
AKT: Did you see La Llorona?
EL: I haven’t seen it yet. We were going to see it the other night and then we had to cancel. We were going to watch it in a friend’s little screening room. I’m so excited to see it, the Guatemalan film.
AKT: It’s a beautiful film. I did an interview with the director.
EL: Oh amazing!
AKT: I can send you the link to the conversation.
The Letter Room poster
EL: I would love that, please. Oscar would love to read it too, I am sure. We are really really excited to watch it. It’s the first Guatemalan film that’s been shortlisted. I think it will get nominated.
AKT: Yes. I don’t know if Oscar grew up with that tale?
EL: Yeah, the one with the woman crying.
AKT: What Bustamante does with the folktale is fascinating
EL: I can’t wait to see it. Is it scary?
AKT: No, it’s not that scary. It’s not a horror film. He explained to me how he took that tale about a woman who weeps for the man who leaves her. He makes it much bigger - about the genocide in Guatemala in the Eighties.
EL: Oh! Interesting, wow.
AKT: He makes it political. His take is different. I’ve done quite a few Oscar conversations this year, with Stellan Skarsgård on Hope, for instance. Have you seen Hope? It’s not in your category, so no competition.
EL: No, I haven’t seen Hope. I love Stellan Skarsgård.
AKT: It’s a very strong film. Keeping my fingers crossed for yours.
EL: So good to see you again! Thank you for doing this!
Coming up - More with Elvira Lind on The Letter Room and keeping busy.
Oscar nominations will be announced on Monday, March 15, 2021. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), will honour the best films released between January 1, 2020, and February 28, 2021.
The 93rd Academy Awards ceremony will be held on Sunday, April 25, 2021, at the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center in Hollywood, and will be televised live on the ABC Television Network. The Oscars also will be televised live in more than 225 countries and territories worldwide.