Elvira Lind on The Letter Room and Bobbi Jene and her children with Oscar Isaac: “It’s different kinds of babies. The human babies and the film babies. They tend to come at the same time somehow.”
In her Oscar-nominated Live Action Short The Letter Room, starring Oscar Isaac with John Douglas Thompson, Alia Shawkat, Brian Petsos, Tony Gillan, and Eileen Galindo, Elvira Lind explores loneliness in a variety of facets. Oscar Isaac’s poignant performance as corrections officer Richard pulls us in from the get-go. In the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival, Elvira’s Bobbi Jene on performer Bobbi Jene Smith won all three Documentary Awards.
Corrections officer Richard (Oscar Isaac) in The Letter Room
The finely perceived details give The Letter Room wings. There is Cris (Petsos), a man on death row who receives the most poetic love notes from a woman named Rosita (Shawkat) and there is Jackson (Douglas Thompson) who longs to hear from his estranged daughter. A run in the Warden’s (Galindo) stocking and the Out Of Order sign taped on the vending machine hint at much larger deficiencies inside the institution. The smell of a letter, foil placed on the car’s windshield, a discussion between Richard and his colleague Don (Gillan) in the prison about the love for gapped teeth - surprises lurk in the most mundane situations.
From our Brooklyn to Brooklyn connection, Elvira Lind joined me for a Zoom conversation on The Letter Room.
Anne-Katrin Titze: I must say, I was surprised that you were taking on the prison system and that your main character is a corrections officer [Richard, played by Oscar Isaac]. How did this come about?
Elvira Lind on Rosita (Alia Shawkat) with Richard (Oscar Isaac): “It’s very important questions she asks, which he hasn’t really considered.”
Elvira Lind: I think I’ve always been very fascinated with loneliness and how people deal with loneliness and solitude. And also this idea of punishment of each other. In a prison obviously that’s a whole different level. And the prison system here is so incredibly different from how it works where I’m from, Denmark, where we don’t believe in these long-term sentences in the same way that we do it here. I find the prison system here quite frustrating and I wanted to tell a story that showed that. But in perhaps a slightly different way so that we can all find something relatable. And then I sort of reviewed what the prison system is in the light of that and have something to reconsider.
AKT: You make it very relatable. The idea of isolation right now is so much on everybody’s mind. When did you make the film? Was it right before COVID hit?
EL: I wrote it right when I had found out that I was pregnant. And I was very excited to get another film made before I had my second child. And there aren’t that many years between them, so I was wondering if I could make this before I had another baby. And I did. I managed to film it with a crew when I was like seven months pregnant. And then we edited it right before I gave birth. And then I did sound, holding and nursing my baby at the same time in the sound studio. So I almost made it before. It was last year, no, yes. This is what happens when you have small children. I can’t remember anything. Yes, it was before COVID hit, it was done and we were sending it out. And then all the festivals closed down. So it was a difficult time. It was a very different world to have a film enter into. So it was before and it’s interesting how …
Elvira Lind on Richard (Oscar Isaac) trying to connect: “I think the letters also become a symbol of other things.”
AKT: … it really resonates.
EL: Yeah, how those themes became so relevant suddenly in a different way, in an unexpected way.
AKT: I remember you holding your first baby up at Tribeca. I was at the ceremony where Bobbi Jene won all the awards. So it’s a baby and a film.
EL: It’s different kinds of babies. The human babies and the film babies. They tend to come at the same time somehow. Or they overlap or parallel live.
AKT: Longing for a physical connection, which now with COVID people realize more than ever before. People realise maybe for the first time what was taken for granted.
EL: Exactly, the things that we take for granted! I think we take for granted the ability to connect with people, the ability to be close, which we don’t have at the moment because it’s all been taken away. But that’s something that we used to take for granted. People that live being incarcerated for a very long time, they’re completely robbed of any type of intimacy and that is punishment beyond - the fact that we would take that away from people. I’ve heard of people who were put behind bars when they were like 15, 16 years old, living in like solitary confinement for an absurd amount of time. It’s just like it robs you of the most fundamental things as a human being. I guess that is clearer now than ever, how much it means, now that we all felt how lonely it is during these times.
Elvira Lind with her and Oscar Isaac's Eugene - Bobbi Jene won all three Tribeca Film Festival Documentary Awards in 2017 Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
AKT: It will be very interesting to see where we are turning.
AKT: What this will lead to and how we can interact. I love the ending of your film. The interaction with Jackson and how you are not spelling it out but it’s so clear with their gestures and expressions on their faces. There is a Cyrano de Bergerac element to it of “I am faking something but it’s known that it’s faking.”
EL: That’s an interesting thing and something that I was very inspired by. I had listened to a podcast about these men that were all writing letters with a woman and they all thought that they had like a very special romantic connection. Then they found out that the woman was actually a man, skimming them of money. He was actually writing with many different men at the same time and they were all heartbroken. At the same time, they were very lonely men and they were all like - well if we could have at least continued to write letters. It was heartbreaking and also having that void.
I think the letters also become a symbol of other things. It’s like what is right and wrong? It becomes this grey zone. He thinks he is doing him a favor and we’re all left with our own opinion here. Sure, there’s something really special about connecting together and also a little bit for his own sake - he has someone to write a letter to. What is doing something good? Where is the morale and the ethics of it? It’s a play on that as well. Which is also why Jackson laughs at it. He’s like “Sure, you write me some more letters, if that’s what you need to do.” Who is more lonely? Who needs it more?
For Richard (Oscar Isaac), Jacques Lacan’s theory that “a letter always arrives at its destination” comes true in mysterious ways.
EL: But there’s also some element of gratitude because it is a token of human affection or empathy or wanting to make someone else happy and finding whatever can make that happen. Richard has obviously been challenged, if he is a heroic person or not by Rosita. It’s very important questions she asks, which he hasn’t really considered.
AKT: When Richard says “He [Cris] is very lonely in that prison”, well, so is he himself, Richard.
AKT: What else are you up to with Mad Gene Media?
EL: A few things, it’s exciting. Obviously it’s a challenging time right now to open a production company. But we got a lot of stuff going on and it’s fun to have our own world to make that in. We just got some offices we’re inhabiting. I’m working on a podcast I’m really excited about, a documentary and writing on a new script. And Oscar’s working on a lot of stuff as well. We’re keeping busy.
Elvira Lind on Richard (Oscar Isaac): “Who is more lonely? Who needs it more?”
AKT: The new location is also in Brooklyn?
EL: In Brooklyn, yeah.
Read what Elvira Lind had to say on Oscar Isaac’s Richard, complicated relationships, prison food, and the doubling in The Letter Room.
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.