Keith Maitland on Unpacking the Riches of “Dear Mr. Brody”

For as much work Keith Maitland and a small team including his co-cinematographer (and wife) Sarah Wilson, her college roommate and central subject Melissa Robyn Glassman and his producer Megan Gilbride had to put into “Dear Mr. Brody,” looking for archival material was never an issue as they sorted through the better part of 38,000 letters.

”One of the best parts of this film is every newspaper clipping that you see in the movie – and there’s a lot of them, those came tucked inside the letters we were opening,” said Maitland, who found the whole movie was right in front of him. “The letter writers were telling us the story of the past by cutting out the clipping and what was great was you could read the story of Michael Brody [in some of the clippings] that day, but you could flip it over and also see what else was in the news at the moment and you know these were interesting times.”

A character who could only come out of the wild countercultural moment of the late 1960s and early ‘70s as a heir to a margarine fortune that promised to give his fortune away, Brody’s story was always destined to become a movie, but another wild twist was added to his legacy when it became the one that it did. Although it’d be hard to top the intrigue Brody created on his own when he whipped the world into a frenzy on “The Ed Sullivan Show” with his offer to send money to anyone who wrote him in need, Maitland finds even more in the stories of those who felt compelled to pen pleas for assistance, something that was likely an afterthought when producer Ed Pressman originally bought the rights to the story with plans to make a biopic of Brody, inheriting all the letters that he received.

While “Dear Mr. Brody” is centered around those who have fallen on hard times, the film inspires as their letters express their hopes and dreams, often demonstrating their own generosity when the requests being made are not necessarily for themselves. Each piece of correspondence is full of personality, not only occasionally including a news clipping but other personal artifacts and the text comes alive first in the original cursive handwriting of the thousands seeking help, but then with Maitland and crew’s savvy decision to bring actors in to read the words with passion and imagine where they were in life as they wrote them. As people confessed things to a stranger in Brody that they never would to those closest to them, the letters are revealing in a number of ways, making the film’s central mystery all the more compelling of why Glassman is the first one to open them.

Initially slated to premiere at the Tribeca Film Fest in 2020 before the pandemic had other plans, “Dear Mr. Brody” is as much a treasure waiting to be discovered as any of the mail that the filmmakers open and following a festival run where the film charmed audiences at Telluride and SXSW, Maitland spoke about the intensive process required by the unusual nature of the material he was working with and the generous collaboration that made it possible, as well as how the past and present can live side-by-side with one another.

How did you realize there was a movie here?

So many of the wonderful stories that I’ve been privileged to tell are stories that friends have talked about in front of me. [laughs] And my eyes are bigger than my stomach most of the time. When I hear a great story, I just lean in and I love nothing more than turning around and telling it a little bigger than I heard it. Melissa is my wife’s roommate from NYU and she was working for legendary Hollywood independent producer Ed Pressman, who has produced everything going back to “Badlands” and “Thank You For Smoking.” One day, Melissa was there at the storage unit, looking for something else and she discovered these 12 large boxes of letters all postmarked January of 1970. They were all sent to one man, Michael Brody Jr., and they were all unopened – that’s what got her attention, and she reached out to Ed and said, “Ed, what’s going on with these letters? Who’s Michael Brody?” And Ed told her the story of the hippie millionaire and the movie that he wanted to make.

That never came to fruition in the 1970s and Melissa being the head of development for Pressman Films, she said, “If we have rights to this story, why don’t we develop it?” and that’s when Melissa told Sarah, my wife, about the letters, and asked if she would photograph the letters for her so she could put together a little pitch packet. Sarah is not only a producer on “Brody,”  she’s our cinematographer and an incredible stills photographer, so when Melissa sent a box of letters to photograph, I saw what she saw in them. Every letter is a discrete piece of art, a time capsule unto itself and a throwback to days when people really knew how to write letters. The language, the communication, the handwriting, it just grabbed us all. I wasn’t surprised that Melissa wanted to make a biopic of Brody because his story is fascinating and brilliant and unravels in all kinds of interesting ways, but I had this instinct that if you make a scripted version of Michael Brody’s story, these letters probably get relegated to a montage that proves the volume of interest. But what we were experiencing was that every letter was like a movie unto itself.

I felt that authenticity and those individual stories would be lost in a bigger telling, so I approached Melissa and said, “I know I’ve never really done anything like this before, but I want to make a movie and I want to do it with you and With Ed, and I want it to be about Michael Brody and the offer he made to the world, but it’s really about these letters and the stories of the people that reached out because what we see in these letters is every facet of want, desire and need that you can imagine. It’s an expansive story that continues to layer outward, which is a challenge as a filmmaker, but that just seemed exciting and an unbelievable opportunity. I was thrilled to hear Melissa say she saw that movie in it too. Melissa loved it so much, she quit her job working for Ed, moved down here to Austin, she moved into the house next to us and we spent years working on this movie together.

First, you have to sift through the letters, a process you’re given a glimpse into during the end credits. Could the film actually take shape as you were opening them?

We just started opening letters from day one and we called them “letter-opening parties” but opening letters took on every form you can imagine. Nobody’s read more letters than Melissa. With every spare moment she had, she was opening a new letter, but we would gather around the table – Megan Gilbride, who produced “Tower” with me, and joined us on this one, my wife Sarah, our editor Austin Reedy, our interns, and we started inviting friends and family over – my mom, Sarah’s parents, Melissa’s mom – everybody got in on the act. Over the course of several years, we just opened thousands and thousands of letters and it was not a scientific process, but we would read letters and make two piles – the letters that spoke to us and the letters that just quite didn’t in various ways. And it’s hard to give those letters short shrift, but we started to see a lot of repetition – a lot of people asking for money for college loans, for medical debt, and for money for their friends and loved ones who are in worse shape than they are.

We’d often pass those around to give [them] a separate set of eyes and we looked for all kinds of things and found all kinds of things – we found letters from all 50 states, dozens of countries from around the world and people from every strata of life. But at the center of it all, what we kept seeing over and over were the things people were asking for back in 1970 were the same things that people would be asking for, given this opportunity today. That no matter how much time has changed, we’re still dealing with the same problems and we’re still in search of the same type of solutions. That’s what convinced us that this film needed to be made, not just the curiosity factor or the intriguing puzzle of figuring out how to structure this, but the recognition that there’s an opportunity to understand the world that we live in today through the lens of 50 years ago.

This took me back to “Tower” in how you get at this liminal space and when you work on a film, do the present-day interviews you conduct actually lay some of the groundwork for how you’ll present the past or do you build on the past in order to look ahead at the story?

Through that process [of opening the letters], we found characters and we saw human lives offered up to us and it’s a fascinating and strange thing because we were reading mail that was never intended for our eyes. These letters were written to Michael James Brody and people had the expectation that maybe his wife or his close friends might vet these letters, but we were reading them 45 years after the fact. There was a letter from a little girl that says, “I’ve never had a winter coat. If you send me $6, I can buy a winter coat.” So here’s her name and here’s her address and we know she was five or six years old in 1970, so we run to Google and we look her up. Then we find her and she’s a school teacher in Massachusetts. We were just blown away by that process.

But I don’t know that I have an answer for that [specific question] exactly. I’m a student of history and I’m drawn to understanding the past. This story unfolds five years before I was born, so I certainly didn’t have a front row seat to it, but I’ve certainly spent much of my life reading about those exact times, so I had a foundation of understanding around that time. The music and the movies of the 1960s and 1970s are still the most impactful cultural icons in our world in a lot of ways and in my life. And January of 1970 is a massive turning of the page. The ‘60s are over, the generation gap has been explored to a certain degree, and the older generations are eager to put an end to the craziness of the youth generation – the hippies and the civil rights and anti-war movements and the young generation is looking at each other, asking a lot of questions after an entire decade of turbulence saying what did it get us, how can we change the world, what does it mean?

Those are all the things we ask ourselves as filmmakers, so it was a very ripe atmosphere and I didn’t come to any of the decisions in the film completely by myself. It’s a collaborative process, so just like we’d sit around the table reading letters, Megan, Melissa, Austin, Sarah and I would sit around just talking about those times and these times. We made “Dear Mr. Brody” between 2017 and 2020, a very specific political climate that I hope is never repeated in my lifetime, but there were many, many days just like today where we were looking at our phones, seeing the news travel at millisecond speed to change the world and news traveled a little slower [in those days], yet the turmoil and the confusion was just as palpable if not more then than it is now. I’m really fortunate to get to do this work, but I don’t lose sight of the fact that it is a process and that every day that we spend being filmmakers exploring other people’s stories, questioning the world that we live in. Every moment of that is valuable.

I’ve heard Melissa say in interviews she wasn’t immediately drawn to being on screen herself, but beyond her emergence as someone to follow on-screen, I understand she became a guide as far as how to handle the recreations of the letter-writing when the idea behind it was what her imagination of writing those letters would be. How did she become a character in the film?

I would say when it comes from the letter side of the storytelling, there were two instincts that were almost immediate. The first is what became our recreations in the film when the reality is we’re filmmakers, so we’re visual people at heart. It’s almost impossible to open a letter and have someone tell you their story and not project yourself into the world of their lives, so I started seeing these glimpses into private moments – people at their kitchen table, pulling out a piece of paper, sharpening their pencil and sitting down to write a heartfelt letter. I loved that process of imagining that and as I talked with my collaborators here, what I discovered is they were doing the same things. We were filling in gaps, and each letter provided only so much information, so we wanted to do recreations that honored that imagined process. You can’t open these letters and not wonder what happened. Did they survive the travails they described? Did they get to live the dreams that they outlined?

Then we’d go to Google and start looking people up and started tracking people down. We knew we needed to sit across from these people, hand them their letter and ask them to revisit their own past life. It was fascinating because so many of the letter writers we connected with had no memory of even writing these letters. And I don’t blame them. If you went down to a wishing well and tossed a coin in the wishing well and made a wish and the wish didn’t come true, I don’t think you’d hold onto that moment. So there was a little bit of magic. We didn’t know it’d be as magical as it felt for us, but when you hand somebody a letter and you see their eyes light up and a rush of memory come back, I don’t even know if the film captures how we felt about it.

As far as Melissa, she had no interest in being in the film and we didn’t have this convention in mind that we would be over Melissa’s shoulder [as] our investigator taking us on this journey, but what we witnessed as we started to make the film was this discovery, and honestly no one was as close to it as Melissa. She found the letters, she continued to open the letters. Whenever she had down time, she was opening letters and she was putting them aside and telling us about the letters and transcribing them and sharing them and that’s when we realized, “Okay, Melissa needs to be in this film.” She’s representing more than just herself. She’s the stand-in for all of us, but she also was the one having the deepest, most authentic connection to these letters and still does, so we needed to twist her arm a little bit, but eventually, she gave into the process and I’m so thrilled she did because I really don’t know any other way we could’ve told the story we were trying to tell.

Almost fittingly, it’s been a long, strange journey that this film has had when it was all set to premiere at Tribeca 2020 before it was called off because of the pandemic. What’s it like finally seeing it come to theaters?

It’s such a strange feeling. Every movie is different and every filmmaking experience has its own set of challenges and unique opportunities, but for “Brody,” this is a story that truly is 50-plus years in the making. Ed Pressman tried his best to get it going in the ‘70s and when that didn’t happen, something inside of him said, “Hold onto these letters.” And I’m so thrilled that he did because 40-something years later, Melissa found them and then Sarah and I jumped in with her and invited Megan to join us and we spent two-and-a-half solid years full-time chasing leads, researching, talking to people, interviewing and filming. Finally we finished the film on March 10th of 2020, that was my last day of decision making for what would end up on the screen and three days later, the world shut down. We joked about it and people that knew Michael joked about it [because they’d say], “You know, there’s always been something with Michael’s story. It just never had a chance to kind of get out there in the way you expect it to.” But the world had bigger things to unravel than the fate of this little film, so the last two years have been more complicated than any of us could’ve ever imagined.

For most of those two years, our little movie has been just sitting there on pause, waiting for its chance to get in front of people, so to finally be able to get to share it is a little unreal. I’ve never had this experience of finishing a film and waiting and waiting. I haven’t seen it that many times because when I finish a film, I mostly just like to watch it with audiences. I like to be in a dark room with too many people and be in a crowded lobby afterwards, listening to them debate and argue with each other over what we got right and what we got wrong. That’s what I’m looking forward to now that the film’s finally coming out.

“Dear Mr. Brody” will open on March 4th in New York at the Quad Cinema and Los Angeles at the Laemmle Monica, and on VOD. It will start streaming later this year on Discovery+.