The Telluride Film Festival was expected to start next week on September 3 and play, as usual, all through the Labor Day weekend. Sadly, the coronavirus pandemic curtailed those plans and the festival was forced to cancel this year’s edition. However, Telluride did put out the schedule of films that had been selected, and on September 11 will host a “drive-in” screening at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena of the new Fox Searchlight film, Nomadland starring Frances McDormand directed by Chloe Zhao. And they actively hope that some of the other films on their list find an audience, and in some cases even distribution in order to find that audience.
I caught one of those films, the fascinating new documentary Dear Mr. Brody, which was to have had its world premiere at Telluride and was planning to use that showcase to entice buyers. Cinetic is selling it and is just beginning to show it to prospective distributors this week. The hope is one will bite and perhaps get it out in time to qualify for this year’s Oscar race. It would certainly be worthy as I discovered when I got the chance to preview the movie a couple of weeks ago and then interview its filmmakers.
Director Keith Maitland’s follow-up to the Oscar-shortlisted Tower, Dear Mr. Brody recounts the improbable story of Michael Brody Jr., the 21-year-old hippie-millionaire and heir to a margarine fortune, who sent the world into a fit in 1970 when he publicly announced that he would be giving $25 million away to anyone who needed it. This extraordinary gesture sparked a frenzy, with mobs of people camping out on his lawn, phoning him, and writing letters — thousands and thousands of them — requesting his help. He also was an aspiring singer and got a record contract out of it all and even made an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show due to the publicity before his drug-induced lifestyle and a media storm went careening out of control. Fifty years later, 12 boxes of these letters are discovered in a storage unit — all unopened. The film’s director compares it to a twisted combination of Brewster’s Millions, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and The Magic Christian. It certainly defies easy description and turns out to be a wildly entertaining, bonkers ride.
Julie Huntsinger, director of the Telluride Film Festival along with Tom Luddy, explained to Deadline why it was invited to their prestigious and often Oscar-predictive festival.
“Dear Mr. Brody was a surprise — it shouldn’t have been given the incredible Tower which Tom Luddy and I both massively admired,” she said via email. “But as this story incredibly unfolds, it takes twists and turns and we found ourselves on the edge of our seats, experiencing a range of emotions that stunned us. To our delight, a longtime festival and personal friend Ed Pressman figures in the tale as well. Here is another story that feels so timely — addressing issues and dilemmas that we face now — with a resoundingly powerful message: love is truly the answer. (That and a vaccine!). To us, this is a film that should attract a broad and large audience — entertaining, with a sneakily profound heart.”
The letters addressed to Brody came into the possession of Pressman, producer of such films as Wall Street, Hoffa, Reversal of Fortune, Thank You For Smoking and about 75 others, who attempted to turn it into a narrative film called The Ultimate Gift in 1977 to possibly star Richard Dreyfuss (right after Jaws and just before Close Encounters). That never came to fruition and the letters lay dormant for decades until fate intervened and his associate Melissa Robyn Glassman, doing research for a photo project, came upon them, and later got the involvement of Maitland. He immediately sparked to the idea of a documentary in which Pressman himself becomes a part of the story.
“I think one of the titles of the script early on was The Last Flower Child, and we tried to set it up as you do…it was 300 pages long. So it wasn’t going to work, and ultimately, we gave up, and the letters accumulated in a couple places,” Pressman told me. “One large batch was shipping to our home, and we had had a place in Connecticut in a garage, and we stored, you know, dozens of boxes. They just stayed there, and over the years, my mother and my wife said, ‘You should get rid of these things in these boxes. It’s taking up lots of space, and they’re worthless,’ and Melissa was working with us at the time and I told her about the letters for some reason. I can’t remember how it came up.”
Glassman recalls that she found them.
“I just became so fascinated with Michael Brody and the letters and just wanted to kind of revive the story and the project, and from there, kind of just started thinking of ways to do that,” she said, adding that a narrative project was still the way they were thinking since those were the kinds of movies Pressman made at the time. “Sarah Wilson, who’s producer and cinematographer, also Keith’s wife, is my college roommate from NYU, and a beautiful still photographer, and I thought the letters were these amazing pieces of art and had shown them to Sarah, and she shared the story with Keith.”
For Maitland, the letters meant something else entirely and the idea of a docu was born. “I started reading them, and when I talked to Melissa, she said the same thing. These letters, just they represented every facet of human experience. Like, they were such an endless array of new characters and stories, and even though they’re very much locked in a moment in 1970, they felt so incredibly universal and relevant today,” he said. “And I agree with them, that Brody’s story is an exciting story and would make a good movie, but I think the letters are a little different, because if you fictionalize Brody’s story with a great actor, you can get really close and inside of what was going on with him, but the idea of incorporating all these different letters and these voices from these real people, it feels like you would lose the authenticity that you can literally hold in your hand with these letters.”
Brody was a unique guy, and the filmmakers were able to get hold of a lot of vintage footage since this was very big news in New York for a number of days, front-page headlines and lots of TV coverage. They also were able to get an on camera interview with Renee, his new wife at the time who was caught up in all the frenzy with him. She really effectively pieces the story together in the docu, along with some of the actual letter writers who were meticulously tracked down — after many dead ends — by Glassman. It almost becomes a detective story in that way, but the interviews with those who would go on camera have a certain poignancy that gives remarkable emotional heft to the story, and proves Maitland’s belief that the need out there for what they (wrongly) believed was a miracle worker in their lives is something that is timeless. However after all the suffering during this pandemic I can’t think of a better time than now to tell this tale, and revive these letters, many heartbreakingly written with great hope.
“Thankfully audiences are going to connect their own dots on this stuff, so we don’t have to contextually on screen, but the question of the relevance of those letters, what’s amazing is I don’t know that there’s ever a time for this movie to come out that that feeling wouldn’t be in the air in the exact same way, you know, since 1970. I don’t know that there’s ever been a moment of prosperity for humanity that wouldn’t yield these exact same requests given the opportunity,” Maitland says.
As for missing the chance to unveil this all to the world at the notoriously selective Telluride Film Festival, Maitland is disappointed but sanguine about it all. “Yeah well it’s an incredible honor, and it’s beyond any expectations that we set for ourselves. It feels like a great continuum to kind of be a part of, and Ed has had great experiences there through the years. So we were looking forward to going back with Ed and it was a blow when they had to cancel,” he said. “But you know, these times, it’s hard to sit back and feel too bad about that sort of missed opportunity when you see how this pandemic is affecting our society and our culture, especially when so many stories in our film and the kind of stories that we all like to tell are being reflected right now in the world in these fairly dramatic ways. Our personal little loss in all of this feels pretty small.”
The plan for the actual letters is to store them at the Columbia University Archive where the public will be able to perhaps even have an interactive experience and actually open some themselves. Brody’s son Jamie still is processing all of this and he has boxes of these letters himself stuffed away in a closet as the film shows when he is interviewed about the father he never really got to know. He isn’t sure yet what he will do with them, estimated at about five times as many in the possession of Pressman and the filmmakers, but Maitland hopes one day all the letters will be merged together. And coming, ever so coincidentally, at a time when the U.S. Postal Service has been under unprecedented attack by President Trump and his administration, the irony isn’t lost that, first and foremost, this is a movie whose pure heart comes in the form of a letter. And it still shows the power they have to move us. Some of those unopened letters were sent to me. I opened them and read them and found the exercise to be very moving. From an older woman asked for a little money to help with her ill 85-year-old husband, to a woman including a photo of her four daughters and pleading for enough money to finish their college education, to a couple with a detailed and priced list of parts they need to start their dream racing team it is a portrait of America then, and probably now.
“And that’s how we view it. I mean, one of the most incredible things that I hope comes across in the film is you definitely feel it in the room when you open these letters. It’s almost like completing a circuit. Like, these people set pen to paper with the idea that somebody would read their words, they would hear what they had to say, and ideally, that they would offer them some help, even while we’re not in a position to offer anybody help and we’re not really in a position, you know, to turn back the hands of time and track down all the folks who won’t be around to have their letter opened,” Maitland said. “There’s just something, like, magical, sacramental, you know, human about acknowledging the moment of opening the letter and recognizing that that person’s voice is coming from the shadows, even just to one other person, you know, with no money in their pocket, and I think that completion of that circuit is really exciting to be a part of.”