‘Dead Mail’ Crew On Making A Bland Midwest Film With A Twist [SXSW 2024 Interview]

dead mail

While nostalgia for the 1980s may be in via bright colors and pop music, co-directors and co-writers Joe DeBoer and Kyle McConaghy wanted to portray a more realistic version of the past in their new film Dead Mail, which had its world premiere at the 2024 SXSW Film Festival. Their version of the 80s is muted, quiet, and a little bit sad, pitch-perfect for a movie that they described in our below interview as a “bland Midwest film.”

Read the full synopsis below:

On a desolate, Midwestern county road, a bound man crawls towards a remote postal box, managing to slide a blood-stained plea-for-help message into the slot before a panicking figure closes in behind him. The note makes its way to the county post office and onto the desk of Jasper, a seasoned and skilled “dead letter” investigator, responsible for investigating lost mail and returning it to its sender. As he investigates further, Jasper meets Trent, a strange yet unassuming man who has taken up residence at the men’s home where Jasper lives. When Trent unexpectedly shows up at Jasper’s office, it becomes clear he has a vested interest in the note, and will stop at nothing to retrieve it…

We spoke with DeBoer and McConaghy, as well as stars John Deck and Sterling Macer, Jr., about crafting a very 80s-feeling film, the Midwest, and eating ice cream on the floor.

Dread Central: Kyle and Joe, you are co-directors and co-writers of Dead Mail. Where did this idea come from? What was the starting point?

Kyle McConaghy: Joe’s too humble to remember, but Joe found this initial idea of the dead letter office. It’s a real-life thing. He came to me and he’s like, “Hey, this could be kind of cool for some kind of mystery film in the future.” So we started from there. This film became our list of things we wanted to do in a film. We love analog synthesizers. That’s something we’ve always tried to incorporate one way or the other in our films. 

DC: Are you musicians?

Joe DeBoer: Meddlers

DC: Cool.

KM: We’ve always wanted to make a bland Midwest film, so this kind of was a hit list of things we hoped to get in a motion picture.

DC: I love calling Dead Mail a bland Midwest film because it has that Midwest vibe. I lived in Chicago for a while, so I love the Midwest. Dead Mail has a flatness to the tonality of the whole thing. John and Sterling, was that something that you picked up when you started filming?

John Fleck: Kyle started it. It’s his fault.

JD: The blandness itself I think was rooted in Kyle and I’s upbringing and families. Everybody looked the same from 1975 to 1995. There was absolutely no difference. Same couch, same clothes, the streets and the signs, all of it.Just the whole atmosphere. So that was probably the biggest influence from our end, but I’ll let the actors talk now.

JF: Well, being a bland mid-Westerner myself growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, I jumped right into it. That house that my character lived in is very similar to many of the houses my brothers and sisters currently live in. So yeah, I hit the ground running in this bland Midwestern film. Loved it.

DC: John and Sterling, I love the relationship your characters have. It starts out as one thing and becomes another. It also feels just a little bit queer. As a queer woman, I just like to see queerness everywhere. So I’m curious as to how the two of you worked together to shape the dynamic from what was on the page to what we see on the screen.

JF: Sterling, take it away.

Sterling Macer, Jr.: Wow. I get the tough question. So I think it was interesting. I mean, one, you sort of have to understand the nature of the industry in relation to how actors get gigs. They’re sort of thrown together to do all sorts of crazy things and some of [those things] are more intimate than others. And so you’re always already prepared to go outside the box of whatever your own comfort is because that’s the nature of your job. At the same time, you have the luxury of hiding within the character in order to do that.

If you are willing to give yourself over to and establish an empathetic connection with that character, which I believe is the base fundamental of our job, if you’re willing to do that, then arriving at some level of comfort or a relationship evolution is natural and born out of the function of what you’re there to do.

So in a way, the short answer is it wasn’t hard to establish that relationship. I was prepared to do that. But not all jobs are equal in the ease of that. I worked with people on gigs that I literally had to go to the hospital after because of anxiety attacks afterward. That’s a whole other story. And then I work with people like John, it’s as easy as falling off a log to work in concert with and trust and allow the character to lead you to where the character wants to go. I mean, he was just absolutely great with that. So that’s sort of the long and the short of it. 

JF: Mary Beth, being an old queer performance artist and actor myself, I was looking for all those clues. Joe and Kyle, they gave some clues there when I was fawning over that old photo of me. But other than that, I kind of appreciated the nebulousness of it all, but it’s there. And for me as my character I thought was in such a deep freeze from having been hurt in his life from somebody long ago. It wasn’t even a queer relationship for me. It was just an empathetic relationship. I found somebody I could trust and that was the betrayal that set all the bad things in motion. 

SMJ: Yeah, and I think that from Josh’s perspective, at least as far as how Josh was informing me, I don’t think that Josh is queer. I don’t know if we get a full picture of that in this particular section of Josh’s life. But the one thing that we can know for sure is that Josh is incredibly naive and not particularly cynical about people. That allows him to be led in a direction that could make him vulnerable.

DC: I wanted to hear more about how Dead Mail was filmed. I love the graininess, the vintage feel. Did you guys use film? 

KM: We knew we wouldn’t have the budget to shoot on film for this one, but Joe and I had a lot of conversations about just wanting to go as big as we could with the look. We had tried to do some gritty retro looks in the past with varying degrees of success, but this one we’re like, “Let’s go all out. Let’s try to do whatever we can to make this really feel like this was an artifact from the 1980s.” So we shot it digitally on a red Komodo. 

DC: I was convinced it was film…

KM: I think probably using an old set of Zeiss lenses, B speed lenses from the 1970s helped in that way. We also tried some extreme stuff in the color grade. But I think so much of it too, just hopefully we were trying to make the sets as authentic as possible. Our production designer, Payton Jane was great with that. And KerriAnne Savastano, our costume designer was amazing with the costumes. Having something to shoot that felt hopefully somewhat lived in and authentic, I think helps.

DC: Every house, every space had that perfect 80s feel. And as you said, we’ve mentioned a lot of houses haven’t changed in the Midwest, but the wallpapers, the shower curtains, just the set dressing, it felt very lived-in 80s. What was location scouting like for y’all to find the perfect Midwestern house?

JD: It was not easy at all, and Kyle did almost all of the legwork. So we were going to film in the Midwest. I was scouring friends and family and reaching out for connections and everything just kind of fell flat. People, one, they don’t want you filming in their house. Two, they might have something, but it’s not perfect. So we kind of changed our plan late in the game and Kyle just was like, “We’re going to find a room here and then a room here, and we’re going to stitch together a hallway here and exterior here.” And that was pretty much the month of December 2022. By the end of it, we had a space for everything somehow by some miracle.

KM: Yeah, I think our experience with Dead Mail is a testament to the advantages of filming in Los Angeles. I feel like a lot of times in the low-budget indie space, you’re told not to film in LA. It’s too expensive and people are too jaded or whatever else. But we had a really good time just finding the right places. There are so many prop houses that have really authentic props. And of course, there are just so many talented people. The small crew we had was so dedicated to helping us kind of achieve this 80s aesthetic. But so all of it was filmed in and around Los Angeles.

DC: I also wanted to talk about the score. I love the kind of, again, 80 score, but it’s always kind of like it’s got the, again, with the synthesizer, there’s always some kind of strange noise kind of whispering in the background. So what was the work like with your composer to create the soundscape of dead mail?

KM: This one was a combination of various things to score it. We were lucky that there were so many diegetic musical moments in the film. Trent’s a huge music fan and Josh is playing music of some variety or dissonant notes while he’s working. So we kind of based a lot of the score on this idea of Josh fiddling around, tinkering around with his prototype. 

We came across Janet Beat, this synthesizer composer from the 1970s and 1980s, and she was willing to let us license it. Then Joe and I filled in the gaps. We have a couple of old analog synthesizers that we put back to work and yeah, I guess that was it. I think too, there’s so much diegetic classical music that we kind of felt like, “Oh, maybe Trent loves synthesized classical music.” And so some of it we sourced, but then a lot of it we just ended up getting middy tracks and trying to make ’em sound like analog synthesizers.

JD: Yeah. All I’d add to that is we really love the way that sound works in film and it just makes it more exciting or can change the whole tone of a scene. So that’s something that we always strive to hopefully find the most unique or perfect feeling or atmosphere or blend for whatever the scene calls for with sound and music.

DC: Amazing. So my last question is a little bit of a silly one, but John, what was your experience like eating handfuls of actual ice cream on the floor? Was that a miserable experience?

JF: Well, being lactose intolerant, you can imagine the turmoil. No, I’m teasing. Well, you know, just go with the flow. And like I said, I’m an old performance artist, so we used to do that stuff all the time. Smearing stuff and sticking stuff. So hey, it was a breeze.

KM: These guys deserve a lot of accolades for their eating. Sterling was eating microwaved kung pow chicken on a bathroom floor, and John was eating frozen chicken at times, too, so big props for their willingness to eat subpar food.



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