Dead Mail
Credit: Dead Mail LLC

Dead Mail Interview: Directors & Stars Talk Collaboration & SXSW Premiere

ComingSoon Editor-in-Chief Tyler Treese spoke with Dead Mail directors Joe DeBoer and Kyle McConaghy as well as stars Sterling Macer Jr. and John Fleck about the upcoming thriller movie. The four discussed the process of collaborating with one another and the film’s premiere at SXSW on March 9.

“In Dead Mail, 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,” reads the movie’s synopsis. “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.”

Tyler Treese: Joe, what does it mean to have Dead Mail be premiering at South by Southwest? There’s such a great history there, so that has to be very exciting as a filmmaker.

Joe DeBoer: Yeah, I think the word we’ve been tossing around is surreal, and it’s getting more real as the dates approach. We certainly weren’t expecting it. We’re very honored to be there and can’t think of a better American festival to be able to premiere at. So that’s the long and short for me.

Kyle, I was curious how your collaboration with Joe began. How did you two start working together? I know you guys did a previous film as well.

Kyle McConaghy: Yeah, we’ve known each other since sixth grade. We’ve just been friends and trying to be creative together ever since. Joe was a musician before I was, so I kind of tagged along [with] his musical pursuits, and then I started doing film, and then we kind of circled back and started collaborating on that. It’s been so fun to have built-in excuses to hang out and say we need to work when, really, we probably just want to talk about … I don’t know, the Minnesota Twins and the Cardinals or something.

Sterling, this is such a great role for you, and you’re put in some vulnerable positions. What was the most interesting detail of being a kidnapping victim and showing the desperate side of the character here?

Sterling Macer Jr: I think the most interesting aspect to me … is I didn’t expect the scenario that I’m put in to have as much of an emotional effect — a psychological effect on me and affect how I actually feel. I mean, as an actor, I’m used to working along outside stimuli to inform some sort of emotion or motivation. That’s part and parcel of what you do. I didn’t realize how being chained to a toilet on a sort of grimy bathroom floor with my hands bound and sometimes gagged … as an actor, you go, “Well, I’m going to be in a lot of different situations, but it’s acting. But I did not expect to feel what I felt during those times where the … I don’t want to call it depression, but the despair is what I would say really helped with making that empathetic connection with Josh the character.

John, when I look at you, you don’t look like an imposing figure. I wouldn’t be scared of you, but as I watch Dead Mail, you become chilling throughout. How was it playing into that side of the character and the disturbed nature of him? Because it’s quite the transformation we see.

John Fleck: Well, when you’re doing it, I’m not thinking that I’m disturbed. I’m just doing what I need to do to to keep my world intact. But the stakes were so high that it leads one to do rash behaviors. In terms of imposing, I could be very imposing. [Laughs]. That’s pretty easy for me, to be a little scary. I’ve always been able to tap into the dark side of human behavior — my own behavior, if you will. But like I said, I always saw my character Trent as an innocent. A naïve innocent who really gets … one thing happens and another, and then, “Oh my God, I just killed somebody. Oh my God, I just killed somebody else.” It’s just like, “Anyways, you’ve got to swim when you start sinking and that’s kind of what my metaphor for that was, if that makes any sense.

Joe, Kyle mentioned that you were a musician, so I was curious — we see the synthesizer and the keyboard taking a central part of this film. Was that like putting your own love of music or how did that implementation come across?

DeBoer: Yeah, Kyle and I are both big fans of music, obviously. We had to analog since it just seemed like a world that hadn’t been explored, this sort of … the analog to digital synthesizer world. So it’s probably something we could include in any film, regardless of what it’s about. It just happened to make its way into this one.

Kyle, I wanted to ask about working with Tomas Boykin because he’s great as Jasper in the film, and he’s like the third pillar of the narrative. What stood out about working with him?

McConaghy: Tomas is an amazing actor, so great to work with. He really brought so much to Jasper and kind of an originality that we couldn’t have really thought of, Joe and I ourselves. So he was super collaborative on creating that character, but he was kind of a testament to … we audition a lot of amazing actors, and there, after the first round of auditions with Tomas, for us, it was almost more of like a feeling of, “All right, we have so many good people to choose from, but for some reason, he’s such a talent, has such a great look, but he just felt right.” There was just something about him that felt like he was Jasper. We are so happy with what he did, and it was fun to have the privilege to film him for several days for that shooting.

Sterling, you worked with Kyle and Joe on their previous film, so what was it that made you want to keep working with them and reunite here?

Macer Jr: Because I worked with them on the previous films. [Laughs]. So I knew what these guys’ standard is, what their aesthetic is, what they’re going for, and the, the regard that they have for the craft as it relates to excellence. I mean, it’s risky for any actor that is relatively established in the business and trying to maintain a certain level of respect in the business. It’s difficult for an actor to say, “Okay, I’m going to put myself in the hands of untested filmmakers.” Because it’s like, “Man, what if this is a stinker? Then I’ve got to climb the rung again.”

But these guys … it’s been very clear since early on — first meeting Kyle, then meeting Joe — that their standard and what they’re shooting for … any actor would be proud to be a part of what they’re doing and their visions in regard to filmmaking. And I’m just happy that I’ve gotten to know them and we’ve become a creative tribe together, and that’s been pretty cool.

John, what stood out to both of you as scene partners while working so closely together on these scenes? These are very intense scenarios and I assume that requires a lot of trust with your fellow actor when you’re chaining them up to a toilet and having these intense moments.

Fleck: I think Sterling talked about this a couple days ago, but we shoot the scene and it’s very intense. Then in between, you drop it and go, “Okay, how are you doing? What can I do to make you feel comfortable?” Just to keep the humanity between us and not just play the parts. We talked about method actors, how they can’t drop it. Well, we could drop it easily and take care of one another in between the scenes and talk about what we need from one another, so to speak, to be the most effective and maintain our sanity. [Laughs].

Macer Jr: And that’s what I really appreciate about working with John. This could have gone sideways with the casting of it. If one of us was some weird out-of-the-box, undisciplined, wannabe method actor — next thing you know, these are real chains, right? That I’m attached to. It’s real objects that can harm people. So you have to have a scene partner that is cognizant of that, but at the same time, knows what the scene needs and has craft enough to turn it on and off. I’m just so blessed that John was the guy, and that Kyle and Joe had the foresight to catch somebody who has that ability.

Joe, one thing I really liked about Dead Mail was we start in the middle, we have a flashback, and then the narrative goes from there. But what it does for the viewer is you’re left wondering — how did these people get to this spot and what drove them to this scenario? What did you like most about that framing device?

DeBoer: I think that it all began kind of thinking through Trent and Jasper’s interaction and thinking it’d be really cool to see that through both points of view. Kyle, correct me if I’m wrong, but I think that was the origination of like, “Hey, let’s not have a linear story, and then go from there.”

McConaghy: Oh, I remember. Yeah, definitely. The first act, we were like, “All right, let’s just follow the trajectory of the letter and, in our heads, let’s have the letter be the main character.” So we kind of just were following the letter naturally. Then, at some point, we reached a natural end to the letter and Trent getting it back. So it just kind of felt like, “All right, now let’s tell the story of why this letter came to be.”

Kyle, I’m always curious when it comes to collaborators. Obviously you’re good friends and you work together very well, but there are going to be creative differences at some point, whether small or large. How do you two work your way through those differences of opinion?

McConaghy: We’re so lucky that — genuinely not lip service here — we see eye-to-eye with so much, and we have, I think, so much overlap creatively in what we enjoy and our preferences are, but there’s a healthy amount of difference as well. I certainly respect those differences Joe has, and when he wants to do something slightly different than I’m thinking, it always makes sense.

I think, too, maybe it’s something about the indie filmmaking process too, but It’s just so quick and you almost don’t have enough time to overthink things. So if someone has an instinct to go one direction, it almost like, “Hey, if I don’t feel strongly about it and they do, let’s just move. Go that way and keep the train moving.”

DeBoer: We’ve just learned so much too, both in the writing process of what happens if you tangent off too far and really just respecting bouncing ideas off of each other initially. We don’t go into some weird, ego-driven tangent that isn’t right. Then on set, to Kyle’s point, it moves just so fast. Really, all that matters is what makes the edit. So it gives some grace for, “Yeah, let’s try that.” Or, you know, “Let’s not. Let’s just keep moving.”

Sterling, I can’t think of cooler role than playing a Klingon, and you got to do that and in Star Trek: The Next Generation. What stood out about that experience, especially early on in your career?

Macer Jr: Okay, well first I’m going to preface it with this — it should be known that nobody has done more Star Trek roles than John right there. I’m in awe of him, tight? That being said, being a Klingon … it’s so cool, man. To know that you have a character that lives and exists in that Star Trek universe that … I mean, I saw last year or something that this character appears in some Star Trek novel, and he’s gone off and had a life, this character that I play.

I mean, it’s really kind of cool, and because I’m a Trekkie — I call myself low-key Trekkie — I kind of geek out about that. During that episode, I would run off with the extras and we’d go play on the Enterprise set even though we weren’t shooting on the enterprise set. We’d go over there and sit in the captain’s chair and we were taking pictures of each other … It was crazy. I enjoyed it so much. A lot of fun.

McConaghy: Tyler, this is a great question because John and Sterling would reminisce about their Star Trek days while on set, and the day that Sterling realized that where he recognized John from was the Star Trek episode, all this stuff came full circle.

John, you’ve appeared in four Star Trek series, which is mind boggling. How unique was that just popping in as different characters every couple of years?

John Fleck: I call it the Gravy Train, baby! I didn’t have to audition and those residuals are still streaming in — not as big as they used to be, but hey, they’re still trickling in. No, it was great. We’re talking about a tribe … feeling like, “I hope to be a member of this tribe,” with Sterling and the fellas here.

But I definitely felt that connection with Star Trek and … I don’t know, you just feel … it’s TV and I know most of my older friends didn’t watch it, but the amount of fan mail that I’d get from younger people — it was just exciting, you know? But on the other hand, it’s kind of an actor’s worst nightmare, because nobody knows who you are out of makeup. But I think Sterling remembered my voice or something. It was my voice that most people remember. But hey, mighty grateful. It was a beautiful time.

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