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DEAD MAIL Interview Exposes Analog Terror


A man slaps a letter up against a post office box
Sterling Macer Jr. as "Josh" in the horror film, DEAD MAIL | Photo courtesy of Dead Mail LLC

By Dolores Quintana


DEAD MAIL had its world premiere at the South By Southwest Film Festival this month. Unlike many current horror films, it has an analog and weird beauty, with solid performances that surprise the story’s twists and turns. Going against the grain of most current movies set in the 1980s, it looks like a gritty Midwestern tale filled with murder, mail, synthesizers, and obsession. 


Co-directed and co-written by Kyle McConaghy and Joe DeBoer, DEAD MAIL stars an ace cast, including Sterling Macer, Jr., John Fleck, Susan Priver, Micki Jackson, Nick Heyman, Tomas Boykin


A brief synopsis of the film says: an ominous, bloody help note finds its way to the desk of a seasoned dead letter investigator at a 1980s Midwestern post office. As he begins to piece together the letter’s origins, it leads him down a violent, unforeseen path to a kidnapped keyboard engineer and his demented business associate. 


The film grabs you from its first moments. 


I spoke with directors Kyle McConaghy, Joe DeBoer, stars Sterling Macer, Jr., and John Fleck about the dead letter office, combining terror with everyday scenes, the advantages of working with co-directors, and Norwegian cue cards. 


The film's look is very retro, and the concept of the dead mail office isn’t something that the US Post Office really does anymore. It’s got an analog feel. But it really grabs you from the first moments of the film. I would like to ask, of the filmmakers, what was the film's genesis? 


Kyle McConaghy: I think this one started because Joe had read about the dead letter office, a real-life thing in the mail system. He felt that that could be an excellent premise for a film. So we started to develop what we hoped would be a straightforward mystery surrounding this. But then, as we went on, we could include many things that we wanted to hit on cinematically; we love analog synthesizers and thought that that could be an exciting world to explore. We both come from a bland, boring Midwest environment, and we thought it'd be fun to capture some of that, so it just grew from there. 

 

It does have that very Midwestern environment. The things that start happening, particularly from the first scene—I'm not going to spoil anything—there’s really that juxtaposition of what should be a comforting, static situation with such horrific images. What's going on kind of comes together and quickly becomes very creepy.


Kyle McConaghy: That opening scene was one of the first ones we wrote, and we were hoping to capture a little bit of that juxtaposition that you mentioned. The most boring house in middle America could have something unexpected coming out of it. 


Sterling and John, you work very well together. I wondered where you were coming from with your characters and how you approached the role.


John Fleck: I thought my character Trent was so cut off from humanity. I always try to bring it down to myself. I remember that, as a kid, I grew up in a dysfunctional family. I remember thinking I would never trust anyone so much that they could ever hurt me again. I think that was the root of Trent, in a way. He was so hurt that he cut off humanity, and he lived through sound. 


That's why he got so into all the speakers and the sound. That was his most alive sense and taste; obviously, [Trent] was into food too. Speaking of cutting off my humanity, the character finally meets someone in this setting. Sterling is playing with his synthesizer, and that grabs Trent. It’s just his purity, and Josh's innocent and pure character. If Trent could establish a partnership with him, then he could experience that humanity again. 

 

Sterling Macer Jr.: I was trying to follow the breadcrumbs in the script about the kind of individual this is. There's a meticulous nature to Josh. There is a high degree of taste that Josh has sonically and what he's looking for. What about the kind of person on this quest for a certain type of authenticity? What does that tell you about that individual? Is authenticity so important? At the same time, for me, there's a dichotomy. 


Josh wasn't a very good judge of authenticity, as it relates to an individual's intent or potential to do him harm. So, in that sense, all of a sudden, I arrive at the fact that, oh, there's a naivete to Josh. A lack of cynicism about people in the world around him feeds into the approach and how I approach the character as well. But all of that sort of comes out of the script, the questions I derive from it, and in the answers that Josh speaks back to me about why he does things. 


To Kyle and Joe, what was the process of selecting actors for these roles like for you? You did a really excellent job of casting people who are not just likable but very interesting to watch, and that engrosses you in the story very quickly. 


Joe DeBoer: These two guys brought so much more to their characters than we ever envisioned. They both really turned them into real humans. We've known Sterling for years and love working with him. Sterling will probably have a role in every film we do from here on out if he wants it. 


Sterling Macer Jr.: (Dramatically) OH THANK GOD.


Joe DeBoer: So he was a no-brainer. We had pictures for Josh, which was probably very early on in our first feature. We were at an Airbnb in the desert. He sat down at a piano in the house and started playing jazz piano. So then we thought, hey, you can do this, too. This is after he'd thrown darts and done a million other strange things that we asked him to do. 


John won us over on a call. A friend, Susan Priver, who plays Bess in the film, introduced us to John. About 10 minutes into our call, John started this incredible performance of Dido's Lament, just singing it over the call, in a very high register, peaking out the computer speakers. We just got off the call, and we're telling each other, “We have to cast him, right? What choice do we have?” John just brought so much humanity to Trent's character. 


Kyle McConaghy: Thank you for noting these characters and actors and the unique qualities they brought. I think a lot of it, obviously. They did all the hard work and have all the talent, but so much of it is just instinctual who we felt would be good to work with. Who is going to be someone who can bring something interesting to this character? We are not judging by what they've done in the past or what their star meter is. 


These actors have done so many amazing things. But I think it's an intangible. Is this person interesting, and are they bringing something that, as Joe said, we wouldn't have envisioned for this character? I think all these actors from Susan Priver, who's excellent and in a very eccentric take on Bess, and Tomas Boykin, who is so amazing to work with and delivers such a good performance. 


I think the fun thing with Tomas was this. Certainly, I don't think we ever really had to give him a note, performance or emotion-wise, but occasionally the only thing was, can you get a little gruffer or just a little more grit in your voice? He speaks in the higher register. He asked, you need me to go lower than this? Are you kidding me? But he always found a way. 


Nick Heyman, who plays Rene, is Norwegian. I think maybe before we'd met Nick, the character was a German optometrist. But we thought, “Oh, my gosh, we could have Nick speak in his native tongue.” He's a great actor. We were fortunate that most of the people we had a connection to were kind enough to be in the film.


John Fleck: The character playing off Nick in that one scene? They're speaking in Norwegian. The actor had never spoken Norwegian before.


Kyle McConaghy: Yeah, he showed up on set, and he said, “I'm gonna just do it in English. And the other guy could do it in Norwegian.” I said, “I don't think that'll work.”


Joe DeBoer: We got the cue cards out. 


John Fleck: He did great!


It's really something to pick that up and read off cue cards in Norwegian. It's not easy. How long did it take to film the project?


Joe DeBoer: Man, we started filming in January of 2023. I think we filmed for ten days and completed about half the film, but knew, by design, that we didn't have enough funding to do more of it. We thought, alright, let's film this, try to raise a little more money, and then hope we could film the second half. Luckily, we were able to find a way, I think, probably with a whole crew we filmed for about 18 days. Then we had another four days of filming that was genuinely just Joe, Zach, our producer holding a boom mic, and Sterling and John. It's just the five of us roaming around various strange parts of Los Angeles filming. 


It's amazing that you got all of this done in such a short time. It's so well put together that you can’t really tell. Being able to film something that's so well done and has this great period aura and creepiness to it really didn't take that long to film. It just shows that you can do something that is really high quality in a shorter amount of time for less money and a smaller crew, and no one can tell.


Kyle McConaghy: I appreciate that. I think the willingness of these two gentlemen, in particular John and Sterling, to work long days and shoot a lot of pages in a day certainly helps in that effort. Two months after, we were done with filming, and we called them up again and said, “Can we do another couple of days?" and they were both game.” Having a group of people, a collective that's willing to put in that effort, is so valuable.  


I think filming in Los Angeles benefited us because there were so many close friends here who were cast and crew willing to be in the film.  I think taking the plunge and being willing to do it, knowing we didn't have as much of the funding or personnel as we wanted. But at some point, Joe and I were thinking, “Look, if we don't make this film now, are we ever going to have this opportunity again?” So we just took the plunge. Luckily, all these people also took it with us.


What was it like working as a co-director with the actors? And for the actors, as the second half of the question, what was it like for Josh and Sterling to work with that dynamic?


Joe DeBoer: We've learned how to coexist seamlessly on set. We learned a lot of things in our first film. So we try to play to each other's strengths. We're typically always aligned on the vision of the scene. We shot handheld this time, so a lot of times, things were very loosely blocked, or Kyle would decide to start punching in while I'd be talking to an actor, so it was all very, very seamless. Hopefully, the actors would say the same. We just played to each other's strengths and, obviously, being well prepared to go into shooting,


Kyle McConaghy: I was thinking that some directors prefer to be with actors on set and by the camera, and most nowadays prefer to be by the monitor. I think there are pluses and minuses for both. I think it's nice that we could split that. I’m right there next to the actor, and the camera is giving notes. So maybe I'm there to give more of the things I'm feeling because the actor's right there. Joe has such a broad sense of things and catches things that I don't because he has the monitor and isn't as viscerally in the scene. So it's nice because we could cover both those areas.


John Fleck: As an actor, I appreciate it. Kyle and Joe weren't micromanaging my performance, but I love some tidbits and a good adjustment. I love to make adjustments. I love working with a camera: going this way or bringing it down and going with the flow. They're great at that. 


Sterling Macer Jr.: It's exciting to hear Kyle and Joe discuss this. I've found that fascinating. After working with them on their first feature, I saw the evolution. They communicated great on the first feature, but you can see that they've settled into even more comfort with working in tandem, as they do. To hear them talk about being able to cover both the monitor and the camera. I didn't think that was an advantage, but Kyle, you're absolutely right. If you guys have this simpatico and are on the same page, that's an enormous advantage. 


Sometimes, you'll be left to your own devices as an actor because the director is back there directing the camera and hanging around the monitor. By the time he or she gets around to talking to you, you'll be so stressed about everything else that's going on, and they're not really going to give you much direction at all. 


You're usually left to fend for yourself as an actor. If you're a competent actor and have some craft, you will be able to do that. But you would rather not. You'd instead do what John's just mentioned. You want a director who can give you those tidbits and offer some guidance on what they're seeing that still respects you as a creative artist. Kyle and Joe find the best of both worlds, especially on DEAD MAIL, and it was cool to see that growth.


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