Actors Jesse L. Martin and Rick Cosnett are moving behind the camera for their latest project, a short film titled, The Letter Carrier. The film, whose Kickstarter goes live March 4, 2015, is a fable that centers around a Black family living in the mountains during 1860. The story is based on a tale that Martin’s aunt told him when he was a child. Martin and Cosnett met on the set of the CW series, The Flash, where they play detectives Joe West and Eddie Thawne, respectively. They are new to directing and producing, and have been working on developing this story into a short film for months. Now, they are ready to move onto the next stage: getting enough funding to move this project that they are both passionate about forward into the production stages.
Recently, I sat down to speak with them about this project to get some insight about the story and what it means to them, as well as how the production process has been thus far.
Denisha: Why don’t we start with a brief description of what the film is about?
Jesse Martin: The film is about a Black family in 1860 consisting of a mother and four children who, somehow, unbeknownst to us, escaped slavery and have secluded themselves in the mountains. And it is a fable. The gist of the story is that the mother of the family has created a myth to entertain the children. The myth being quite dark, as they usually are in fairy tales or fables. And the myth ends up taking a life of its own and it has consequences.
Rick Cosnett: You know, it’s quite mysterious in a sense, and, it’s quite interpretive as well. There’s a lot of themes and issues in it because it’s set in the backdrop of 1860 in America in the mountains, and you know, we all know that at that time slavery was still going on. So there’s this wonderful kind of foreboding aura underlying the whole fairy tale because of where they are and the time that it is, but it also relates very much to American society today in the sense that we’re still feeling the effects of racial segregation in a big way. [This story] is not only intriguing and magical as a fable, but it’s also very poignant. And that’s one of the things that I just fell in love with when I saw Jesse’s writings and musings on this whole thing and decided that we definitely had to do something with it.
Denisha: I read somewhere that this story originally started out as a folktale told to you [Jesse].
Jesse: Yeah, you’re giving a lot of credit by saying so, but I grew up in the Blue Ridge mountains, and when we were little kids, we had a mailman who would show up on the mountain. He was an expert whistler, so we could hear him long before we saw him, and my aunt used to play this trick on us and tell us this story about the mailman, who, you know, he was a murderer and he was going to steal the children away or sell them. She only did it to scare us, and in some cases I think she did it so that we would go to bed. And to the point where, when we were little kids, we were literally scared to go to the mailbox at times. But, the story never left me, and I loved the way she told the story. I just hung on to it for the rest of my life, and it always stuck in the back of my head.
So one day I decided I want to write a story. I was having the urge to write, and I sat down and I decided to write a soliloquy based on that story. I changed a lot of it, of course. My aunt never mentioned slavery, she only said that this guy might kill us or sell us. She didn’t say sell into slavery but I wanted to put it into a historical context because, if you’re going to create a fable, usually fables come from some point in history – some point of reality. So I decided to choose that time period because, you know, I’m Black. That’s what our history had for us.
The original idea was to turn it into a play. I suddenly start to think to myself: How many African-American stories are told in this genre? How many African-American fables have you actually heard and seen in the mainstream media? How many, if you will, even fairy tales have you seen that included Black faces? So I wanted to create something around the soliloquy to sort of honor the notion that we belong in fables, fairy tales, fantasy stories also.
Denisha: What do you think it was about the story that made it stick with you?
Jesse: Honestly, because I was a little kid who had a vivid imagination, this is back in the day where there was no cell phones, no video games. We definitely lived in the woods, and in a tiny little house with a whole bunch of people, so your imagination is key in order to play. And you know, my aunt is telling us these stories, and we imagined horrible things. Part of it was fun to even imagine those scary, scary things. You knew you weren’t really gonna die but there was something about imagining that that could actually happen that really kind of made an imprint on me.
Rick: For me, I grew up in Zimbabwe and I agree with Jesse. There doesn’t seem to be a place for ethnic people, for Black faces on TV and in film and in fairy tales. And it’s something that, you know, I feel is lacking out there. Growing up in a very segregated society in Zimbabwe, I always knew that it was wrong, so it’s also about equality. It’s about human rights. And I’m so passionate and thankful and fascinated by this whole story, not just this place in history, but just African and African American culture as a whole.
Denisha: How did this partnership begin? Had you two worked together before?
Rick: We play detective partners on [The Flash], so we hung out a lot. And we used to sit there in between takes, and Jesse would be singing and I would be pinching myself. I know how genius Jesse is and how great he is, not only in musical theater but just as an actor. And one night I read the soliloquy, which he wrote in iambic pentameter, and I was just so taken and so impressed and so touched by the words in the poem that I just felt it was absolute gold and genius. And then it slowly sort of gained momentum. We got excited about it and got other people involved.
Jesse: [Rick] said he really wanted to direct something, and asked if ‘The Letter Carrier’ could be turned into a short film. And it hadn’t even occurred to me that it could be a film. I always thought about it as a piece for the stage. All I really had was a soliloquy and a couple of songs, and I said, ‘let me see if I can put them together in a short film format.’ And somewhere along the lines of me trying to put this together, I asked Rick if he wouldn’t mind co-directing with me because I kind of wanted to have that experience as the director on a film too. So, you know, if we’re going to do this for the sake of art, for the sake of learning, you know we might as well do it together, because both of us are basically babies when it comes to directing, so we decided to work on it together.
What role does music play in this film?
Jesse: We have a musical genius on our show [The Flash] named Carlos Valdes. And Carlos was the one who came up with the idea of making a soundtrack just using natural sounds. I absolutely adore the notion, and it adds to the whole fable element. We’re trying to put as much magic and mystery as we can into this thing, and I feel like that just does it. You talk about living in the mountains, and one of the most prominent things that you hear living in the mountains is echoes. So the idea of using sounds and repeating them as rhythm and as an echo is really intriguing to me and, I hope, adds to the magic of the film.
Rick: They work in tandem with each other: magic and reality. Because there’s a wonderful reality of them just using what they have and their natural surroundings because they are so secluded — this is their whole world. And the magic kind of comes out of the things they have right in front of them.
Denisha: Being a period film, what sorts of research went into the historical aspect of the film? What are some takeaways you found from studying period films in general and this specific time period in which the film takes place?
Jesse: Aside from practical things like what did people wear, some of the themes that are happening are this whole notion of breaking down the Black family. I’m sure you heard of this whole notion of Willie Lynch, and how he taught slave masters this whole system of, you pit one against the other, you make sure that the fathers are never close to the children, make sure mothers are never close to the fathers, so it was very easy to split fathers up. That legacy has stuck with us, and it definitely plays itself into our story. Plus the notion of isolation in the context of freedom, not having a community to work with because they see you as less than human. So you had to be secluded in order for you to have any sort of freedom. And the notion of bringing up children in freedom, warning them of what may be in the outside world. But in the skin of a spooky tale, which even preserves the children’s lives. Yes, she’s warning them of what’s in the outside world, but as far as these kids know, it’s just a story.
Rick: It reminds me of “Beloved,” by Toni Morrison, and the part where she says, “Look at your hands. Love your hands.” That, in the face of all that adversity, you know, what you have right in front of you are your hands, and you can do so much, and you are so powerful just because you exist and by what you think. No one can really get into your mind; that’s the only place where you can really be free, and you really free yourself in that sense. I just think that whole concept is so profound and amazing.
Denisha: How would you describe the overall theme of the story?
Rick: I think there will be different takeaways depending on who it is — everyone has their own experiences and own ideas about these things, so it will affect people in different ways, and that’s one of the beautiful things about this film. But in essence I think it shows us the tragic consequence history’s had on the American family.
Jesse: To put it as simply as I can, I would say: never underestimate what a mother will do to protect her children.
Denisha: You guys mentioned that the film is interpretive and different experiences will lead to different takeaways, but is there something that you hope the audience as a whole takes away from the film?
Rick: I just hope that it makes people think rationally about equality and makes people think that actually we’re not that different. There are so many levels of meaning in this film, and the meanings are so perceptive, we’ve taken every little thing and communicated them on so many different levels and we understand them on so many different levels and that’s what this film sort of does to you. I think that is the wonderful thing about this. In all different cultures, we all have this expression that goes so much further than just speaking, and we all have that as human beings.
Jesse: I agree with that. But also, I grew up in sort of — and Rick did too — a musical family that was very, very into telling stories. And the way that they told those stories was very interesting to me. So I honestly hope that people can appreciate the notion of a folktale. The elements of a folktale. The elements of poetry that we used. The imagery that we’re putting out there. There’s no word wasted in this piece as far as I’m concerned.
Denisha: So the Kickstarter goes up March 4. What will be next steps if you receive the funding needed through the Kickstarter campaign?
Jesse: It’s all about putting together all of the production elements, we have cabins to build and costumes to procure, and props. But more importantly, the harder part, I’m hoping beyond hope that Vancouver comes through on this one, is finding a cast. The idea of finding the right cast that can actually act and sing and are available and are willing to do this for literally no money.
Rick: We know that they’re out there somewhere, we just have to find them.
Denisha: Any last comments?
Jesse: I’m grateful that we actually got ourselves to a place where we said, “You know what? We can do this. Why not do this? We should do this.” I’m grateful I got myself to a place where I’m not afraid to tell this story. And the more I worked on it, the more I wrote about it, thought about it, sang these songs, and the more I worked on these things with other people, I felt really right in putting this thing together. It just keeps me fueled to do more.
Rick: I just feel so grateful to be a part of something that I feel is so much a part of my heart and what I really want to do, as a filmmaker, and as a creative person. To be associated with a project like this is sort of perfect, and I’m so grateful for anyone who would support us, because I really feel like it’s coming from such a good place that it was sort of meant to be.
Bio: Denisha is a student at George Mason University with a passion for writing and storytelling. She can often be found at Starbucks with a chai tea latte and a good book or binge-watching Friends or Justice League on Netflix. Follow her on Twitter here: @DenishaGHedge