Elvira Lind is a talented documentarian whose latest foray into narrative is a tender piece of humanist filmmaking. Her 2017 documentary Bobbi Jene remarkably shows a dancer’s grapple with her artistic dreams and societal expectations for womanhood. The Letter Room confronts the apathetic and draconian prison system through the eyes of an open-hearted prison guard (Oscar Isaac) who is transferred to the letter room. Shocked by the emotionless processes of the inmates’ personal correspondence, he ends up getting intimately involved in one of their personal matters. The Letter Room was nominated for the 2021 Academy Award Best Live Action Short Film. Elvira Lind took the time out of her busy schedule to discuss the inspiration and production of her moving film with Screen Queens’ Caroline Madden.
Caroline Madden: Was there any sort of switch in your creative approach going from documentary to narrative?
Elvira Lind: It’s so different, especially with the type of documentaries that I do, because I just sit around and wait a lot of the time. With verité, you have to be very patient. And here, you get the pages for the day. And so, it’s a lot of organising and planning ahead, as opposed to waiting for things to happen. So, it was very different.
CM: What was it like working with actors for the first time as opposed to just subjects you were studying?
EL: It was fun, but yeah, I was nervous. Because you don’t want to say the wrong thing, or you don’t want to overstep their boundaries of what is their creative process. And I’ve been married to an actor for a long time, so also know they can get very frustrated and annoyed if they feel like you push them the wrong way. But it was such a great experience because they’re just a bunch of fabulous actors, and they just were so helpful also to me. They made my job easier because they are so talented.
CM: And speaking of your husband, what was the experience of working alongside him and just collaborating with him in general on this project?
EL: I mean, it’s always wonderful to collaborate with him. We collaborate a lot. We just started a production company, Mad Gene Media, that we’ve been also really excited about, putting that together. And this was just another really wonderful opportunity to work together. And we had a lot of fun, and it was also a lot of hard work to figure out how do we do it. You had to find his character.
It was just amazing to watch him work, because I really got to experience how he does it, because I had written it, and he had to do it. But then how do we work together in finding that? Because his character carries the story through. So, it was really special. A great experience.
CM: Did you write his role specifically with him in mind?
EL: I did. I mean, it’s hard not to. And he thought it was funny, the way that I had written it. And then I had imagined him to do that. And I think he really understood the humour of that and what it was that I was seeing. And yeah, no I did. I always imagined him doing it. I was always hoping that he would do it. He was super excited to do it, so it was great.
CM: That’s wonderful. And I’m also wondering, where the idea for the film came from? It’s such a unique and touching story. It’s in a setting that not many films have really explored, in terms of what goes on behind-the-scenes in the prison system.
EL: It’s interesting because it must always have been there. I didn’t really know about these mail rooms till I read this article.
CM: Me neither.
EL: I know. And you don’t think about it.
EL: I mean, there’s so much surveillance. But I had read an article about the ADX maximum security prison in Colorado. I actually really wanted to shoot there, which of course is completely impossible. But the inmates there have their letters screened up, they don’t even get to hold them. And it was just heartbreaking to imagine that you can’t even hold the letters from the people that you get them from.
But also, the showers are rolled in, and they don’t ever have any human contact. So that was like a very severe version. I really liked imagining that that could be the thing I did. And there’s no daylight. But logistically, it was impossible to show it like that. But that inspired this idea of, where do these letters go? Who sends them? Who screens them there?
And then how does that work? And I had listened to a podcast a long time ago with these men that were writing letters to a woman thinking that they were having a romantic correspondence. All of them writing with the same woman, then they find out that the woman is actually a man and he’s scamming them with money.
And they’re all very heartbroken, but they will express this longing to continue the correspondence, even though they know. So, this idea of what is right and wrong. And how we need to feel connected. And then I don’t know, it just spun from there.
CM: What were some of the challenges or maybe unique elements of shooting on an active prison ground?
EL: I mean, so many. A lot of ‘now you have to get out and then you have to wait’, and there’s a lot of security checkpoints. And actually, the day of arriving, me and the TP had both forgotten to bring our IDs. Then we had to get our IDs and we delayed everything an hour. It was just like, “Oh, couldn’t be worse.” But it was very structurally difficult.
I found that it was really important to have the sounds and there’s just something that you can’t recreate. I think being a documentary filmmaker, I really like to rest or lean against reality as much as possible. And especially when you’re working with something as serious as that. And also, then, we were still trying to have some comedic tones so that it didn’t go either way overboard, you know? So, I think it was also important for Oscar to experience what it was like to like roam around in that space.
CM: What was the most challenging or just maybe any scene that sticks out in your mind during shooting, whether it be particularly challenging or memorable?
EL: It was a really magical day to shoot with Ali and Oscar, in the scene where we sit down.We just did the whole scene every time and just kind of being there in the room with them and them trying. I can’t even explain why I was very moved and touched by it in the way that they made that happen and come to life and it was very, very touching.
CM: For those that don’t know, you were in the third trimester of pregnancy while filming. How was that experience?
EL: I felt very energised and very excited to be on set. It felt really easy to do it. But I also know that there can be situations where it can be very, very difficult to run around. And I was also very tired afterwards. But here I think it was really nice to see that it was possible.
It felt powerful. I felt empowered. And it was a fun experience to have with your unborn baby, and also, I produce as a woman, she’s been through a pregnancy, she knew what’s up, and everyone was so incredibly considerate and kind and helpful.
And they just make sure that I felt looked after, but I didn’t need a lot of looking after surprisingly. I think I was just so excited that all the energy came from so many endorphins and being so excited to be on the set. And making the story we wanted to do for so long. It was just amazing to just see it all come together. I felt energetic, surprisingly energetic.
CM: You had previously mentioned your production company. What kind of future projects are you working on?
EL: We’ve got a lot of different projects going on. There’s just a lot of things in the works and it’s super exciting for us. We’ll be making various types of productions. Both, we’ve got a graphic novel in the making, podcast, documentary, fiction. So, there’s a lot going on.
CM: Congratulations on your Oscar nomination. What does that mean for you?
EL: It means so much because suddenly a lot of people will watch your film. It’s such a big privilege and it’s definitely something I don’t take for granted. I’m very, very excited to be sharing it with so many people that all the attention that it’s getting. I appreciate that so much. It’s a very exciting moment.
*This interview has been edited for clarity and length*
by Caroline Madden
Caroline is the author of Springsteen as Soundtrack. Her favourite films include Dog Day Afternoon, Baby It’s You, Inside Llewyn Davis, and The Lord of the Rings. She is the Editor in Chief of Video Librarian. She has an MA degree in Cinema Studies from SCAD. You can follow her on Twitter @crolinss.