Malkovich’s Mail

A running joke in Los Angeles is that everyone living there has a script to pitch, but Southern California cannot claim sole jurisdiction as the hotbed of budding screenwriters. Hollywood stars dance in the eyes of hopefuls across the United States.

The more ambitious fame-seekers send their completed screenplays and creative pitch letters to the numerous producers doing business in Hollywood. According to Malkovich’s Mail, Hollywood film companies receive five unsolicited pitches per day, which amounts to 1.25 million per year. Put another way, these manuscripts create 40 tons of mail per year.

Directors Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe take us into the world of five hopeful screenwriters and one production company, Mr. Mudd, which claims the esteemed John Malkovich on its payroll. Many of the scripts sent to Mr. Mudd are addressed personally to Malkovich, which is where the title comes from.

The directors have three ambitions in the film. The first is to look through some of the unsolicited scripts and find some particularly unique ones. With the help of Mr. Mudd staff, including producers Russell Smith and Lianna Halfon, they come up with five and track down their writers across the country:

B.B. Brown of Memphis, Tennessee, author of Bears in the Dark, “about people cursed with undiagnosed diseases;”
Lillian Francken, of Wausau, Wisconsin, author of Blue Moon Rising, who says, “I’m obsessed with telling stories;”
Jesse Vint, of Los Angeles, California, author of Trapt, who begins his pitch letter, “It’s been some time since we talked;”
Denis D’Arcy, of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, author of The Angel Frogmen, who got his start in advanced screenwriting classes at the Pennsylvania State University;
Jeffery Marzi of Morrisville, Pennsylvania, who has written two science fiction tales that can be completed with or without special effects.
They locate these writers and spend some time with each, letting them discuss their passion and devotion in an attempt to discover their motivations, especially in the face of massive rejections. For Francken, a working mother, the possibility of fame is exciting, but she claims it will not change her life. For Vint, a Los Angeles actor with some previous success, screenwriting is partially a reaction to working with poor scripts. B.B. Brown thinks screenwriting is inevitable in the face of the omnipresent media industry.

The directors’ second ambition is to get Malkovich to read some of the pitches, select one he likes, and then pitch the piece himself to a studio executive. Malkovich vetoes this idea because he feels it mocks the process, which is a key one in the film industry.

When they finally land the interview with the busy actor, the directors request he read a few and share his thoughts on them. Some comments are succinct. At The Angel Frogmen, he says, “I think we can pass on this.” Other times Malkovich is more thoughtful and less clear: “Even if some of these [scripts] … seem quite absurd on the face of it, most of them will turn out to be quite absurd. Unless you read a screenplay there’s absolutely no way of knowing.”

Fulton and Pepe’s third ambition begins with a question: “What if we were to send something back?” And by “something” they don’t mean rejection letters. What the writers get is a videocassette of John Malkovich wearing appropriate costume and reading parts of their scripts.

For all of them seeing their writing performed by the esteemed actor affirms their passion for screenwriting. B.B. Brown notes “I knew he would read that character right” and how the performance offers a “sense of completion.” For Francken, the tape “is the highlight of [her] career.” Vint is more reserved: “I’d say he’s about 85 percent of the way there.”

But the videotapes are not the only “performances” of the scripts. While the writers read their pitch letters or discuss their ideas, animation by Joseph Pepe also stages them. Pepe creatively uses cut-outs, including Malkovich’s face, to bring the events to life. These segments provide a creative and original answer to the documentary dilemma of what to show with the narration.

The film is careful not to overdo some conventions. The voiceover offers the right amount of exposition and narration without becoming monotonous. The filmmakers’ presence is felt in scenes recorded at Mr. Mudd, though they stay out of the frame. The music, composed by Joey Waronker, is a jazzy muted trumpet and piano well suited to the film’s off-beat subject.

Probably the one overused device is the scenes with the U.S. Postal Service and its employees. The shots make sense when the narrator notes the figures about quantities, and they, along with the animation, make for unique transition devices. They get, well, hokey at the end when postal carriers stuff the videocassettes into mailboxes and their recipients open them. The “mail” theme is fairly obvious, but those stagings take it a little too far.

In all Malkovich’s Mail is an interesting take on an obsession that extends well beyond the Los Angeles city limits. While the screenwriters did not see their names in lights, they did get something back from a usually ambivalent industry. And Mr. Malkovich might not look at his mail the same way again.