A CONVERSATION WITH KEITH MAITLAND (DEAR MR. BRODY)
In January 1970, hippie-millionaire Michael Brody Jr. announced to the world that he was giving away $25 million from his margarine inheritance to usher in a new era of peace and love, igniting a whirlwind of events. In just a few wacko weeks, Brody and his young wife were mobbed by the public, scrutinized by the media, and overwhelmed by a mountain of personal letters requesting his patronage. Fifty years later, the discovery of twelve large boxes of unopened letters in an LA storage unit inspired a search into a story that has all but faded from the public memory. Director Keith Maitland (Tower) opens thousands of letters, and the stories they hold, in Dear Mr. Brody. I had a chance to chat with the director shortly before his film’s premiere on Discovery +.
Hammer to Nail: I have to start with the question that I’m sure everybody is asking, because for me, when I started watching this, I was like, “I have never heard of this story. I’ve never heard of this person. I have no idea why I haven’t heard of this person.” So where did you hear of Michael Brody and this story?
Keith Maitland: Yeah. I had no knowledge of this story at all. I consider myself a little bit of a student of history, especially history of that time period. I grew up really enamored of the late ’60s, the art and culture that came out of that time. But I first heard about Michael Brody and his big offer from Melissa Glassman, the producer who discovered the letters, as featured in the film. Melissa is my wife’s college roommate. They lived together at NYU 20-something years ago. It was after Melissa discovered the letters, which she talks about in the film. But she was working for Ed Pressman and Ed had tried to make a movie in the ’70s, but in the years after, it didn’t happen. Ed had since lost the script and had no connection to it anymore, but he kept the letters all those years.
When Melissa found the letters, she said to Ed, “Why don’t we revitalize this, hire a new screenwriter, and make the fiction telling of Brody, that you initially wanted?” Ed said, “Let’s do it.” In the process of that, Melissa reached out to her old college roommate, my wife, Sarah Wilson, just asking Sarah if she would photograph a box of letters, so Melissa could put a little package together to go out to investors, to fund the screenplay. One day, a box of letters showed up at our door, here in Austin. My greedy, storytelling heart just started pumping. Sarah and I sat there, read letters, and we talked to Melissa. We’d all had the same experience. Melissa, from the moment she found them. Sarah and I, from the moment we started reading them. I reached out to Megan Gilbride. We were in the process of finishing Tower, at that moment. I told Megan about the letters and she wanted to read them. It didn’t take very long for us to know we wanted to make a documentary.
HtN: So, “No, don’t make a narrative. Let me make a documentary.”
KM: I’m such a fan of the movie, Brewster’s Millions, the Richard Pryor film from the ’80s. I just loved that film. It really grabbed me when I was a kid.
HtN: I grew up with that film.
KM: I saw this as a psychedelic Brewster’s Millions, but I also knew in the making of that film, all those people who lined up and crowded him for money, all the people who lined up at the hotel and came in with their big ideas on what he should invest in, they basically became a montage. They were illustrative of a sense of volume, and that there wasn’t room in that film to get into their stories. That was part of my pitch to Melissa. I said, “I think you should make a fiction telling. You should write a screenplay. But that’s going to take you a few years. In the meantime, we could get started on this. I think in our film, we could do a better job of separating out and siloing out these individual stories, that were really touching us in the letters.”
HtN: In a sense, your documentary can be the best-pitch document ever for investors for the narrative film.
KM: That certainly crossed my mind, but I didn’t presume to tell Ed Pressman how he should produce his films. Although, now that we’re done, we partnered on it together, and I’ve gotten to know Ed through the years, I’m thrilled with the idea that someone might see this film and reach out to him and say, “Hey, let’s take a swing at a fictional telling.” Ed asked me a few months ago if I wanted to direct, should we put together a package? I let him know that I think my time with Michael Brody has passed. I’ve done my work, but I’d be very excited to be an executive producer, to stand back, and watch some other director go cast Timothée Chalamet or some other bright, young actor, who could bring Brody’s story to life.
HtN: I love that. I think that how you all emotionally responded to the letters comes through in the film, because we get to see people reading letters. We get to see people reading letters that they sent when they were children or people reading letters that their parents sent. That’s such a poignant watching experience. It’s hard to imagine how that would come through in a narrative film. Even just as I’m talking about it, it’s hard to convey why that’s so emotional, watching somebody read a letter. But you really captured that. Can you tell me a little bit about filming those scenes and how you put that together?
KM: For me, it starts with sitting around the table after a big meal when I was a kid, listening to my grandparents, my aunts, and uncles tell stories of their childhood and their lives. I’ve just always been drawn to, what was it like back then? How is it different than my life? As we read these letters, immediately, from the first letter we read, you start projecting yourself into the lives of these people and they share their heartfelt personal stories. It’s like reading a diary entry or some secret missive. You can’t help, but say, “What happened? Did they survive? Did they overcome? We know they didn’t get any money. The letter wasn’t opened.”
You go to Google and you start looking people up. It didn’t take very long to start finding people. Not everybody, for sure. It was actually much more difficult than we expected over the life of the film, but right away, we found some letter-writers. We saw people who were writing from abject poverty. We’d find their Facebook page and see they just got back from vacation at Disney World, with their kids and their grandkids. We said, “Wow. They figured it out, I guess.” I didn’t know it would be as emotional as it turned out to be, but I knew that it would be fascinating. I knew that there was an opportunity to explore humanity. Also, just in a fairly mercenary way, there were so many letters, that I knew that if one of them didn’t work out for us, the next one probably would. It turned out that wasn’t a problem. We had more story than we could ever squeeze into a feature.
HtN: I have to admit that as we were watching the film, I started to get angry about the letters that didn’t get read and the dreams that…I started to get really angry at Michael. Long before I knew that he had some drug issues and that maybe he wasn’t really ready to take this on, I just found myself getting more and more angry with the fraudulent nature of the enterprise, at its heart. Maybe he only had $1 million dollars and maybe he never intended to open up these things. Clearly, he hadn’t thought it through. But that, I can forgive, because most people with big ideas don’t think things through. But yeah, I’m just wondering, I’m sure when you were making the film, you had to know that people were going to have that reaction at various times and how that influenced your mode of storytelling.
KM: I understand that reaction. I think at various times, different folks on our team felt that way. I never felt that way myself, only because there’s a part of me that understands what it is to have big ideas, big dreams, and to be humbled by your inability to carry them through, especially at that age. He’s 21 years old. I think about who I was as a 21-year-old. I didn’t have much of a megaphone. But I’m glad, in retrospect, because I could easily make some of the mistakes he made, given that opportunity. He didn’t call a press conference and say, “I’m going to do this.” He got met at the airport after, basically, buying out the seats on the plane as a gesture to his wife. It was Pan Am, who called the press and said, “You guys should be there when he lands, because this guy’s wild.”
When the bunch of cameras shoved in his face, he spontaneously erupted into this big idea. Then, he was immediately bombarded, not just with people asking and with their handout, but also, with people who presented him with opportunities. He got talent managers, who he’d never met before, who got him booked onto The Ed Sullivan Show less than a week after all this, that convinced him that he could play music in front of people when he had literally been playing guitar for less than a year. He’s a complex and complicated guy. Honestly, for me, I didn’t ever feel that anger, but I totally understand how you could and why you would. For me, I felt a sense of sadness, both that he was left to his own devices so much, and a real sense of sadness, as a filmmaker and as a storyteller, that I knew we would never really get to know the real Michael. The closest we came is in the letter that Chris Doubek performs in the recreations. That’s a fascinating story, because that letter, which is from his childhood pediatrician, who says, “I remember you as an unhappy child, who was not looked after and was not given love. Was given gifts, toys, and bicycles, but not love and compassion.” That letter was just in the pile of letters.
HtN: It could have been in one of those 75 cases of letters that his son has, that nobody’s opened.
KM: That’s right. It almost didn’t get opened by us. Our process was, literally, pick up a letter, feel it, try and see, “Is this letter speaking to me?” Usually, it was more about, how thick was it? Did it feel like there was a mini novel written in it or did it feel like a one-pager? Melissa, she picked up that letter and she said, “It’s from a doctor on Long Island, but I don’t know.” She put it aside. My mom happened to be over that day, opening letters with Melissa. My mom said, “You’ve got to open that one. It’s from a doctor,” which to this day, I still don’t know what she meant by that. But she opened it and it changed the film. It changed our understanding of Michael. I think the feeling you have, if I had given you that letter 10 minutes into the movie, I don’t know that you would’ve had that feeling. That’s part of the manipulation of our storytelling process.
HtN: It’s an interesting journey to be on, because I didn’t know any of the history. As soon as I start watching these documentaries, especially if I’m watching with my wife, because my wife is really terrible about going to Wikipedia and finding out the end. I’m like, “Please, don’t do that, because I don’t know what happened. I don’t want know if this guy gave away all his money.” But I think that gives you so much power, as a storyteller, to let us know the information in the order that you want us to. I really enjoyed the tag sequence, in which we saw all the actors opening letters. I personally enjoyed it, because I was like, “There’s some of my friends, there’s Frank Mosley.” But also, it was just cool to see. It’s almost like getting to peer behind the lens of the camera, see the process, and let us see how you made the film. Can you talk a little bit about that sequence, in itself, and why that stayed in?
KM: That was the closest to the reality of our lives for two-and-a-half years. Like I mentioned, Austin Reedy, Sarah, Megan, Melissa, our interns, my mom, Sarah’s folks. Megan’s mom came down from Virginia. Melissa’s mom came down from New York. Our composer, Osei Essed, everybody. We would just open letters, sometimes, in these very organized letter-reading parties that looked very much like that scene.
Melissa, literally, lived with the letters. She was opening letters almost every day. It was not the initial idea that Melissa would be in the film at all. It was something we came to realize within the first few months of making the film. But it was because what you seized on in your question. The most exciting part of the letter-reading experience, before we got into the point of shooting recreations, before we got into the point of tracking down letter-writers, was just the magic, the comedy, the sadness, everything of sitting around a table and sharing this experience with each other. Brody’s bodyguard, Michael Aronin, talked about it. He said they would sit around on the floor and open letters, but it got too heavy for them. I’m not surprised. They were living it. These were real people in front of them, asking for help.
HtN: Whereas, you’re reading something from 50 years ago and you’re like, “These people are probably okay, by now. Or whatever they’re asking for, clearly, it’s too late, so I don’t have to feel bad about it.”
KM: For me, also, I love a post-credit sequence. It goes back to Cannonball Run. I love seeing the rough edges at the frame, catching a C-stand when they’re turning the camera around onto the process. We got to embrace all those different techniques. But it was, mostly, to just acknowledge the magic that we were experiencing.
HtN: It was fun to see you employ some extra visual methods, some animation stuff. Obviously, I was expecting a little bit of that, having seen Tower. It was fun to see you expand our visual palette in this film. Other than the recreations, how did you know when you were going to do what you were going to do? How did you get led to those decisions?
KM: I knew right out of the gate, that we weren’t going to do rotoscoped animation, because I just never want to do what the expectation is. Also, I felt like Tower was a singular experience and I wanted to let it be that. We were turning the page and coming to something new. Initially, I knew that we would have a lot of archival footage. We would have a lot of visuals from the letters, a lot of different voices. I was wary of adding in another layer of visual information, but as we went on, I felt like something was missing. I just like to express myself, as a visual artist, as much as possible, through this non-fiction work. One day, on Facebook, there was a guy that I had never met in person, but had reached out to me during Tower, who’s a musician from Abilene.
He had submitted some music for me to consider for Tower, which I loved, but I didn’t have a need for. But we became friends on Facebook. One day, he posted this collage music video that he’d made. I saw this moving collage technique and it just immediately transported me back to… I watched so much Monty Python as a kid. I thought about when I was a kid, my mom, my brother, and I would make collages all the time, cutting up old magazines.
I saw in his work, a real connection to different emotions that took me back to the ’70s, to the ’60s, a way to include a lot of the visual information that was in the letters, that we didn’t have home for yet. I reached out to him and asked if he’d be willing to create some collages with us. His name is John Mark Lapham. He jumped in with both feet. We worked together for the last year of the project, to create those collages. I would’ve snuck more in if I had room for them. But what was exciting is, literally, every bit of visual information in those collages comes from Sarah’s photographs of the letters.
HtN: Final Question. Do we know exactly how much money Michael had?
KM: I don’t know that we’ll ever know how much money Michael had, but we believe that when Michael turned 21, he was given $250,000 in one chunk. Then, started receiving a monthly allowance out of that trust. Some people think it’s $20,000 to $25,000. Some people say it might have been as much as $50,000. Our belief is that Michael gave away, or spent, all of the 250,000 and two or three months of that allowance. We estimate that he put out about $350,000 into the world, but still had close to $1 million dollars in the trust, which he lived off of until his untimely end. Then, his son, Jamie, inherited the rest.
Jamie, though, was taken better care of than Michael, both financially and, I think, emotionally. When Jamie reached, I can’t remember if it was when he was 18 or 21, he inherited the remainder of that money, but I think it had grown quite a bit during those years, just because of good investments. I think the ’80s was good to people and the money in the stock market. Or at least Ed Pressman’s movie, Wall Street, has led me to believe that is the case. I don’t know anything about money.
– Bears Rebecca Fonté (@BearsFonte)