About "THE LETTER RED"
The Letter Red trailer
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November 21st, 2018
by Mark Schwab
Writer/Producer/Director Joston Theney is building a solid indie filmmaking career with such films as BLEED 4 ME and the AXEMAN series. In 2018, Theney attempted to take on a new type of feature with THE LETTER RED - an ambitious modern re-telling of Shakespeare's Macbeth. Back in May of this year, we were graciously asked to review the film which we found to have certain effective aspects but was overall too inconsistent to put it over into to the "recommended" category. Imagine our surprise when we were contacted once again earlier this month by the man behind the film wanting to set the record straight and "go on the record" about the real making of the movie from his perspective. It turns out there was a lot more to the story and a rare opportunity for indie filmmakers to learn some key wisdom about artistic ownership from the guy who has just lived it.
1) 1. Tell us first about the Development stage for THE LETTER RED. How did the pieces first come together?
The executive producers of the project - Arielle Brachfeld and Ed Gusts - are both actors whom I've worked with and personally known for awhile now. They were the ones who brought me into the project. With Arielle, I'd worked with her first on AXEMAN, then ADAM K. and AXEMAN 2: OVERKILL. She's an absolute delight to work with; extremely talented, upbeat, hard-working and a real team-player. When she was cast in ADAM K., she recommended Ed as a scene partner when one of my leads dropped out at the last minute and he seemed like a good fit for the role. That led to him working on that film and the AXEMAN sequel. While on that shoot, I shared with both of them my love for Shakespeare's Macbeth and they said they had a project that might be up my alley. They pitched me the idea for a film called "Blood Orgy" (which would become THE LETTER RED). The name alone made me wince a little - I'd just done 3 back-to-back horror related projects and wasn't looking to jump into something so on-the-nose. Both assured me that this project would speak to all the reasons I loved Macbeth if I just gave it a read. I gave it a read and, although it had some pacing and plot problems - and there weren't very many Macbeth elements except the names of characters - I felt there was a lot in there I could work with. And because both of these actors are always fully committed and work hard as hell to bring characters to life, I knew with a little work, this could really be something quite good. I agreed to direct if I had creative control over the script and finished film. They agreed but of course wanted to be included on the decision-making process, which I felt was understandable and reasonable. At the time anyway.
2) How were the funds raised to begin Principal Photography?
Ed Gusts provided the bulk of the funding. He'd had success in the commercial world and was able to fund about 80-85% of it. Arielle came up with the rest. As you could imagine, this gave us a tremendous amount of freedom and flexibility since the "creatives" were also the "suits." It still wasn't a lot of money considering we were making a feature film but everyone's passion, ingenuity and dedication made up for the meager budget.
3) How would you describe the set of THE LETTER RED during shooting?
Shooting went very well. Everyone gave everything they had. I can't stress that enough. Every time someone asks me what I consider my best film to be, I would always say I haven't made it yet. But during this shoot, I felt that I was finally making it. I'd re-written the script and given it heart, scope, purpose and appeal. I'd hired the most talented and diverse group of professionals. We assembled a skilled and hard-working crew. Everything and everyone gelled. The material spoke to and resonated with everyone involved in the creative process. Ideas constantly flew. We made new discoveries in the moment. Every night we reviewed footage and felt we were finally doing something that not only transcended the budget but was amazing by any standard. We hardly slept but the energy we got from nailing scenes kept us pushing. Like most indie features, the work was insane but in the best possible sense.
4) Once you went into Post-Production, what were the first “red flags” that popped up for you?
I've actually thought a lot about that - if for no other reason than to never have a project crumble in the final stages again. I'm not sure I can specifically point out the "red flags" but I can tell you when I started wondering "what the hell are we doing?" though. During post, Arielle was really too busy as a working actress and producer to oversee everything but she reached out from time to time to check the progress and watch one or two versions of the film. She'd give her notes (which were minimal) and that would be that, leaving many of the artistic choices up to me as agreed upon when we first put the project together. Arielle is a no-ego player and rolls with what's best for the film.
My experience with Ed on the other hand was vastly different. Decisions are often made during every stage of production - hopefully to serve the story and move it forward. Sometimes though, creative decisions are made simply to serve someone's ego which is almost always to the movie's detriment and this seemed to be the main reason for too many of Ed's decisions. Elements such as pacing, exposition, editing for performance, etc, often took a backseat to his desire to say that he had influence/control over the final product. Frustrated, I conferred with Arielle many times during the final stretch just to make sure that at least one of the two of them understood what film we agreed to make and her support was instrumental in helping me reach a final edit which I was satisfied with.
When I handed over my cut of the film the only items left to be completed were sound sweetening with minimal design and color grading - for which I supplied all of my notes. Remember, I was given final cut of the film as a precautionary measure because I knew that while both Arielle and Ed were passionate and creative, neither had written a screenplay nor produced a feature film.
Knowing all this and without consulting me, Ed brought in another editor who had no prior involvement in the project - whom I later found out had been hired mainly to make whatever cuts possible to get it from 2 hours to 1.5 hours. This was in blatant violation of the agreement that as director of the project, I had final cut of the film. When this outside editor delivered their cut of THE LETTER RED, Ed wasn't even satisfied with that version and began to make additional cuts to the film himself - not only did he waste money but he's not even an editor! Nevertheless, he plunged ahead and delivered his own cut which is the version you ended up reviewing back in May.
I was shocked at what I saw; my music was replaced with some of the most ridiculous compositions, the sound design was distracting in most places, and takes I had chosen were swapped for inferior ones and/or had elements removed from the scenes that explain the character's reactions/intentions. Frankly, all of our hard work had now become an utterly embarrassing shit-show. In my opinion, Ed's personal ego and inexperience as a producer/editor destroyed the film's potential. If I had been paying closer attention, I would've taken that "what the hell are we doing" moment at the beginning and realized he couldn't be trusted with handling the last leg of post.
5) Is there a “Director’s Cut” of THE LETTER RED that still exists? If yes, is there a chance we could see it someday and if no, what is keeping you from doing it?
No, unfortunately there isn't a Director's Cut of The Letter Red. Ed's company owns the material outright so I handed over all the materials at the end of post-production so I couldn't even create one if I wanted to. I do have another earlier edited version when I began to make severe cuts to the film to try to address Ed's notes but it isn't my final cut at all. It's missing things like the "dagger scene" as well as other scenes that I really loved.
6) As of November, 2018 what do you feel is current status of THE LETTER RED and what are your hopes for it?
I hate saying this but I hope this version of THE LETTER RED dies in obscurity. I also understand that by doing this interview, it'll probably convince some people to watch it just to see how bad it is. It's actually less of an issue that the movie is bad (although it is bad) but that it just isn't the film I turned over as I saw it. Instead, it's a film nobody agreed to make. It isn't the film that the cast and crew sacrificed so much to make. Everyone involved did an amazing job and this film is no reflection of that. No one stands behind the version Ed released except Ed himself. From where I'm sitting, that speaks volumes.
7. Are you still on speaking terms with the other producers?
I am with Arielle. We just worked together on the recently released SNAKE OUTTA COMPTON which she produced alongside her husband/director Hank Braxtan. It's hilariously silly. If you haven't seen it yet, check it out! Arielle did an amazing job and produced a helluva movie. Ed I haven't spoken to since I screened his cut of The Letter Red.
8. You have a strong resume of successful independent films. In the end, what was different about THE LETTER RED project for you compared to previous ones?
Thank you! I think what made this project different was that it was the first time I felt I'd found my voice visually. Many filmmakers attend film school where they get to fail in private while learning to find their visual style and voice. For me, if you're watching my films in succession, you're watching me fail publicly to find that voice. THE LETTER RED was the first time where all the elements lined up and I saw it and I saw it taking shape during production and post. For the first time, when someone asked what my favorite project was, I had a real answer. An answer that made me proud. Then I watched it all get stripped away before it's release and become an embarrassing display of ineptitude. When someone asks what I consider my best film to be, I'm back to saying I haven't made it yet.
9. What were the biggest lessons learned for you that you will now take into future projects?
Sun Tzu says "He will win, whose army is animated by the same spirit throughout all it's ranks." I believe that especially applies to film. Align yourself with people who are just as excited about your project as you are because when things get "real", that passion and enthusiasm will shine through the brief, dark valleys. Next, I would say to be on the lookout for ego - yours as well as others. Be sure that what drives decision-making for the project is what's actually best for the characters, the plot, the theme and/or the audience - it should never exist just to stroke someone's ego or to appease. And lastly, as Robert Downey Jr.'s character says in Tropic Thunder, "I don't drop character until the DVD commentary!" My largest mistake was handing over the film with my notes to an ego-driven, inexperienced producer. But even if he had been experienced and contained little-to-no ego, I still should have been present to make sure that the final elements were brought together correctly before allowing it to be placed in his hands which was 100% my fault. I had quickly moved on to producing another film and incorrectly thought it was safe to hand over this last bit of work. A director should never look away until his or her cut is being released, especially if they have been allowed to have final cut.
10. For all us indie filmmakers who might be feeling overwhelmed/frustrated/discouraged, what words of encouragement/hope/insight do you have for them?
A filmmaker friend of mine who has had considerable success once told me, "Stop marrying every film you make." After extensive conversation, I can paraphrase his statement for what it means to me and other passionate, creative people like me. Your film isn't your spouse. It's your affair. It's something you lust after but you never want it to be with you for the rest of your life - its just another conquest. Then you move on to the next conquest. When you start thinking of it as your spouse, you'll destroy your real life trying to attain this picture of perfection that will never come to pass because film is often a series of compromises anyway. If you are overwhelmed, frustrated and discouraged, take a break from it. Join your "spouse" (the real world) and look into their eyes. Realize they are the one you really love. They are your long-term commitment, keeping you grounded and connected. It's ok to sneak out at night and resume the affair once you're feeling better. Bad analogy? Maybe, but hopefully you get the meaning.