ON GATEKEEPERS AND “MALKOVICH’S MAIL”
Each week I write an original newsletter that I usually don’t repost to the blog. Here’s this week’s, about a favorite documentary I just found on YouTube. To receive future newsletters, you can sign up for free here.
If I ever teach a course in the film business, there’s a documentary I’m going to make required viewing. My guess is that you probably haven’t seen it because it was made for AMC a few years ago as part of a short-lived strand of docs about film. It’s called Malkovich’s Mail, and it was directed by the independent filmmakers Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe. The doc’s concept is simple. Fulton and Pepe visit the production office of John Malkovich’s production company, Mr. Mudd, and wade through his slush pile of unsolicited treatments and screenplays. They take a handful of these scripts — oddball stories written by film business outsiders — and try to convince Malkovich to pitch them to the studios. What’s great about Malkovich’s Mail is that the filmmakers also travel the country to visit the screenwriters and discover what motivates them to take up screenwriting. There’s a housewife who gets up at 4:00 AM every morning to secretly write while her husband sleeps; she’s too embarrassed to let him know that she harbors artistic ambitions. There’s a police diver who has written a thriller, and a challenged young man obsessed with flying dinosaurs. For these folks, film represents a validation of their dreams.
Malkovich’s Mail dates from 2003, and I think I initially took a shine to it because its concept was resonant to me as someone with a production company. I don’t have a Juno under my belt, as Mr. Mudd does, but even today I still get my fair share of unsolicited pitches — one pagers that come with self-addressed stamped envelopes for my reply. (Is some book out there telling folks that this is the way to pitch projects?) What cemented Malkovich’s Mail in my mind, though, was one small moment that occurs about half way through the film. When the filmmakers finally corral Malkovich, he reacts with a kind of bemused exasperation that he’s the focus of so many people’s longings. Don’t they understand, he says, that he struggles to pitch his projects too? That he sends scripts to executives who shuffle them to the side in favor of the latest Tom Cruise project? For the outsider, Malkovich is both gatekeeper and potential savior, but the actor doesn’t view himself that way at all. He’s waiting for someone even higher up to bless his own passion projects.
Almost a decade has gone by since I saw Malkovich’s Mail, and I think there’s another reason I still remember it. These days, unsolicited pitches are more likely to come through email, Facebook or even Twitter rather than snail mail. But the film’s meditation on gatekeeping is even more relevant. Today, a smartly executed YouTube video will get you meetings all over Hollywood. A well-aggregated community of friends, peers and people who just think you are cool will get your film funded and seen. But still there are those who would like to believe that if only that man in the castle would read their script… As Malkovich’s Mail shows, that man in the castle has his own issues and is probably sitting by the phone right now waiting for his own call to be returned.
What finally makes Malkovitch’s Mail a great doc and not just a smart insider story is its ending. It concludes on a wonderfully moving and inspirational note that, quite honestly, will bring a tear to your eye. The whole doc is on YouTube, and I’ve posted it below. Enjoy.