Much has been written about the wildfires that devastated Australia in between 2019 and 2020 and burnt through 27.2 million acres of land in the country. Through the experiences a new beginning dawned in the country to support climate change with the Climate Change Act headed up by MP Zali Stegall. Supporting her and the act was Melvin J. Montalban whose harrowing and achingly beautiful film Letters centres around one little girl’s experience with the fires.
The film is a hauntingly real and stark reminder of how climate change is something that affects us all. Here LBB’s Natasha Patel caught up with Melvin to hear his experiences through the bushfires and what spurred him on to create the film.
LBB> I would normally ask what the brief and idea for this project was but it's pretty obvious! However, in your own words I'd love to hear why this project was so important to you?
Melvin> This film was actually a direct response to my experience evacuating from the devastating bushfires. My wife, young son and I were trapped on the coast after the fires tore through Cobargo early New Year’s Eve morning. And I’m sure for the holidaymakers and local residents especially, that experience is impossible to shake. In the aftermath there was obviously an outpouring of goodwill and support, as I was still trying to find ways to process my emotions and the experience. But I was also at odds trying to find ways to contribute, particularly in an activist capacity.
Meanwhile, Photoplay had been in touch with Independent MP Zali Steggall’s office, who was looking for partners and contributors to a grassroots campaign to support the Climate Change Act. Once my producer and political big-brain Tom Slater helped clarify the mechanics of creating meaningful change for me, in that targeting particular electorates to engage in letter writing is one of the more effective grassroots levers for change, that’s when I honed in on the concept for Letters. I wanted to find a way to bring our first-hand experience into the everyday, like a typical day running errands with the kids but in the context of an ongoing climate emergency. The scenes in the film - waiting out the smoke in the car, petrol pumps not working, phone and internet down - were taken from real moments during our experience on the south coast, reminding us how our everyday existence can quickly change. This obviously doesn’t begin to portray the pain of those who lost their homes or loved ones, but we knew we had a specific goal with the film and in doing so hope we honoured those deeply affected.
LBB> Where did the title 'Letters' come from?
Melvin> It felt right that the title reflected both the motivation for our main character plus the crux of the campaign. And I decided it should be plural in the hopes this film generates more than one letter.
LBB> The yellow hue throughout the film makes it so unique. I'd love to hear how you built it up and what aesthetic you wanted to create?
Melvin> This was based very much on reality. The dust storms of 2009 saw many orange-hued photos of Sydney go viral, so much so that it inspired the look in Blade Runner 2049. And now more recently with the bushfires, it was actually the desire to look authentic that led to that creative choice. Before the shoot we worked with our colourist to create a LUT, essentially a pre-set for colour, contrast, and brightness. We load this into the camera, and when combined with our practical effects of smoke and wind, we could see instantly on our monitors if we were evoking the hazy apocalyptic atmosphere we intended.
With a few more cues like the masks and the interviews playing on the radio, we wanted to evoke the bushfires without being direct. So that once we get to the end of the film and see they are also living through a dust storm, we realise the film is a near-future scenario where climate crises are more frequent. This is all the more impactful when you remember the massive dust storm that rolled through regional NSW in Jan 2020, less than a month after the fires.
LBB> I know you created this campaign to help MP Zali Steggall on her Climate Change Bill - what was her reaction to the film?
Melvin> It was so heartening to hear that she chose our film as a key aspect of her campaign, and for them to launch it for Global Climate Change Week made all our work all the more special.
LBB> The scene when the little girl bravely steps out to post her letter - not email it - is so poignant. Tell us more about that part
Melvin> I think the poignancy comes from realising this moment has been her goal throughout the whole film, and hopefully made even more impactful when you realise the letter was actually written herself, with a little help from Mum of course. What makes it even more special was that the dialogue for the letter writing scene wasn’t scripted. I spoke to Ariel, who played the young girl Matilda, about her feelings about the bushfires, and all those words are her own.
LBB> The music in the film is so impactful, where did the final tune come from?
Melvin> The score was by our wonderful composer Johnny Higgins, who I’ve worked with a few times already. We had discussions around how to use music in the film, and I always intended for most of the film to play without music so that the scenes feel more grounded. All this helped make the single music cue all the more impactful and climactic. The rest of the process was discovering we loved the sound of organ for this moment, and using that to track the young girl’s emotional journey for the sequence.
LBB> know you made the pre-Covid when masks weren't a thing for much of the world, I guess it's different to view it now from the perspective of wearing protective equipment being part of an everyday norm. Do you think this adds to the film knowing that so many can relate to the little girl's PPE?
Melvin> Masks have become so ubiquitous that the image can’t not impact your viewing of the girl and her story. People’s relationship with masks are also so personal - whether they trigger experiences of bushfire survival, dust storms, living with air pollution, now the pandemic, all of which signal existential threats - that in these lived in experiences we find commonality, that we are all connected and affected.
LBB> What is your favourite scene from the film?
Melvin> Probably the very last beat before the film cuts to black - Ariel’s character has just jumped into the car after posting her letter, and her mum helps her take off her goggles and mask. The look she gives mum breaks my heart every time. I didn’t actually notice it until we were in the edit suite, but when I saw that combination of her personal triumph mixed with desperately trying not to show mum her adrenalised fear, I knew that’s when we had our ending.
LBB> What was the most challenging aspect of making the film?
Melvin> This is strange to say, but the film wasn’t really challenging to make at all, compared to many other projects. Perhaps the hardest part was having to channel all I was thinking and feeling into the script. It was then relatively easy to bring crew on board, all of whom worked pro bono to support the cause. Short films take an inordinate amount of resources and energy, but we were all armed with a script we believed in and the intense desire to get it made. And I’ll take this as an opportunity to shout-out my wonderful cast and crew, particularly Photoplay Films and my wonderful wife and cinematographer Tania Lambert, thank you for your skilful contributions and immense generosity.