If it weren’t for a chance encounter, the story of a 21-year-old margarine heir who pledged to give away his $25 million inheritance to anyone in need may have remained packed up in boxes forever.
Fifty years after Michael Brody Jr.’s announcement triggered an avalanche of letters from around the world, Melissa Robyn Glassman discovered the letters — unopened — in a Los Angeles storage unit belonging to the filmmaker Edward R. Pressman. (Pressman once attempted to adapt the story into a screenplay, but the project was scrapped.)
This trove of letters – approximately 30,000 in total – became the basis of the documentary “Dear Mr. Brody,” which is currently available on VOD and playing in select theaters.
Writer-director Keith Maitland said he was “immediately” drawn to the story, which unfolded over ten days in January 1970, when he began reading the letters.
“You’d open up these little novellas where people just unloaded their life and told you all about their family members and their wants and desires,” he told TheWrap.
The filmmakers spent the next few years reaching out to people whose letters they found particularly moving. Tracking down the authors was “like a detective mystery in a lot of ways,” Maitland explained. Most of the time, their only leads were a person’s name and age, or the information postmarked on an envelope.
“There were a lot of people we just didn’t find, so it made when we did find someone even more exciting,” said Glassman. The scenes that show people rereading their letters – often revealing intimate details about their life’s struggles – are among the film’s most powerful moments.
The opportunity Brody created for people to reflect on and express themselves is one of the more positive aspects of his story, Glassman said.
“For all that Michael was, there was something he sparked in people that I think is really beautiful, like the fact that there were so many people who didn’t ask for money and just said, ‘I support what you’re doing. Here’s $1, here’s a $5 check, this is all I can afford, but we want to support your cause.’”
“He sparked people [to] not only to think about their needs and wants, but the world’s as a whole,” she added.
Whether or not Brody went about dispersing his inheritance – estimated to have actually been worth $1.2 million, or $9 million today – the best way is “up for debate.” Hounded by throngs of people and cameras everywhere he went, Brody and his wife Renee gave out cash haphazardly, throwing dollar bills out of windows and into crowds. After a little more than a week, Brody announced that he was broke and the phenomenon came to an abrupt end. He died by suicide in 1973, at the age of 24.
For his part, Maitland isn’t interested in telling audiences what to think about his subject. “Our goal in making this film with Michael’s side of things was to get to know him,” he said. “We were always in search of greater access to his internal processes.”
In the end, the filmmakers opened about 12,000 of the letters they had access to. The entire collection can be found in Columbia University’s Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, which become fully accessible to researchers in the next year or so.
In an interview with TheWrap, Maitland and Glassman discussed the challenges of telling Brody’s story, the crucial letter they almost didn’t open, and the message they hope audiences will take away from “Dear Mr. Brody.”
How did you come across the letters, and what was the path from that discovery to “Dear Mr. Brody”?
Melissa Robyn Glassman: I used to work for [executive producer] Ed Pressman. I headed out to LA where he has a storage unit, which houses some really cool things from his 80-something films over a 30 year period. I noticed that there were these boxes up on the shelves that just said “Brody,” and I opened them to find that they were [full of letters] all addressed to the same person, this Michael Brody, Jr. All stamped 1970, all unopened. And that just sparked curiosity. I went back to New York, got to the New York Public Library and just started doing all this research. I had approached Sarah Wilson, who is a cinematographer, because Sarah and I were college roommates at NYU, and had asked her if she could photograph [the letters]. Naturally, she showed them to [her husband, Keith Maitland].
Keith Maitland: It’s exactly the kind of thing that I’m drawn to, just like I think audiences around the world would be drawn to this trove of unopened letters and all the thousands of stories that were within them. Melissa had told Sarah about the letters that she was reading, about these personal stories that ran the range from little kids to old people asking for money for all these different purposes. We got to have the experience that she had of [reading] the letters ourselves, and in that process, I immediately felt drawn to the story and really wanted to pitch myself as someone who could tell the story.
There are a lot of lenses through which you could have told this story, and you chose to focus on the letters and the people who sent them. Why was that the best approach?
KM: I think the possibility of the letters was really powerful. People were asking for money for these big bucket items: to pay off their mortgage, pay off medical debt, send their kids to college, help their parents and grandparents in their old-age years. These were all things that really spoke to us as people living today, in this world. I write the same checks at the end of the month to the same bill collectors that those letter writers were. But we also knew that Michael’s story was interesting and exciting. There were very few hits on the internet [for Michael Brody] back in 2015, when Sarah and I got involved in this project. And so we recognize that this is a great story that hasn’t been told. It truly was a journey of discovering who Michael was, a journey to understand what his intentions were, and what he actually accomplished. [Conducting] this expansive look into these letters and figuring out how to bring that all together at the end is what we spent years [doing].
With so many letters to sort through, how did you narrow down which stories you wanted to highlight and who you wanted to try to get in touch with?
KM: There’s a scene at the very end of the film that plays in the credits, where you see all the actors that did our recreations sitting around reading letters. And that is representative of what our life was for those years. Almost every weekday and many weekends, some group of us would sit around the table opening letters. We tried to get real scientific with it, we had all kinds of different formulations and spreadsheets. But the reality was, we mostly just kind of dove in and if a letter spoke to us, we put it in a “let’s take a good look at this one” pile. And if a letter didn’t speak to us on an individual basis, we put it in a pile that said “somebody else should read this to make sure that we’re not missing something.” Melissa led both the letter reading and organizing and the research into tracking the letter writers down. She’d also done the majority of the original research on Michael’s story. But I’d say everybody on our team [contributed to the letter opening], from interns at the University of Texas to our editor, Austin Reedy, and our assistant editors. Melissa’s mom came down from New York and spent a week opening letters. My mom opened a letter that turned out to be one of the pivotal recreations.
MRG: It was just one of those letters that didn’t feel very special to me. So I put it aside but Keith’s mom was like, “It’s from a doctor, I have to open it” and it happens to be [from Naftalie Rapoport], the doctor of Michael Brody. It was such an insight into Michael’s childhood. [His wife] Renee Brody, she knows Michael from the moment she meets him and she knows pieces of him from their conversations, but we didn’t really have access to who Michael was before that.
KM: It became the big question we were always asking ourselves: what are we missing in the letters we haven’t opened yet? There’s a more perfect world that we could have lived in when we made the film, where we made a commitment to opening [and transcribing] every single letter that we had. But the reality is, we were just swimming in humanity. And you can only take in so many stories before you start to get inured to the feeling of this kind of intimate sharing. In the end, we opened about 12,000 of the 30,000-plus letters we had access to. There’s still 20,000 letters that remain to be opened, and we hope people will open them because I think there’s incredible stuff in there.
What was the process of tracking down the letter writers? How did people react to the prospect of revisiting their pasts?
MRG: We had all different kinds of experiences. There were people who were excited, like the Badger sisters. It was their mom’s letter and [she] had passed. This idea of [having] something of [her] from when they were so young, they didn’t necessarily know what their mom was thinking. There were other people who didn’t want to go into the past. They said, “I lived it, and I’ve moved on from it.” A lot of other people didn’t even remember what they wrote, so there was an excitement [of] “Yeah, I want to kind of connect back to that.” I would say the majority were pretty eager to venture down the road with us and see who they were 50 years ago.
KM: The process of finding the people was an investigation, it was like a detective mystery in a lot of ways. Because you would take the context clues that the letter offered, you know, the person says, “I’m 15 years old,” and sometimes you have a return address. Sometimes you just have the postmark, so you know they’re from Boonsboro, Maryland and this was their last name. Being a documentary filmmaker is not that dissimilar [to] being a private investigator. You just have a much more poor client in yourself. And honestly, so many times we just came up short, like we either missed folks that had passed away that we were trying to connect with, or we couldn’t find anything that could tie to these names.
MRG: Unfortunately, a lot of the folks just don’t have a recorded past for different reasons. A lot of them are impoverished and didn’t own land or didn’t own property. There were a lot of people we just didn’t find, so it made when we did find someone even more exciting.
Direct giving operates today through mostly digital forms, like peer-to-peer apps and donation websites. What does letter writing capture or reveal that other forms of communication can’t?
KM: It’s a sad reality that people don’t write to each other the way that they used to. If you watch a Ken Burns documentary on the Civil War, and it’s like, “My dearest Eliza,” we kind of joke about the way people wrote these flowery letters. But it wasn’t even that long ago that people really knew how to communicate with each other in that form. A lot of the letters, you’d open up a single page, and it would be like a three line thing: “Hey, if you’re giving away money, I’ll take some.” But [with others] you’d open up these little novellas where people just unloaded their life and told you all about their family members and their wants and desires. The communication that came through letters isn’t just asking for money. Just about every [newspaper] clipping that you see in the film [came from] inside the letters themselves, [from] people saying, “I read this article about you in the paper, here it is.” For us, that was fantastic, because we got different versions of articles that came from all over the country and all over the world. They also included prayers and poetry and dried flowers and beads, as you see in the movie.
MRG: For all that Michael was, there was something he sparked in people that I think is really beautiful, like the fact that there were so many people who didn’t ask for money and just said, “I support what you’re doing. Here’s $1, here’s a $5 check, this is all I can afford, but we want to support your cause.” Those to me are so special, because he sparked people [to] not only to think about their needs and wants, but the world’s as a whole. Whether or not he went about it the right way is up for debate, but there is something remarkable about what he inspired. Something else that we’ve talked about too is the way [people] felt they could tell this stranger these intimate details about their lives. That there were so many people who did that and said, “Thank you for just giving me the opportunity to reflect on what I need” is very beautiful.
Michael Brody is a complicated figure who comes across as idealistic, immature and sympathetic at different points in the film. What was your goal in portraying him?
KM: As a storyteller, I always want to leave it to the audience to put together for themselves what to make of all of this. I never want to directively point to an on-the-nose ending or recognition. Our goal in making this film with Michael’s side of things was to get to know him. We were always in search of greater access to his internal processes. Even in talking to Renee, which is about as close as you can get to him – so many questions we had for her about why Michael was doing it, and what he really hoped to do, she didn’t have an answer for. She was always quick to point out that this was Michael’s idea, and it was Michael’s money, and she honestly barely knew him when they got married. Once we connected with Renee, which wasn’t too deep into the process of making the film, we came to a realization that we were never really going to fully know Michael. And because Michael’s story unfolds the way it does, we didn’t want to presume, or project too much onto him. Ideally, we’ve presented Michael through the lens that we were able to, using the footage that was provided. And we’ve been able to get a layer or two beyond that. But it is one of the challenges of telling this kind of story with this kind of character.
MRG: When you see the archival footage, a lot of it is outtakes that the news did not use. What we’ve tried to do is include a little bit of extra, to see a little bit more of him beyond those two-minute clips that were shown on the news, or his little bits on [“The Ed Sullivan Show”]. I tend to look at the side of him that had good intentions. But he [was] also 21 years old and doing drugs. And he [had] all this money he doesn’t know what to do with. I don’t think he was a cruel person or a bad person. I do connect to that part of him [that] wants other people to feel the things that he did not feel and the things he did feel, [like] the love he felt with Renee. I think that was very real for him.
There’s something very contemporary about the 15 minutes of fame aspect of the story, considering that it took place in 1970. How do you think it would play out if it happened today?
KM: I think it would happen exactly the way that it went down, you would just trade letters for tweets or emails, and you trade 10 days for probably about a day and a half, the speed of which [the Brody story] unfolded. I also think we’d know Michael a lot better than we did, because he’d control his message. We’d get a direct line. In [Brody’s] very first press conference, he said, “I’m going to give a million dollars, and if all the other millionaires give a million dollars, we could start a foundation and change the world.” Twenty-four hours later, he wasn’t talking about creating a foundation, he was throwing $100 bills out of windows, but given the opportunity to partner with other like-minded individuals, Brody could have done a lot of good in this world.
MRG: There were a couple of other folks like that, too, that we did find [while we were filming].
KM: There was a story about a guy in Albany who had gone to the bank and taken out $5,000 and was walking down the street handing out $100 bills to the first 50 people he saw. He said he was going to do that once a month. We almost drove up to Albany to track him down. We considered, is there a modern day equivalent of this? Did Brody’s signal get out there in different ways to different people? Invariably, what we came to realize is that we were telling a story that had a lot of messages and a lot of points of view because of the expansive nature of the letters, and trying to tie it to today in any kind of specific way felt almost more limiting.
There’s two [reasons] I am so excited for the film to come out. One – and it’s already started – is people will reach out to us and say, “I wrote that guy a letter, did you find my letter?” Other people have reached out and said, “I knew Michael, I used to go to parties with him” or “I was there when this happened, you should have talked to me.” The other thing I’m really hopeful will happen is [that people will reach] into their pocket and say, “I feel a connection to this. And I can do a little bit more too.” I do think that this film could spur on Michael’s message in new ways and we’ll be so excited to witness if that happens.
MRG: [In the film we asked] Michael Aronin, who was [Brody’s] bodyguard, what he thought about the letters going back into a storage unit. I love what he says: “We’re not taking care of each other.” That is such a big part of the message, [that] maybe we don’t have the money to help each other, but I think there are acts of kindness that go a long way that are not monetary. It makes me a little teary, because that is such an important message that I’d love to see come out of this, too.
“Dear Mr. Brody” is now playing at the Quad in NYC and the Laemmle Monica in LA, and on VOD. It will stream on Discovery+ later this year.