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DEAD LETTER OFFICE: LOST LETTERS, LOVE FOUND

A pigeon and two lonely people end up at the Dead Letter Office, a new Australian romantic comedy shot in Melbourne during the winter of 1997. Andrew L. Urban visited the set but failed to get an interview with the bird.

A pigeon called Punt Road sits in a pigeon hole of the specially created dead letter office, unaware that it’s pouring with rain out in the real world of suburban Melbourne. Scuffed green post office furniture sits in fake sunlight, streaming in through papered windows in a corner of a cavernous warehouse that once housed the Government Printer. A large wall clock attracts Punt Road for a brief spell out of his hole, while the crew sets up for take four of scene 42.

Costume designer Kerri Mazzoccco is on the set, dismissive of current fashion "which is now exactly what’s in the op shops…60s and 70s stuff." And that’s where she’s bought most of the costumes. "Alice is not image conscious…she just throws things together. It’s hard to do contemporary films, a lot of people think the actors wear their own clothes. But to actually find things that are right is challenging."

Miranda Otto and George delHoyo take their positions, as does Syd Brisbane across the 20 x 20 metre work area where the scene takes place.

I’m behind director John Ruane, watching what the camera sees on a video split. The rest of the crew are scattered around. When Ruane calls ‘Cut’, cinematographer Ellery Ryan sighs, "At last!" The take went without a technical hitch, the performances were spot on, everyone’s happy to go on to the next set up.

Syd Brisbane comes over to chat. We last met when he was making Epsilon for writer/director Rolf de Heer in Adelaide.

"I had the biggest hangover when I auditioned for this," actor, Syd Brisbane

"I had the biggest hangover when I auditioned for this," he admits with a sheepish grin. "No particular reason or celebration…just an accident." Brisbane plays Peter, a junior at the dead letter office and the source of some of the laughs.

Miranda Otto plays Alice, the young woman who has been writing to her long-absent father for years, but never got a reply. She gets a job in the dead letter office and starts to do a bit of detective work, trying to track him down. Frank, the DLO manager, a quiet, private man from Chile, is slowly drawn to Alice and she to him, in a gentle romance that has plenty of laughs and a few tears.

"There was a lot of anger and pain…I put these things together." screenwriter, Deb Cox

Written by Deb Cox, who wrote the mini-series, Simone de Beauvoir’s Babies, Dead Letter Office "really began when dad sent me a letter from holidays that never turned up," she says. "Dad followed it up and discovered with some surprise that there are actually people reading lost letters. I met a man from the dead letter office in Melbourne and found that his job had become a bit emotional. He was very sensitive and I began to think what emotional burden it must be…he was Maltese, divorced, dislocated…and the letters were often to people who had died, left or the writer never knew, or a love lost. There was a lot of anger and pain…I put these things together."

The film is another opportunity for Otto to show her range: "It’s amazing, she’s created yet another character that’s different to all the others she’s played," remarks Rhys Kelly, sales manager at Southern Star, who will sell the film rights internationally.

Kelly is also delighted with American resident, Uruguayan born George delHoyo, who "does the brooding Chilean with a past brilliantly. And then when he starts to fall for Alice….wow!"

The tall, dark and handsome actor is notably professional and meticulous. He talks about how he structured his accent in detail, how he created the character of Frank with minute additions and alterations, and he also talks about this, his first feature film and the luxury of having time to do the work properly.

"It’s a fascinating character which drives the story," actor, George delHoyo

"It’s a fascinating character which drives the story," he says. "But the most astonishing thing to me is that this script is being DONE, because I’m so used to reading things that are so commercially driven, with car chases and gun play. So I’m stunned that something so much a study of character is actually being filmed."

George delHoyo’s surprise comes from the fact that his professional life has been steeped in television; first signed by Universal in 1978 for tv work, he has done telemovies and drama series such as Frazier, St Elsewhere, 9 to 5, LA Law, Cheers and Home Improvement.

DelHoyo is also thrilled with work conditions on set: "This crew is better than any I’ve ever worked with. They’re so collaborative, gracious, dedicated and pay attention to detail. As for Ellery Ryan, he is an artist, his lighting is like painting pictures."

While delHoyo thought about his character in advance and immersed himself in the Latino culture, Miranda Otto is doing it "scene by scene", she says, and finding it a challenge. "Alice is a difficult character…I’ve played some extreme characters, all with something to hang it on, something to build on. This is very hard, she changes so much and it’s hard to find the core of what she is. My approach has been to personalise it and just do it for myself."

It was Miranda’s idea to ask her father, renowned actor Barry Otto, to play the cameo role of her on screen father.

It was Miranda’s idea to ask her father, renowned actor Barry Otto, to play the cameo role of her on screen father. "No-one had dared to think of it before, I guess. But I’m glad - it was much easier. It’s a tense scene and it was great having dad …"

For director John Ruane, this is the first feature film he is directing from someone else’s script. "It’s good for me," he says. "This is trying to do what the writer has put on the page and it’s a challenge to try and get what’s written, onto the screen. Sometimes I’d do things differently, but I’m following the blueprint. For example, I don’t change lines of dialogue: with my own script, I would. Here we just do the script. It’s a good experience - not without it’s conflict, which you need now and again."

Asked about directing the pigeon, Ruane rates it above the peacock and rooster, birds he has worked with before; "for a bird with such a small brain, it’s surprisingly good."

Dead Letter Office will be released in 1998.

It is tempting to suggest that the bird’s been pigeon holed for the role….but I refrain. And so does the pigeon refrain - from talking to me. It moves to the clock, as if to say my time’s up.

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Punt Road on time

REVIEWS

The cast of Dead Letter Office, with director Ruane far right.

George delHoyo

George and Miranda Otto during a scene

Director John Ruane on set

Father and daughter Otto







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