Whoa, Whoa, Wait A Minute, Mr. Postman: "Junk Mail's" Pal
by Dimitra Kessenides
Present day Oslo is the setting for Pal Sletaune’s wickedly funny “Junk
Mail.” It’s a gritty, dirty, rough Oslo we see, and an even grittier
lead character, Roy the Postman. As bad as things might be for Roy,
the sweetly pathetic loner isn’t the sort to rub out his co-workers.
Instead, Roy seeks revenge for life’s injustices, and fulfillment, by
reading the mail before delivering it, or burning it to lighten his
load. Reading others mail can fulfill Roy only so much, and his life
takes some comic twists as he deliberately infiltrates the life of
Norway’s best-performing locally-produced film of 1997 is Sletaune’s
first feature film. After a year running around the festival circuit,
including stops at Cannes, Toronto, Sundance and this week’s New
Directors New Films, “Junk Mail” opens in New York and Los Angeles on
Friday, in addition to scheduled openings throughout Europe in the
indieWIRE: You know, we joke all the time about postal workers here in
the U.S., and how totally insane they are.
Pal Sletaune: Yeah, [he chuckles] I heard about that.
iW: Roy could be any- or every-postman, maybe they’re all a bit
unstable. Where did this character come from?
Sletaune: I don’t know really where he came from. I mean, the whole film
started with, suddenly one day this character, you know, just came up
and said, “Hello.” It was a bit like that. And then we, me and my
co-writer, started working with this cockroach character, this guy who
doesn’t want to be alive. A kind of, not really an anti-Euro, but a kind
of ordinary guy. He has problems everywhere, and he has a way of
surviving. I mean, if his boss mistreats him he can maybe kick a bug
iW: Maybe burn some more mail?
Sletaune: Yeah, yeah. He has a life, in a way.
iW: He’s right on the edge, though.
Sletaune: Yes, exactly. I think we were fascinated by this. We also had
this actor in mind for the part, which has this kind of unique charm. He
can do nasty things and you will still like him in a way.
iW: He is pretty sympathetic, even though he’s so grotesque on some
levels. Where did the idea of the way he lives come from? I mean this
chaotic and dirty living space.
Sletaune: I spend a lot of time working on where people live, locations
and building sets. And I think it creates so much of the character, the
way I see them in their surroundings. Sometimes characters come from a
location and sometimes vice versa. And it’s because I’m interested in
the mood and the atmosphere of the location. It’s very important. It
tells a lot about character.
iW: We really do get the idea of who these characters are by how you
place them . . . especially by where they live.
Sletaune: That’s a major thing. We spent a lot of time preparing that
and working that out. I like that, to tell stories and to tell
characters, to show who characters are through their surroundings.
iW: Were any of these characters based on anyone you know or have met?
Sletaune: Maybe, I mean, I live in a kind of rough area in Oslo, and I
see these people all the time. I can identify with a couple of these
characters myself, obviously, otherwise I wouldn’t have spent time doing
iW: You mention Oslo. I expected a clean, pristine Scandinavian city. It
wasn’t that at all. It looked rougher, even for some low-life postal
worker. Why was it important to depict this other side to the city?
Sletaune: Like every city, Oslo has these kind of living areas, I mean
the poor areas, the working class area of Oslo. For me it’s most
fascinating to show that kind of image of Scandinavia or Norway. As you
say, Norwegian film traditionally has more fjords than back alleys.
iW: There were so many different locations. How planned out was the
Sletaune: Some of the film was story-boarded, more for technical
reasons, but not much, because I don’t really like to story-board. I
think it’s important to decide on the set. It was very carefully planned
out, the whole film. It’s a bit like, you have to create this world and
then you have to find what street fits into this world, and what street
fits into another film, and just try to be listening to the qualities of
the location. So, some of the scenes were added when we passed some
interesting locations. The location where Line, the apartment building
where she lives, that was really the start of the whole character.
Because I was walking past this park and noticed this building and
thought, there must be someone interesting living in there.
iW: You’re from Oslo, and are familiar with the city but did you spend
some time location scouting?
Sletaune: Oh yeah, for a long time, about three months location
scouting. To find the exact spots.
iW: Did you learn anything about the city, see any new places that you
didn’t know before?
Sletaune: Yes, lots of things. Even though Oslo is a small town. It was
an interesting experience for us all to discover this part of Oslo,
really — we got to see every part of the city, and turned every stone
in the city.
iW: Many of the locations set up some of the comedy perfectly. I mean,
there’s such comedy to the scenes when Roy is in his apartment,
especially when George shows up and chases him out onto the balcony. And
the last scene outside Line’s apartment with the pimps, of course. You
clearly intended to offer up this comic exchange, where the focus
switched from the location to the words.
Sletaune: I like this kind of dead-pan comedy, and comedy of
iW: Is there much of a tradition of comedy in Norwegian films?
Sletaune: There isn’t much of a tradition. [I’ve been influenced] by
different filmmakers and writers, like Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett,
and some of the American indie filmmakers, Jarmusch, of course.
Different people, both writers and filmmakers.
iW: The food you chose in this movie was pretty funny also. Huge cans of
spaghetti that look horrible, and frosted flakes. Someone related to
this film must eat a lot of frosted flakes. Were your food choices
Sletaune: Yes, actually. Again, I think it’s important to minimalize
things, to find out the exact thing that Roy eats and the exact thing
that Line eats. They don’t have to eat 30 different foods. If you can
find one food that in a way adds to their character, then that’s very
important. And it’s important to find and create an inner world for the
film, find the inner logic. A film can do that, create a world of its
own. With small means, like, this belongs to this world, and this
belongs to that world. There’s not a lot of time, so we tried to find
out what was going to be in this world and what was going to be left
iW: You’ve made some shorts before this. How was making a feature
different, length aside?
Sletaune: Well, no, the length of the work and the length of the film,
it really is so much more. I mean it takes like three years of your
life. It’s so interesting to be able to develop a story that has a
larger time span, and develop characters. We spent a lot of time
preparing with the actors in workshop in pre-production. . . . . So many
of these actors are first-time film actors, and I wanted this film to
have a more gritty, more urban film than Norwegian films usually have.
And most Norwegian actors , the famous Norwegian actors, the experienced
ones, they look like, you know, airline pilots, bigger, healthier. . .
you know, vegetarian.
[Dimitra Kessenides is a freelance journalist and the coordinator of the
Thessaloniki USA 1998 festival of Greek and Balkan films, to be held the
first week of May in New York City.]