Filmmakers Joe Saunders and Alexander Greer present a strange tale on film that falls on a gray line between a documentary and a feature narrative in The Penny Black.
For five years, Joe and Alexander film Will Cassayd-Smith after getting acquainted with him and told he is a man with a story to tell. Little did they know of the strange twists and turns the story would take adding to the length of time to the completion of their filmmaking project. The fact that Will is an estranged son of a real-life con artist should have sent up a few red-flags to Joe and Alexander upon their first encounter; but, once invested in the narrative there was no turning back.
The rabbit trail begins when Will tells a friend (who happens to be a friend of Joe's) the most outlandish story about a rare stamp collection. The friend tells Joe the story and Joe asks for a meeting with Will. Joe hopes to come away from the meeting discerning whether or not this guy is telling the truth and if his story is worth presenting on film.
After a few conversations, Will is just as unsure of the outcome of his story, as much as Joe and Alexander. The draw of the unknown propels curiosity and the filmmakers decide to take a chance that Will's story could be more than a simple adventure. The potential crossover to a dangerous thriller would be fascinating.
Joe and Alexander begin filming immediately to journey with Will that would end five long years later. They describe their escapade as a "non-fiction investigative thriller" observing that Will has the potential to depart from his father's life-style to lead a life of honesty; but, when a million-dollar stamp collection goes missing that was entrusted to him to take care of by his secretive Russian neighbor (Roman) for safe keeping, questions do arise.
The plot thickens when after months go by with no word from the neighbor, Will starts to look for the owner of the collection. Will becomes fearful of the prize he beholds and decides to move across town. In the move, the discovery of a valuable part of the stamp collection goes missing--the Penny Black Stamp. Joe and Alexander are concerned and question whether Will is capable of being honest. The face value of the Penny Black Stamp is one cent but in 2010 Sotheby's sold one for roughly $56,000.
Joe and Alexander explain, "The goal of the documentary was not to pursue a journalistic truth or to catch Will in a lie, but rather to present the events of his world as they come to light." It was their job to follow Will's path. Joe adds, "I approached this film understanding that a camera is a window, not a paintbrush. I want the audience to see Will as I did: a conflicted, intelligent, mercurial, slippery fella." Continuing, "The core of it all is the narrative arc. It's witnessing the development and execution of Will's concept of morality: what will he decide is the right thing to do, and will he do that?"
Joe and Alexander explain the importance of The Penny Black Stamp: "The Penny Black was the world's first adhesive postage stamp. It was first issued in the United Kingdom on May 1, 1840. This year of 2020 marks the 180th Anniversary of when the stamp was first issued. The Penny Black stamps, due to their color, were canceled with red ink to prevent their reuse. Unfortunately, this red ink was water-soluble, which meant that the stamps could be washed and reused. To curb the rampant fraud, the Penny Red was introduced a year later to allow cancellations with black ink that were not water soluble and could not be removed. The striking design of the Penny Black was then consigned to stamp albums (there, ironically, to become a target of high value theft).
This Black Noir adventure Joe, Alexander, Will and Roman take us on in The Penny Black is astounding and at every turn their narrative is truly a thriller beyond belief.