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A stolen stamp collection? A suspicious neighbor? 'The Penny Black' creates the nonfiction noir genre

June 22, 2021
5 min read time

Imagine sitting at a brunch with a few friends and acquaintances. Everyone shares what they have been up to during the weekend, most of which is mundane. Some played video games, others watched a movie. Then at the end of the table, Will chimes in and says, “My neighbor gave me a million dollars in stamps and asked that I watch over them for a while. I think he’s in the Russian mafia.”

This was the beginning of how the noir documentary The Penny Black came to be — the multiyear story of the son of a con man whose neighbor gives him a million-dollar stamp collection to keep until he returns. This investigative thriller follows Will and the filmmakers as they try to track down Roman (the Russian) and perhaps the true owner of the stamp collection. But can Will escape the shadow of his father and maintain the pursuit with honesty and integrity?

Filmmakers Joe Saunders (credited as William J. Saunders) and Alexander Greer met while in film school at Columbia University. Around the time of the brunch, Saunders and Greer had produced a documentary titled Billy Mize & the Bakersfield Sound and while both were interested in making narrative films, when Will shared his story about the stamps, they knew it was too good not to pursue.

Curiosity as a catalyst

“As a filmmaker, I thought either Will’s lying and that’s interesting because I’ll see how far he’ll go or he’s telling the truth and that’s interesting because that’s a crazy situation,” Saunders said, adding, “You don’t really know how to feel about Will; you didn’t know if it were tongue-in-cheek or if a Russian mafia guy gave him a million in stamps.”

The idea for the film was really nothing more than a short documentary because at the beginning, the neighbor was coming back in a week. Saunders went over to Will’s apartment and filmed an interview about the experience of receiving the stamps.

"It was going to be a short ‘look at these weird anecdotes of things that happen in Los Angeles’ type of story but as time went on, the neighbor wasn’t coming back,” Greer said.

This led to researching stamp collections and million-dollar stamp heists.

How valuable was the stamp collection? The filmmakers researched online and even went to a stamp collection show, where they discovered just how valuable the collection could be. One stamp among the books was The Penny Black — the world’s first adhesive stamp issued in the United Kingdom in 1840.

Will had a million-dollar stamp collection in his possession and wasn’t sure if Roman would ever return.

Defining a new genre

What is nonfiction noir?

Saunders and Greer created this new genre as a means to differentiate their film from similar documentaries and limited series.

Saunders says, “The reason we called it noir is because it’s not true crime and we didn’t want to be stamped as true crime because people go in with expectations that a crime happens, such as someone is murdered or the subject is trying to solve a high-stakes crime. The Penny Black isn’t that — it’s a mystery.”

As production progressed into the third year of shooting, the filmmakers started realizing there were similarities to the classic noirs — it happens in L.A., they have an antagonist/protagonist central character who has a shady past that drags out into the current story, and a lot was shot at night.

Creating the story

The original intention was to shoot Will in his apartment and have him tell the story. From there, they would watch the footage and cut together a seven-minute short documentary, just to see if there was something there. When they viewed the cut, they were captivated. When they showed others, they were intrigued and wanted to know more.

How could they create a story from where they started? The multiyear process was a quest to answer questions, which seemed to pop up everywhere. Where did Roman go? Would he ever come back to collect the stamps? Were the stamps part of a heist? And who would they belong to?

“We had a big board in our office with everything that had happened and everything we thought could possibly happen and the way the story could morph for us,” Greer said.

This would allow the filmmakers to have some sense of direction of the way they could move forward. However, this story had so many twists that, Greer adds, “Looking back, the exercise may have been totally useless because everything that happened while filming was entirely unexpected. We would plan for every possibility and some random thing would show and, 'Nope, this is what’s happening now.’”

Saunders gives a couple examples from the board: Roman gets deported or Will was lying about his past. They created a direction should either one occur, yet these two things didn’t happen.

As much as planning had taken place, it was ultimately a series of fortuitous events that changed the direction of the mystery.

“At some point, we had been shooting for years and almost gave up on finding Roman; even the private investigator we hired couldn’t find him. Then through happenstance, we were able to get a lead. It was fortuitous — we had gotten permits for a nice shoot in Burbank to do re-creations and hired a crew. For the first time in a five-year drought, it downpoured and destroyed the shoot. We lost the money because we had to pay for the crew and equipment,” Greer said.

Thinking on their feet, the team went guerilla-style and stole some shots at Will’s old apartment.

"That’s the only reason we went back there, and we came across someone who gave us a major tip."

When creating a documentary, you never know where certain things might lead.

So to manage these uncertainties, the filmmakers went out of their way to make sure they could get the coverage they needed and stack the deck in their favor when shooting.

When it came to planning shoot days, Saunders says, “We did a lot on a long lens when it came to the private investigator talking to people. We would also scout a location, try to figure out where the parking would be because it was easier to shoot out of my car, and then get there very early to secure that space. We did stakeouts as well when looking for Roman.”

The filming went on for years and they were cognizant about not wasting Will’s time when it came to getting important shots. They knew that if they had Will sit in a car for hours he would hate the process, get bored, and not want to do it anymore.

The filmmakers spent a great deal of time without Will, getting the precious shots that make the story come alive.

"We shot over 100 hours of footage. When you’re shooting that long you have the luxury of picking gems," Greer said.

How to make a documentary

When it came to editing the documentary, Saunders referenced a method familiar to screenwriters.

"I had a whole back wall of notecards. I was using screenwriting books like Save the Cat and The Tools of Screenwriting and we were plotting it out like you would a feature film narrative. We knew all the scenes we had and we just tried to figure it out structurally. What are our sequences? What are our acts? What are the thematic throughlines? All the things you do as a screenwriter, that’s what we did," he said.

"The way we were able to create tension and create the overarching story was all through the techniques of screenwriting."

Greer’s advice for creating a documentary is to follow your instincts to something that sounds interesting. They put in a great deal of work, actually investigated the stamps and the people, and could tell a story that, he says, "was a twisted, tricky ride."

Documentaries can be time-consuming; The Penny Black took seven years from the first shoot to the final edit.

"We couldn’t do that again," Greer said. "It’s not sustainable."

He acknowledges that if you’re going to follow a story, it’s going to take you longer than you think.

"Find some way to make it sustainable — have another job, have another life outside of this."

The Penny Black is now available on digital platforms.

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