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‘The Penny Black’ filmmakers discuss documentary-noir thriller

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Imagine that you are approached by someone you recognize from your apartment complex but you don’t really know. In a heavy Russian accent, he asks to leave a duffel bag in your possession while he tends to out-of-town business. He opens the bag to reveal not drugs or guns, but multiple books of stamps he says are very rare and could be worth up to $2 million. Then he disappears and doesn’t return. What would you do?

When Will Cassayd-Smith confided in a friend that this scenario had just happened to him, that friend mentioned it to a different friend, documentary filmmaker Joe Saunders (“Billy Mize and the Bakersfield Sound”). Sensing this could be a huge story, Saunders immediately began rolling film and following Cassayd-Smith as he began searching for the man who called himself “Roman” to discover the true origin of the mysterious multimillion-dollar stamp collection.

After more than five years of filming, the critically acclaimed documentary-noir “The Penny Black,” is out this week on digital platforms and on-demand.

In a joint interview with The Maine Edge, Will Cassayd-Smith and Joe Saunders trace some of the twists and turns of this bizarre thriller of a story.

The Maine Edge: While researching the story before speaking with you, I discovered that it became known at some point during filming that Will’s estranged father was a con man. Joe, did that raise any suspicions for you regarding Will’s integrity or the validity of his story?

Joe Saunders: It was such a fantastic story, it would be hard for anyone to believe the details which is one of the reasons why I started filming. Like, how could this be real? I went to see Will and he told me the story. I didn’t doubt him, the evidence was there on the table. A couple of months into filming, Will told me about his father, a con artist who’d been arrested for selling counterfeit art. That was another layer and it’s one of the reasons why I think this documentary is so exciting. There are so many ways to find the truth in this, or to have the truth be deceiving.

The Maine Edge: The collection of stamps contained at least one rare and valuable Penny Black stamp (the world’s first adhesive postage stamp, issued in the U.K. in 1840), is that correct?

Joe Saunders: Yes, I think there were also a couple of Penny Reds, which is the stamp that was issued after it was discovered that people quickly learned how to counterfeit Penny Black stamps.

The Maine Edge: Will, did you consider taking these stamps to the police and asking for advice?

Will Cassayd-Smith: My mom really wanted me to go to the police to hand the stamps over to them. I wanted to see this through and try to find the guy ourselves.

The Maine Edge: After years of filming, this must have seemed like the story that would never end. What kept you going?

Joe Saunders: There were times when we thought we’d never be able to find Roman or find the true origin of the stamps. Every time we gave up, inevitably, there would be some key piece of evidence or information that came at us from seemingly nowhere. We pushed five years of filming into a 90-minute documentary feature which keeps those twists coming at a pretty high frequency.

The Maine Edge: Did you attempt to get the stamps appraised to learn their true value?

Joe Saunders: Not an official appraisal. We were concerned that it might incriminate Will in some way and involve him in some police matter he didn’t want to be involved in. If that happened, it would have ended our documentary short. We went to stamp collectors to have experts look over the collection and give us an estimate. We then did our own due diligence and looked up the value of the individual stamps. Our estimate was over $1 Million.

The Maine Edge: “The Penny Black” has been screened at a number of festivals. What has been the reaction from the audience?

Joe Saunders: Everyone seems to have a million questions. It’s a really engrossing film, and there are still some questions left unanswered at the end. They also ask why Will allowed a documentary crew to follow him through this whole story. Will at one point kind of becomes a suspect of the theft of these stamps. Our relationship is always put into question.

The Maine Edge: Will, why did you allow cameras to follow you around for years?

Will Cassayd-Smith: Not many people get the opportunity to be the subject of a documentary or be in a film. I trusted the filmmakers and trusted they knew what they were doing. At times, it became incredibly frustrating being filmed all the time, but I worked through it and thought it was worth it.

The Maine Edge: You must have been worried that you might become the target of some nefarious character if word got out that you were holding these stamps. Were you?

Will Cassayd-Smith: It’s very easy to build worlds inside of your own head. There were moments where we were confronted with that possibility. It was intense and scary to the level that I’m certainly not used to (laughs) in my day-to-day life.

Last modified on Tuesday, 01 June 2021 22:49


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