A Conversation with Alexander Poe

Alexander_Poe_Falcon_Snowman_American_Sons_Ex-Girlfriends Written by Vince Font

If you’ve never heard the name Alexander Poe, commit it to memory. A New York City-based actor/writer/director with one indie feature and a bunch of award-winning short films under his belt, Poe first came to my attention after he posted one of his Columbia University film school exercises to YouTube – a compelling, two-and-a-half-minute long recreation of a scene from John Schlesinger’s 1985 movie The Falcon and the Snowman.

Filmed in 2008, the short starred actors Teddy Bergman and Ian Unterman as the titular characters. I stumbled across it one day while routinely scouring the interwebs for any mention of falcons or snowmen (like you do). I’ll admit I clicked “Play” with a cautious pessimism. You can’t blame me. These days, there’s no end to the terrible things you can find on YouTube. But by the time those 150 seconds had run their course, I was fairly blown away.

What struck me the most about Poe’s piece – aside from it being a contemporized take on the now-classic 80s flick that incorporated the use of a cell phone instead of a pay phone, for example – were the actors’ interpretations of the characters.

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Teddy Bergman as Christopher Boyce.

Back in 1985 when The Falcon and the Snowman was released, Timothy Hutton and Sean Penn were at the peak of their game, two of the greatest young actors in Hollywood. Penn’s over-the-top portrayal of Andrew Daulton Lee was a star making scene stealer, and Hutton’s depiction of Christopher Boyce was the epitome of smoldering inner turmoil. That a young, relatively inexperienced director like Poe would purposefully steer his cast of unknowns away from pulling off carbon copy imitations of these iconic screen characters struck me as a ballsy move. Yeah, I was impressed.

Immediately, I forwarded the link to Chris and Cait Boyce. I wanted to know if it was just me, or if this short scene really was as awesome as I thought it was. They watched it and were both instantly blown away by the fact that Poe and his film school skeleton crew had managed to capture the “real” Boyce and Lee more accurately than Hutton and Penn had some twenty-odd years earlier.

I did a little more digging on Poe and found out that he had recently written, directed, and starred in an independent feature called Ex-Girlfriends. The fact that the movie just so happened to co-star one of my favorite actresses, Jennifer Carpenter (of Dexter and The Exorcism of Emily Rose fame), didn’t exactly diminish my impression of the guy. Nor did the mature artistry and subtle humor of Ex-Girlfriends when I sat down to watch it a few days later.

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Alexander Poe and Jennifer Carpenter at the Austin Film Festival premiere of “Ex-Girlfriends.”

After connecting with Poe via Facebook and a volley of back-and-forth messages, I managed to get him on the phone to ask him a few questions. First and foremost, I was curious to know what made him choose a scene from The Falcon and the Snowman for a film school exercise. I mean, it’s not exactly a lousy movie. But considering the trillion or so other movies made throughout the long history of celluloid, why this one? Turns out, he’s just got good taste.

“It was one of those movies I always found fascinating,” Poe told me. “It touched on a number of compelling themes: friendship and rebellion, fathers and sons. What made it even more interesting were the real events it was based on. It was a movie I would watch frequently, and I always found something new and interesting about it.”

So, why that particular scene? Poe told me he chose it because it fit perfectly within the limitations of his zero-budget exercise.

“I was taking a directing class at Columbia,” he said. “One of my assignments was to take an existing script and shoot a scene from it. I chose that particular one because I wanted something I could shoot easily, with just two actors. But more than that, there’s also a very interesting power dynamic going on between Chris and Daulton. They’re two friends who hold a lot of power over one other, and the stakes are so incredibly high, that it makes it fascinating to watch. It’s a very cool drama.”

Next, the obvious question: how the hell did he manage to get such spot-on performances without having access to a crystal ball?

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Ian Unterman as Andrew Daulton Lee.

“As I recall,” Poe said, “neither Teddy (Bergman) or Ian (Unterman) had ever seen The Falcon and the Snowman. That helped them to not imitate the original performances. I certainly had notions about the characters, but I limited my direction in that area so that they could discover a bit of authenticity for themselves.”

Another unique aspect of the scene involves the setting. Anyone who’s ever watched (and re-watched) The Falcon and the Snowman will be familiar with the distinctly “SoCal” beach settings that crop up throughout. In Poe’s reimagining, Chris Boyce and Daulton Lee are transplanted to a location quite different from the one they inhabited in real life. Instead of taking place in and around Los Angeles, Poe’s scene takes place on the other side of the country in Manhattan, offering a clear view of the Brooklyn Bridge in the background.

“We shot down at the South Street Seaport,” Poe said. “It felt like a location where two guys living an espionage lifestyle would hang out. It also seemed to me like a place Daulton would choose for a secret meeting. It was a fun shoot. All we had was a camera, a boom, and two actors. We went down at dawn. Security pretty quickly realized we weren’t supposed to be there and cut the shoot short, but I think we got what we needed. We shot the whole thing in about an hour and a half.”

Turning the conversation to the present (after all, 2008 was six years ago!) I asked Poe about his most recent endeavors – namely, his first feature film Ex-Girlfriends, which he not only starred in but also wrote, directed, and co-produced.

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Alexander Poe and Jennifer Carpenter in “Ex-Girlfriends.”

“It was great fun to make a feature movie after a bunch of shorts,” Poe said. “Ex-Girlfriends went through the festival circuit, and then got released here in New York. It’s available on DVD now, as well as iTunes and Amazon Instant Video.  Right now, I’m just working on other scripts, shooting a bunch of commercials and other short films, and trying to work my way towards the next movie.”

Alexander Poe is one of those rare filmmakers whose abilities behind the camera far surpass his years. It’ll be interesting to see how his career develops. I know I’ll be watching closely.

Vince Font is the co-author of the book “American Sons: The Untold Story of the Falcon and the Snowman.” The book was co-written with Christopher Boyce and Cait Boyce and is available in e-book and paperback.

Cait Boyce Radio Interview

On May 24, Cait Boyce made her third appearance on John Aberle’s radio show “Life Unedited.” Click the video above to hear the full broadcast. In addition to exciting announcements about a possible movie version of American Sons in the works, Cait discusses issues of inequality in the criminal justice system and talks about how she successfully freed convicted spies Christopher Boyce and Andrew Daulton Lee. Many thanks to our friend and supporter John Aberle. To listen to past episodes of John’s fine program, go here.

A Few Words from the Snowman’s Brother

Written by David Lee

As the brother of “The Snowman” I must say I was hesitant to pick up this book and read it. Having actually lived through this in a very personal way in the 1970s, I really wasn’t sure what to expect.

I bought American Sons: The Untold Story of the Falcon and the Snowman on Amazon to read on my tablet, but somehow could not get myself to read it for over three months. Upon starting to read it, I thought I would read it straight through, but found myself having to stop to digest chapters or even pages at a time.

Knowing Chris and Cait, I found myself in time warps of memory. Events of years past would sweep over me in powerful waves. During Chris’s 18 months on the lam, the U.S. Marshals and other agencies of the government were some of my “unwelcome” best friends. I would go to Mexico often in those days, finding my belongings gone through in my hotel rooms and being photographed by men in suits while lying in the sun on isolated beaches. They came to my door often. They were dead serious. But not the brightest. My life was intertwined whether I wanted it or not.

With that said, one can understand my hesitance to read more “Falcon and the Snowman.” I was in no way happy with the original book or movie. The author twisted things I said and it was full of half-truths. To be honest, the truth was often much stranger.

American Sons: The Untold Story of the Falcon and the Snowman is well done. It is honest and forthright. In my humble opinion, excellent literature. After a few chapters I allowed myself to just sit back and enjoy it. And I did enjoy it… Very much!

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in finding out what happened next in the life of Christopher Boyce and his wife, Cait.

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David Lee is the younger brother of Andrew Daulton Lee. He was portrayed by actor Chris Makepeace in the 1985 movie The Falcon and the Snowman.

Author Robert Lindsey Reviews “American Sons”

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Written by Robert Lindsey

Christopher Boyce is probably the most likable, most interesting and smartest former spy you’re ever likely to meet. I discovered this more than 30 years ago when I wrote The Falcon and the Snowman.

I was reminded of it again by American Sons: The Untold Story of the Falcon and the Snowman, an autobiographical retelling of his life as a prisoner and fugitive who outsmarted federal agents for many months as they searched for him virtually around the world. The book (co-written with his wife, Cait, and Vince Font, a freelance writer) is one I never thought would be written.

It’s at once a beautifully written thriller, an endearing love story, a compelling narrative of survival and redemption and a horrific indictment of a prison system that dispatched a model prisoner at the prime of his life to a decade of haunting solitary confinement mostly because he had embarrassed the system, first by escaping from a maximum security Federal penitentiary, then, as an eloquent writer, publishing articles exposing to the outside world the often brutal and dehumanizing conditions of prison life. His descriptions of the brutality, knifings, murders, and beatings in prison will make you cry out for reform.

There’s little debate that Chris initially belonged in prison. At the age of 21, while working for a U.S. defense contractor, he had collaborated with a friend, Daulton Lee, to sell classified documents to Soviet agents in Mexico, largely, he said, because he’d discovered he was unwittingly part of a secret plan to misinform a U.S. ally, Australia, about intelligence matters, which he thought of as a betrayal of American values.

He was disenchanted – like many young Americans – with his government following the revelations of Watergate and official lies told during the Vietnam War. He briefly considered taking his information to a reporter, but instead, in a catastrophic, impulsive choice, Chris, who had a history of risk-taking, sent Lee to the Soviet Embassy in Mexico with the first of what would become an avalanche of secret documents.

Caught in 1977, Chris was sentenced to 40 years in prison for espionage. That’s when I met him and gathered the material that would become The Falcon and the Snowman.

A few weeks after the book was published and Hollywood was preparing to make the film version, he escaped from the Lompoc Federal prison and disappeared for almost two years before being rearrested. It was then I wrote a sequel to the original book called The Flight of the Falcon.

I thought I’d pretty much told the story of his daring escape and manhunt in this book, but when I read American Sons I realized how wrong I was.

The book is full of new details about his adventures and misadventures, probing personal revelations, and twists and turns that keep you flipping pages as fast as you can. You feel the tension when Chris, guarded by a dozen federal agents, testifies before Congress about the porous security arrangements at his employer, probably ultimately helping his eventual release, and you cheer a little when the hard-nosed federal judge who presided at his trial is persuaded by Chris’s wife to write a letter endorsing an early release.

I was skeptical about three people writing a book together – good books are seldom written by a committee – but the three of them somehow pulled it off, seamlessly moving the story forward at a hectic pace.

There are two protagonists in this story: Chris himself – and Cait, the stand-out hero, a California surfer girl turned paralegal who waged a brilliant, sustained, years’ long legal campaign to free first Daulton Lee, then Chris, while fighting off recurrent bouts of breast cancer.

Along the way, Chris fell in love with her. Shortly after Chris was finally released after 25 years in prison, they were married.

I can’t wait to see the movie.

Robert Lindsey is the author of The Falcon and the Snowman: A True Story of Friendship and Espionage (1980) and its follow-up, The Flight of the Falcon: The True Story of the Escape and Manhunt for America’s Most Wanted Spy (1983). His other works include Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me and Ronald Reagan: An American Life. A veteran journalist, Mr. Lindsey was a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News and served as the Los Angeles bureau chief for the New York Times. His most recent book, Ghost Scribbler, an autobiography of his life and career, was released in 2012.

Cait Boyce is a Finisher

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Written by Nancy LaFever

It was a career highlight to have been asked by friend and author Vince Font to edit the book “American Sons: The Untold Story of the Falcon and the Snowman.” It was a wild ride through a story told by three distinct voices that covered over thirty years of Christopher Boyce’s and Cait Boyce’s lives. While we know a great deal of Cait’s experiences from the book, there are aspects of her life work that deserve closer attention. I’ve been very fortunate to get to know Cait since the book and below she shares thoughts about that work as we near her 60th birthday.

N.L.: On the eve of your 60th birthday, it’s astounding that you spent a third of your life fighting for the release of Christopher Boyce and Andrew Daulton Lee from prison! As you reflect on this milestone life marker, what drove you to keep going in light of so many obstacles?

C.B.: “I’ve always been taught that we are more than the sum of our choices and decisions.  When I involved myself in these cases, I had no clue what I was doing! Quite literally, everything I know about federal parole I learned on these two cases.  As I became more involved with Daulton’s, then Chris’s cases, and with the parole system, I felt a deepening sense of distrust for the legal system and the way we incarcerate people. That’s not to say that I don’t believe in the ‘system’ as a framework for justice – but what struck me was we lock people up with no view to the end of the sentence. I made a promise to them, but also made a promise to myself that I would see this through to the end – and the end wouldn’t happen until the last one walked free.

A lot of things have been said about me – some of which are not very pleasant to hear. But the one thing that even my biggest detractors seem to agree on is the fact that I am tenacious and immovable when my mind is made up. While not a compliment, it’s that level of tenacity that makes me keep my promises – no matter how far-fetched they seem to be. Freedom for Boyce and Lee, really? Is there a more improbable notion from someone in their 20’s?  Yeah, right.  Here we are, 33 years later and Chris is at home laying bricks for a new patio…”

N.L.: Over the years, you’ve gained expertise in the field of prison reform. Would you talk about that?

C.B. “I’m not sure that I have an expertise, per se, but prison reform became a huge issue for me when I saw how prisoners were treated.

I hear a lot of people complain that the ‘system molly coddles inmates.’ The constant refrain of ‘if you can’t do the time…’ and that’s been the mentality of the people running the prisons as well. But every man or woman who is sent to prison, for whatever the reason, must be guaranteed that they will survive it. A case in point is the State Prison at Corcoran, California, where guards shot and killed seven inmates in the first 10 years of operation, and within the first nine months of operation guards shot and wounded three inmates in eight weeks. The shootings were ruled justified on the claim of the guards that they were protecting an inmate or another guard, but during the subsequent Department of Justice inquiry, they locked down and there was a ‘code of silence.’ Physical restraint and non‑lethal weapons (gas or rubber bullets) were not used to stop fights and in 2000, eight Corcoran guards were indicted for arranging prison gladiator fights for recreation.

In the case of Boyce and many other inmates, solitary confinement and no human contact were used rather than physical violence. Many prisoners who are put in solitary confinement will try to take control of their environment by engaging in self-destructive behaviors like beating themselves or refusing to eat.  Depression, schizophrenia and paranoia are a few of the side effects. And to what end?  Mental illness among inmates is raging out of control. A study done in 2006 by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that over half of all jail and prison inmates have mental health issues; an estimated 1.25 million suffered from mental illness. The current 2014 projection is that people with mental illness are over-represented in the criminal justice system by rates of two to four times the normal population. These are some pretty depressing statistics for the richest nation in the free world and they get worse with each passing year.

With the onset of mandatory minimum sentencing after the passage of the Crime Control Act, we also saw 18-year-old kids and old people serving inordinate amounts of time for first-time convictions.  Many of the drug possession charges carried MM’s of 20 to 25 years even for the young first-time offender. This means simply that a lot of first-time offenders, who weren’t really ‘criminals’ by definition, will eventually be released to a society who doesn’t want them and can’t support them. They will receive no mental health help, no counseling or training, and nothing that will prepare them for ultimate release. Believe me – if that 18-year-old could have been saved all those years ago, he’s lost now. And he’s angry, uneducated, unemployed, and once he hits the streets he’s going to go back to the only thing he knew. Now we’ve really criminalized him.”

N.L.: Do you see any positive or encouraging changes in the prison system to address some of these issues?

C.B.: “Last week, the Department of Justice announced a change after years of demands.  Clemency Project 2014, a working group composed of the Federal Defenders, the ACLU, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the American Bar Association, and National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers has all moved forward to support change in the federal sentencing regulations and the Justice Department agrees on the plan to restore the integrity of the clemency process.

This is a terrific leg up for the men and women who have been locked down for years for non-violent offenses. It helps the aging prisoners and those that have already done more time than is humane. I’m testing this new-found vision by filing a clemency petition for one of my clients who has been locked down since 1983 for one count of espionage.  He is now 80 years old and is routinely overlooked for parole.  Let’s hope that now, at age 60, I’m still as tenacious as I was 33 years ago!”

Writer/editor Nancy LaFever has been writing professionally for ten years, crafting magazine articles, blogs, magazine profiles and copywriting for a diverse array of clients. In addition to her work on “American Sons: The Untold Story of the Falcon and the Snowman,” LaFever recently edited the new sci-fi/young adult book, “Madolix.”