In the 1990s, Eric Mendelsohn did costume design work for several Woody Allen movies, including Husbands and Wives (1992) and Bullets Over Broadway (1994), and he won the Directing Award at the Sundance Film Festival for his debut as a director, Judy Berlin (1999), a sensitive portrait of suburban Long Island ennui that featured stellar work from Barbara Barrie, Edie Falco and, in her last film, Madeline Kahn. Mendelsohn spent the years after Judy Berlin teaching film at Columbia University, and now he finally has a new movie set for release on March 11, 3 Backyards , which was shot for $300,000 on his native Long Island and also stars Falco, who plays a chatty artist in one of its three stories of dislocation and isolation. I recently asked Mendelsohn a few questions about working on a low budget and being drawn back to Long Island.
There seem to be unbridgeable gulfs between the people in your movie. Does this particular kind of isolation have something to do with the ethos of Long Island?
Everybody is always asking me if the movies I made on Long Island somehow reflect my feelings about the isolation, desperation and emotional stagnation of suburbia. They do not. On the other hand, I can honestly report that I am one of the most isolated, desperate and emotionally stagnant people you will ever meet. I'm being serious when I say I have no idea what is going on in suburbia or even Long Island specifically right now. I was a weird kid, who hid in trees and read Poe and was so terrified the mailman was going to say hello to me I used to run into the backyard when I saw the little truck coming. The films reflect nothing so much as that weird kid now grown up into a weird adult, without the tree though. But, yes, "unbridgeable gulfs between people" is a line that rings a few bells with me...
Can you tell me a little bit about the genesis of 3 Backyards? When did you start writing it?
I started writing these shorts many years before we shot, without knowing where they would eventually belong. I knew that they all shared a feeling of secrecy and excitement, as well as something scarier, interior and isolated. When I began writing the screenplay, I wanted to retain the essential feeling that generated each short; something like secretly peeking into your mother's mirrored jewelry box in a dark room. I was very sure early on of one thing: the three stories couldn't be literally connected in any way. Instead, I wanted them to "stand next to one another," reflecting and mirroring each other, but not commenting explicitly.
What were some of the challenges of shooting a film on such a small budget? And what was it like to shoot in color on the Red Digital camera?
Robert Frost has a quote that defines my feelings about making this film at forty-four, with no money, nowhere to house the crew, no props or locations, no nothing: "Always fall in love with what you are asked to accept." Only in a country as blessed and obese and unconscious as America can people actually whine aloud about not having enough millions to make their movies. Getting to make movies is a privilege, not a right. Spending even a hundred thousand dollars on artwork comes with a responsibility. I loved every second of making this film and it was without a doubt the most arduous, exhausting creative venture I have ever undertaken.
The RED Camera was a dream. I was looking for a really polished surface, glassy and reflective and that camera was perfect for the project. I also really liked the freedom to get as many takes as I wanted and to shoot a lot of the film's nature footage without worrying about wasting 35mm film. I am not a snob about film versus digital. I just like there to be a reason, a creative rationale, behind either choice.
Michael Nicholas's score is central to the movie; can you talk a bit about your collaboration with him?
My initial instinct was that the music of the film should reflect an Eastern influence. Something about those big, pitched-roof suburban houses standing amongst all that green grass always reminds me of a Japanese temple. Also, the film attempts to connect the characters to the nature surrounding them—and that's a theme of Eastern arts. I am a big fan of Gagaku (Japanese Court Music) and even Haiku (though that might just be due to my short attention span). Michael Nicholas, the composer of this film and my other feature, Judy Berlin, understood what it was I was trying to get at with those references. He was able to distill them into a score of flutes and woodwinds and percussion thatseems odd and natural and otherworldly, all at the same time.
Are you working on another film script now?
I am working on the screenplay for my first horror film.