Thursday, September 3, 2015

Eric Mendelsohn on “3 Backyards”

When we spoke about the writing of Judy Berlin, you said that the script came about from collecting ideas and characters that come together during an eclipse. Was there a similar collection process for 3 Backyards and how did the script grow and change as you prepared it for production?

ERIC: When I was writing 3 Backyards, I was always thinking of glittering light, prisms and sun flares. I encourage myself not to fully understand why I am obsessed with things like that, and trust that my subconscious knows better. I was also thinking about hidden areas- behind tool sheds, beneath rotting leaves, in the dark corners of rooms. Don't ask me why. The finished film is replete with these spaces.

The characters came concurrently. They are all very internal people. Hidden types. John, the male lead played by Elias Koteas, is shut down, cold, inexpressive. Edie Falco plays Peggy, an outwardly sunny yet somewhat cloaked suburban housewife. And then there is Christina, the 7-year-old girl in the film. Though too young to be actively involved in a masquerade in any adult sense, by the end of the day she has taken the leap into worldliness that is the beginning of that journey.

You mentioned during the Judy Berlin interview that writing about people in the suburbs -- with cars and homes and all that -- made it hard to produce the film on a small budget. And yet, here you are doing it again with 3 Backyards. What did you learn from Judy Berlin that made it easier to shoot in the suburbs on a small budget?

ERIC: Everything- literally every thing- in the film is borrowed.

At one point in the film we see Edie Falco sitting at an easel in her backyard painting. The backyard and the house are loaned by total strangers to the film, the easel was mine, the painting Edie is painting was done by a local artist, the paints were donated by Grumbacher and the potted plants that surround the yard were lent for the day by a Northport florist.

I want my next film to be about a poor person who renounces, maybe for religious reasons, owning objects of any kind.

What are the advantages -- and disadvantages -- of creating a story that all takes place on one day?

ERIC: Everything about shooting a feature that supposedly takes place in one day sucks. The fact that a group of 40 grownups (crew members) spends the good part of every day praying for good weather like something out of Dances With Wolves is horrible. Footage doesn't match, hair and clothing is a misery to match. Then again- one outfit per person is a godsend!

One piece of advice that you said in our last interview -- to shoot fewer takes of the same shot, but instead to do more camera set-ups -- is advice that I often lead with when talking to film students. (That and the idea of putting your keys in the refrigerator when you unplug it while shooting, to ensure that you remember to plug it back in before leaving the location, are two of the best film tips I know.) What advice do you give your film students before they launch into shooting their first feature?

ERIC: Know the story. In the end, audiences don't care about the bleach bypass process, they don't care about the crane shots, they don't care about the funny anecdotes about how you sold your liver to get money to make the film. That is all bullshit. They crave characters and story and surprise and satisfaction.

What was the smartest thing you did while making 3 Backyards? The dumbest?

ERIC: The smartest thing I did on 3 backyards was offering the parts to the finest actors working today- Edie Falco, Elias Koteas, Embeth Davidtz, Danai Gurira, Randi Kaplan, etc. I knew what I had in the script was a study of human beings in odd, queer little situations. There is no such thing as a good movie with lousy acting.

The dumbest thing I did on the film...hmmm...I don't yet have the distance to comment on that. And maybe it's not a mode of thinking I want to entertain right now. I think the film got done because I was aware and awake and conscious during production. It would feel weird to call some good, honest part of the process "dumb" right now. I dressed poorly. I am a slob.

Finally, what did you learn making this film that will help you make the next one?

ERIC: What I learned making this film not only changed the experience for me- it changed my entire outlook on creativity. The ability to make artwork is a real privilege (as opposed to let's say, digging ditches or working outside in the cold on a telephone line). I was so inspired by all my students (I teach at the Columbia University Graduate Film Program) working for free or for peanuts and all the homeowners donating so much. Who would whine in the face of all that?

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