Eric Mendelsohn’s new film, 3 Backyards, opens this Friday, March 11, at the IFC Center in Manhattan. stars Embeth Davidtz, Edie Falco, and Elias Koteas.
In 1998, I was the Supervising Sound Editor for Judy Berlin, the first feature by Eric Mendelsohn. It was an experience that pushed me to my limit physically and emotionally. However, Eric was charming enough and naïve enough to convince me that anything is possible. Here’s a perfect example…
In the thick of the sound editing, he and producer Rocco Caruso asked me to make a “temp mix” for the videotape they were submitting for Sundance consideration. In layman’s terms, this meant that I stop the meticulous sound editing of the finished film so I could crank out something sounding half-way decent on a VHS tape–not the best use of my time. At one point, when I was definitely running out of patience, Eric turned to me, looked me dead in the eye, and said sincerely, “I want you to imagine that this one sound effect you’re putting in is going to be the one thing that makes the difference between Sundance saying Yes or saying No.” And it worked: I went the extra mile for Eric. In fact, I did so over and over again, so many times during the next few weeks, that the film should have been called The Extra Mile.
Actually, it “worked” on Sundance, too: that year Eric won their Best Director award. His latest film, 3 Backyards played at Sundance in 2010 and he won the same award again. (He’s two for two.)
3 Backyards (God, I love that title) is about a day in the life of a handful of people who live in middle class Long Island. Since I haven’t seen the film, this post is not a review, although you can certainly get the gist from Marshall Fine’s review at Huffington Post. Instead, Eric, who’s as shrewd a PT Barnum as he is a filmmaker, gave me an interview, which pulls back the curtain on the making of the film.
This film, like Eric’s other films–the short “Through an Open Window” (1993) and the aforementioned Judy Berlin (1999)—was produced by his old friend and business partner Rocco Caruso, on an incredibly tight budget. A mere $300,000, meaning the film wasn’t “made” as much as it was “willed into existence.”
Getting a cast and crew together on such a shoestring—or “on a micro-micro-micro-budget” as Eric calls it—actually isn’t as Herculean as keeping them there, getting them to work beyond their normal breaking point, all in support of Eric’s vision. Personally, I always wondered if his plea to me 12 years ago was in fact a “line” or some shtick, duping me into doing his bidding. He insists it was not the case at all and never his style. “I so firmly believe in the Importance of the Moment that I’m not using a new tack, or coming up with a strategy to win someone over. I teach [directing at Columbia] and I tell this to my students all the time: ‘You have a choice when you make any kind of artwork. It’s a tradeoff. The tradeoff is between being exhausted on the one hand and creating something great, potentially, on the other hand.’ That’s such a fair tradeoff. Why wouldn’t you just be exhausted?
“So at times when I feel we are never going to have this Moment again and I need to rally people, I try to make everyone remember, OK, we will be a little exhausted this week or this month, but in the end we will have something concrete that we’re proud of, that we did, that we worked for.”
And although Eric’s capable of inspiring a cast and crew to such extremes, he had no deulsions that the production couldn’t collapse at any time. “We thought we were going to run out of money after Day 5 and have to close down, and I said, ‘Well, then these will be the five great days where we played with actors and cameras and zooms and lenses, and those were really five great days that we will remember.’ It sounds incredible to me that I said this, but I really believed it. I was totally invested in the process and it was the most exciting creative experience of my life.”
Obviously, the challenge of pulling this off provides its own rush and incentive for Eric. He explains, “Do you know in E.T., when the little alien is making the kids understand what planet he is from and he lifts all the balls into the air and they swim into a solar system? [see above] Well, making 3 Backyards, I had this vision in my head of an entire film lifted up into the air, floating there by sheer willpower, and floating there were actors and houses and props and costumes and transportation, and crew housing, and everything. I had this thought: Could one person–and it wasn’t just me, but a lot of it fell from me to sort of excite people to do–lift everything in the air and keep it lifted until production was over?
“For example, in the opening of Edie’s part of the movie, she is painting in her backyard. The backyard of the house is donated by a local resident of the town. The easel that she is painting at is donated. The artwork was painted by a local artist. The paints that she is using are donated from Grumbacher Art Supplies. The plants in her backyard were on loan–if we kept them alive–from the local florist in Northport. There is nothing about the scene that is paid for or substantial. It’s all just floating in air. So, if you can extrapolate every scene in the movie that is held together like that–every car, every location, every house, every crewmember was put up in a homeowner’s house for the entire shoot; some stranger agreed to have people sleeping on couches—that’s how the film was made.
“I still get nervous sometimes at night thinking the whole thing is going to fall apart, and I have to remember the film is over.”
As much as Eric speaks of art and sacrifice for the sake of art, he is open to compromise. “Look, the film was originally called 4 Backyards, and ten days before shooting, we realized we could not financially accomplish four backyards and, like that character in 127 Hours, I cut off my own arm. I just said. ‘No. Nothing is going to stop me from making this movie. I see a way that it can perfectly exist and I will rewrite it a week-and-a-half before we go.’ We had to tell the actors who were involved in that ‘fourth backyard’ that we were canceling it; all the locations, everything, and it was a really liberating way of working. Not being crushed by every problem, but instead looking at it as an opportunity.”
The flattering reviews from New York Magazine and Variety make no bones about it: 3 Backyards is an out-and-out Art Film, aka not everyone’s cup of tea. Clearly, this isn’t a revelation to Eric. “There is something really perverse about putting all of this time and energy and effort into artwork. It’s like half of the cave is going out and trying to kill, hunt and gather, and the other half, or maybe two cavemen, are painting cave paintings, but taking it just as seriously as everybody out killing mastodons. When you see movies like The Conversation or any Jacques Demy film, you’re looking at the work of somebody who took the time and the energy and the effort to care about your experience. So you only have a certain amount of those opportunities in your life to do that for someone else.
“Not to compare myself, but my heroes are people like the Impressionists. And if they had listened to everyone at the time, they would have been making the boring Salon paintings, which nobody even gives a shit about today. They had a new idea and they said, ‘Let’s go and do this. Maybe we will poor. Who cares?’ And I love that spirit. If films didn’t cost so much, the experimentation would be immense. But because they cost so much, everyone is so Goddamned timid. But Rocco Caruso’s said three times in my life now, ‘Here. I have saved up the money. Let’s do something exciting that is new and is a stab at what we think a film should be rather than cautiously hewing to what convention tells us we should be doing’. I don’t want to die and say, ‘Here’s my body of work. It is cautious and fits the template of many other things made by my generation.’”
I’ll wrap things up with an anecdote, perhaps my most memorable experience with Eric, one that sums up his acute sensitivity to others and his keen ability to seize the moment. In December, 1998, when we were in the home stretch of mixing Judy Berlin, I was about to have something pretty much unheard of in the NY dating scene: a second date stemming from a blind date. She was a costume designer, and I was really nervous because I had no sense of fashion. I expressed my fears to Eric. He stopped what he was doing and sized me up and down.
“Don’t worry, “ he said confidently. “I have the perfect sweater for you.” It was cashmere and fit like a glove and, yes, it helped make my second date a success. Craziest of all: it had been worn by Woody Allen. Y’see, prior to being a filmmaker, Eric was an assistant costume designer on four Woody Allen films, and the sweater was from Husbands and Wives. Considering I totally bought into the whole “I love Woody and I’m dating in New York and it’s Annie Hall all over again” philosophy, it didn’t hurt to literally wear the man’s clothing. I mean how freakin’ cool is that?! It was all very voodoo of Eric, but then again, he’s proven to me repeatedly that he can make magic happen.
Once again, Eric’s 3 Backyards opens this weekend at the IFC Center in Manhattan. At the moment, it’s only scheduled for one week, so if you’re at all interested, I urge you to go. It’ll be opening March 18th on Long Island, in Huntington, at the Cinema Arts Centre.
Here’s the film’s website and you can get IFC tickets here. Eric will be at several of the 8:10 screenings for a Q&A afterwards. And if you go to the IFC Center tonight, and see a guy that looks an like the picture on this post, passing out 3 Backyards postcards, well, you can guess who it is. Yep, Eric’s idea of “micro-micro-micro-budget” doesn’t end when the film is finished. He does whatever he can to personally deliver his film to a hungry audience.