Give Me the Backstory: Get to Know Mel Eslyn, the Filmmaker Behind “Penelope”

By Bailey Pennick

One of the most exciting things about the Sundance Film Festival is having a front-row seat for the bright future of independent filmmaking. While we can learn a lot about the filmmakers from the 2024 Sundance Film Festival through the art that these storytellers share with us, there’s always more we can learn about them as people. This year, we decided to get to the bottom of those artistic wells with our ongoing series: Give Me the Backstory!

Let’s face it: it’s been a rough few years for everyone and it’s hard not to fantasize about leaving it all behind and starting a new life in the woods. Mel Eslyn wants you to know that you’re not alone in that impulse. When asked about the inspiration behind her new series Penelope, the writer-director takes our always-plugged-in world head on: “[The show is inspired by] a call to run away from the modern world. That is a feeling I think we have all faced in moments.”

Written with Mark Duplass, Eslyn’s show follows a 16-year-old girl (Little Fires Everywhere’s Megan Stott) who actually sheds her modern society skin and restarts her life in the middle of the woods. During Penelope’s premiere, which was part of the 2024 Sundance Film Festival’s Episodic Pilot Showcase, Duplass doubled down on the vision that he and Eslyn believed in as they financed and shot all eight episodes of the show: “It was just [about] this feeling that we were having for a long time — that a lot of us just don’t feel OK. We just feel off. And the way Penelope tries to explain what’s wrong and what’s going on with her is a lot of how we feel. And so we just took her out to the woods and explored it.”

Below learn more about the thought process and production behind Penelope was like for Eslyn, along with how she got into filmmaking, and what she’s always got stocked in her refrigerator.

Tell us why and how you got into filmmaking?

[At the] end of 1986, early 1987, [I] saw the music video for “Somewhere Out There” from the film An American Tale and was so emotionally moved by the storytelling through music and pictures. I have a distinct memory of that moment and wanting to move others with sound and picture. 

Films are lasting artistic legacies, what do you want yours to say?

There is beauty in going back to the simplicity of what makes us human.

Describe who you want Penelope to reach?

Youth of today that are looking for other paths and avenues. Beyond technology, phones, social media, etc.  And not just the youth, I think there is a greater reach. The themes of the show speak to what it means to be human. 

Mel Eslyn, director of Penelope, an official selection of the Episodic program at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. Photo by Nathan M. Miller.

Why does this story need to be told now?

We are living in an age of technology, and I’d argue too much of a reliance on technology.  There is a collecting longing for a simpler time. I think so many of us have escape fantasies, to leave it all behind. There is a primal calling in all of us to go back to nature. Technology, social media, collective depression, and the pandemic — I believe all have played into this calling.  

How do you want people to feel after they see Penelope?

Whether it’s a calling you have to escape, to abandon technology, to connect with nature and our capacity as humans to survive, you are not alone in those callings. 

Your favorite part of making the show? Memories from the process?

Getting to film so much in nature was the highlight. There were days I got to direct [while] sitting on the forest floor surrounded by ferns. 

What was a big challenge you faced while making Penelope?

While it was my favorite element to the filming of the show, filming so much outdoors had its challenges. You are not in control of mother nature and when she decides to shift weather gears.  

Why is filmmaking important to you? Why is it important to the world?

Filmmaking shares worlds. Real or fantasy. Good or bad. It’s an art that can both honor yourself — emotions, thoughts, memories, hopes, joys, anger — while also giving to others. Whether that’s making them feel seen, challenging them, entertaining them, or giving them the gift of a world outside of their own.

What is something that all filmmakers should keep in mind in order to become better cinematic storytellers?

Work on other people’s movies. Be humble and be a sponge. Everyone and every opportunity is a teacher or a lesson. 

If you weren’t a filmmaker, what would you be doing?

A novelist. Or a geologist. Or a painter. Or an archeologist. Or a singer. Or a forest ranger. Or a train conductor. Or a hot sauce maker. 

What three things do you always have in your refrigerator?

Pickles. Hot Sauce. Lemon juice.

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