Eric Mendelsohn is a longtime member of the Sundance Institute family. His short film Through an Open Window screened at the 1992 Sundance Film Festival, his debut feature Judy Berlin premiered at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival, and he is an alumnus of the Feature Film Program’s Screenwriters and Directors Labs. His most recent film, 3 Backyards, premiered in Dramatic Competition at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, where Mendelsohn won the Directing Prize. We asked him to reflect on how his relationship to independent film has evolved over time.
I have always had a difficult, antagonistic relationship to the world of independent film. I have definitely hated it, often just tolerated it, and many times rolled my eyes and laughed at it. More recently, however, I might have come to a new set of feelings about it.
I didn’t grew up with the term “independent film.” In fact, like many people my age, I was illiterate about film in a way that isn’t even conceivable today. I happily watched pan-and-scan films and thought the camera movements were part of some coherent Hollywood style. When TV stations scrunched up the opening credits of epics to fit television screens, I thought it was a way of telling the audience that an elegant, important film was about to begin. I watched great films and schlock, 1940s melodramas and foreign arthouse classics, all on the same tiny black-and-white TV, lying on the carpeting in my mother’s dining room.
And so, when I began to differentiate those films that had a hand guiding the visuals from those that just seemed to photograph whatever the actors said, I never discriminated against the film’s origins. I saw that guiding hand in films like The Magnificent Ambersons and Psycho, for sure, but I also saw it in The Bliss of Mrs. Blossom and the original Superman. I saw that the same guiding hand could organize and orchestrate images in the manner of classical music, like in David Lean’s Oliver Twist, or fracture and destroy them like in Nicholas Roeg’s Performance.
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Sometimes I would wait for a film to come on television just because one shot excited me. The Little Foxes had only one moment that caught my attention as a kid—when Bette Davis, foregrounded and unable to move, refuses to help her dying husband, who is staggering through the background, get his medication. There is a single shot in a film called The Mummy’s Ghost, where the limping Egyptian creature carries a woman up a railroad trestle—in a long-shot, executed in terrible day-for-night—that I find existentially terrifying.
I didn’t care or even know about the aura that surrounded moviemaking. Instead, I had fallen in love with the silent, persuasive visual strategy called directing.
So perhaps you can now understand why I was taken aback when I found out my first professional film, a half-hour drama starring Anne Meara and Cynthia Nixon, and narrated by F. Murray Abraham, was just “part of that indie film movement, where everybody lives in the suburbs.”
That was what a French interviewer told me when the film premiered at Cannes. Honestly, I didn’t know what he was talking about. I certainly wasn’t part of any movement. I didn’t even consider “the suburbs” to be the subject matter of the film. But the same thing was going to happen again when Judy Berlin, my first feature, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 1999.
I wanted to talk about shots. I wanted to talk about Fellini, from whom I’d certainly stolen my own little heroine, played by a pre-Sopranos Edie Falco. I wanted to talk about those weird, sometimes-clunky, Frank Perry films that had partially influenced the film. But the era of the low-budget indie film had arrived and all anybody wanted to know about was how low the budget was, did I have a great backstory about the film getting made, and “what was I trying to say about the suburbs.”
In the years between Judy Berlin and my current film, 3 Backyards, I suffered so many disappointments trying to get another film made, I thought I would stop altogether. So by the time my producer, Rocco Caruso, pushed to get our second feature going by once again risking his personal finances— I was desperate.
I didn’t think twice about making my second feature for just about the same amount as I had made my first one (nine years earlier). I was 44 years old and handing out flyers in a supermarket parking lot asking a community to become involved in my film. And they did.
I looked to the talented students and alumni at the Columbia University Graduate Film Program (where I teach) to collaborate with me on the project. And they did. Nearly 30 of them. I asked the residents of a tiny suburban town to open their homes to each and every one of our crew, for free, as well as donating their houses for weeks at a time to be the locations in the film. And they did. For nothing.
And an amazing thing happened during the arduous, emotionally taxing, physically draining process of producing another micro-budget film. The sense of desperation that was fueling me, as well as the sense of acceptance and gratitude for getting to make a film at all, seeped into my creative process and changed it forever. The same creativity I was using to produce the film—turning constraints into advantages, dead ends into possibilities—was affecting every artistic decision I was making.
Making a film is a privilege, not a right, and I was witnessing such enormous acts of generosity it would have been insane not to honor and “repay” each one of them in a meaningful way. And so, because I am a film director, I tried to “repay” them in the only way I knew how: in direct relation to gifts and opportunities I was being given, it was incumbent upon me to make a film that lived up to a commensurate creative independence.
Making 3 Backyards was the best creative experience of my life. I have no idea if it is a “made-for-two-cents” indie film, or a “star-studded” indie film, or one of those “suburban ennui” indie films, or a “back to our indie roots” indie film. I never spent a minute considering any of that junk.
I do know that I have never felt so close to all the other indie filmmakers who wake up at four and five in the morning to unload trucks, spend their day fighting to get the sun to do what they want, smile in the face of all hostilities, and then go home exhausted and excited to start all over again. All without the expectation of a paycheck and in the hopes they are creating something worthwhile. Those are my people.