Over a plate of spicy tuna rolls before a recent screening of his film, 3 Backyards, writer-director Eric Mendelsohn talks about the genesis of the project: "I knew I had a feeling I wanted to try to write about, something secretive, something reflective, very internal, glittering and beautiful."
Then he pauses and laughs at himself: "That sounds like a mental patient talking," he says with a self-deprecating smile.
But Mendelsohn, 46, is in complete touch with reality regarding the prospects for his film, a meditative drama about one day in the lives of three Long Island residents. The film won him the directing award at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival (making him the only director to capture the prize twice) - but Mendelsohn has no illusions about the public's appetite for what he knows is an enigmatic art film.
"I'm much wiser this time around," says Mendelsohn, who teaches directing in the Columbia University graduate film program. "The first time I was at Sundance, the independent film movement was really just starting. There was a sense of a lottery, a roulette wheel that would come around."
In fact, though Mendelsohn won the directing award for 1999's Judy Berlin, the film wasn't released for more than a year - after The Sopranos made Edie Falco (who is Mendelsohn's lead actress and best friend) a star. Falco acts in 3 Backyards (along with Elias Koteas and Embeth Davidtz) - but Mendelsohn's expectations are more realistic this time around.
"The kind of thing I make is not going to be the next Blair Witch Project or some other stunt film that grabs everyone's attention because it's a sensationalist endeavor," he says. "This time, I'm pretty sober about why I made it. Everything about it was made in such a noncommercial way. You'd have to be blind, deaf and dumb to make a story with three unconnected stories and think it will show up at the local multiplex."
In 3 Backyards, an unhappy businessman, a little girl and a starstruck housewife all pass a day in unexpected ways. While nothing obviously dramatic happens to them, each is subtly changed. And, unlike films such as Babel, their paths never cross.
"I thought of it like a slim volume of short stories," Mendelsohn says. "I had the idea of taking innocuous, almost trivial plot developments and allowing them to generate these seismic shifts in the characters' identities - like a 360-degree move.
"With this one, people have been saying, 'Well, it's not about anything.' But that couldn't be further from the truth. Only someone who doesn't know anything about narrative would say that. But it's something very fine - like a piano wire. It doesn't move - but it hums when you pluck it."
Mendelsohn bristles at the notion that his films, set on Long Island, can be classified as tales of suburban angst: "This film has nothing to do with the suburbs or suburban ennui or isolation," he says. "This could just as easily be set in Paris in the '20s."
The market and audience for an art film such as 3 Backyards is limited and Mendelsohn recognizes that. Yet he frequently runs into that attitude that, since his film "only" cost $200,000, it should have been easy to get it financed - and not taken him a decade to make his second feature.
"When someone says that, I always say, 'Well, would you like to give me $200,000?'" he says. "In my case, it's money my friend - my producer - saved up. It's from his personal finances. This isn't money from a studio or a bank
"There's a lot of lip service to the idea of the independent filmmaker. But this is an art film and it's hard to get a studio or a bank to actually put money into something like this. I'm not criticizing; everybody has to do what they have to do. But the reason it's taken me 10 years to make another film is that, each time I do it, somebody has given up his life savings. Not a company - a person."
Mendelsohn has no time for filmmakers who complain that their $2-million budget wasn't enough to make the movie right. Getting to make an art film with a limited audience, he says, isn't something he's owed. He's happy to work within his limited means to save money.
"This is a very difficult country to make films that don't have an immediately graspable, commercial angle," he says. "There's no blame involved. Making any artwork that costs more than $100 is not a right; it's a privilege. I don't think I'm entitled to make them. Someone in a third-world country would think that spending the money I spend is an unbelievable waste.
"My film doesn't have to make a zillion dollars to break even. We borrowed every car, every house, every prop. I believe that it's your duty to make the movie for the amount that you raise. And I feel unbelievably lucky."
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