Eric Mendelsohn Interview

Wildly upbeat writer-director Eric Mendelsohn giddy about the belated release of his Sundance hit film

Wildly upbeat writer-director Eric Mendelsohn giddy about the belated release of his Sundance hit film

Before she became Emmy bait playing Carmela Soprano on HBO's blockbuster mob drama, Edie Falco played the loquacious, geeky title role in "Judy Berlin," a previously unreleased low-budget wonder written and directed by her best friend of 14 years, Eric Mendelsohn.

Now, thanks to a also-ran rescue by indie house Shooting Gallery, Mendelsohn's quirky comedy about the effects of an unusual eclipse on a menagerie of Long Island oddballs has become the flagship for a new touring film series -- six pictures that somehow failed to find distribution during their festival runs.

Mendelsohn won Best Director at Sundance in 1999 for "Judy Berlin," his feature debut. But the Park City fairy tale didn't come true for him. Nobody bought his movie to release in theaters until Shooting Gallery came along months later. Now they're giving the picture (and by extension, the series) a big launch by sending Mendelsohn on interviews.

We meet in his San Francisco hotel room, where the wildly upbeat, 30-ish writer-director is so enthusiastic about having strangers come visit to talk about his film that he offers up room service snacks and coffee like he's having a housewarming. "This is all for you," he says, gesturing to a coffee table with a broad, honest smile. "There's food in there and little candies."

"Do you want some?" he ads, bounding out of his chair and making for a table full of miniature sodas and two pots of regular and decaffeinated java.

Once he's settled back into his chair, he makes unwavering contact with slightly bloodshot eyes (his overnight flight landed less than an hour ago), as if he's just itching to answer any and all question about his friendship with Falco, directing Madeline Kahn in her last movie, working on the sets of Woody Allen movies in his early 20s, and how closely he identifies with the movie's linchpin character, a failed filmmaker returning to his sleepy suburban hometown.

You went from fine arts (in college) to filmmaking. What provoked that leap?
Eric Mendelsohn: I just wasn't talented. It just wasn't working out. I was jealous, basically, of all the filmmakers at the school I was going to. I just kept thinking they had more fun than I was having, so I started working with the filmmakers at school.

By the way, can you tell me if you like short answers, long answers, whatever? Because I'm a fast-talking Jew and I'll just go on like you won't believe.

(Laughing) I'll interrupt you if you get out of hand.
Great! No offense taken. OK, so I went to this state school called SUNY Purchase -- which a lot of people talk about now, but when we went there it was for losers...

(Laughing.)
Really! Really! I don't know if you have heard of it, but in New York in terms of art schools and film schools, Edie Falco, Wesley Snipes, all these people came out of there. But when we were there it was like, well, we couldn't get in anywhere else and we don't have SAT scores, so...

We couldn't get into real college, so...
That's it! People ask me what I did in college. I painted, I drew and I sculpted. It was like the fifth grade.

So you've known Edie Falco since then?
Edie and I have been friends for a zillion years. We went to college together. I put her in my senior film, which I was doing somehow for the painting department -- I somehow got them to let me make a film. Edie lives across the street from me and we have had breakfast every morning since school.

And now she's ultra famous and ultra hot.
It is very strange. I'm not a great objective viewer of the whole thing, so it's hard to tell. We went to do a TV show about "Judy Berlin." I was walking through the hallways as she was having her makeup put on, and I saw all the grips and the wardrobe women standing around discussing some famous person who was in the makeup room, and it suddenly dawned on me that they were talking about Edie! And I was like, "Edie, you wouldn't believe it! A whole group of people who don't know you are out in the hallway talking about you!" And she's obviously a little more used to it than I am, so she was like, "Uh-huh."

But we can't have breakfast on the street like we used to, and we can't sit in the window of a place and have coffee because people toot the horns in their trucks and say, "Yo, Carmela!"

But it has helped the film, hasn't it?
I think it has. But when "Judy Berlin" was in the script stage -- I wrote it for Edie, she's my best friend -- I'd bring it around to people and say "This is written for Edie Falco and it's not going to any other actress," and they'd say "Who?!?" It didn't help me back then to have her in the film, but we're both glad now it can help sell the film to audiences. She's playing something so completely different than what people know her for, that I feel like they're in for a complete treat.

You worked as a costume assistant on several Woody Allen films before making your first movie, was that something you picked up at SUNY as well?
It was really just a front. I can do it, it's easy. What I really liked about it is that you get to talk to the actors about their characters.

What did you pick up from being on Woody Allen's sets?
Number one is how to handle yourself on a set. His sets are quiet, and what that translates into is protection for the actors. It's all about the work, and that's a great thing for actors. It allows them to do their best work. Also in the script stage, I think the idea of just...ummm...gathering together a set of things that I thought made a feature film. Some science fiction thrown in there, some drama, some loopy comedy, some general wistfulness and melancholy, the suburbs, an eclipse, second day of school -- all these things go together and it takes a certain amount of hubris to say, "I think that's a feature film. I haven't seen it before, but I'm guessing." That I definitely took from him. He's so unique. He's so prototypical. Everything he does, you think, God! I've never seen that before! That I definitely took from him.

Did you get to know him at all?
Oh, yes. He's going to be coming to see the film either at the premiere or at a private screening at his little screening room. I edited the film on his flatbed -- the flatbed that he cut every one of the film that Ralph Rosenblum edited, which are like, "Bananas" and "Take the Money and Run" and "Annie Hall." That's what I was using, so there was a lot of history in that machine. It was kind of terrifying. But it was through Woody's generosity that we didn't have to rent (editing equipment).

So you shot this movie in your home town of Old Bethpage. Were you running into characters from your past like David runs into in the movie?
Not so much the people I went to high school with, but their parents, who -- have you ever been to Long Island?

No.
It is a strange place. It's funny and it's eccentric. When we were shooting, people got lawn chairs and barbecues, and would sit on the street and eat and watch us shooting! It was like live theater. I felt like we were doing a performance piece for them called "Judy Berlin." They would all come up to me and they would say (affecting nasal Long Island housewife accent), "My daughtahh, Sheryl Weisnahhh, went to school with yoore brothahh on Sadie Hawkins dayhh....," you know? It was filled with the kind of stuff that happened in the film.

How much of the film is autobiographical?
The thing is, I'd love to say, just to sell the goddamn thing, that it all is! Go see my story! But you know what? It's seven main characters or something like that. They all are pieces of things that I understand about being a human on the face of the Earth. But I am not an 80-year-old former school teacher, and I am not the principal of an elementary school, nor am I an actress leaving town (all characters in the film). So it's hard to say it's autobiographical. But they're all part of me. Each and every one of them is something I feel for intimately.

And the David Gold character, the filmmaker?
Less him than anyone. What he happens to do for a living, I just stuck with what I knew. David Gold could have been a failed tennis player. He could have been a failed, I don't know, journalist. He could have been any number of things and failed. What interested me least is that he happened to be a filmmaker or whatever I said he was in the script. What interested me was that...he finds that the real world is harder (than he thought). He just represents that kind of person.

How did the Sundance Best Director award effect you?
Uhhh, I cannot say I wasn't happy, because it's nice to get affirmation. But I think it made me nervous, as if something was expected then. It made me feel...I don't know. I don't want you to get the idea I'm some misanthrope. It was nice winning the award. I'll tell you some other nice things that completely blow that out of the water: Madeline Kahn is in my movie. End of story. Barbara Barrie delivers what is clearly an Oscar-worthy performance in this movie. William Hurt came up to me and said, "This movie broke me apart." That is a great compliment from someone who is as rigorous and talented an actor as he. So I've had things that make me happy that feel like a Sundance award, but the Sundance award kind of pales in comparison to them, though.

Speaking of Madeline Kahn (who passed away late last year), was she healthy during the filming?
She was. One of the last things she said to me was "Didn't we have good timing?" And I said, "I don't know what you mean." She said, "I didn't know I was ill." That's one of the thing about ovarian cancer. By the time they find out, it's usually much too far gone to do anything about.

It's such a big topic, Madeline's involvement in the movie. For whatever reason, people like her are my heroes in life. Watching her as a kid, I felt like, I don't know, like I'd just had my first sexual experience! (Laughs.) She is outrageous! And the fact that she decided to be in my first movie? God almighty!

Way into production, when things were falling apart and we were scrambling to hold things together, I would return to the moment when she said, "Yes, I would love to be in this movie." It would inspire me all over again. I am just in awe of people like her. They make life so much more pleasurable on Earth. Like the fact that we have her performances on record is like stealing money from the bank. With Madeline, and with all of these performers, I felt like I was walking into the bank and stuffing money in my pocket. I was like, this is gotta turn out to be a dream. Each on of these people is so talented, and they're doing my film!


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