Inside Our Own Skins
Mendelsohn is a quiet guy, thoughtful and self-reflective. His first feature
film Judy Berlin -- which won the 35-year-old Mendelsohn the Directing
Award at 1999's Sundance Film Festival and was an official selection in the
Cannes Festival's 1999 Un Certain Regard -- is a carefully observation of
suburban self-delusions and truths. It's also about observation, the ways that
characters see one another and the ways that you see characters. Focused on one
fall day, the film follows aspiring filmmaker David Gold (Aaron Harnick), who
has just returned from LA to his childhood home on Long Island (a town named
Babylon), and his onetime classmate, the terminally optimistic actress Judy
Berlin (Edie Falco), is on her way to Hollywood. David and Judy spend the day
together, discussing dreams and disappointments, while other townspeople
interact across town. When an eclipse occurs, they all pause to reconsider their
pasts and futures.
Mendelsohn went on the road to talk about Judy Berlin, selected as the
keynote event for the "Shooting Gallery Film Series," a series of six
films, scheduled to run for two weeks apiece, for series subscribers in
seventeen U.S. cities. The Shooting Gallery organized corporate sponsorship in
order to show films like Judy Berlin and Orphans, directed by
Peter Mullan, festival hits not picked up for distribution. Each film might be
held over in specific theaters, if it garners enough support. The national
information number for the Shooting Gallery is (877) 905-3456, and the website
address is http://www.shootinggallery.com/. I spoke with Mendelsohn in
How do you find the film festival circuit, as a way to get your work out there?
I find the festival process very difficult: there are no carousel rides or
clowns; it seems a misnomer. At Sundance, I felt like we were at the Sundance
Independent Film Lottery. Obviously I'm indebted to Sundance and even more to
the writing and directing lab that I went through with another script. But the
festival is hard. You meet a lot of creepy people, who are not interested in
whether your film moved them or whether the acting was great. They're not
looking for unique ideas, they're looking for the new stunt film that's going to
capture a kind of gimmicky American imagination. And that we knew when we made
this film that we didn't have that. We went in having to remind ourselves why we
made the film. You don't make a film that's black and white, with characters who
are mature, and a harpsichord score if you're hoping to catch the buzz machine
sounds grim: what interests you about filmmaking?
I have no trouble with genre films, and would love to make a straight comedy or
a horror film. Hollywood seems to be doing fine. They pay their rent and their
gas bill, so who can complain? They're a business. I just thought that for my
first film I'd do something different, something that felt organic and unrelated
to monetary concerns, in fact, that rejected any notion of monetary concerns.
So, if the film felt right to be in black and white, then we'd do it in black
and white. If it feels to have this set of performers even if they won't bring
in money, let's do that. It's my first film. Later on I can fall apart at the
seams and start kissing butt in Hollywood.
Why black and white?
I needed a way technically of detaching an audience from any preconceived notion
that they had about the place that I was describing. I had to show them that
this was not going to be your typical film about the suburbs: there are no malls
in this movie, practically no traffic. There's not a lot to remind people of the
suburbs in 1999 or 2000. Every screenplay dictates an entire agenda of problems
that need dealing with and black and white was a solution, not one that's
allowed by people who are making films in the rest of the world.
Independent films tend to be marketed based on their outsiderness. How has your
film fallen outside of that outsiderness?
Well, no one is that naive at this point, as to think that "independent
films" isn't just another way to market a film. That's not to say that
there's nothing going on that's of any interest; I believe there is. I think
that the part of it that has risen into the mainstream view is pretty much
mainstream material or material that, as a break from Hollywood films, is an odd
piece of diet for the day. I don't know if we're different or the same as that.
I think that the sad part about it is that this used to be an art form, [where]
you could surprise people or you were working without constraints, and an
audience was mature enough to select what they wanted and discard what they
didn't want. Now I don't even know how much people realize that they're being
force fed pap. I'm not saying that my film is an antidote to that, but we no
longer require it of film as a medium. Everyone would have a problem if we were
told that painters could no longer use particular colors in their paintings,
because we understand that for the visual arts to be any good, there has to be a
freedom which isn't ball-and-chained to commerce. But nobody has trouble
accepting that filmmakers can't use the colors or subject matters they want to
How did you come to this story?
I'm a big collector, in real life. I collect crap, tea cups and movie posters.
At one point I was even collecting versions of the song "McArthur
Park." And I applied the same ethos to the film: I collected things for a
long time, I collected an eclipse on an otherwise beautiful fall day, a tiny
suburban town that could almost be something under a snow globe, the harpsichord
music, the characters. I can't tell you why the second day of school and an
eclipse and the music all go together for me. I didn't question it. And that was
part of the process of writing it for me.
struck when David said, "These are the facts as I see them." But
"facts" seem unruly, and the film seems to be about various ways of
I'm interested in that. You get to a certain age and you have to realize what
you have to offer. Lots of movies offer answers that I'm not comfortable with,
like, you can go into outer space and kill the aliens, or you can be the cop in
the police department who finds out about the treachery that's going on. These
are things that I haven't experienced. One thing I have experienced is that we
can give each other advice and comfort and companionship. It seems a realistic
goal, a triumph, a celebration. And another thing we do really well is create
and destroy meaning. So, Judy says to David -- not out of any autobiography on
my part -- make a movie, I mean, he could have been a CPA for all I care. What
she's saying is, make meaning, that's what we do best. The menu on life says,
here's the list of tonight's entrees, and David is folding his arms throughout
the movie saying, "I want something that's not on the menu." And she
finally says, do the thing that we do best. The menu's big and you can order up
a storm if you want.
How did you imagine the relationship between Sue and her daughter Judy?
The idea of a woman giving birth to a family of strangers, it's terrifying, but
it happens all the time. You have relationships with people in your family you
just don't know, and you try because you've had the same upbringing. I love
that. I think it goes a long way toward explaining our separateness on the
earth, and also our ability to overcome that. There's a certain set of givens in
movies, like a set of family members will realize they love each other, or
mothers will instinctively throw themselves in front of trains for their
children. But there are all these more complicated things that go on, the
jealousies between a parent and child, strange dependencies between family
members, and growth between people who never thought they could learn from each
other. In Judy Berlin, there's nothing made up. People are saying,
"Oh, it's such a new look." It's not a new look. During the course of
this day, you'll be calling someone and saying, "I don't know, it just
didn't work out the way I thought it would, I'm hopeful but I'm not sure."
You discuss your feelings and your hopes and your fears. And you are not hanging
from a cliff with Sylvester Stallone offering you his hand, and you are not
looking into Clint Eastwood's eyes as he's offering you a bouquet of fresh
picked flowers from your yard. Those things happen, but rarely, and it's
important to see something of what actually goes on in our lives in our films
and TV. It's sane-making.
is it that makes Judy so attractive?
She's a believer. She throws herself in wholeheartedly, she doesn't question or
censor herself. She doesn't look for outside approbation. That's attractive.
I've had people ask, "Do you think Judy's going to make it in
Hollywood?" To me, she's making it right now, she's a total success. All of
those people are, they're moving forward. In the course of a day, your mother in
Chevy Chase, Maryland goes through as many things as Meryl Streep does in that
movie where she was going bald. I believe that . I find the people who hold
their tongue when someone gets ahead of them in the express line, with eleven
items, the cab drivers who are willing to impart to you some upsetting thing
that happened to them that day, those people are heroic.
For all the venerating of writer-directors today, it does seem like a risky
venture, to put yourself out there that way.
It is, it's terrifying. This whole process is terrifying. The exposure is
ruthless. It's not that I'm on the cover of People magazine. But having
people like the film, that's still important to me, protecting my actors from
the world we're about to come out into.
It's also hard to imagine what your viewers will come away with.
Well, when you make the film you're pushing for certain understandings, that 's
why you write and direct and pick every camera angle. But isn't it what you
hope, when you leave a theater with your best friend, and they say, "I
loved it" and you hated it, that disappointment and aloneness that you
feel? That's what it's like when someone's making a movie. They're expressing
something that they feel or understand about their experience on the earth, and
if people don't understand with you, you're once again lonely. And if they do,
for a moment, you feel conjoined with lots of other souls. And that's exciting
and from the minute you enter this world you're in a relationship with someone.
For better or worse, lots of what we're looking for in life is that
satisfaction, that feeling of not being alone inside our own skins.
Is the eclipse a metaphor for something specific?
Not for me: it's just an event that helps push the movie along, it's fun for me.
I come from a family where, for lack of excitement in this tiny town, during a
rainstorm, my mother would open up the garage door and we'd set up lawn chairs
and eat popcorn and watch. We were bored. And it was exciting to think that
natural forces could bring the day to a halt. I loved snow days. The eclipse is
as much a metaphor as a snow day. It makes people into cavemen staring up into
the sky, makes some people into cynics, makes some fearful. The fact that it
won't go away? That just seemed like real life. Hollywood makes eclipses go
away. Life is hard truths that you learn to live with forever, and then you move
forward. Someone asked me in an interview last week, at the beginning of the
movie a light goes out, and then the eclipse, how were you working with this
metaphor? And I said, you are talking to the wrong person, I barely got through
English literature. My combined SAT scores were in the negative numbers. I'm not
working in metaphors here, I'm working on my gut instinct of what I thought was
interesting and exciting. I thought it would be thrilling.
Did you have a map for the town in your head?
No, it's a fake town, totally made up. If you were to go where we filmed, you'd
see the J.Crews and the TCBYs and florists and all that crap. That's not what
the film needed. That's my version of suburbia, obviously not true to what's
really out there. Like a doll's house, interesting to look at but removed from
Is it nostalgic?
No, it's not nostalgic. I hate nostalgia in films or theater, those things
people call memory pieces, which are basically people recalling what it was like
when they were growing up in Brooklyn in the 1940s. I'm like, who cares? I'm
really interested in characters and what they need and what they don't get. But
it's not a valentine to these people. I think it's harder on them and more
compassionate than a valentine, with its gushing loopiness.
Someone has written of the film that it's "suburbia without irony."
How would you describe your version of suburbia?
These are hard, complicated, conflicted people. There's a whole history of
artists who have lived in the suburbs or small towns, and nobody looks at Emily
Dickinson or Robert Frost and says, "Look at those hicks, they really
didn't have much to tell us." It's an easy out when people reduce the
suburbs to stereotypes, or the other tendency nowadays, to pull back the curtain
and show you that in the suburbs, they're all misanthropes and horrible people.
It's more complex and more real than that.
How are you handling the attention you're getting now?
Eighty years from now, we'll just have the work. You look at paintings from the
Renaissance now, and you don't know how they lived, unless you're an art
historian, and you marvel at the work. You don't know the specific contexts, who
was patronizing them. There's a great line in Touch of Evil, when Marlene
Dietrich says, "What does it matter what you say about people?" You do
the work, you show up, leave the work, and what does it matter if you're this
month's favorite in Premiere magazine or the hot flavor of the month in
Hollywood? That will crumble. As will the videotapes of my film.
You do seem unusually grounded, not so easily seduced by being flavor of the
I've been working in film for all of my adult life. I was a costume assistant
for Woody Allen. I've seen all of those famous people that you're supposed to be
seduced into wanting to be, in their underwear and corsets. I haven't been
seduced so far. If Hollywood and I can see eye to eye on something, that's
great, I have nothing against them: there's nothing wrong about packing them in
on the weekends. It's only bad if that's the only game in town. I'd love to make
a movie where I wasn't sleeping on my mother's bedroom floor during production.
If I have five things to my name when I'm dead that speak about my experience on
You sound like you have a sense of legacy.
I don't know if it's a sense of legacy, but I'm afraid of leaving without
explaining myself. There's this variety of different types of experience that
everyone has during the day that someone has decided isn't worth putting into a
film. There's that moment when you're supposed to meet someone on a street
corner and they don't show up, and a half hour goes by and you start to doubt
yourself, and you don't even realize if you're in the right place. There's the
tiny missteps in conversation, the subtle retractions, and the hopeful glances
that happen to everyone in the course of the day. These are some of the things
that I try to get into Judy Berlin, the connections and disconnections.
At this point it's exciting to me that I get to show the space where the Long
Island railroad goes chugging along next to the dirty, windswept back of a
grocery store. It's exciting to me that I get to show what the boiler room of an
elementary school looks like at midmorning when no one's watching it. Hopefully
someone else thinks so, but not necessarily.
Why do you think these kinds of moments are not shown in film more often?
EM: I think it's about wish fulfillment. The farther away from their own lives people go to make or see a movie, the more comfortable they are. The farther into outer space, cold war espionage, or slapstick comedy [they get], the closer they are to feeling comfortable and disassociated from their own experiences. That's not bad, I like that. I like Skittles too, and I love Mallomars. But I don't want to diet on them particularly. They don't fill me up.
Click here to read Cynthia Fuch's review.