Alone Inside Our Own Skins
A Conversation with Eric Mendelson
feature by
Cynthia Fuchs, 10 March 2000

Eric 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.

Recently, 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 I spoke with Mendelsohn in Washington DC.

Cynthia Fuchs: How do you find the film festival circuit, as a way to get your work out there?

Eric Mendelsohn: 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 at Sundance.

CF: It sounds grim: what interests you about filmmaking?

EM: 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.

CF: Why black and white?

EM: 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.

CF: Independent films tend to be marketed based on their outsiderness. How has your film fallen outside of that outsiderness?

EM: 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 use.

CF: How did you come to this story?

EM: 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.

CF: I was 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 seeing.

EM: 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.

CF: How did you imagine the relationship between Sue and her daughter Judy?

EM: 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.

CF: What is it that makes Judy so attractive?

EM: 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.

CF: For all the venerating of writer-directors today, it does seem like a risky venture, to put yourself out there that way.

EM: 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.

CF: It's also hard to imagine what your viewers will come away with.

EM: 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.

CF: Is the eclipse a metaphor for something specific?

EM: 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.

CF: Did you have a map for the town in your head?

EM: 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 reality.

CF: Is it nostalgic?

EM: 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.

CF: Someone has written of the film that it's "suburbia without irony." How would you describe your version of suburbia?

EM: 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.

CF: How are you handling the attention you're getting now?

EM: 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.

CF: You do seem unusually grounded, not so easily seduced by being flavor of the month.

EM: 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 earth, great.

CF: You sound like you have a sense of legacy.

EM: 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.

CF: 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.  Copyright 1996-2005 by Nitrate Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.