Here (Doesn't) Come the Sun, Eric Mendelsohn's "Judy
by Aaron Krach
(indieWIRE/2.28.2000) -- Like the characters in his film, writer/director Eric Mendelsohn's
career hasn't exactly progressed according to predictable plans.
His short film, "Through an Open Window," was accepted to Un Certain
Regard at Cannes in 1993, a section of the festival usually devoted to
features. This led to an appearance on Jay Leno's "Tonight Show," as the
first short film director to ever appear in the prestigious sidebar.
Then, after a few more years working behind the scenes (as an assistant
costume designer on several Woody Allen films), his debut feature "Judy
Berlin" was accepted to Sundance 1999. The film -- a nuanced portrait of
a sleepy town on Long Island during a supernaturally extended solar
eclipse -- is an old-school, independent, with the special effects
coming from its A-list cast, including the late, great Madeline Kahn,
"Sopranos" star Edie Falco, Barbara Barrie and Julie Kavner.
After Sundance, where Mendelsohn won the Best Director prize, "Judy
Berlin" opened New Directors/New Films in New York,
screened in Cannes, and garnered the Grand Prize at The Hamptons
International Film Festival. After months of waiting for U.S.
distribution, the film kicked off The Shooting Gallery Film Series last
Friday, which provides for a minimum two-week release at
Loews theaters in 17 major markets. (For more on the program, check out
the website: http://movies.yahoo.com/sgfilmseries/)
Mendelsohn recently spoke with Aaron Krach about Sundance, expectations,
eclipses, movie endings, and working with
Madeline Kahn on her final film.
indieWIRE: Now that you've had a year to adjust, how surprised were you
to win the Best Director award at Sundance 1999?
Eric Mendelsohn: The idea of getting into the festival was surprising -
it's just such a youth-oriented festival. And winning something was
unbelievable. But it's more than that. Rocco Caruso (producer) and I
were surprised by the whole Sundance thing, in general. We were prepared
for nothing. We had a film, a black and white film with a harpsichord
score that stars Madeline Kahn, Barbara Barrie, Bob Dishy, Julie Kavner,
Ann Meara, Edie Falco. We weren't going in thinking we had the next
"Blair Witch Project," which no one had heard of at that point. We knew
it wasn't "The Brothers McMullen."
People were calling us for weeks beforehand and saying, "We'd love to
get a tape of your film. There's a lot of hype around your film." And
I'd say, "You know, the film lives up to the hype. I just don't know if
it's your kind of film." I was trying to let them down easy by telling
them, "It's black and white and the characters are in their sixties and
Edie Falco wears braces. Get ready."
iW: Some critics [including David Denby in the New Yorker] proposed that
you might become the next Robert Altman or even Woody Allen. How do you
handle such high expectations?
Mendelsohn: Basically I'm a Molotov cocktail of pharmaceuticals. No, I
haven't bought into any of it. If you look at all the people who were
celebrated one year ago at Sundance, no one remembers their names
anymore. If I want to continue making movies I will, and if people pay
attention, that's great. If not, I'll keep working -- if that's what I
choose to do. I think that's why I was running away from the award.
Because I come from a tradition of the visual arts, of painting, where
with your first painting you smile, you show to a few people, then throw
it in the garbage and start over again. I don't have this impulse to pat
myself on the back and say, "Well now that I'm the new Godard. What do I
do next?" There's a lot to be said for newness, but there's a lot to be
said for hard work and a career.
"I don't have this impulse to pat myself on the back and say, 'Well now
that I'm the new Godard. What do I do next?' There's
a lot to be said for newness, but there's a lot to be said for hard work
and a career."
iW: You said, "If I want to continue making movies?"
Mendelsohn: I did say that. I think I phrase it like that as my defense.
It's my escape hatch from this responsibility or duty I
supposedly have. I say we'll see if I make another movie because that
keeps it open and keeps me away from having to live up to anything. If I
want to make a horror movie next, I don't want to listen to anyone say,
"Wait a minute. You were supposed to be the humanist indie director." If
I want to do a slight comedy next, it keeps me free to keep that
emergency hatch there.
iW: The eclipse is the centerpiece in the film's universe; everything
and everyone fate revolves around it. Did that choice come from a
personal experience with an eclipse, maybe while you were a kid?
Mendelsohn: There were a number, well probably one, when I was growing
up. I like the idea of something fun and sort of supernatural, but very
minor league supernatural. I like things that verge on the supernatural
but happen every day. When I was little and there would be a black out,
it was so exciting. Everyone would come out of their house and light
candles. I love that kind of stuff. I'm more interested in the dramatic
effects of a stopped elevator with two passengers in it, than a hidden
bomb and a pot of gold or whatever.
iW: "Judy Berlin's" eclipse could be compared to the frogs in Paul
Thomas Anderson's "Magnolia." They are both almost-natural occurrences
that change the direction of the character's lives.
Mendelsohn: People keep asking me about the meaning of the eclipse. Is
it a symbol of something? It's not a symbol of anything. It's a result.
What I was looking for, more than a biblical symbol, was something along
the lines of the way "The Birds" works. There is no tangible correlation
in "The Birds" between the tension of the townspeople, their unresolved
emotional needs, and this attack of birds. But on a gut level, I
understand it completely. It makes complete sense to me that the little
things of the earth rise up when the supposedly dominant species isn't
One of the things I intended the eclipse, or what it felt to me, was
when you become an adult and you can no longer depend on
magical thinking. It's that point in your life when you realize that
things don't have a movie ending to them. White horses don't
come by and save you from your problems. You are in charge of your own
destiny. That is sort of like an eclipse, scary and exciting. If the
eclipse never went away, that's what adulthood is. It's a realization
that makes you stop and say, "Wow. I can never go back to thinking
everything is all right. That I'm safe and this will all work itself
"Movies have become this cheap sugar high we give ourselves to placate
our fears about real life being very difficult, complex
and not readily understandable. I was trying to get at something else,
which is that the sun doesn't always come out at the end
of the movie."
iW: Is it never explained, how or why the eclipse gets stuck?
Mendelsohn: Someone in a review once said -- and it's the closest to
what I felt when I wrote it, which was somewhat by instinct
that it's such a sleepy town, the sun sort of forgets to come back. What
I wanted was, there's an expectation of absolute salvation in a lot of
American films. We watch them suspecting the ending, like children
who've been good all year suspecting that Christmas will bring presents.
In that way, movies have become this cheap sugar high we give ourselves
to placate our fears about real life being very difficult, complex and
not readily understandable.
I was trying to get at something else, which is that the sun doesn't
always come out at the end of the movie. There are other endings. The
problems aren't solved and you can still exist and take away other
prizes. You can meet someone. You can exchange ideas. You can touch
someone. You can help someone. You can move from a position that you
thought you were permanently stuck in. No, those are not as glamorous as
a Hollywood ending, but it's an equally important message in my mind to
give to people.
iW: One of the most striking scenes in the film is the confrontation
between Bob Dishy and Barbara Barrie, probably because seeing two older
adults interact in such an intimate way is so rare on screen.
Mendelsohn: It's so funny because the fact that the movie has all these
characters in their 60s, in America at least, keeps people coming up to
me and placing their hand on my shoulder and saying, "That was good of
you to do." As if it's some noble gesture of charity I have done for the
AARP set. In every other country in the world where this film has
played, the people just laugh through those scenes because they are
recognizable, identifiable human foibles. I think Americans are so
afraid of getting older that they have put blinders on anything past 21.
iW: It is something you could never have imagined, but "Judy Berlin" is
the last movie Madeline Kahn will appear in.
Mendelsohn: She did me an enormous favor. When people say to me, "Aren't
you glad about Cannes or Sundance?" I think secretly, I've got Madeline
Kahn in my film. I'm done. No, really, check please. I'm finished. She
was amazing to work with. Her performance is amazing. She did something
she'd never done in a movie before: the scene at the end when she's
walking down the street; people ask me if she went crazy. No, she's
free. She is experiencing the freedom that comes from absolute
knowledge, from realizing that she's been roping people to her for so
long, co-dependently, and now is facing the thing she was most afraid
of. And you know what? She's okay. She is sane, just a little sadder
than she was 30 years ago.
She called me about two weeks before she died and we were talking about
the film. She told me she was indebted to me for using her in this
movie, for giving her the chance to represent herself in a way that she
hadn't in a while. It was a side of her that the Broadway audience knew
her by. It was unbelievable because you are always feeling indebted to