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Eric Mendelsohn Goes for Color in “3 Backyards”

Eric Mendelsohn Goes for Color in "3 Backyards"

This interview was originally published during indieWIRE’s coverage of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. “3 Backyards” opens in limited release this Friday, March 11.

Eric Mendelsohn, whose first two films, “Through an Open Window” and “Judy Berlin” (Sundance ’99 alum), screened in the Cannes Un Certain Regard section, hit Sundance for the second time with his latest, “3 Backyards.”

“A trio of brief, yet potentially life-altering, adventures unfold on one seemingly normal autumn day. In a complacent suburban neighborhood, an emotionally troubled businessman (Elias Koteas) wanders around his hometown while waiting for a delayed flight, a starstruck housewife (Edie Falco) embarks on an peculiar trip when she gives her famous neighbor a ride to the local ferry, and an eight-year-old girl takes a wrong turn on the way to school and finds herself in an unexpected adult realm.” [Synopsis courtesy of Sundance Film Festival]

“3 Backyards”
Director: Eric Mendelsohn
Screenwriter: Eric Mendelsohn
Cast: Embeth Davidtz, Edie Falco, Elias Koteas, Rachel Resheff, Kathryn Erbe, Danai Gurira
Executive Producer: Fred Berner
Producer: Rocco Caruso, Amy Durning, Eric Mendelsohn
Composer: Michael Nicholas
Cinematographer: Kasper Tuxen
Editor: Morgan Faust, Jeffrey K. Miller
Coproducers: Jennifer Grausman, Bodgan George Apetri, Atilla Yucer
87 min.

Responses courtesy of “3 Backyards” director Eric Mendelsohn.

From black and white to color…

Every time I have been granted the opportunity to direct, I see it as a chance to expand upon what I know and to incorporate new things into the way I work.

Before I made “3 Backyards,” I had made two other films; both in 35 mm, both in black and white. The decision to shoot them in black and white was based in dramatic necessity – the narratives benefited from the reduced palette, the insular quality and the unreality. Secretly, however, I always felt there was another reason as well: on my tiny budgets black and white afforded me control. I was always afraid that if I were to shoot in color I would be allowing in an entire world of things I couldn’t control; orange rust on white mailboxes, patches of tan, dead grass in the midst of green lawns, bright blue Honda Civics driving by unannounced into my shots.

“3 Backyards,” however, was going to be my first color film and my first digital film (we shot on the RED camera).

Loosening up…

There was something so liberating about getting rid of things I was accustomed to that I allowed the decision to free me up to jettison some other working methods. I imagined the film could be a mixture, looser than I was used to, of some of my favorite photographic elements. There would certainly be controlled shots, but I wanted to mix them with a sort of nervous, fluttery handheld at times. There would be steady dolly shots, but they were going to be combined with another element that felt as important to me as any of the characters in the script.

I also had this idea to get microscopic with the camera (intense tight shots of bugs and leaves and such) and to contrast that against high angle shots- wides from overhead, ‘aerial’ shots when the location allowed. I wanted the camera to capture the intense privacy of the characters and contrast it against the big, wide world. I was making up the language of the film to support that idea.

Using inspiration…

To that end, I found myself screening clips from a variety of movies: DeSica’s “Garden of hte Finzi-Contini’s,” Jacques Demy’s “Lola,” Nicholas Roeg’s “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” Frank Perry’s “The Swimmer” and “Ladybug, Ladybug.” I was looking for examples of flares and halos, and sun spots and feeling my way through zooms. I talk a lot of about “conveying ideas” in my directing classes (I teach at Columbia University’s amazing film program) and though I didn’t exactly know it at the time, I was beginning to conceive of the film as a sort of nature documentary about the inhabitants of this one town.

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