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The film also reunites Mendelsohn with his Judy Berlin star, Edie Falco, whom he's known since they were college classmates in the 1980s. Of their creative partnership, he says, "We've had kind of this lifelong discussion — or maybe Ping-Pong game — about art, where I would think a lot about art, and she would just feel her way through it. Over the years I've learned from her not to question or to think about a lot of things, and not even to retroactively engineer reasons for why you did things."
In the case of 3 Backyards, that means not asking himself why he has returned to the suburban milieu that was also the setting for Through an Open Window. "I've written and directed three films about the suburbs now," he says. "I was not living in the suburbs when I wrote them. I left when I was 18; I've never gone back. I think the things I've written about three times now are very personal and idiosyncratic, and why they come up in the suburbs rather than Manhattan, where I've spent most of my life, I don't know."
This much is certain: Eric Richard Mendelsohn was born in 1964 in Old Bethpage, Long Island, the fourth of five children of a scientist father (who designed target-recognition technology for F14 aircraft at Grumman Aerospace) and teacher mother. His siblings include a photographer, a physicist, journalist Jennifer Mendelsohn and critic and author Daniel Mendelsohn, whose best-selling, Holocaust-themed memoir, The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, is currently being developed as a film by Jean-Luc Godard. In 2000, the online magazine Slate.com found team Mendelsohn sufficiently fascinating to have them participate in a weeklong series of e-mail conversations dubbed "The Breakfast Table." In responding to the hyperintelligent, terrifyingly articulate, sometimes uncomfortably confessional dialogue that followed, more than one reader likened the Mendelsohns to J.D. Salinger's fictional Glass family.
"It was a mixture of high expectations, exposure to lots of great art, as well as to the kind of pressure that either creates diamonds or crushed souls," Mendelsohn says of his childhood. "We weren't allowed to listen to rock music. I remember having "Free Bird" playing on my clock radio, and when I heard people coming down the hall I shut the radio off, because we would get in trouble for listening to something other than Bruckner or The Rite of Spring or the late [string] quartets of Beethoven as opposed to the symphonies."
His earliest cinematic memories are of watching movies on TV with his mother as they sat folding laundry together in a playroom, the fare an eclectic menu that ran the gamut from Jacques Tourneur's Cat People to David Lean's Great Expectations. "My mother has an unfaltering sense of what is well-made, without any formal training," he says. "She's the one who told me, when I was 8 years old, 'Oh, you have to see a Fellini movie.' I don't even know if she had seen a Fellini movie. I said, 'What is it?' and she said, 'Eric, it's like nuns and elephants dancing in a field.' I think she was remembering the silhouetted image from The Seventh Seal by Bergman, and she construed in her mind that that was Fellini. But she kind of got the essence of it."
Mendelsohn didn't start to think seriously about making films himself until he was a frustrated art student at SUNY Purchase (where he met fellow Long Islander Falco). "I'd painted my whole life, but when I got to school, where people really wanted to be painters, I saw the problem: I was looking for narrative," he recalls. "I would ask people, 'What should I paint?' And other students always knew what they wanted to paint. So I started doing portraits, because instinctively I thought, I can be telling about this person, and every color, every shape, every piece of composition has a meaning, because it's about something."
Eventually, Mendelsohn segued to the school's film department. Then, upon graduation, he answered an advertisement for a costume assistant on reshoots for Woody Allen's 1989 Crimes and Misdemeanors — a three-day gig that turned into seven years of steady work as an apprentice to Allen's longtime costume designer, Jeffrey Kurland.
"Then I was doing what I was most excited about, which was working for one of the great directors of the time," Mendelsohn recalls. "And because Jeff was one of Woody's most intimate collaborators, I got to participate and witness a level of filmmaking that would never have been open to me, and was almost embarrassing sometimes to be included on."
He mentions one particularly revealing moment, at the end of the first week of shooting on 1992's Husbands and Wives. "Woody looked at us all and said, 'That was the worst first week of any picture I've ever shot. I'm not sure I know what I'm doing. We need to talk.' And it was so thrilling. With [cinematographer] Carlo Di Palma, we all sat around, and at that point on that film, I started to voice an opinion, very meekly. We talked about, like, what's the camera doing? Everything was handheld — that was the first time Woody had ever done that. We were looking at dailies, and there was a shot from a scene at a Hamptons party, and everyone said, 'What's wrong with this?' And I said, 'The camera followed a waiter into the scene and then panned off of the waiter to find the main characters talking, and it was handheld and it was shaky.' I said, 'This is the way you're used to shooting the entry to a party, but if your camera is handheld and documentary-style, it doesn't have to pan in on a waiter. It just can go directly to the most important thing in the scene, like a documentarian would do. And it was very exciting to say something and not be stoned for it."
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