Five Films That Inspired Eric Mendelsohn's "3 Backyards"

Slate's Culture Blog
March 8 2011 6:48 PM

Five Films That Inspired Eric Mendelsohn's "3 Backyards"

Eric  Mendelsohn 's lyrical new drama, 3 Backyards , follows three strangers a businessman, a housewife, and a little girl on a single day on suburban Long Island.It's Mendelsohn's second feature and, incidentally, his second to have won the directing prize at Sundance. (He's the only person to have taken that prize home twice.) New York magazine's David Edelstein said  of the film, which opens this Friday in Manhattan, "You could dream of living in a world like this ... At its best, the movie is exquisite."

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Here, Mendelsohn gives us a list of five films that inspired  3 Backyards :

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1970)

When I was just beginning to research the visual look of 3 Backyards , I talked nonstop about prisms and glittering light and airiness and refraction. Close friends began to suspect that I needed to increase my meds, but then it dawned on me that the reference I was looking for was buried deep in my memory it was the opening sequence of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis , by Vittorio De Sica. That film, about a wealthy Jewish family in pre-war Italy, begins with an intense, visually dazzling burst of color, light, eye-pushing zooms and nerve-wracking hand-held camerawork. All together, the effect is of a world too tenuous, too ripe and too fragile to survive. I based much of the aesthetics of 3 Backyards on this combination of effects (meaning, I stole them wholesale). I am a big fan of zooms, not for the "chic, period effect" they are employed for nowadays, but because they draw one's eye forward like a rush of air.

Il Grido (1957)

I have always been intimidated by Michelangelo Antonioni. I was afraid, before seeing his films, that they would be too rarified for me. I am, after all, from Nassau County. However, his film Il Grido is perhaps one of my favorite works of art. It has the stark, alien landscapes of his later films coupled with an earthy, human journey that is grounded in sadness and dissociation.  

The main character's journey silent, solitary, and eventually strengthless against despair is perhaps one of the models for the character of John in my film, played by Elias Koteas. The barren locations and vast fields of dying grass were also on my mind. The film isn't a real "pick-me-up," if you know what I mean, and if you are out of work, recently single or depressed, it might be better to just read the Leonard Maltin capsule review .

Lady Bug Lady Bug (1963)

This largely unknown film by the always interesting team of Eleanor and Frank Perry ( David and Lisa , The Swimmer ) was key in my formation as a creative person. I first saw Lady Bug Lady Bug as a kid, and even then I knew it was obvious and overwrought at times. But it totally captivated me with its depiction of tiny, internal struggles played out against a vast exterior world (something that I feel describes 3 Backyards as well).

In the film, an entire elementary school somewhere way out in the country is evacuated when its air raid defense siren goes off. Unable to determine whether the siren is a false alarm or truly a warning of impending doom, the teachers and children take their long walks home. I LOVED watching the characters small children and adults struggle with their rising feelings of desperation while surrounded by the beauty of the fields and countryside. Nancy Marchand, who starred in The Sopranos as Tony's mother, was amazing in the film and her performance inspired my first half-hour film, " Through an Open Window ." One day, while visiting my friend Edie Falco on the Sopranos set, I got up the courage to tell Ms. Marchand how much her performance meant to me. She said she couldn't remember even being in the film, then took a bite into a ham sandwich.

Lola (1961)

Jacques Demy is one of my favorite directors and his Lola ,starring Anouk Aimée, is a film I adore. I am so glad it exists! And it almost doesn't. It's such a slight little film, so delightful, so humane and so in love with people and little moments and the romance we need to have in order to keep working at shitty jobs and facing gray days. The films of Jacques Demy, always set in the Northern coastal towns of France, gave me license to make films about the romantic, silly, pedestrian towns I am from. (Plainview and Hicksville are real names, not things I made up to make a point.)

I once met Anouk Aimée at a film festival and told her how much I loved her performance in that film and, like Nancy Marchand, she too ignored me and just ripped into an old ham sandwich.

Orph é e (1950)

Jean Cocteau's Orphée   is a retelling of the Orpheus legend set in the suburbs of 1950's Paris. Death, the female lead of the film, comes to visit the main character a hack poet played by Jean Marais and, falling in love with him, brings him to the underworld. In the fractured logic of this film, traveling to Hades apparently requires Playtex rubber kitchen gloves and a poet's inspiration can come via transmissions from a car radio. There is a wonderful mixture of magic and the mundane in this film, and I found it inspiring to see the familiar suburban world turned inside out and upside down.

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