Gaining experience on a film set is always a good idea before taking on the mantle of director. And filmmaker MEL ESLYN has experience that would put most people to shame. Starting out in the Seattle indie film scene as a co-producer on Lynn Shelton’s Your Sister’s Sister and first AD on Colin Trevorrow’s Safety Not Guaranteed, Eslyn has since amassed over 50 producing credits. Successful indie features she has helped shepherd include Charlie McDowell’s The One I Love, Alex Lehmann’s Blue Jay, Clea DuVall’s The Intervention, Pat Healy’s Take Me, Sarah and Zachary Ray Sherman’s Young Hearts, Jeff Baena’s Spin Me Round, and Roshan Sethi’s 7 Days. For TV, she’s acted as executive producer of HBO’s Somebody Somewhere and Room 104 (on which she also wrote and directed). In 2016, Eslyn won the Film Independent Spirit Producers Award and the following year took over as president of Duplass Brothers Productions, further establishing herself as an indie film tastemaker.
Now, Eslyn is bringing all her filmmaking skills together for her feature directorial debut, BIOSPHERE. The film is about best friends Ray (Sterling K. Brown) and Billy (Mark Duplass, also the co-writer and executive producer) adapting to their hermetically-sealed life as the last two men on Earth. Biosphere premiered at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival and was acquired by IFC Films for a theatrical release on July 7.
We had the chance to speak with writer/director/producer Mel Eslyn about her prolific career and what made her decide to finally transition to feature directing.
COLIN McCORMACK: You obviously have a lot of experience behind the camera, but what about this project or this time in your life and career made you decide to be a feature director?
MEL ESLYN: The plan was always feature directing and then somewhere along the way I got off-path and then very off-path meeting Mark Duplass [laughs]. And I ended up running a company, which I never expected to do. So it’s been years of trying to make everybody else’s dreams come true and realizing I should at some point do that for myself. The truth is, early in the pandemic I lost a close friend, Lynn Shelton the filmmaker. When I first met her in my twenties, she always talked about having such a late start as a filmmaker, making her first film at 39. And at the time I remember thinking, I have plenty of time. And then it was this horrible, horrible thing with Lynn passing and I was cleaning out her house and just thinking about all of that, and it was all coming to me. Oh my God, I’m almost 39. I’m right there where she was. And I was like, I have to do this. So then I sat down and spent the next two months putting the script together.
CM: You and Mark have obviously worked together for a long time, but did your working relationship change much when you started becoming co-writers on this particular script?
ME: It weirdly didn’t. We’ve worked so long together. And often a producer is sort of the uncredited writer or uncredited director, so I think we had that dynamic already. I think for me, I always allowed Mark to take a little bit more of a lead, out of respect and him kind of being my boss. This one, it took me a second to realize, No, we’re equals here, and to be comfortable with that. And he really empowered me.
CM: During the writing, did you both already know that Mark would be playing Billy?
ME: We had envisioned him to play Billy from the start. I feel like quite often when we’re coming up with ideas, we’ll put one of the brothers in a role just to better formulate it for ourselves as we’re developing and writing. And Sterling was the first name I brought up for the other role. I wrote it very much with Mark and Sterling in mind but there was a conversation because of themes in the film as to whether Mark was the right person to play the role. So while we wrote it with him in mind, there’s always the discussion of when it’s said and done, are they still the right person?
CM: At this point, have you and the team there perfected the pitch of getting A-list actors on board for a low-budget production because of your track record?
ME: Yes [laughs].
CM: Do you even get resistance anymore?
ME: Oh, we definitely always get resistance, but usually it’s with the agents who are putting up the wall. I definitely have a spiel, and Mark does too, that we’ve used over the last 10, 15 years. Usually, it’s just, “Hey, do you want to come and hang out with us and make something really fun and cool?” I always call it film summer camp where we’ll go away, quite often we’re doing it in one beautiful location. In this case, it was a biosphere so we were all stuck in a very small space so it was a little different. But usually, I’m like, “We’re going to go somewhere, we’re going to live together, we’re going to eat together, and it’s going to be just like camp and we’re making art.” And that’s usually the way in.
CM: How long was your shoot for this one?
ME: I think this one was three weeks, which is long for our movies.
CM: In your years of producing, you’ve obviously had a front-row seat to a lot of different directors and seeing their processes. Were there any examples that you adopted into your own work for this project?
ME: That’s a good question. Nothing that I consciously did. You work with so many people over the years and little tidbits seep in, so I feel like I had a little bit of a lot of people’s voices in my head and my own experiences watching. I feel like I learned more from watching the failures. I would hate to attribute that to anyone that I would call out, but there’s something to watching what didn’t work and learning from that that I was very lucky to have many, many years of experience on. That’s something that most people have to learn as they go. That was a luxury.
CM: With all of your experience on film sets, was there anything about feature directing that still took you by surprise once you were in it?
ME: There wasn’t much that caught me by surprise. I felt more prepared going into this than I’ve ever felt going into anything. Even as a producer, there’s always the unknown of a new director or a new cast member. And there were so many knowns in this case. Like the cast, half of them being Mark, essentially my brother from another mother. And Sterling was just one of those people you meet and right away you’re in with him. Then everybody else is a crew I’d worked with for years and years. So, it was a lot of knowns, but the one thing that I think is known but always catches you by surprise is the buck stops with you as a director. Oftentimes, even though making films is very much a collaboration, there are always those moments that come for the director where you’re left alone to make it and you’ve just got to trust yourself.
CM: I imagine walking onto the set when it’s all completed was a moment to remember. What was that like finally going into the dome itself when you were ready to shoot?
ME: It was amazing. I had done so many sketches. I grew up in the Midwest outside of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where we have what’s called the Mitchell Park Domes. And I had done sketches based on those domes and gave them to my production designer. [She’s] this amazing production designer Megan Fenton, who I’ve worked with on many films, but she also does our HBO show Somebody Somewhere. I started showing her my sketches and she was able to take those and do what the best production designers do, which is work within the actual space we had and expand upon it. Finally seeing it was amazing, it was overwhelming, and it was magical. And it’s always different than what you had in your head too, and that’s a good thing. That’s something I think every director has to learn, it’s never going to be like in your head and that’s okay.
CM: When a film is shot in one location, do you shoot sequentially or are there still considerations to break that up?
ME: I often try to shoot in sequence except for the first scene. I truly believe that in the first scene of a movie, you don’t know how you should start until you’ve been through it and [know] how it’s going to ultimately end. I’ve done so many movies as a producer where I shoot it in order and then I go back and re-shoot the opening scene. So we did do something similar with this. We weren’t able to do it all in order, there are always those reasons and physical changes and continuity, but we tried as much as we could just to retain that and allow Mark and Sterling to go through that in real-time.
CM: Did they have time for rehearsal before shooting?
ME: We didn’t really do rehearsals. Part of that was just that everybody was so busy up until the last moment. We took Sterling out to dinner to get to know him a bit and hang out. The rehearsal was really just him becoming comfortable with us and us becoming comfortable with him, but no formal rehearsals. Mark is somebody who shows up and likes to roll with the punches, and Sterling is somebody who spends all night memorizing his lines. So it was a very interesting combo of Mark wanting to get wild at times and Sterling going, “I spent so much time and I love the words, can we try one just as scripted?” It was good for both Mark and me to work with somebody like that.
CM: There are so many reveals in the film, which I won’t spoil, that keep the momentum going. But when you only have one location and two characters, what considerations are you putting into the post-production to make sure that it stayed compelling throughout?
ME: During shooting, I really worked to make it feel like there were different rooms in the biosphere so that you weren’t always in the same place. And the lighting was a big thing. We had everything on a timer, so we knew in the real world what time of day this scene would take place and we had this timer system that would set for that. The biggest thing in the edit that you learn, and I feel like I hit this with every film, is the pacing and looking for the lags, and making sure you don’t take people out. That kind of a rollercoaster, having the highs and the lows and then savoring the quiet moment. Then I’m a true believer that if every ten minutes or so people can laugh, then they’re going to stay in. So that was a big thing, trying to hit the laugh as much as we could.
This is a really hard film to talk about because there’s so much I could talk about if we could talk [spoilers] in the film. So much research was put into this. There were so many discussions with the right communities that really went into every minute, every second. Every frame of the edit was heavily discussed. That was the biggest process, that line that we’re riding with these really heavy, challenging, exciting boundary-pushing themes.
CM: I loved the music. What was the decision behind the vocal score?
ME: I will say that’s the one thing that I did not have in my head going into it in advance. I knew I wanted to work with Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, who are composers that I love. I worked with Danny and Saunder on this film years ago called The One I Love and have since continued to work with them. I just knew they would be able to provide something I would never be able to imagine. The very first thing that they sent me was a hint of Saunders’s voice and something about it just clicked and I said, “Let’s run with it and make it all voices.” There was something subconsciously that I thought: There are only two men in this little bubble and then you’re hearing another voice. And that voice is blurring the lines of masculinity and femininity and creating this space that was really interesting.
CM: As you’ve produced for Duplass Brothers Productions, the theatrical landscape has kind of shifted from theatrical focus to day-and-date to direct to streaming. And now it’s sort of a combination of all of those. Where do you come down on what’s the best distribution model for the types of films that you make? Is it just whatever you can get, go with the best deal? Or do you think one [way] serves the film better than others?
ME: Man, I think it’s so different for every project. I’ve seen successes in every iteration. I’m always telling people it’s a scary indie film world out there right now. Even in the last ten years, it’s changed so drastically. But I’m feeling this shift back towards theaters and that might be because I’m in LA and Vidiots just opened up and I’m like, “Yeah, the theaters are coming back!” [Laughs]. It’s so hard. Every streamer has their pros and their cons and it’s really just figuring out what works for that specific film.
CM: I interviewed Liz Cardenas a couple of months ago and she talked about finding mentors in the industry and mentioned you as a mentor and somebody she learned a lot from. You obviously interact with so many filmmakers and you surely had filmmakers in your life that you looked up to. How important has that played a role in your career of finding mentors or mentoring others?
ME: It’s interesting, I’ve never thought of anybody as my mentor, I always thought of everybody as my collaborator. And I think I still feel that way with someone like Liz, who I’ve heard her say that and I’m like, Oh, that is so wild to hear somebody call you a mentor. We’re all just making things and we’re all at various stages in our careers. But it’s been really rewarding and I’m really active in the search for new producers because that is the hardest role to fill and it can be such a lonely space. When I was coming up, there was nobody to teach me how to produce. I just wanted to be a more welcoming community and have people be able to call when they’re up against something that they’ve never experienced before or it’s scary or they just need to talk to somebody who has had those experiences before. That’s been a big thing for me is just trying to help foster and build that community.
CM: It does seem like coming up in Seattle, there was a real indie film community there. Have you found a similar thing in LA?
ME: I’ve definitely been able to find a community in LA. I moved to Seattle right on the cusp of a whole new generation and community that was forming in Seattle. And so I just got in at the right moment. We all started working together, we came up together. Now a lot of us live in Seattle, but we’re never there, cruelly, but our hearts are all still there. We all rose together and then dispersed and we get to work together in all these different iterations. I was very lucky.
CM: Obviously, Duplass Brothers Productions has done so much in different genres and mediums. Is there anything that the company hasn’t tackled yet that you’ve had your eye on and are ready to jump into?
ME: Oh my God, that’s so hard ‘cause we do so much. I think we’ve gotten this name for ourselves, which is really great, that we can work in this space where we can make a lot with very little. And I think we pride ourselves on that. One of the things Mark and I always bonded on from the start was sort of this punk rock mentality of, We’re gonna go find our own way of making things and we’re not gonna wait for somebody else to give us the go-ahead. That has allowed us to make what we want, but also there are limitations to that when you’re not bringing in a bigger studio. So there is a part of me that’s like — I’m not saying Marvel movie per se — but what would a Duplass Marvel movie look like? There’s something in there that I think we’ve all dreamed about at some point. And who knows? Maybe we’ll find inspiration along the way.
CM: You’ve dealt with budgetary limitations, so what is it like to have limitations from a giant corporate overlord?
ME: Exactly. We know how to work within a box, so I think we would do well. But there will always be the little feisty artists that want to do it our own way.
CM: What’s next for you? On the directing side and the producing side.
ME: I have a secret TV series that I went and did and haven’t announced yet. So that is coming soon, which is great. I was able to show run and actually direct all the episodes. That was something Mark and I created. And then I have a slew of doc projects that are coming out. We premiered this feature doc Last Stop Larrimah that’s going to hit HBO in October. And a ton of things I can’t talk about yet [laughs]. We keep very, very busy.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
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