July 22, 2008

Independent Filmmaker Scouts Locations in Northport

By Dave Marcus, Newsday, Melville, N.Y.

Jul. 22--Eric Mendelsohn steps out of a blue minivan and gazes at a house in Northport. It has a wide front porch, bay windows and delicately peeling paint. Perfect.

He leaves a note telling the homeowner he wants it.

Back in the van, he peers out the windshield at Colonials, Victorians, split-levels. He still needs three more houses. Also a set of watercolor paintings, a globe and an ambulance.

Mendelsohn, who teaches filmmaking at Columbia University, is scouting locations for a film he plans to shoot in Northport next month. It will feature his friend Edie Falco, who grew up in Northport and starred in "The Sopranos."

Day after day, Mendelsohn tracks down art gallery managers, shopkeepers, even the staff of the Northport Rural Cemetery, where he hopes to film a brief scene.

His script, "Four Backyards," spotlights four people in an anonymous seaside suburb. Nothing tawdry. Nothing that will embarrass residents.

It's a low-budget operation -- although "low-budget" might be an overstatement, he adds.

"It's penny-saver filmmaking," he said. Case in point: The minivan, borrowed from Falco, is used for finding locations and hauling props. It also will appear in the movie. "When I heard that she wanted to go on a vacation and take the car, basically the entire production shut down."

He described his budget vaguely as "six figures," which includes insurance for shooting in houses and businesses. He said -- not joking -- he's hired a trained dog that will make more than the stars.

Mendelsohn met Falco in the 1980s, when they were both students at SUNY Purchase. Years later they bumped into each other on the street. Mendelsohn, then working on Woody Allen's "Bullets Over Broadway," got Falco a part. The rest is entertainment history, including Falco's three Emmy Awards for playing the wife of mobster Tony Soprano.

Mendelsohn's first film, "Judy Berlin," the 1999 story of a struggling filmmaker and a frustrated actress, starred Falco, Madeline Kahn and Julie Kavner, the voice of Marge in "The Simpsons." Critics praised the black-and-white movie, shot in the Old Bethpage neighborhood where Mendelsohn grew up. He won a best director award at the Sundance Film Festival that year.

"Maybe the oddest thing about Eric Mendelsohn's likably odd debut feature, 'Judy Berlin,' is that all the characters live on Long Island and nobody seems to hate it," The New York Times wrote in 2000.

The accolades didn't translate into tickets sold, so Mendelsohn is financing this film with credit cards and prayers. "There's nothing noble about making a film for no money," he said as he cruised up Main Street. One advantage of an independent film: He doesn't report to anyone.

"You don't have to say, 'It's a mixture of 'Lonesome Dove' and 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.'"

Falco, who lives in Manhattan and often visits her parents in Northport, says making a film in her hometown "is pretty trippy, as you can imagine. ... I grew up on those beaches and on Main Street."

Mendelsohn said strangers regarded him warily until a few well-connected residents trusted him and urged others to help. Russ Harbaugh, a Columbia grad student from Indiana who is the assistant director, said he's been surprised by the hospitality in Northport. "I'd almost think I was in the Midwest."

They needed to borrow a gerbil, turtle and two rabbits, and found them. They needed one rusty shed, and found four. Artie Berke, a retired Brooklyn police officer who owns Nina's Pizza in the village, offered storage space, free food and a booth to use as a temporary office. "You give something to creative people," he said, "and you get inspired by their creativity."


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