New Director Has Big Talent, More Fears Than Woody

Eric Mendelsohn was attempting to conquer one of his fears. It was 1 o’clock on a frigid January afternoon, and Mr. Mendelsohn, a 35-year-old film director who grew up on Long Island and has paralyzing fears of many things-including frogs-was standing with his nose close to the glass of a terrarium in the amphibian and snakes section of the Central Park Zoo. Mr. Mendelsohn, who until writing and directing his quietly stunning, soon-to-be-released film, Judy Berlin , was one of Woody Allen’s assistant costume designers, peered into the cage. The placard read, “Tomato Frog,” but all he was able to see was twigs and leaves. Then he gasped: There it was, hidden under a leaf, a red frog the size of a crab cake. “Oooh, God, I can’t!” he said as he dashed into the mock rain forest. “I can’t even look at it.” He headed outside, where it had started to snow. “Because of genetics, or biochemistry, I have always been a completely fearful human being,” he said. “But not so much now.”

Mr. Mendelsohn, not unlike his former boss, is forging a career that is inextricable from his personal psychology. Judy Berlin concerns a failed young director trying to overcome his fear of, well, everything. “People always talk about neuroses with Jews,” said Mr. Mendelsohn, who swears he was not the basis for the film’s fragile main character, David Gold. “But anxiety is just something that I have lived with. They say the Eskimos have 87 ways of describing snow. I have the same thing for fear.”

For about a year, Mr. Mendelsohn had been traveling the global film festival circuit-Sundance, Cannes, Avignon, the Hamptons, Deauville, Toronto-quietly hustling Judy Berlin , and it paid off: Next month, the movie will open at Loews theaters in 17 American cities, distributed by the Shooting Gallery studio.

But it didn’t happen right away. Even after coming off Sundance, where he took the best director award and after which The New Yorker ‘s David Denby wrote, “Of all the young directors whose work I saw, [Mr. Mendelsohn] has the greatest chance of attaining the stature of Robert Altman and Errol Morris …,” Mr. Mendelsohn continued to be a wreck. For while distributors snapped up The Blair Witch Project and Happy, Texas , Judy Berlin left Sundance unsold. Variety wrote that the film contained “precisely the factors that spell ‘commercial long shot,'” which probably didn’t help. The rumply director, with his sad, sleepy brown eyes and sinus problems, which he says have been congesting him for “not long, maybe 17, 18 years,” had tried to avoid industry parties (“Being around strangers can be excruciating sometimes,” he said) and kept asking himself, Am I fooling myself? Is the world craving a movie about a bunch of Long Islanders wandering around during a solar eclipse?

First, egad, the thing was shot in black and white. And the film’s plot, well, there really wasn’t much of one. On the second day of elementary school in Babylon, L.I., several characters have painfully awkward interactions with family, co-workers and neighbors, under the weird murk of an eclipse. Sopranos actress Edie Falco plays a knucklehead aspiring actress with “adult braces,” little talent and a desire to have a career like Diane Keaton’s on “the coast.” Her love interest is a failed filmmaker, played by the unknown Aaron Harnick, who has returned to his parents’ house to recover from a near catatonic depression. The closest thing to a climactic sequence occurs when an old woman with Alzheimer’s slaps a kindergarten teacher. Mr. Mendelsohn’s hand-picked cast of stage veterans such as Barbara Barrie, Bob Dishy and Anne Meara, and 70’s-era comediennes such as Julie Kavner and the late Madeline Kahn, don’t quite scream indie hit the way, say, Christina Ricci in a vinyl bra might. But for Mr. Mendelsohn, God is in the excruciating details of small daily traumas.

“I’m very aware of what people do to get through the day, of lulls in conversations, of tiny missteps that people take in conversations,” he said. “I can see the regret on their faces and I feel shame and embarrassment and love for them because I identify with them. But it’s all silent. Those silent things I don’t take for granted.”

Mr. Mendelsohn sat over a cup of mint tea at the Central Park Zoo Cafe. He was wearing a black V-neck sweater over a white oxford, dark cotton pants, a pair of tan work boots and a couple days’ beard growth. Earlier in the day his best friend, Rocco Caruso, a cable television producer at Warner Brothers who produced Judy Berlin , had told him that their movie had been nominated for three Independent Spirit awards, including Best First Feature Under $500,000.

“There was about five minutes of satisfaction before an anxiety set in, hoping nobody expects me to win, and hoping that no one will be disappointed if we don’t,” said the director. He then apologized for any facial swelling or nasal voice. “Oh, and the other thing I have is chills,” he said. “The worst chills I’ve ever had!” He had an appointment with a doctor for the following day, and he was worried that his symptoms might disappear once he set foot in the waiting room. He pointed at his nose. “I’ve always had this. When I was little, I was proud of it. I remember standing on the steps of my house and my next-door neighbor Mrs. Stevens was over, and I said, ‘Mom, I have pressure here!’ And Mrs. Stevens said, ‘Oh, those are your sinuses,’ and I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m special! I have something adult! It’s not croup!'”

Meet the Mendelsohns

Mr. Mendelsohn grew up in a white split-level house in Old Bethpage, an upper-middle-class bedroom community in Nassau County. He was the fourth of five children of Marlene and Jay Mendelsohn, who were, respectively, a kindergarten teacher and a research scientist for Grumman Aerospace. In their steak-and-football neighborhood, the Mendelsohns were a little different .

“I think my father was unconsciously trying to create this family dynasty of rigorous thinkers,” said Mr. Mendelsohn. The children were not allowed to listen to rock music or watch television during the week. Every season, Marlene Mendelsohn would dig out season-specific props, to teach the kids about stuff like the harvest, and the death and resurrection of Jesus, even though they were Jewish. His father and older brother spent months assembling a harpsichord on the living room floor. Eric would sit with his mother and watch David Lean movies while she folded laundry.

Early on, Eric started drawing. “He had a different kind of brain than the rest of the family,” said his brother, Daniel Mendelsohn, a classics scholar who last year published The Elusive Embrace: Desire and the Riddle of Identity , a blend of personal memoir and scholarly exploration of gay identity in ancient Greece. “Early on, he was wildly creative, and the rest of us came to it later.” Eric decorated his room with cock feathers and Marlene Dietrich posters and spent hours listening to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring . But by seventh grade, he still hadn’t learned basic things, such as how to tell time. “I was the big disappointment of the family, because for a while all my talents were perceived as useless,” he said. (“A lot of Eric’s perceptions about his academic failure as a kid were just that-perceptions,” his brother David said.)

Mr. Mendelsohn also began collecting fears the way other kids collected baseball cards. He ran away from U.P.S. men when they came to the door; he would hyperventilate at the thought of dialing 411; he thought his friends’ parents were trying to poison him with real mashed potatoes. (The Mendelsohns ate instant.) He remembers a horrible moment when a clerk at a hardware store offered him a receipt. “I thought he was coming on to me. I literally had a panic attack,” he said. “I was like one of those surrealist paintings, like ‘Woman Afraid of a Hummingbird.'”

Like most students at John F. Kennedy High School, Mr. Mendelsohn took driver’s ed, but never got his license. “The idea of meeting up with a stranger and getting in a car terrified me,” he said.

“The family was unusual by any standards, but especially on the suburban street we grew up on,” said Daniel Mendelsohn, who spent a good chunk of his youth in the basement, building models of the Parthenon. “That created within us a sense of alienation that I think is responsible for a lot of Eric’s anxieties.”

Mr. Mendelsohn went to the State University of New York at Purchase and excelled at portrait painting until he met Rocco Caruso, a film student looking for a collaborator. “At first, I felt like Eric didn’t want to get to know anyone,” said Mr. Caruso. “Then, when I met him, I realized that he was one of the funniest people I’d ever met.” They started hanging out with a group Mr. Mendelsohn describes as “nerds,” including his future cinematic leading lady, Ms. Falco: “She was a big nerd,” said Mr. Mendelsohn.

The budding auteur discovered Italian Neorealist films such as La Strada and The Bicycle Thief . “It was such a subtle way of speaking about interior life of human beings. I didn’t know you could talk so softly. They talked about a complexity that I was already familiar with,” he said. He submitted a student film for his senior painting project.

Mr. Mendelsohn moved to Manhattan and began working on, and sometimes wearing, costumes, notably the giraffe and walrus for Toys “R” Us commercials. Soon he was assisting Woody Allen’s longtime costume designer, Jeffrey Kurland, and taking mental notes as Mr. Allen made Crimes and Misdemeanors , Husbands and Wives and Bullets Over Broadway . Meanwhile, in 1992, Mr. Caruso had raised enough money for Mr. Mendelsohn to make a 26-minute film called Through an Open Window , in which Anne Meara strolls through Old Bethpage, saying hello to neighbors while having a psychotic break. The film made the festival circuit, including Cannes. Mr. Mendelsohn gave Woody Allen a print of the film and, wracked with anxiety, went out drinking on Madison Avenue. (He says Mr. Allen told him he liked it.) The Bravo cable channel put Through an Open Window into heavy rotation. Mr. Mendelsohn ended up on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno .

In 1997, after Mr. Mendelsohn wrote the script for Judy Berlin , he and Mr. Caruso began shopping it. He said that one “mini-major studio” was interested, but suggested Nicolas Cage as the title character. “This is a film about a Jewish kid who comes home to his parents house to recuperate,” said Mr. Mendelsohn. “I said to them, ‘Nicolas Cage doesn’t return to his parents’ house unless he’s going to slaughter them in their sleep.’ Then they said no Madeline Kahn, she had no marquee value. Once I heard that, it was very easy to turn them down.”

“It was our first film,” said Mr. Caruso. “We could have made it like that, and made some money, but it might not have been what we wanted, and we’d have to live with that for the rest of our lives. We may not make any money, but at least it’s the film we wanted to do.”

So Mr. Caruso scraped together about $200,000, dipping into his savings, borrowing from friends and family, taking on private investors. Mr. Mendelsohn placed an ad in the Plainview Pennysaver in Plainview, L.I., introducing himself and asking if anybody wanted to lend him a restaurant and an elementary school. In November 1997, they started their 30-day shoot. Mr. Caruso shuttled the actors from Manhattan to the set. Mr. Mendelsohn’s mother made burgers for Madeline Kahn. The actors worked for under $800 a week, some for as low as $75 a day. “I was thinking, ‘What am I doing to these people?'” said Mr. Mendelsohn. He spent 1998 editing the film and hit the road in 1999. The Shooting Gallery said Yes just before Cannes. He won’t say how much the studio paid. “If you think that it’s changed substantially the way I live, you’re overestimating the independent film market for black-and-white harpsichord-scored films,” said the director.

The Collector

One day after his doctor’s appointment, Mr. Mendelsohn stood leaning against the kitchen sink in his cramped, fourth-floor Washington Street walk-up. He was gripping a bottle of antibiotics. “Sinusitis!” he announced. “I was very excited when she used that word. I feel like I have to prove when I’m sick. When she said, ‘You have sinusitis,’ I was like, Aaah . I was so happy.”

A pair of snouty Chinese shorthair cats, Ivan and Bruno, chased each other through the clutter. There was a waist-high pile of dirty clothes near a futon; books (Edna St. Vincent Millay, Edgar Allan Poe, Elizabeth Bishop) were piled on the floor. The rest of the apartment seemed to be filled with dozens upon dozens of oyster-mouthed Wileman tea cups and saucers. They were in his cupboards, in a china cabinet and almost everywhere else. Mr. Mendelsohn collected the 19th-century British cups while he was writing his latest screenplay, Delia, about the mental breakdown of a woman who works in a costume shop. “I collect things when I’m anxiety-ridden,” he said sheepishly. “I want to get rid of them. They make no sense to me. But it’s like ‘The Tell-Tale Heart,’ they keep thumping in the other room.”

While writing Judy Berlin , he collected children’s lamps. There were about 30 of them on top of a wardrobe near his bed, many depicting the life of Humpty Dumpty, but without shades or light bulbs.

Mr. Mendelsohn and Mr. Caruso are currently negotiating to option Delia to a British production company. They won’t say which one, since Mr. Mendelsohn has to do one more rewrite before the company will sign. “They sent me back these five pages of questions about Delia ,” he said. “It was stuff like, ‘On page 67, the character of Noel says, Wouldn’t I? Wouldn’t that be better if she said, Couldn’t I?’ So I wrote them this set of my own notes based on their notes, which was something that David O. Selznick would have shot off. It could have been printed by Random House. It was huge .”

For a moment, he sounded confident, zesty, pissed, in a John Ford kind of way. “I wrote, ‘Not only wouldn’t the character say Couldn’t I there, she wouldn’t ever use Couldn’t I. I was out of my mind. I just got so tired. So tired of hearing other people’s opinions.”