Interview: Writer/director Mel Eslyn on her unique debut feature Biosphere; “I didn’t want it to become a headline before people saw it and understood the nuances.”

  • Peter Gray
  • September 6, 2023
  • Comments Off on Interview: Writer/director Mel Eslyn on her unique debut feature Biosphere; “I didn’t want it to become a headline before people saw it and understood the nuances.”

“It’s Mark Duplass, Sterling K. Brown, it’s the end of the world and they’re in a biosphere.”

That’s how writer/director Mel Eslyn presented her unique dramedy Biosphere ahead of its premiere last year at the Toronto International Film Festival, and it’s ultimately all you need to know going into it from this week in Australian cinemas; it’s screening from September 7th.

Talking to our own Peter Gray ahead of its release when she touched down in Melbourne for MIFF earlier this year, Eslyn discussed (carefully) the nuances of the film’s topical themes, how she came to direct from a background in producing, and the best experiences she’s had when screening the film thus far.

I went into Biosphere knowing absolutely nothing about this movie, and after seeing it I’m even more proud of myself for doing so.  I was pretty gagged at some of the reveals here.  With the general idea of the film, was it something that you and Mark Duplass created together? Or did one of you finish the other’s sentence? So to speak…

Kind of both.  Mark pitches me ideas that are always half a sentence and someone has to finish it.  But they are always the best first half of a sentence you’ve heard.  He had pitched me an idea along the lines of, “What if there are the two last men on Earth and they’re living in a biosphere and they’re obsessed with Mario Brothers?”  So we kind of started there, and I thought, “Well, if the last two people on Earth are men then there’s some stuff to dig into.”

The film really does have this “of the now” feeling to it, but there’s also a sense of timelessness to it.  Even though the pandemic made us feel that isolation, living in a bubble – however literal or metaphorical – that’s not a new concept.  But this film challenges that mentality with discussions on masculinity and the toxicity around that.  Did anything shift in the writing process for you when mapping out the film’s themes?

I think there was always a discussion on how far can we push certain topics and themes, and how to tackle toxic masculinity in a new way, but also in a helpful way.  I think there’s a lot of films that put a lens on that, and I think that’s great, and there are some that have done it spectacularly – like the movie Men – but I wanted to progress beyond that.  So there was a continual discussion and involvement from myself, as a queer woman, and to put my head in with everyone else from all walks of life.

When you have a two-man show, like this, and casting is so critical, was it initially always the idea to have Mark star in it?

When I write I like to write with people in mind so they feel like fully-fleshed humans, so when Mark and I first started talking about it we did put him in one of the roles.  We started thinking about the other, and our first pick was Sterling K. Brown.  It was written with the two of them in mind, and lovingly, and thankfully, it became them.  Even though I wrote it with Mark in mind, and this is one of those things that’ll make more sense when people see the film, but we did have that conversation of whether or not Mark was right for his role for a lot of sensitivity reasons.  We ultimately went with him because he’s such a beautiful access point for people who may not normally see this film.

Him and Sterling were both cast with that in mind.  I’m trying to get new audiences in on these discussions, and that casting really helped.

You have a background in producing, so I want to quickly shout out your work on Safety Not Guaranteed, such a wonderful film, and I believe you’re the head of the Duplass Brothers’ production company, so how did that position come about for you?

I have always wanted to make movies since I was a kid, so this was always (the endgame), but you start working on stuff along the way.  I knew I wanted to be a director, but I knew I wanted to know every other component to filmmaking, so I started at the bottom and worked my way up.  I think someone called it out, because somewhere along the way someone was like, “You do realise you’re a producer?”, because I would just be taking everything on.

I think where Mark and I really bonded was on the set of Your Sister’s Sister, which we did the year before Safety Not Guaranteed, and there was just something there between the two of us.  We both realised we approach filmmaking with the same aesthetic and same mentality.  He basically didn’t want to make movies without me, and he went off to do a show for HBO and just asked me to do run all the films for Duplass Brothers.  Not long after he was like, “I feel like you’re just running the company at this point”, (laughs), but then 10 years go by and I remember that I’m supposed to direct.

Mark’s always known that, and he’s always wanted to make time for me, and it was just about me finding that time, and one of those things was really the pandemic.  (The pandemic) really made it clear that we don’t know how much time we have, so I made the time for myself and my own project.

Was there anything specifically about Biosphere as to why this is how you wanted to announce yourself as a director?

I think it was two things.  One, I always knew that to do something I love it had to push a boundary.  And two, to be a little unafraid in what I put out there.  And I saw (Biosphere) as a package of that.  I also got to pair that with researching science, and that felt like it was hitting both sides of me (laughs).  My story got to be progressive with gender politics, but also, science is really fun!

Is there a particular genre you want to explore going further as a filmmaker?

This definitely feels like if I had to choose a genre, it’s the “touchy-feely-science-fiction” stuff (laughs)… but I’m such a fan of everything.  I want to do everything.

I know this premiered at TIFF last year.  That was my first year attending in person, and I remember thinking just how respectful the audiences were when watching.  I think it was the best crowd I had ever sat in on films with.  How did you find the initial reaction?

Well we did this really interesting thing that was quite rare with TIFF where they loved the movie and wanted to play it, but I was a little apprehensive because of the themes of the film.  I didn’t want it to become a headline before people saw it and understood the nuances.  Hence why I think going in knowing very little so you can experience this journey is really important.  There are so many things in there that can be misrepresented.  TIFF heard all that and respected that, so they basically presented (the film) as a surprise.

I knew it was going to play at TIFF, but they didn’t announce it to the public until about 3 days before, and it was at this 2000-seat theatre, and I just thought how bonkers they were for both announcing it 3 days before and thinking they were going to fill that theatre (laughs).  But they did, which was amazing, and it was this audience of 2000 people who sat down and knew nothing other than it’s Mark Duplass, Sterling K. Brown, it’s the end of the world and they’re in a biosphere.  Feeling the energy of that moment, and everyone was so audibly going through their journey together.  The only other time I’ve experienced this was at the premiere of Safety Not Guaranteed when, spoiler alert, the time-machine disappears, and people leapt out of their seats and were screaming and cheering.

It was the best place I could have started this journey.

I feel like this film had a very European sensibility about it in terms of how unafraid you were.  I feel like with American productions there’s this need to please audiences and have a happy ending.  Not ruffle too many feathers, really.  Whereas European cinema doesn’t really subscribe to that.  And maybe because you were directing it you had that freedom, but were there every any conversations had regarding if the material was going too far? Did you experience any pushback?

There wasn’t pushback because it was us.  Mark and I made a very conscious decision early on to not take (the film) to anyone else.  We self-financed.  We were taking a chance, and mostly all the team came in with that same thought process too.  Rather than pushback it was really talking every step of the way.  Every choice.  Every decision.  And once I shot the film I took the film to different communities.  And this was a very inclusive set, where a lot of different voices were represented.

When the film was first cut, I just had a lot of different talk about what lines went a little too far.  For some scenes of the film I even revisited some outdated 90s humour, some of which could be considered “gay panic”, but it was revisited on purpose to show how much we’ve progressed.  I can have flawed characters, but it doesn’t mean we believe them and get away with certain things that are outdated.  But then we had people come in and say that some of those lines were triggering and pushed too far, and others saying to push it further so the characters can have that journey.  All those discussions ultimately helped us find a very thin line that was pushing as much as it needed to, without veering into making fun of any one community.

Biosphere is screening in Australian theatres from September 7th, 2023.

Peter Gray

Film critic with a penchant for Dwayne Johnson, Jason Momoa, Michelle Pfeiffer and horror movies, harbouring the desire to be a face of entertainment news.