“I’m sitting here with a busted ankle thanks to a karaoke injury last night,” says Mel Eslyn. The Seattle-based filmmaker is in LA, keeping her foot elevated and speaking via a spotty Skype connection. She’s mid-shoot for a film she’s producing called MF, the directorial debut of Robert Schwartzman, brother of Jason (Rushmore) and cousin to various Coppolas. Eslyn explains that it’s a comedy grounded by some heavy drama, then summarizes it Hollywood style: “It’s like The Graduate meets Loverboy—both the 1980s Patrick Dempsey movie and the ’80s band.”
She’s funny. Sporting an armful of tattoos and inky nail polish, Eslyn, 31, laughingly notes that karaoke has provided a sort of throughline for her career. “I guess I would say, if you can karaoke together, you can make a movie together, and vice versa.”
Certainly, both require daring, directness and a sense of humor. While mostly a chance to bond with friends and colleagues, her karaoke habit has caused her to take a couple of sidetracks—such as years ago, when after wrapping a music video, her performance of Pat Benatar’s “Heartbreaker” led to a slight detour as a fledgling rock singer. And then there is the injury-inducing song of the previous evening: Joan Jett’s “Do You Wanna Touch Me,” which seems to explain a lot.
The audacity of Jett’s shouted query recalls the chutzpah of the 14-year-old Eslyn, who, growing up near Milwaukee, frequently falsified her age in order to skip school and work as a production assistant (PA) on independent film sets. Confident from an even earlier age that she wanted to be a storyteller, she set her sights on becoming a writer or a filmmaker. “Since I was about 7 years old,” she says, “it’s never been a question.” She spent ages 14–19 working as a PA, “or whatever they needed,” she says, “to learn what I could about the business.”
The approach served her well. While most of the movies Eslyn worked on back then never saw the light of day (“There was one about a serial killer in a pig mask…and a mobster movie filmed in an Italian restaurant,” she recalls), the range of filmmaking skills she was exposed to gave her a solid foundation for producing. “Starting as a PA is the best way to be a fly on the wall of all departments,” she says. “In this industry, you have to just get on set and learn. And you can’t imagine what one connection might lead to—that sounds so clichéd but it’s true.”
Eslyn moved to Seattle in 2007, with hopes that a new city would offer new opportunities. Her timing proved impeccable; she arrived just as Seattle’s independent film scene was heading into its current upswing, with now prominent local filmmakers Lynn Shelton, Megan Griffiths and cinematographer Ben Kasulke all working on small projects—such as Shelton’s acclaimed film Humpday, for which the IMDb credits list Eslyn under “Thanks.”
Just like the cliché promises, the connections she made there led to more film gigs, including the Seattle installment of MTV’s $5 Cover music series, which local filmmaking insiders still refer to as “crewtopia,” thanks to the number of intense friendships and working relationships (and karaoke sessions) that grew out of the experience, including Eslyn’s connection with cinematographer Nathan M. Miller, a colleague on several films and now her boyfriend.
Eslyn has since been perfecting her skills on feature films including Your Sister’s Sister (starring Rosemarie DeWitt and Emily Blunt), Touchy Feely (with Ellen Page), Laggies (Keira Knightley) and The One I Love (Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass). The producer’s role, she says, is being “the force that keeps the train moving,” touching every part of the film, from the development phase (before the script exists) to casting, shooting, editing and distribution. Which means she’s responsible for everything from taking idea-sparking “creative hikes” with the director to working in the editing room, helping to fine-tune the final cut. On indie films, the shoot usually takes the least amount of time (two to four weeks). “My part,” she says, “takes about two years.”
But that doesn’t mean she works on one film that whole time. Like most independent producers, Eslyn manages multiple films at once—all in different phases of development, shooting, postproduction and release. “It’s a juggling act,” she says, “but it’s exciting.”
Her roster currently includes two films that premiered at South by Southwest in March. She calls Lamb, directed by Ross Partridge, “a captivating, risky piece about an older man on a road trip with an 11-year-old girl.” (She says there’s nothing sexual about it; the story is more about lost souls.) Uncle Kent 2, directed by Todd Rohal, “could not be more different,” an odd comedy that Indiewire compared to “David Lynch doing slapstick.” At press time, these films had just been accepted into SIFF.
Eslyn’s diverse docket reflects her belief in a good story, whether it’s the forthcoming project Sweet Cheeks (coproduced with Lacey Leavitt), about two kids who find a butt (yes, a butt) in a mailbox and go on a journey to return it (think “Little Rascals meets The Jerk”); or local filmmaker S.J. Chiro’s autobiographical Lane 1974, set to shoot this summer. She’s also in the editing process for MF, in development on three other films, and says she has a slew of projects she wants to bring to Seattle—her favorite place to make movies.
Not surprisingly, Eslyn has karaoke goals as well. “I’m trying to build up to Scorpions,” she says, referring to the 1980s heavy metal band. “They are tough!”
Mel Eslyn produced two new films that will screen at the Seattle International Film Festival: Lamb and Uncle Kent 2. SIFF 2015 runs May 14 to June 7.