Mel Eslyn spoke to Solzy at the Movies about her feature directorial debut, Biosphere, which is now playing in theaters.
Biosphere , directed by Eslyn and co-written by Eslyn and Mark Duplass, was one of the final films to be announced for TIFF last year. The sci-fi comedy stars Sterling K. Brown and Mark Duplass as the last two men on Earth. Billy (Mark Duplass) and Ray (Sterling K. Brown) are best friends and are living under a biosphere for their survival. Thanks to Ray, they’ve got everything that they need to live, including a garden and protein sources. When the fish start dying, they start panicking because it means that their days are going to be numbered. That’s the gist of it in a nutshell.
It’s a tricky film to discuss without giving any of its plot points away. I went into a recent screening in Brooklyn knowing absolutely nothing about it and was all the better for it. It touches on toxic masculinity in what could very well be the most unique way that I’ve ever seen in film.
Biosphere is now playing in theaters. When you see it in theaters, please don’t spoil it for others. Preserve the experience because this is the type of film that should be seen by knowing very little about it.
Hi, it’s so nice to see you again.
Mel Eslyn: You, too.
How are you doing?
Mel Eslyn: I’m good, yeah. How you doing?
I’m doing well. I’ve recovered from Tribeca, thank G-d.
Mel Eslyn: Oh, yeah. That’s a lot.
How did you come to the decision that it was the right time to make your feature directorial debut?
Mel Eslyn: Well, I had put it off for so long and not out of laziness, but I love so many other people’s visions and I want to make everybody’s dreams come true so I just kept putting other films before my own. Biosphere was an idea that Mark and I had started to form before the pandemic and then the pandemic hit. I lost a friend as well. You’re just dealing with thinking about time and limited time. I was also stuck at home and just kind of hit a point where I was like, okay, now’s the time. I feel like the universe has created this space because of really shady, unfortunate circumstances so I need to use this now to the best of my ability. That’s what I did.
Did the pandemic help shape the screenplay?
Mel Eslyn: It’s interesting, it’s so funny. I wasn’t even clocking that until much later. It probably did even though I wasn’t consciously thinking of it. When I was really working on a script, it was a period where I was actually isolated alone so I didn’t really have anybody to interact with.
When I watched the film and I saw a two-person cast, I’m sitting there thinking, I wonder if they did that because of all the Covid restrictions on set.
Mel Eslyn: Oh, yeah. No, it definitely was two from the start for sure. Especially knowing it was my directorial debut, I believe you shouldn’t try and kill yourself. Two actors, one location is a great way to be kind to yourself as you’re making your first film.
What was the writing process like with Mark Duplass?
Mel Eslyn: Well, Mark has these amazing ideas He’s pitched me over the years—so many things. They’re always these brilliant ideas that are only half-formed. This was one of them, where he had a half-idea and a bunch of different things to throw into it, and brought it to me. I saw it. I could just see what the movie was and I was like, I want this one. I want to put a female voice to this film that’s starring two men and really examined toxic masculinity. We went away for a weekend. We kind of threw all our ideas down. We came up with a very rudimentary outline. Mark was like, I’m gonna go, I’ll write the first draft. He got 14 pages in and he was like, I don’t think there is a movie here. I was like, well, I do so I’m gonna go write the first draft. I did, and then we just kind of went back and forth. We got outside feedback and I brought in my producer, Zackary Drucker and had her put a bunch of her thoughts into the script. It was a really collaborative process but knowing I was going to direct it, I was definitely kind of the one that kind of controlled what stayed and went,
How important was it to bring on Zackary Drucker as a producer?
Mel Eslyn: Very important. I’ve worked with Zackary on a few projects and have gotten close to her over the years. I really trust her creatively. She’s just one of the smartest, kindest, most thoughtful people I’ve ever met. I wanted that collaboration. I wanted that support from her. Also, just her experience coming from a different—we all have our own unique experiences and I really value her life experience being so different from mine in many ways. She was just everything I would have hoped she could be and more.
Pandemic aside, what was the most challenging aspect of the production?
Mel Eslyn: I think the most challenging aspect was it was very tight in that biosphere. Physically, we could only have so many people in there. You have camera and it was just—we kind of lived in the biosphere for the making of the film, which I think did great things on screen. It was a beautiful environment on set, but there were days where I would love—as we were shooting, I was like, I can’t wait to shoot the next one outside.
Is this built on a soundstage?
Mel Eslyn: Yep, exactly.
What sort of challenges did the pandemic add—whether it be production, editing, etc.?
Mel Eslyn: Yeah. It is the weirdest thing that I think a lot of directors maybe haven’t talked about but it is the weirdest thing to direct with a mask on. There is such this level of intimacy and shared trust and experience and communication. I think we, as humans, communicate so much with our faces, too, that somebody not being able to see that was so weird and wild, and especially to be directing my first film doing that—in some ways, I love it, because I also sometimes can’t control my face. I make weird faces and I was like, yes, it’s hidden. There was a level of connection that I don’t think you can ever get to when you’re faces are masked so that that was tough.
On the post side of things, I’m a big believer in feedback and bringing in really smart, whether its filmmakers or just everyday people—people not in the industry—to come and watch a film in its rough cut stage, and to give notes. This one specifically, I brought it out to a lot of different communities and had a lot of different voices bring in their thoughts. I usually do that in person and so I had to do it all on Zoom and have talkbacks and emails. Again, it was a different way of communicating that information, which wasn’t bad, but it was different.
When was principal photography?
Mel Eslyn: It was August 2021.
So right as Delta was starting to hit?
Mel Eslyn: Yes.
It’s hard to believe that I still remember when all those hit. Omicron was December 2021, right after I got back from New York. I was prepping to go to Sundance and it’s like, yeah, I don’t want to go to Sundance anymore.
Mel Eslyn: Yeah, it was so weird to have films premiering online at festivals. That is one thing, I’m so thankful—some of it was we waited a little bit. I wanted to spend a lot of time with this film in post and just find the right home for it and really think about how to bring this film out of the world because I wanted to keep a lot of it under wraps. We waited a bit and we waited for Toronto. I’m so glad because it was in person and that energy of being in a room again was just magical.
I missed Biosphere during TIFF because of scheduling conflicts.
Mel Eslyn: Oh, man. It was a beautiful screening.
But just watching it in Brooklyn a few weeks ago, I was so surprised because I went into it knowing nothing. I did not know about some of those major spoilers. Even when I get into writing my review, it’s like, how do I talk about this film without spoiling that?
Mel Eslyn: Yeah. Oh, man, press has been hard. (Laughs) We live in such a time where so much of the conversation of films happens before people even see the movie. You go in knowing so much. You’re anticipating it. You’ve seen three trailers. I love the authentic experience of going in and knowing nothing and sitting in that dark room and just going on the journey with it. I started to see that happen with audiences when I didn’t prep them of really what it was about at all. I thought as I saw the reactions, I was like, Oh, that’s pretty cool. I want to preserve that as much as I can for people. Thankfully, there’s been so much respect in the press that has just been lovely of people being like, I had that. I want to give that to other people so I’m gonna protect that as well, which is really cool.
It’s definitely one of the nice things that I miss about the pre-social media days where you don’t have all these spoilers while you’re just scrolling through Twitter.
Mel Eslyn: Totally, yeah. Or like online chatter assuming a film is going to be about one thing or the headlines that come out that they’re just looking for a headline. Yeah, I do miss that.
Without giving the film away, what do you hope people take away from watching the film?
Mel Eslyn: I hope that people take away this kind of reinvigorated belief in our capacity as humans to change, evolve, and continue to expand our ideas and definitions of things. I believe that our evolution as humans lies in a continual redefining, a continual reexamining, and pushing of the boundaries that hold us in these kinds of rigid definitions that I don’t think really do us any service. I think none of us are easily definable as humans. That’s what I hope people take away is we’re all just who we are.
That was everything I had. Thank you so much and it was so great getting to talk again.
Mel Eslyn: Yeah, you too. Thank you so much.
IFC Films releases Biosphere in theaters on July 7, 2023.
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