This post was originally published as part of the Sundance 2014 issue of Washington Film Magazine.
Come to Washington State with a production and be surprised by the utopia you find. This is a place where resources run deep, where the arts are famously supported, and landscapes are rich with iconic locations, prime for the picking. Still Washington’s most treasured production resource might be the human kind, a filmmaking community the locals call “crewtopia”. At the center of crewtopia is a circle of Seattle-based women filmmakers, working to create quality projects while building camaraderie in a thriving local industry. A central figure in this ecosystem is independent film producer Mel Eslyn.
Mel Eslyn spoils her crew. A great hostess in life and on set, she works hard to get your best work. Eslyn sees an important part of her job as giving back and her personal mission includes building long-lasting relationships with people who are telling great stories. What’s the key to fostering those relationships? “Giving others respect,” says Eslyn. Bucking the Hollywood stereotype, she reminds others you can be a good film producer and still be a really good person at the same time.
Eslyn sometimes works outside of Washington. If you’re lucky you’ll catch the world premiere of her recent work at Sundance this year. The One I Love is a feature she produced and the film revolves around a struggling marriage on the brink of falling apart. It stars Mark Duplass, Elisabeth Moss, and Ted Danson and was shot in Los Angeles last year. While Eslyn doesn’t mind working elsewhere, she chooses to build her career in Washington. “Seattle is a great location,” she proudly gloats. “It has killer crews, top notch vendors, and an overall better vibe than anywhere else I’ve worked.”
Speaking of vibe, Eslyn’s noticed some key differences outside the Evergreen State. One, in particular, turns the notion of Southern hospitality on its head. “The experience we offer crews in Washington is infectious. It’s kind of dangerous,” she laughs, singling out a production in Texas where being mindful of her crew’s needs didn’t go so well. “When I work at home I’m conscious of giving meal options to crew who are gluten free, or vegetarian, or vegan.” Yet she found herself in Austin where she was instructed by her employer to tone back the hospitality. “I don’t just want to make great films. I want to support a community based around a common sense of values,” she explains.
When it comes to her personal success, Mel Eslyn is quick to credit the creative ecosystem she’s a part of. As a producer and community member she considers a respectable piece of advice – give back when you can. To that end she can be found all over Seattle, showcasing films, teaching workshops, and helping emerging projects. But things aren’t as altruistic as they seem. She’s casting a wide net, seeking out others who are hungry to do good work. “There are a lot of us here,” says Eslyn. “Every time I get more engaged I meet creative and motivated people to partner with in the future.”
Eslyn functions as part artist, part businesswoman. As many wise producers know, a strong sense of community is important, but incentives are key to where much of the industry chooses to go. She points out how organizations like Washington Filmworks, the nonprofit that manages the Washington film incentive, and local filmmakers are working together to put the state industry on the international radar. “By helping expand the number of films being made in Washington, the film incentive has allowed our community to carve out a thriving film industry that at its heart is based upon strong relationships. It’s about working on quality projects you are passionate about, with people that you love.” She gives the example of her work on the state incentive film One Square Mile, where she served as Unit Production Manager. “That film had a Canadian director, was attracted here because of the incentive, but also had that crewtopia experience. Seattle feels different, on the verge of something. It’s contagious.”
As for what’s next for Mel Eslyn and her collaborators, she’s in development on a slate of features she’s working to bring home to Washington. She’s also working with fellow Sundance alumni, producer Lacey Leavitt, and director Megan Griffiths to produce Todd Rohal’s next feature Sweet Cheeks. Eslyn is gearing up for a film called Potato Comes To America early this year. The project is based on a Huffington Post blog by Wes Hurley entitled “Growing Up Gay in Russia”. “Half the film is in Russia and half in Seattle. It will all be shot in Seattle. It’s very Seattle-centric.” Then she segues into recent social issues in Russia and this year’s Sochi Winter Olympic Games. It becomes clear that Eslyn is a producer who’s thinking locally and globally.
She’s been incredibly busy these last few years, with several films premiering at Sundance. Among them were two other features with Mark Duplass, the Washington-produced Your Sister’s Sister and Washington incentive film Safety Not Guaranteed. For now Eslyn is focused on her duties for her Sundance 2014 foray. Premiering this work in Park City is the culmination of what she’s dubbed her passion project year. “You take huge leaps as an indie film producer,” says Eslyn. “Learning to pick and chose wisely is a step towards success.” So what does she think of the steps she’s taken with The One I Love? “It’s a lot of work. But I’ve never been more proud of my involvement on a film.”