Barry Mendel is a film producer currently based in Pasadena, California. He began his career as a literary agent representing novelist/screenwriter Calder Willingham who’s work includes The Graduate. As a producer Mendel first began working on ‘Rushmore’ for Director Wes Anderson which won the IFP Independent Spirit Award for Best Director (Wes Anderson) and Best Supporting Actor (Bill Murray)
Following this Mendel went on to produce Sixth Sense with Director M Night Shyamalan, which was consequently nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
Shortly after this Mendel teamed up again with Wes Anderson for the cult classic The Royal Tenenbaums which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Screenplay for writers Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson.
Upon collaboration with Steven Spielberg, Mendel began producing the 2005 film ‘Munich’ which was nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Picture.
In 2008 he began what would be a recurring partnership with Judd Apatow firstly collaborating on Funny People with Adam Sandler, Seth Rogan and Leslie Mann, but also on the comedy film Bridesmaids. To date the most recent of these collaborations is with This is 40, a comedic, detailed look at married life for the forty-plus.
LL: Let’s go right back to the beginning. At what point did you decide that you wanted to be a producer? Can you pinpoint it?
BM: Yes, I had already produced music for my band and my friends’ bands, etc. Then I started my career over in film and at a Rolling Stones/Guns & Roses concert, through seeing the exhilarating creative process in front of me and the body of work particularly the Stones were leaving behind, it became clear that I wanted/needed to become a principal in the process of making films and that the role I was best suited to play to be a creative producer.
LL: Producing for film is quite a specific area in production. Was this a conscious choice or did it happen quite organically?
BM: It was the role that felt natural to play on the team. I never aspired to do or considered doing any other job.
LL: Has there been a person or particular influence on you that has made an impact on your career?
BM: My biggest influences of course are my parents, family and friends who have helped shaped me. Artistically, my mentor was a great novelist and screenwriter, Calder Willingham, whom I had the privilege of working with at an early stage in my development, and we worked through correspondence (letters, this was before email). I have hundreds of them and they were a big part of my education. In terns of influences, I have always admired the consistency of David Puttnam’s films. I felt his intelligence and ambition across a wide range of collaborations. John Houseman, too. The writers and directors who’ve most inspired me are probably Woody Allen, Spike Lee, Joseph Manciewicz, David Lean, Billy Wilder and Powell & Pressburger. Same as most people, I guess!
LL: In terms of how the medium of film has evolved is there anything that surprises you in the world today?
BM: I am surprised how easily people gobble up films with no emotion. I tend to think of movies as akin to sitting around a campfire and being told a story. Could be scary, funny, sweet, moving, mind-blowing whatever. But the degree to which people can feel satisfied without ever getting emotionally engaged surprised me and causes me to wonder why.
LL: Do you see your own culture and background, your roots, influencing your career in any way?
BM: Yes, I am Jewish, my Dad came over from Germany because of the Nazis. I also grew up in a fantastic suburban paradise outside of NYC in the 60s and 70s when things were really changing. The music and films were incredible, I am so lucky! Those musicians and filmmakers were my teachers, and they were good ones. Plus I liked to read some and reading really helped opened my mind in terms of storytelling and also life in general.
LL: When looking at film is there a subject matter, cultural topic or aspect that your curiosity is particularly drawn too?
BM: I can’t narrow it down. I like so many types of stories. Not one style. Not one sort of predicament. So many different types of messages. It’s just the luck of the draw, like falling in love, to stumble onto to something that sets your bells ringing.
LL: Do you see an importance within films which have culture at the heart of their matter and if so are there any films that you feel in particular drive the communication of cultures? Which challenge the way we see the world?
BM: Constantly. I remember how liberating it was when I saw She’s Gotta Have It. The only all-black movies I had seen had to do with gangsters or violence or were riffs on the black music scene, etc. To see a story about a woman picking between three suitors and then bringing them together, to see her sexual liberation, how beautifully it was shot and scored, it expanded my mind. And there are so many examples, from Slumdog Millionaire to Precious to this little indie film that I loved last year called In The Family about a man fighting for the custody of his lover’s son.
LL: You mentioned music in particular having an influence of your past. Do you have an interest in the cross-over of art forms such as writing, filming and music? Do you feel there is a particular film or project where this ‘coming together’ has been successful?
BM: I feel like the whole process of making a film involves the cross-pollination of art forms. Just a different stew every time. One of the wonderful (and edifying) things about it.
LL: Do you personally use music as a point of reference within your work life and if so, what pieces inspire you most?
BM: Of course, yes, music is really important. And when the music is right in a movie, there is nothing more satisfying. As for what inspires me, that is too vast a subject!
LL: What are your views on the responsibility of film to highlight and explore our world today? If we look at Picasso, Hemmingway or other stalwarts of their creative generation are there any creatives today who you feel are defining our generation artistically?
BM: I do feel there’s an opportunity to explore our world today and make it a better place. I wouldn’t be interested to make a film which doesn’t aspire to take us in that direction, however modestly. There are many filmmakers today who see things the same way. All the good films are exploring this, could be an ‘issue’ film but could also be through emotional release, healing, inspiration, educating people or just giving them an experience they can relate to and feel a little less alone in the world.
LL: Is there anything that scares you in the creative world today?
BM: I have always found the world of Hollywood a little scary, frankly. There is are some pretty astronomical sums being spent on what for me are some pretty boring movies. I guess I am most scared that the theatrical experience remains vital. I believe the communal experience of going into a big room with a big screen with hundreds of other people and having an experience together is meaningful. To the artists, obviously, but also to the audience. I worry that with the increasing ease of downloading and streaming movies, this will erode. I don’t want that to happen! I don’t like the Netflix, Lovefilm model where people don’t pay for each and every film but buy the right to stream. It erodes the value of each film and undermines people’s inherent understanding of all the time and effort and the number of people and money it requires even to make a modest film.
LL: Do you feel any pressure as a producer to find films that are culturally informative or have an educational purpose in addition to having entertainment value?
BM: It doesn’t feel like pressure because those are the kinds of stories which naturally appeal to me. If in addition to being relevant, edifying, it’s also an interesting story.
LL: On a personal note, is there another culture or part of the world in particular which your own curiosity is drawn to?
BM: Too many to mention! But if I had to pick two, they would be the West Coast of Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, Cote D’Ivoire, Senegal, etc. And Japan.
LL: And finally, If you are the centre of your world, what makes your world turn?