Mel Eslyn, recognized throughout the industry for her accomplishments as a producer working with visionary indie voices like the Duplass Brothers and Lynn Shelton, has now embarked on an exciting new chapter as a director with her feature debut, Biosphere, which premiered at Toronto Film Festival last year and is set for limited release on July 7, 2023.

After building cred as president of Duplass Brothers Productions and then working as a television writer/director on and , she was prepared to take on this sci-fi two-hander starring Mark Duplass and Sterling K. Brown.

We can't really say anything about the film because we want everyone to go into it with as little information as possible. It's a surprising comedy you should enter blind, trust us. But for the sake of giving some background, the logline is, "In the not-too-distant future, the last two men on earth must adapt and evolve to save humanity."

In this Zoom interview ahead of the film's release, we delve into Eslyn's transition from producing to directing, examining her path through the industry, and her creative journey. How does being a producer help you be a better director? How can other filmmakers create a compelling low-budget film with just two protagonists?

Join us as we gain valuable insights into the making of Biosphere, exploring the vision, challenges, and inspirations that shaped Eslyn's directorial debut.

Editor's note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

No Film School: I know your path was through producing and then TV writing/directing. Can you talk a little bit about how you got into producing and what that looked like?

Mel Eslyn: I started working on film sets when I was very young, like 15 years old. I grew up in the Midwest and I would lie about my age and say I was 18 [years old] and go on sets and kind of fill whatever roles needed to be filled. And the path was always writer-director from a very, very young age. I ended up in Seattle and moved there at the time when it was just on the cusp of a whole new wave of filmmakers coming together and starting. I got in right at the sweet spot and was able to come up with them, and, again, fill any role that I could find. When you are willing to basically do everything and just make things happen, it's very natural that you become a producer. I think what happened was people started giving me the credit of producer, telling me, "Oh, what you're doing is producing."

I knew I wanted to direct and producing was starting to happen as well, but I was a big believer in if I'm going to do that, I also do want to know all the mechanics, as much as possible. I want to work in every role, which I was able to do, which was amazing, and work in every department to at least get enough of a sense of how they work and the way to communicate and the language.

The one I spent a bit of time in was the AD department. I ADed and got a sense of how every department works together and how to just stay on time, too. And then producing happened. Throughout doing that, I met Mark Duplass and he really took me off the path basically, "Can you run my company?" Then, here we are. I'm like, "Oh my God, so many years passed and I was supposed to be directing. Can we do that? No," and here we are.

NFS: Do you think it was just knowing all those departments, was that what helped you the most, or is there anything else that you learned through that background that helped you?

Eslyn:I think the biggest thing was working with so many directors over the years, intimately as a producer who would pride myself in getting very involved, very supportive, and part of that creative process and solving with directors. Producers end up doing a bit of writing or end up doing a bit of directing. Naturally, you're uncredited, which causes a lot of people to become bitter, but you also realize that that is part of the job if you're doing it right.

The thing I learned the most was watching the mistakes of directors over the years, which everybody makes them, we all do. Seeing the trials and the tribulations and not having to do it myself or go through it with them before it was my time was one of the greatest gifts to be a bit prepared for that. I also was a producer who produced a lot of people's first features and a lot of directors who were in the film.

Again, you become a bit more active and a part of that process, their eyes and ears at the monitor, and helping them learn through the process. So all of that came into play with this.

NFS: Not asking you to name names, but you did mention seeing mistakes. Can you talk a little bit about what that looked like?

Eslyn: Oh, man. Preparation is a big thing. I think being afraid to talk to people, to express your ignorance. I think being open to other people's ideas and not feeling like it's all the "me" show. It's a collaboration and the best art comes from picking the right collaborators as opposed to force-feeding what you want out of them. It's never going to be what was in your head, and that's ultimately a good thing. It can be very scary and I think with first-time directors, they hold on so tight and I think that's where I saw the most mistakes. They're not mistakes, but it was the hardest for them when they held on too tight.

Sterling K. Brown as \u201cRay\u201d and Mark Duplass as \u201cBilly\u201d in Mel Eslyn\u2019s 'BIOSPHERE.'Sterling K. Brown as “Ray” and Mark Duplass as “Billy” in Mel Eslyn’s 'BIOSPHERE.'Credit: Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release

NFS: I did read a little bit about the writing process that you and Mark [Duplass] went through, but I would love to hear more about that. What did the process of collaborating on that idea look like?

Eslyn:I've worked with Mark for so many years and he has the best ideas that are always half-formed. I've gotten in the habit of, especially when they're ones I love and I can see the potential, I try and finish the sentence. This was one of those, where he had some really intriguing ideas. I wasn't sure if they were all being done the right way. It's this film that while it has two male protagonists, I was like, "I think the female voice in this is actually maybe the most important to put onto this." I really kind of inserted myself into it a bit, and it was great because we have such a shorthand at this point and such trust in each other that what we ended up doing was going away for a weekend and kind of throwing out everything we could think of that felt right for this idea.

There was a very rudimentary idea that we started with that we really elaborated on when we did the outlining. From there, Mark was like, "I'll go write the first draft and you can take the next pass." And then he got 14 pages in, and he's like, "I don't think there's anything here." And I was like, "I do. Give it to me." Then, I wrote the first full pass and then it was really just a healthy good back and forth and just listening to ideas.

Mark's really great at feedback and sometimes even better at it when he's got something on the page. He can challenge and expand upon it. We were able to do that back and forth and not have egos. Through that, there was a little bit of a blurring of lines as far as whose idea was what, everything kind of came together. But as a woman, as a queer woman, there was definitely some perspective that I wanted to put on a film that does deal with some toxic masculinity and the patriarchy. That was a big contribution on my part that Mark was very open to giving me the space to examine.

NFS:I think another thing that was very inspiring about this is that it is a single location, it's two actors. And a lot of times, beginning filmmakers will see that as an opportunity to play with a reduced budget or maybe a first project.

Eslyn: Any time I talk to a new filmmaker or someone trying to make their first feature, my advice is always to start manageable, and make it easier on yourself. Making movies are so hard already, so give yourself some limitations. Because I actually think you get the most creative when you give yourself some limitations. There are two things I always tell people aboutlocation and number of actors. That's why I think I've also produced a million relatively single-location, two-actor films, sometimes three, just because you're able to do it, you're able to make it, you don't have to wait around for somebody else to say "yes." I think the key is making sure each is unique.

With this one, I was like, "It is less daunting to go and do this with to one person that I have the strongest collaborative relationship with." Yes, it's one location, but to really make it feel bigger and broader than that, and again, challenge myself. You've got this one space, how much can you push it and bump up against the walls and take it to the limit? I always find really exciting. A lot of people are like, "No more two-handers." I'm like, "There are plenty of great ideas that we can all make work." But look, I got to say, locations, that's what kills you. Every time as a producer, when somebody brings me a budget that they need to dwindle down, my first note is to cut the locations.

Sterling K. Brown as \u201cRay\u201d and Mark Duplass as \u201cBilly\u201d in Mel Eslyn\u2019s 'BIOSPHERE.'Sterling K. Brown as “Ray” and Mark Duplass as “Billy” in Mel Eslyn’s 'BIOSPHERE.'Credit: Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release

NFS: What would you say was the biggest challenge of this project?

Eslyn:I mean, I think the biggest challenge was keeping it interesting with two people in one space. I think having character arcs that ... I think you often need breathing room from the main arc and what's happening in the film. It's really hard when you have two characters who are on this journey together. What do you cut to when you're not with one of them? And finding their own quiet time, but keeping it going?

I always feel like comedy really helps to have people laugh every once in a while. We all want to stick around and laugh, so that's a big thing. But it's always challenging. Also, when you have one space the biggest challenge is coming up with making it look different, finding new angles, and having limited space. So that was a big thing. One of the reasons why I added something like the running on the track is because I'm like, "I just want to feel different energy within a very confined space whenever I can."

NFS: Yeah, I think that is one thing that you really see with beginning filmmakers, everything is really static.

Eslyn:Yes. I've been there. I'm advising on one right now and that's my biggest thing. I want to feel some energy and don't be afraid to go in. Pick the moments when you go in. Don't stay too wide.

NFS: Do you see that happening at the script phase too? Would you advise that early, "How can you insert more conflict here or get some movement?"

Eslyn:Yeah, I do. I'm a big believer in reading, and doing read-throughs with this. Mark and I brought in an actor just so we could hear it on its feet. While doing that, it always helps me to be able to hear it and visualize it and to know how that energy is and the momentum. I'm on the fence, I think. When I'm getting a script as a producer and there are too many camera directions, it can be a turnoff. As a writer, I tend to add a good amount in because you can see it. So it's sort of finding that perfect balance of letting people know and also reminding yourself when you're going to shake up the energy but not holding ... We also want the DP to space to find that, too.

NFS: What are you looking for in projects that you want to work on or produce?

Eslyn:It's always hard because it's such a guttural thing. It's just following my gut and what I'm excited about. I think this film covers a lot of themes that I'm madly in love with and still want to explore, science and magic and sexuality and gender. I'm always going to be chasing those things. But it's like again, it's like you feel it in your gut and is it something you've never seen?

Mark and I have started in the last year or so, I think it's a ... we call it, "We're going to sleep on it." Because we used to say we'd get so excited in a room and we'd say "yes" to everything and then we kill ourselves trying to do too much. Now it's like, "Let's sleep on it. Let's think about how it excites us. Does this person excite us? Do we need to make it?"

I think that the biggest thing is there are so many wonderful things in the world that why do I need to make it? Do we need to make it? Because it's so often where I'm like, "I want this to get made in the world. Do I want to live with it for the next two years?"

Sterling K. Brown as \u201cRay\u201d and Mark Duplass as \u201cBilly\u201d in Mel Eslyn\u2019s 'BIOSPHERE.'Sterling K. Brown as “Ray” and Mark Duplass as “Billy” in Mel Eslyn’s 'BIOSPHERE.'Credit: Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release

NFS: Are there any other lessons that you want to impart from this project, from your feature debut?

Eslyn:I think the biggest thing, and this is something I've also just learned over the years as a producer, is to really open yourself up to feedback. I'm a big believer in a lot of feedback in the script stage, but even more importantly in the cutting of the film. We do a lot of feedback sessions, whether it's in person or nowadays, you can send a link or do a Zoom talk back. I think it's the scariest thing for a filmmaker and especially first-time filmmakers and you can get very defensive, but I think it's always so helpful. They're not going to solve it, but I think hearing people respond to the film will allow you to make decisions based on that as opposed to it's not always is this thing wrong as opposed to this is making people feel this way. Is that my intention?

I find it fascinating. It's still hard. It's so hard. I still do it to this day, especially when I wrote it. You want to hold it in and you want to hold it so tight, but it's really helpful and there are so many viewpoints. Also, you get trained to hear all the bad comments ahead of time. So when the press comes out, you're like, "I've heard that." I get it. It's not for everybody. That's a big thing. Just being open to criticism and knowing not everybody's going to love the movie.

I know I've hit a movie in the sweet spot when the room is divided on certain things. To me, that's perfect, because you're never going to make everybody happy. But if it's leaning too much in one direction, that can be bad. That's a big thing, is feedback and collaboration in that regard.