2008-04-11 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

Local Filmmaker Shows Her Talent In Rockaway
Commentary by Stuart W. Mirsky

Filmmaker Debra Eisenstadt, who grew up on the peninsula and recently returned to make her home here with Academy Award-nominated director/ producer husband Brett Morgen, tells an interesting story about The Limbo Room, a film she shot "on the rebound" when an earlier project fell apart. An existential comedy/drama about Broadway understudies, The Limbo Room took Debra only nine days to actually shoot, but more than a year to edit. Pregnant at the time, she had just finished the first rough cut when she went into labor and was forced to put the film's editing on hold to bring her second child, Max, into the world.

A daughter of Barbara Eisenstadt, the much loved community activist and arts patron on the West End who recently passed away, Debra moved back to Rockaway in Barbara's final year, at least in part to be closer to her mom. "I think I had a secret, irrational wish that my moving here would keep her alive somehow," Debra confides. "She always supported me in anything I wanted to do. She helped on The Limbo Room, too."

Barbara Eisenstadt, of course, was an accomplished artist in her own right who was particularly good with pen and brush. Debra recalls that talent: "She helped produce the film, working both on set decoration and casting. She's even in the background of a couple of scenes." In fact, The Limbo Room is, in many ways, a family affair. Sister Jill, who lives in Brooklyn with novelist husband Michael Drinkard (Rebels, Turn Out Your Dead, Harcourt), collaborated with Debra on the screenplay and helped in production, too. Jill, who has written two novels, From Rockaway, recalling the eighties beach scene, and Kiss Out, a coming of age tale set in a suburban Long Island community (both from Knopf), jumped in as soon as Debra asked her to.

When the original project fell apart Debra was already pregnant. Suddenly I felt like, if I didn't make a film right away, I'd never make another one," she says, noting that she and her sister "had always collaborated in numerous ways, so teaming up for this film just made sense." Jill remembers what happened then. "When Debra's first full length film, Daydream Believer, won the Grand Jury Prize at the Slamdance Film Festival in 2001, and she took the Independent Spirit 'Someone to Watch' Award, there was a lot of interest in what she'd do next. She and I had already written a stage play together so, when she asked if I'd like to work with her on The Limbo Room, I didn't have to think twice."

Moviemaker Debra had always been fascinated by the stage. "I was more interested in theater when I was younger," she admits, "writing, acting, directing plays. Later, when I started acting in films and for TV, I kind of shifted focus to filmmaking and went to film school." She modestly omits mentioning that she won a graduate program scholarship to the New School University on the basis of her first short, The Guest.

For her graduate thesis Debra set out to do a behind-the-scenes documentary that followed an actress and her understudy during the course of a Broadway show. "I spent a lot of time following different actresses in different shows going on at the time and finally found what I thought would be perfect. The play had a rape scene in it, though, and the actress I was following started accusing the actor she performed the scene with each night of REALLY harassing her onstage. No one in the theater believed her except her understudy, who refused to say so publicly. She just wanted to protect herself, I guess. The drama backstage escalated and I was finally kicked out of the theater. They didn't want me filming anymore so I never got to finish my documentary." That's when Debra reached out to her sister. "What ended up happening," she recalls, "was that we combined a script we'd been working on for years, but never finished, with what had happened while I was filming that documentary and the result was The Limbo Room."

Starring Melissa Leo, who played Rachel in Tommy Lee Jones' directorial debut, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, and appeared in numerous other films, The Limbo Room is described as "a provocative drama about life in the theater and the politics of sex." Says Debra, "One of my first jobs as both an actress and understudy had been in David Mamet's play, Oleanna, which deals with rape accusations and harassment. The actress who had the lead was leaving that play because she was suffering the effects of her character, after playing the part for almost a year, and I was asked to take over. I felt I'd be immune to a reaction like hers, but later I realized I wasn't. At a certain point actor and character merge . . . for better or worse."

Her sister Jill notes that she enjoyed working on the film with Debra but, as a writer, had somewhat different concerns. "Obviously, screen writing has a lot more limitations than fiction," she explains. "In a novel you can cover fifty years in a paragraph, know what everyone's thinking and have total control over the finished product. Not so in film, which is a much more collaborative, and therefore unpredictable, effort. But all forms of writing are, to me, enjoyable. And dialogue is my alltime favorite thing to write."

Remembering their mother's role in the film, Jill adds, "Before the shoot, she took our props list home with her and found everything we needed in her house. Then she came in and designed the set and brought twenty-plus extras we needed for the audience and party scenes. She was a peripheral, but important, person in the film itself." Other family members and friends found their way into the production, too, including brother Steven Eisenstadt who, with a cameo role, joined their mother in the cast.

According to Ray Greene, writing in Box Office Review, The Limbo Room is "an existential look at the life of a struggling actress . . . stuck in a seemingly never-ending rut as understudy to a temperamental diva in a modestly successful off-Broadway show." Debra Eisenstadt, he went on, "has a trenchant understanding of the thousand humiliations that populate the peripheral showbiz world she's chronicling, but has married it to a dark, Mamet-esque sexual undercurrent that provides a harrowing twist ending which shocks the viewer but somehow seems entirely bought and paid for by what has gone before."

The result of a heady collaboration of two generations of Eisenstadt women, with a little help from their men folk, The Limbo Room premiered at The Slamdance Film Festival in 2006 and will air this coming September on The Sundance Channel. But you don't have to wait to see it.

It's one of the features at the upcoming Rockaway Literary Arts & Film Festival on the weekend of June 7 and 8 at Fort Tilden. Three films will be shown in the fort's Post Theater on June 7, including husband Brett Morgen's award winning

The Kid Stays in the Picture. Two feature length works, along with two shorts, will be screened the following evening on June 8 when Debra Eisenstadt's The Limbo Room will be featured after the day's book fair at which more than 40 writers, both local and outof town, will converge to participate in a series of panel discussions, book signings and writing workshops.

Rockaway Seafood, the newly opened restaurant on Beach 129 Street, will offer sushi and other seafood delicacies to event goers.

Parking and admission to all events, including film screenings and panel discussions, is all free thanks to the sponsorship of the Rockaway Music and Arts Council, an organization Barbara Eisenstadt led and supported for some thirty years.

The June book and film festival is dedicated to Barbara's memory - a woman whose vision, perseverance and belief in Rockaway's sometimes hidden, but often substantial, talent made it all possible. rockirreg@aol.

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