Getting Schooled in Movies: Interview with Azazel Jacobs, Director of “Terri”
Writer-director Azazel Jacobs grew up with film in his blood, and it shows in his new comedy starring John C. Reilly.
Writer-director Azazel Jacobs grew up with film in his blood – his father, after all, is legendary experimental filmmaker Ken Jacobs. A graduate of SUNY Purchase and the AFI’s Masters program, Jacobs made his feature debut in 2003 with the beguiling, elliptical black-and-white drama Nobody Needs to Know, which he followed up two years later with The GoodTimesKid. His critically acclaimed 2008 movie Momma’s Man – about a new father who regresses back into childhood when he returns to his parents’ house – proved to be Jacobs’ breakthrough, and further cemented him as one of the most original new voices in American independent cinema.
To mark the forthcoming release of Jacobs’ new film, Terri – the Sundance 2011 crowdpleaser about the unusual friendship that develops between an overweight high school student (Jacob Wysocki) and his principal (John C. Reilly) – I sat down with the gifted young filmmaker to discuss his movie watching habits growing up and the daunting task of directing Reilly, an actor who has worked with so many legendary auteurs.
Keyframe: We already spoke about Terri earlier in the year, just before it premiered at Sundance, so I wanted to talk about stuff surrounding that movie, and also your background as a filmmaker and a movie watcher. I want to find out about movies that you grew up with or have been reference points for other films that you’ve made.
There’s the films that influenced Terri, and then there are the films that I’ve watched over and over in general since seeing them as a kid. I rewatched The King of Comedy again this week. I’ve just seen it so many times, and seeing that film I still get so much of why I want to make movies. I’m in love with films that play with so many levels between audience and reality.
So even when I think about the films I watched as a kid, I think of like Hellzapoppin’, which was a huge film for me growing up. Because my father taught, he was able to get prints a lot, so one of the first things I learned was to thread up a projector. When they’d leave, my sister and I could watch Hellzapoppin’, and we watched it over and over again. And then the same thing with Sunset Boulevard.
The common thing with movies that I really care about are that they are constantly dealing with movies in a certain way. Even a film like Dead Man, which stays with me so well, it especially works as a story about celebrity, about filmmaking. But what has stayed with me the most from it was the time I saw it projected incorrectly, with the borders too wide. When they’re out in the woods, I could see the end of the sets, where the woods stopped, and then the soundstage beyond. And it worked. The film worked perfectly. And I feel like that’s a test for movies: if you can just open it up a little bit wider and let you know that this is a movie you’re watching, but it’s still substantial and true, it’s a good testament. With Terri too, there’s a reality to it, but of course there’s just things that could not happen.
Keyframe: I guess because your father is a filmmaker, cinema was always a part of your life. But was there one film that made you take a serious interest in film?
Azazel Jacobs: There wasn’t that one film because what I was more taken with than anything was just story in general. When I read Hammett or Chandler, I really got into the underground comics, really got into The Spirit. I went out of my way to make sure that I studied with Will Eisner when I went to high school. Story was what I was interested in. I was also pretty sure that if I moved to London and got an accent that I could start a good band. That was the plan as well.
I think my teachers at SUNY Purchase really had a lot to do with me really falling in love with movies and feeling like I had something particular to say. The first year of school there, my films were much more in the vein of what my father and his peers were doing and just seeing work throughout the year and getting a chance to see the American independents – which I didn’t grow up watching – it started opening it up. I said, “Wow, this thing is much wider than I thought!” I thought it was this side or that side.
Keyframe: So when you were growing up was it classic Hollywood and experimental film, and not a lot in between?
Jacobs: Yes, exactly. And the classic Hollywood was mainly 30s and 40s. But the thing was that my friend Piero, the kid that does the push-ups in Momma’s Man, didn’t have the restrictions that I did growing up. So with him, I got very into whatever film I was not supposed to watch: Halloween, Halloween II…. Especially Halloween II we watched a lot, and Bad Boys we watched a lot. Anything where I had this nagging voice of my parents saying, “This is bullshit,” I also embraced.
Keyframe: So they were forbidden movies, in a way.
Jacobs: It wasn’t so much that they were forbidden. Film wasn’t allowed to be treated as throwaway. Films, from the beginning, were ingrained to me as not just a good time. They were to be taken seriously. Whatever the film was, it was a serious document and it was something that was probably having a much bigger effect on you than you realized. So for me to drink and go watch some horror film and just try to be like, “This is fun and this is crazy,” and not take this as something that was having a real impact on me and the people around me, made things heavier, and a little bit of a pain sometimes.
Keyframe: I feel like your films combine those two perspectives: they have a lightness to them, but there’s also always a lot of meaning and human emotion there.
Jacobs:I agree. The more that I do this, the stronger I feel that that is where my strengths are. I feel that that’s what I can do that’s different. We all have these individual ways of seeing things. It’s like, “This is how I see this story, and the fact that I’m choosing to tell a story with these characters is enough that it’s coming from me.” It’s like, “I am in control of this, now let’s go into this play world and see what happens.” There’s always going to be a filmmaker that’s craftier and colder than me – I’m never going to win that battle. That’s not my space.
Keyframe: But I can’t ever fully appreciate a cold filmmaker like Kubrick. For all the genius that’s clearly there, I feel detached because there’s an emotional aspect that’s absent. I think it’s so important that viewers are able to connect on a human level.
Jacobs: I think Kubrick was haunted by something else and being driven by something different than I am. I think that Paths of Glory is an incredibly humane film. You can already see that it’s a Kubrick film, but also that there’s a choice that he was entering dark worlds and that he was in a dark situation. I’m not a Kubrick expert, I don’t know his world, but I’m somebody – I’m human, and I have the same depressions and fears. I very much enjoy making movies and I want to keep enjoying them. I don’t want that to be a fight, I don’t want the actual movie to be the battle. If there’s a fight, it’s hopefully somewhere else and it’s on a bigger scale than simply saying, “Damn you, world!”
Keyframe: Before we started, you told me that Being There played a role in the way you approached Terri.
Jacobs: Well, Being There was a film I was already very taken with. Tobi [Datum], my cinematographer, had seen it but we hadn’t talked about it in a serious way in connection with Terri. I felt [Hal] Ashby’s approach to this unreal, laughable situation – that the guy has never left the home – was amazing. It’s very easy to sum up that situation in a line, but the actual movie is impossible to, because it’s taken very seriously, to the point that it’s realistic. The fact is that it takes place in enough of our world that we can see how this can happen, just the way Network does. It works in that world, even though there’ are these moments of theatrics. It was a very good tone to use to show to Tobi what I was looking for and how to push this movie away from being something quirky or a joke, in a way. I felt that the only way we were going to handle these things that had been handled in such comical ways was to find a real world that it took place in.
Keyframe: Some people have described Being There as a one-joke movie, and it kind of is. But the joke ceases to be a punchline and that idea becomes the whole movie. As you say, it becomes a world that we completely believe in.
Jacobs: I think you could describe my work the same way. I think that the idea, for me, is not to go from joke to joke but to keep going farther into this world and pushing and seeing where this actually leads to, and not just taking it to a punchline. Seeing beyond that, and then finding another punchline and another punchline. I like a forward move or a backward move. My point is not just to get you to the other side of an hour and a half.
Keyframe: When you make a movie, do you have the cinematic history of your locations in your head?
Jacobs: It depends on the story. At the moment, I’m writing something about Downtown Los Angeles, and I’ve really had a great time finding out about that history, because it’s an amazing, amazing history. Obviously Lower Manhattan has a history that I’m very taken with because I know it so well. With Terri, what attracted me to it was it was based on a world of movies. I don’t know small town USA, I don’t know small town schools, I don’t know what this is like – my only way in was through other films, through coming of age movies, through other high school films – and through [screenwriter] Patrick [DeWitt]‘s words.
After Momma’s Man, I very much wanted to go to a planet that I hadn’t gone to. I might as well have done a science fiction film – it was the same thing. I could say, “I’m going to make this path go to school,” and then we’d shoot this path here and then we piece it together and it goes there. When shooting in New York City, that would bother me. Even when there’s stuff like that in Momma’s Man, when he’s taking the wrong train to the airport at the end, I know I’m getting called out. There’s always one person in that theater saying, “He’s not going to JFK – where’s he going?”
WATCH MOMMA’S MAN ON FANDOR:
Yeah, there’s always that person who’s looking for the logical gaps…
Yeah, it’s clearly impossible. I don’t get hung up so much that I can’t enjoy the film, but now living in Los Angeles as long as I have, I do get a big kick out of somebody walking out of one side of town and stepping into another. If there’s anything that The GoodTimesKid taught me, it’s that you can do that. You can just put them all across town and go where you wanna go.
When you cast John C. Reilly in Terri, what were the movies of his that convinced you he was the right person for that role?
There’s a lot of films that he did; I’d really have to mention everything he did with Paul Thomas Anderson to show the humanity that he has. I felt that Mr. Fitzgerald needed to not be a joke, not to be a joke teacher, not to be somebody to laugh at. I knew the script was laugh-out-loud funny, but I wanted this person to go farther and to be breathing, and John has already shown that multiple times. John was the person I thought of, he was the person I went after, and it was a long courting process, but I knew of John as somebody who was a possibility, just judging on the work that he’d done. That meant so much to me. He is someone who has said no to things, who has risked things, who’s not taken easier paths but has said yes to things that he’s wanted to do. It gave me a way in a person who doesn’t have nearly the type of credits or money that could make things an absolute worthwhile time.
It’s become such a cliché to discuss the range that he has – how he can do both very serious dramas and extremely silly comedies – that it’s almost obscured his incredible ability as an actor.
Yeah, I mean he finished Lynne Ramsay’s film to go to my film to go to Polanski’s film. What a head trip, and for me too. But definitely going up to John on those first days to talk about the script and thinking, “So Altman talked to him, and Scorsese… What did they do? What am I…? Am I supposed to do something totally distinctive?” It became very apparent how seriously John takes this work, and it brings you to that level. It made me forget about that and get down to business, and forget being intimidated by who came before or after me.
Nick Dawson is a frequent contributor to FilmMaker magazine and is the author of Being Hal Ashby.