Son of legendary experimental filmmaker Ken Jacobs, Azazel Jacobs has risen steadily through the independent film scene since his debut in 2003 with Nobody Needs to Know. He arrived this year with Terri, his biggest feature yet, a droll and unsentimental portrait of a pyjama-wearing teenager, played by newcomer Jacob Wysocki. Caregiver to his ageing uncle (an impressive Creed Bratton), Terri must deal with high school, the assistant principal (John C. Reilly) and growing up. We sat down for a chat about his new movie.
The Rumpus: What interested you about the character of Terri?
Azazel Jacobs: What interested me was that I didn’t know anybody like Terri when I read what screenwriter Patrick de Witt wrote. I wanted to tell somebody else’s story. I wanted to do something different, to talk about somebody that I didn’t know. I was looking for something challenging, something that would make me worried and excited, and that’s what I found in Terri. Through Patrick’s work, I felt so close to Terri that I thought, okay, there’s a bridge between my life and his. My way into Terri was that I would have been one of the kids torturing him. In a weird way, that was my way in.
Rumpus: A lot of the bullying is implied, and not actually shown.
Jacobs: I don’t think I’m going to do it better than Welcome to the Doll House. That’s not the story. I reference it enough so that you understand his life is torture. I think that I deal with it the same way that Terri deals with it. It’s there. It just is.
Rumpus: This definitely felt like a bigger film than your other films, Momma’s Man or GoodTimesKid.
Jacobs: I think Momma’s Man was ten times the size of GoodTimesKid and Terri is ten times the size of Momma’s Man. The rate I’m going I actually should be doing Avatar next (laughs).
Rumpus: What about the way you use music to create emotion?
Jacobs: I had the same composer for all those films, so that’s the connection. Mandy Hoffman does the score for Terri, Momma’s Man and GoodTimesKid, and I think if you go back to the GoodTimesKid, you’ll see that the score has the best production value of the three. It was the most expensive thing in the film, even though she didn’t get paid anything. I wanted big movie music for that, so it would balance out the fact that we’d done it as a small DIY film. I keep getting attracted to Mandy because I feel that she’s able to express the internal developments of the characters without telling the audience how they should feel about them. I’m trying to push a tightrope and not tell you how to feel about these things. When I see a film, I don’t want to be told how to interpret things. I don’t need to know this person is going to be a bad person, or this person’s going to be good. I think if things can be broken down that easily then they’re not to be trusted. The black and white stories that I’m drawn to start off as black and white, and then things get murkier. If you think of Harry Lime or any of the great characters, they’re great because they’re complicated.
Rumpus: In Terri, was it always dementia that the uncle was going to be afflicted with?
Jacobs: In the original manuscript, the illness was explained in a more thorough way. But ultimately what I took away from it was the sense that every day as we see Terri become more responsible, he’s also being forced to become more responsible. He has to grow up, and he’s already growing up faster than other kids in a certain way. The pyjamas show him as almost behind the kids, like he’s staying in infancy, and at the same time he’s dealing with something that most of the other kids in school are not dealing with. I like the idea of him becoming an adult, and having to become an adult.
Rumpus: I see him as way ahead of the other kids because he wears pyjamas.
Jacobs: I do, too. But I think it’s easy to see just the image of him, and the way he’s interpreted by the outside world is as somebody that’s behind. Symbolically, once we go to back to his house, you’re right, he’s completely like, ‘I have nothing to win by trying to dress cool; it’s not going to happen. I’m not going to be accepted no matter what I wear. I might as well be comfortable.’
Rumpus: To what extent do you feel the film is about the use and abuse of power, and the responsible use of power?
Jacobs: Those are things that continue to interest me. Even with the GoodTimesKid, the character that I play in it wants to let go of his power and join the army. He doesn’t want the responsibility. It’s the same with Momma’s Man. The music that I’m attracted to, the films that I’m attracted to, are constantly, hopefully, challenging, and are conflicted with the sense of power that they have. Even in my household growing up, where I could speak freely and my sister and my mum could speak freely, at a certain point, I always thought that my dad sat at the head of the table. I had this realization when I was maybe twenty years old, that the table we sat at was round, that there was no such thing as ‘the head.’ That’s complicated, and it’s interesting to me.
Rumpus: Let’s talk a little about that shed scene. How was it shooting that?
Jacobs: Loved it. It was riding over me the whole film and I felt like there was only one good way to go with it. I felt that I’m dealing with a familiar language, ‘the high school movie’, so no matter how different I think that the moments actually are within that, we’re still using a very familiar language. But then we get to the shed scene, which is inevitable in these high school films. I knew, I know for a fact, that there’s not a film like that. I know that. Sometimes I’ll hear somebody say, ‘Oh, I’ve seen this before,’ but they never say where, because I don’t believe it exists. The model that I used was Joseph Losey’s The Servant. That’s the place I wanted to get to. But shooting that shed scene, I felt very satisified. I saw what these kids were doing, what these kids were giving me and I felt like, ‘Okay I haven’t seen this. I know this feeling very well from growing up, but I haven’t seen it depicted on film in this way.’
Rumpus: Did Patrick want to go further with it?
Jacobs: Yeah, he did. First off he wanted it to get much more explicit sexually. And he wanted the movie to end there at some point. But it didn’t seem right to me, for a bunch of reasons. It wasn’t that I was afraid of not going further but it was just that it went as far as I remembered it going as a kid. I remembered the feeling of things going from good to bad, moment-to-moment, and deathly to life affirming within a second. That was what I was interested in about that scene. I really felt that was an important part of talking about growing up.
Rumpus: And that’s the point where it was Terri’s choice between doing something and not doing something.
Jacobs: Yeah. I think he’s respectful. I think it’s not what he wants, when I watch him cry. Because you want something, but you don’t want that. It was 19 minutes. I don’t think I could afford another minute (laughs), that’s a long scene, 19 minutes in one place, no music, one location. I was sent in there with the actors and the DP and we didn’t emerge until we had it after a couple of days.
Rumpus: Their reactions, Chad and Terri, didn’t feel artificial, though.
Jacobs: That’s good. That’s what I try to do each day going to set. I try to think about how could this exist in the planet that we’ve created. If there’s anything that I’m looking for it’s not ‘Is that great acting?’ it’s more ‘Is this trustworthy?’
Rumpus: Have you ever thought about collaborating with your dad again?
Jacobs: Oh yeah. Everything that I get involved in, I take both his, and my mother’s, opinions very seriously. I send them the writing as I’m writing, I tell them the stories as I’m starting to formulate them. In a lot of ways I feel like I’ve always been collaborating because I’m constantly asking what they think about it. Even though I kind of have to go into it knowing that they can’t dissuade me. Like I want to hear their opinion but I don’t want it to be ‘Oh, that’s a bad idea, so I’m not going to go for it.’
Rumpus: It’s all part of the round table.
Jacobs: Exactly. I’m still heavily inspired and influenced by the two of them and it’s been good, because I feel like they tell me the truth. I feel like they’re extremely honest to me, and you need that. Anybody working needs that. Somebody to tell you how they’re feeling, not necessarily ‘Don’t do something’, ‘Do something’, but like, ‘This is what we think about it’.
Rumpus: How about the interiors in your films? Did you put the house in Terri together?
Jacobs: The house, we found. We just knocked on doors and found the house.
Rumpus: It seemed to shape the character of the uncle quite a bit.
Jacobs: More than shape it, I hope it defined the characters. I was looking for a place that very quickly we could get an idea of who the uncle was, especially since he didn’t exist the way he used to. I wanted to be able to give character descriptions just visually. Well, there was no other option because by the time we come into the story, he’s already fading so much from what he was. And for me, that house, in a weird way, replicates that. There’s something very familiar to me, it felt very much like my parents’ place and I liked having a connection. I liked having a place that Terri begins the way that Momma’s Man ended. It makes things sequential for me in my own mind.
Rumpus: How about your next film? Is it a detective story?
Jacobs: Yeah, I’m pushing on a few different things. I wrote this detective story; it’s an adaptation of a Raymond Chandler story [Spanish Blood], with another screenwriter named Gill Dennis [Walk the Line]. Then I’m working with Patrick again. I very much want to make another film and at the same time, I’m trying to be careful, not to be over-anxious and just try to be precise. Man, I’ve made all these movies that I care about and I feel really fortunate to be really proud of the work, and I want to continue to do so. I’m trying to be smart about things.