First published on The Rumpus (21st November 2011) //
A New York transplant working in LA, and son of the legendary experimental filmmaker Ken Jacobs, Azazel has journeyed 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. Carer for his ageing uncle (an impressive by Creed Bratton), Terri must also deal with high school, the assistant principal (John C. Reilly) and generally growing up. A well-documented fan of The Clash (he appears unofficially in the Strummer biography, The Future Is Unwritten), Jacobs once said that he wished all of his interviews were about the band. We sat down for a chat about both.
I was just at a screening for ‘Terri’.
How’d it go?
There was a good reaction. A lot of laughter.
That’s a good sign.
Obviously, the laughter was before the tone changes in the shed scene.
Yeah, then it gets very quiet. You know, that’s what’s been really nice actually. I’ve been travelling with the film for a year now, in the States. But about a month or so ago I began the whole, you know, Locarno and France and it’s really nice to see that people are laughing and getting quiet at the same spots as in the States. And it makes me feel like things are translating, you know?
What interested you about the character of Terri?
What interested me was that I didn’t know anybody like Terri when I read what [Patrick de Witt] wrote. I wanted to tell somebody else’s story. I wanted to do something different to what I had known, and I wanted to talk about somebody that I didn’t know. I wanted to see if I could turn that into something personal. I was very much looking for something challenging for me to do. Something that would make me worried and excited. And that’s what I found in Terri.
I thought that the fact that through Patrick’s work I felt so close to Terri that, 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, you know? So in a weird way, that was my way in. Like I saw those kids and either I would ignore them or I would be just mean to them.
A lot of the bullying is implied, and not actually shown.
I don’t think I’m going to do it better than ‘Welcome to the Doll House.’ I think that’s been said very clearly and I think that you know just by looking at the size of Terri. Like, that’s not the story. I reference it enough just so that you understand, I hope at least, just so that you know his life is torture, and so what else is there going on?
I think that I deal with it the same way that Terri deals with it. It’s there. It just is. But what else is there with my life?
There’s a moment where Terri watches some kids on the field, and he throws his bag then kicks it. That sort of summed up his whole school experience.
I know, ‘Why the fuck go to this place? Why do they force me to go there?’ And I remember that, even though I wasn’t like Terri, I remember walking up to school and just going, ‘Why are they doing this to us? For what reason?’
This definitely felt like a bigger film than Momma’s Man and the GoodTimesKid.
Oh yeah. I think Momma’s Man was ten times the size of GoodTimesKid and this [Terri] is ten times the size of Momma’s Man (laughs). The rate I’m going I actually should be doing Avatar next.
There was also the music which gave it that feeling.
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 most production value. It was the most expensive thing, even though obviously she didn’t get paid anything, and she did it for nothing. I wanted very big movie music for that, that would balance out well, the fact that we’d done it as such a small, kind of DIY film.
The reason that I keep getting attracted to Mandy is because I feel that she’s able to express internal developments of the characters without telling the audience how they should feel about them. It makes the music very minimal to a certain degree. But I’m trying very hard to push a tightrope and not tell you how to feel about these things but tell you how the character is feeling.
So you don’t really appreciate films that do that.
No, I don’t want to be told how to interpret things. It’s not the movies I like, you know. I don’t need to know that this person is going to be a bad person, or this person’s going to be good. And I don’t even trust that. I think if things can be broken down that easily then it’s not to be trusted to begin with.
Or a story not really worth telling, if it’s that black and white.
Yeah, it’s not what I’m drawn to. I guess the black and white stories that I’m drawn to start off as black and white and then you think, okay, this person is a good person and then suddenly things get much murkier. If you think of Harry Lime or any of the great characters, it’s because they’re complicated.
With the uncle in ‘Terri’, was that always going to be that type of illness that he was afflicted by?
In the original manuscript that it was based on, the illness was explained in a much more thorough way. But ultimately what I took away from being important about it was just the sense that every day 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. I mean the pyjamas show him as almost behind the kids, he’s staying in some 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.
I see him as way ahead of the other kids because he wears pyjamas.
I do too actually, I agree. But I think that it’s very easy to see just the image of him, and I think the way that he’s interpreted by the outside world is as somebody that’s behind. I think the way that, 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.’
I kind of felt like the whole film was about the use and abuse of power, over people and over each other, and the responsible use of that power.
I think that these are the things that I think continue to interest me. I mean even with the ‘GoodTimesKid’ and, the character that I play in it, this kind of idea of that the character wants to let go of his power and join the army. He doesn’t want the responsibility of it and that shifts throughout the film, who has the lead in that movie. And the same thing with ‘Momma’s Man’. It’s just something that you know, the music that I’m attracted to, the films that I’m attracted to, are constantly, hopefully, challenging. And also are conflicted with the sense of power that they have.
You know, even in my old household growing up, where things were very like, I could speak freely and my sister could speak freely and my mum could speak freely, I still remembered at a certain point, I always thought that my dad sat at the head of the table. And I had this realisation when I was maybe twenty years old, that the table we sat at was round. You know, that there is no such thing as ‘the head’, just this idea that where things were. And it’s complicated to me, and it’s interesting to me.
It’s interesting when you find somebody with power that is human and at the same time there’s something really commendable about how they’re able to affect things, and affect the world.
That’s what I thought with John C. Reilly’s character. He’s in a position of power, but how he uses it is mostly for good, it seems.
He does. He’s intentionally doing it for good but how he does it, I think, is misconstrued. I think there are certain positions that you can’t help but become fucked up. How could you be a policeman without being fucked up? It’s not possible. Anybody, any one of us, given a certain amount of power, it’s inevitable.
I think no matter who’s attracted to the power, it’s because they have a sense of trying to do something right. Even if we’re talking about Dick Cheney, I still believe no matter how evil the person is, that they have an idea that what they’re doing is right and best for the world. But maybe I’m just an optimist, I don’t know.
That is quite optimistic.
Yeah, you know, ‘Terri’ is a weird movie for these times because I put as much care into it as possible and I feel like I don’t even know if that’s called for in these times. I think there’s a certain amount of anger and rightful anger but it’s not what I want to spend my life making.
But Joe Strummer, he did that sort of thing.
Yeah but I think in the work itself. I mean, exactly, I think the conflict is there and that’s what was the heart of The Clash, that conflict of being powerful and at the same time being Joe Public. And I think that tore him apart, and also made the most interesting work for him.
I don’t think there’s an answer to it. I think it’s just inevitable that once you’re started to be given a certain type of treatment, your body has to respond. So how do you deal with the second album, do you reflect on the fact that suddenly you have money in your bank account or not, you know? And that’s something that we all deal with as we keep continuing to do our work.
Do you think he got less angry?
Yeah. But I wish it was more. You know my father is much angrier, and there’s parts of me that are very envious of that, because it fuels his work. And at the same time, it’s just not in my make-up. I just don’t want to spend my life that way. I really don’t. I want to enjoy things. I am upset about things, but when it comes down to making movies, I really enjoy it. And I want to continue to enjoy it. I don’t want to see them as wars. I want to work with people that like what they’re doing, like me. I think the films themselves ask you to meet me half way. To either care about what it is or walk away. That’s the trade.
I was just reminded of his line, ‘Anger can be power’.
Right. And he’s talking there, really, about the whole BNP and National Front, I mean, using that. There’s people that you meet, right, that are so upset about the world that are constantly surrounding themselves with the news, the horrible news. Right now I’m reading ‘The Shock Doctrine’ [by Naomi Klein] and it’s enraging. So you know, I can only do it twenty pages at a time. Because it’s too much for me. Maybe I don’t have the make-up, maybe it’s the lack of meat, I don’t know but I can only do it for a certain period of time and then I want to go and get something that is ‘the other’, that is full of joy.
Let’s talk a little about that shed scene. How was it shooting that?
Loved it. I mean, it was the one period of the film where I came back, you know we shot it over a couple of days, the last scene to shoot. 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 models that I used was Joseph Losey’s ‘The Servant.’ That’s the place I wanted to get to, but shooting that and getting to 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.’
Did Patrick want to go further with it?
Yeah, he did, I mean, he wanted it to end there. First off he wanted it to get like… not ‘Chad burns down the shed’ but 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.
And that’s the point where it was kind of confirmed, about the character’s choice between doing something and not doing something.
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.
It didn’t feel that long.
19 minutes, 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.
Was it intentional to have it go from everyone laughing to sudden darkness?
I really felt that was an important part of talking about growing up. I feel like if you look at ‘Terri’, the actual narrative, it kind of just goes from A to B, and that’s it. And it explores between A to B. But I feel that especially that shed scene, will have a huge effect the older he gets. I think when the movie ends is the big effect, of what we just witnessed, on Terri’s life.
How about the funeral scene?
It seems like it’s from a different movie, I don’t know. I enjoy the funeral scene but it seems like…
It’s kind of farcical.
It feels like it came much more from a kind of ‘B’ Fellini film (laughs). I remember my grandmother dying at around that age and not really having an idea of death to the degree that I did when I got older, at 19, and had real close people… I think it’s just one of those odd moments that just happens.
Their reactions, Chad and Terri, didn’t feel artificial, though.
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?’
How about where you shot it, because you didn’t really put it in a place?
Well, Patrick wrote it for one of these islands off of Seattle. Very different. But what was important to me was that it was this very small town, anywhere. So for a bunch of reasons, especially economical, it made sense to shoot it in California. But I didn’t want to avoid that we’re shooting in California at the same time.
What’s interesting about California is that you can go a little bit to the right and a little bit to the left and they’re completely different from each other. We just kind of pieced it together, we pieced the road, we pieced the school. These are all composites of a town we invented.
But more than anything I wanted the sense that, okay, ‘This is Terri, this kid is too big for this town.’ There’s no way he could fit in no matter what he does, or how he acts.
It was really dead silent during the shed scene.
Oof, I know. Something that we were going for, that I think exists, is that there’s real potential for something horrible going on during that shed scene. You feel Chad’s energy, any moment, this could turn really badly.
And that kid is completely different. I mean, Bridger Zadina who acts Chad, is nothing like Chad. Really nothing. He’s just this very, very highly trained actor. So it’s very strange.
There’s always that threat that something really, really bad is about to happen.
But doesn’t that seem familiar? I mean, didn’t it feel that way with certain kids?
Have you ever thought about collaborating with your dad again?
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.’
It’s all part of the round table.
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 I mean 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’.
How about your other influences, apart from your parents?
Well, Diaz, who did the costumes, is my wife. So I lean on her a lot about everything. She did all those pyjamas. The black pyjamas, she made. Which is, if you look into it, it’s a huge part. Just like the acting and the cinematography. These clothes that they wear is the weight. Like how are these things going to exist on this planet. So I’m constantly leaning on her.
Patrick and I talked a few times a day. About everything, just talking shit. And talking about ideas and working with each other again.
Gerardo, who is here [at the London Film Festival], who’s in ‘GoodTimesKid’, is here with ‘Miss Bala’.
These are people that continue to inspire me, whose work I look forward to.
How about the interiors in your films? Did you put the house in ‘Terri’ together?
The house, we found. We just knocked on doors and found the house.
It seemed to shape the character of the uncle quite a bit.
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 be, anymore, when the story begins. I wanted to kind of be able to give character descriptions just visually rather than 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. 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.
We get a good idea of the uncle because he’s sitting there writing, and reading.
But later on, I think that happens about two thirds into the film, but I wanted that scene not to be a surprise, like ‘Oh, I never had an idea’, but I think you get this idea from the house. Somebody very vibrant, somebody that has enjoyed life, lives in this place. We know that Terri didn’t set this up so maybe this was the uncle, who filled his life with things that he enjoyed and inspired him.
It was an impressive performance, the uncle. He could switch quite dramatically between lucid and not…
Oh, Creed [Bratton]. You know, he’s on the American version of ‘The Office’. He’s really a very beloved character. Very weird, strange character who’s just so funny. No one knows who hired him; he’s just there. I was a big fan of ‘The Office’ so when he came in to read I was kind of just excited to meet him. But then he surprised me with exactly what you’re saying, the humanity that wasn’t necessarily on the page.
It’s one of the saddest moments, when Terri looks in holding his medication while the uncle writes, and he doesn’t know whether to give him the pills.
What about when he says that line to Heather? Whoof. What a painful line. So painful (laughs).
Well, he has these moments, maybe through the drugs, these moments of complete clarity and I think what he says is completely true. I don’t think it’s actually necessarily wrong of her. I think it could be true of all of us so much of the time.
But when I read that line in the script, it was just: ‘Oof!’ It was so painful but I was very excited to see it. Because how often does a character say exactly what they mean. And the kids, they do that in the shed. And that’s the uncle’s time. You know, cut to the bone.
How about your next film? Is it a detective story?
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, and make something. 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.