Best known in arty zip codes in New York and LA, Azazel Jacobs is by far the most mainstream member of a staunchly unconventional family (his dad is avant-garde pioneer Ken Jacobs and his sister is video artist/performer Nisi Jacobs), with a BAM Cinématek retrospective on his resume and the second of two nationwide releases rolling out this Friday: Terri, the story of an overweight teenager and the assistant principal (John C. Reilly) who makes a project of him. But his upbringing has given him a healthy respect for people who resist the pressure to conform, a theme that keeps popping up in his films. Like his movies, Jacobs is a winning blend of hip and accessible, emitting a snark-free force field that turned a hotel room into a comfortable free-speech zone.
I didn’t see The GoodTimesKid, but I’ve seen almost all the rest of your movies. I liked them all, but I particularly connected with Nobody Needs to Know.
Really! No way. Where were you when that film came out? We got nobody. Letting that thing off the shelf and allowing it as a download was one of the best things I ever did. It was almost impossible to get into festivals, and the idea of distribution was completely impossible. So when I hear that it’s finding its way to homes, it’s just… it’s really encouraging. I get these random emails maybe like once a month, or someone on Facebook will contact me or I’ll meet somebody.
I love the film. Every time a critic would point out what was wrong with it, I’d go, “Yeah, I know that! I worked on it! I understand everywhere that it failed, and I can point out a bunch more places. But look how hard I tried, and how high I aimed!” I don’t think I’ll ever have those guts again.
I wasn’t really risking anything. It wasn’t going to be a calling card. And I had maybe a better, more self-important image of who I was and what I could do. I just don’t have that kind of strength or willingness to fight any more. It’s a constant fight to make a movie where you’re trying to change the world. It left me exhausted and unsure what it was about movies that I liked any more. The GoodTimesKid is what brought me back into it, that reminded me, this is what it’s about. But my aspirations are much lower. They’re just generally to make films that I really care about and let the world go how it goes.
Terri feels like the most mainstream movie you’ve made. This is your widest distribution so far, isn’t it?
Yeah, it is.
Was trying to reach a broader audience part of your thinking when you were making it?
I think the pure thing would be for me to say no, but I’m sure it played a part, in that I got a taste of what it feels like to communicate with a lot of people with Momma’s Man. That did very well for the size of film it was, and it came out in theaters across the world. And that gave me the ability to tell a bigger story.
I have a lot of stories inside of me; some of them are bigger than others, and I felt like I wanted to take advantage of whatever momentum I had to tell one of these bigger stories. Because who knows what’s coming next?
I listened to an interview your dad taped after Momma’s Man came out in which your mom felt awful because people had come up to her afterward crying, asking for advice on how to raise their own problematic adult children. Are you getting very personal responses to Terri now from, like, former fat kids?
It’s not just fat kids. It’s kids that felt marooned growing up, that felt alone. It’s true I had this dream of making movies that people see, but that’s kinda snarky. Because the reality is that, even if my father’s films emptied out most of the theater, there’d always be at least one person left who said they felt less alone in this world, who saw something familiar that they thought they were crazy for seeing before. And I feel the same with Terri. I’m definitely getting that kind of response from people that say yes, yes, this is true. It was ok for me not to be that way. There was no way for me to fit in.
You also said in that interview that you wanted to make actual money with your movies, buy-a-house money. Have you been able to do that?
I have. I’ve been making a living from my movies since getting out of AFI, for almost the whole time, the past 10 years. Sometimes it’s a better living than other times, but it’s never been anything to complain about, the fact that I keep being able to work. That’s why I’m in Los Angeles. It’s been extremely embracing for me in allowing me to think about work first and everything else second.
Your father claims you told him that you want to make movies that people see.
It’s not that I don’t find what he does extremely respectable, it’s just that the stories I want to tell, I felt, could be accessible for more people.
Your dad obviously feels like he can’t make a living from his films without compromising his artistic vision, and your sister presumably feels the same way, since she’s a teacher. What made you so weirdly almost-normal, coming from that family?
It was the Clash. Honestly, it was The Clash. They were constantly playing both sides of the field. They were saying and doing things that weren’t for the money and still making money, still selling out shows, still doing contradictory things.
I’m full of contradictions. I mean, I land yesterday in New York City and there’s a car waiting for me, and this is the life! I love it, you know? Just a little big of cuddling and I turn into a docile kid. It takes very little to feel like—you feel worthy, you know? You feel like you’re valuable. I’m hoping there’s a way that I can do all those things without being hypocritical.
Do you and your dad watch movies when you’re together?
What have you watched lately and liked?
Well, now I’m in Los Angeles, so right now we’ll talk about movies, and I get films from them on a weekly basis, DVDs. A Harold Lloyd collection just showed up. The Busby Berkeley collection. They’re constantly giving me things that he tapes off TCM. I pushed Frownland his way. The last time we sat in the theater, besides my own work, we went to see War of the Worlds together and we actually both really enjoyed it.
Let’s talk pjs. Iris starts wearing them instead of her pretty dresses when she rejects the New York hipster scene in Nobody Needs to Know, and Terri wears them to school after giving up all hope of fitting in. Did you ever wear your pajamas in public, and if not, do you wish you had?
Growing up in the city, I was way, way too self-involved to do anything that would be comfortable. It was at least an hour in front of the mirror figuring out how to put my hair up this way or lace my shoes this way. So if there’s anything that comes from, it’s probably some kind of envy. I definitely like these people that don’t give up. They just become. They give up on a certain thing, and it allows them a freedom that hardly anyone has.
You said you used to be a kind of cowardly mean kid in high school, but everyone who works with you now talks about how supportive you are, and you seem very kind in person. And, more importantly, Terri has a loving and nonjudgmental attitude toward all its characters, even when they do stupid things. Did you make a conscious decision to become a mensch at some point, or did it just happen naturally over time?
I think two things happened. One, hallucinogens were really important for me to step out of myself and my own issues.
What age were you then?
15. Now I’ve got too many fears built up to really be able to experience anything like that, but at that age, I had no experience with the things now that scare me now from being able to trip, because I feel like I could dwell too much on them.
That was important, and also falling in love for the first time, at 19. I remember a lot of the kids that I was still friends with from high school being really disappointed in the person I’d become. They really, really missed the dick-y version of me because, I think, I was a lot of fun. I was quicker at making fun of everything and judging everything. And then suddenly—I think this happens to anyone that falls in love—none of that matters and a whole new world opens up to you. And even though that love didn’t last, it constantly stayed with you and made you realize your world was expanded.
Also making movies. It’s a constant state of learning how to open up and realizing how much more you get when people really care about what they’re doing. The fight, for me, with each movie, gets less and less about something external—how are we going to get that crane over there? Those little things that can become very personal, like “Do not change my vision.” First of all, I’m assembling a group of people who have seen my work and are asking me to do what they know I can do. And secondly, there’s a much bigger fight out there. The fight is not onscreen or on set. It’s making work that you care about and getting it out into the world.
You said John C. Reilly brought a lot to his part, that brought that character to life, stuff you’re still discovering as you watch the film.
Every time. What drew me to Patrick Dewitt’s script in a big way was the amount of space that was inside the script that I could see, that I had a way in. That people weren’t rushing to get to one point, to the next point, the next point. There was space to be in these situations and experience them and see how could we explore this story in visual ways and with sound and in every way that film can offer. And John was fantastic at being able to find those spaces and explore and fulfill them in a richer way, building up Fitzgerald’s character. I think that he brings a gravity to a character that could very much have served as a one-note joke.
He doesn’t come off as a joke at all. I thought he was the moral center of the movie.
For me, he’s the landing strip. He’s the runway. Especially in the beginning of the story, we’re trusting where the movie is going because John is there. Every time we hit a scene with John, you feel it with the audience: people feel comfortable because they know him. And because he’s letting them know, we’re stuck in a room and it seems like nothing is happening, but keep going. Trust me. This is going someplace interesting.
Also, his character just confronts things so directly. He just says what’s happening in a way that you wish people would do in life but they rarely do. It’s refreshing.
Yeah. He is good at what he does because there are things that are immature about him, including the fact of coming down and saying what you mean. Which was probably the biggest motivation for me in wanting to tell this story. What other age is there when people have these moments when they say exactly what they mean?
I love the audition scenes in Nobody Needs to Know. There’s so much in there that I imagine actors can relate to in terms of how things can go horribly wrong. Do you ever hear from actors who thank you for making the film?
No. I don’t know how you’re even seeing the movie. But to get back to your question, I wonder sometimes if the film could have been more successful if it was just entirely about the audition scenes. That would be kind of sellable concept: the director that doesn’t know what he wants and keeps on casting. That would be something I would probably do now. But I like that I wanted to say something about everything.
Yeah, that movie was about a lot of things. But ultimately, to me, it was about how phony people can get when they’re trying to be part of some scene, becoming an actress or a New York hipster or whatever. You have several examples of that, not just the auditions. And then Iris says no and reclaims her dignity.
Yeah. It’s true. I thought that if we could give credit to the people that say no to doing horrible things all the time, what an encouraging world this would be. When we walk by some horribly offensive billboard, maybe it took years for them to cast it, because so many thousands of people said “No, I won’t be part of that thing.” But we’ll never know. Maybe they had to scrape the bottom of the barrel to get to that place. I like that idea.
Yeah. But I also think, “Nah, there aren’t that many people who say no.” But maybe I just think so because we don’t get to see them.
Yeah, I’m being hopeful. You can see where the hallucinogens came in. [laughs]
You know Cary Grant was a big hallucinogens-taker.
I had heard that. One of the first times that I tripped, I thought, wow, this whole world was built on tripping! It’s made for people who are tripping!
When I did it as a kid, I felt like it was a way of just really being in the moment. I grew up in a city and then moved to Indiana. I really hated being there, but when I took acid it was like, “Wow, look at the leaves and listen to the wind! It’s all so beautiful!” I appreciated where I was for the first time, in a way.
Absolutely. I just got in last night so I went back to my parents’ place, and for me this place is full of memories and ghosts. So I’m up bringing my bags up the stairs and I had this memory of spending a couple of hours on that first level of stairs with my best friend Izzie after we had both eaten mushrooms for the first time in City Hall Park across the street. I remember sitting in City Hall Park and me going, “This grass is really green.” And Izzie said “Yeah, it’s green,” and I went, “No, it’s REALLY green, man.” And he went, “It’s true, man! It is really, really green.” [laughs]