August 7, 2008

The Films of Azazel Jacobs.

An intro, an email interview and a phone interview from James Van Maanen...

Momma's Man When BAMcinématek presents The Films of Azazel Jacobs from August 11 through 15, attendees may just find their cinema sense expanded a notch. Jacobs, a tad short of household-word status at this point in his career, should find his reputation growing, post-fest, due to a preview screening (Friday, August 15, at 7pm) of his newest film Momma's Man, which Kino International is releasing theatrically the following week. Already the recipient of critical praise and word-of-mouth at various festivals, Momma's Man is the most interesting and accomplished of Jacob's three full-length films, which also include Nobody Needs to Know (Wednesday, August 13 at 4:30, 6:50 and 9:15pm) and The GoodTimesKid (Monday, August 11, at 4:30, 6:50 and 9:15pm).

Other than the fact that Jacobs's films are made on a "zilch" budget, they have little in common in terms of style, content or theme. A fun game for inveterate film-lovers might be to discover what does unite Jacobs' oeuvre. There are a few things, I believe, but they may not be so readily apparent. Over the phone and via email, Jacobs proved to be pleasant, well-spoken (but in a just-folk kind of way) and seemingly attitude-free. In short, an interviewer's dream.

In our email correspondence, Azazel put together such an interesting paragraph about each of his films - its raison d'etre, content and history - that I feel it only fair to include these now. I'm not sure that it matters much whether you read each prior to or after seeing the movie. Either way, they will add to your enjoyment and understanding.

Nobody Needs To Know

Nobody Needs To Know The title was suggested by my father; up until that point I had a few others (the ones I can remember are Some Bodies, In The Cut and Death Is a Star). But I thought his was more precise. I like to put the emphasis on Nobody, making this into a person that just has to know - it connects the film more with that old radio detective story in which one of the main characters was drawn from someone like Lamont Cranston (in The Shadow). In the case of this film, it's a young black man that has grown up under the eye of so many surveillance cameras that one day he finds the ability to step behind them, and from there he can see from every angle. One of the stories Lamont chooses to follow is a casting of a movie, and when an actress says "no" to a director, thinking what's being asked of her is just too repulsive, no matter what the money, he follows her story as well (as does the rejected director). I really liked the idea of giving some light to the many people that say "no" to doing bad things. For every stupid movie or dumb advertisement, maybe a million people said "no" to doing it but we'd never know, only seeing the people who say "yes." Maybe if we got a sense of how much was rejected, all our standards would rise and we'd have a better idea of humanity. I'm not so sure now, or not sure of how interested I am in these things now, but when I was in my twenties and writing/making this film, it's what I thought of all the time. I guess I really wanted to make good choices, and make good films, but not sure of what or how to do this. I really love Nobody Needs To Know, but I can see that in a lot of ways it had to fail. I wanted with it to say something about everything, I wanted to say it all. It took me until the second film to realize you can say a lot more with a lot less.

The GoodTimesKid

The GoodTimesKid ... was a title that I and the co writer Gerardo Naranjo came up with while we were studying at AFI together. We liked the title and decided if we ever made a film together that's what it would be called. Two years later, after graduating, we both found ourselves beaten up from the experience of our first film, and decided to join forces, to pull each other out of our funk, and remind ourselves what we loved about film. We had little money, and knowing that we wouldn't be able to pay anyone, decided to do as many of the jobs ourselves, so besides the writing and directing, we both shot and acted in it. We did this along with my lovely Diaz, who plays the woman between us. Diaz and I had already been together four years by then, but the experience just made us tighter. There is nothing like it when people really come through for each other. On top of it, we really love what we made. It's a home movie for us, on beautiful 35 MM. One of the things that's great about doing a film so cheaply that you're proud of is that it's always in the back of the mind that you hardly need anyone or anything to do what you love. For The GoodTimesKid, besides the three of us, we found two others to help off of Craig's List and our friend Eric Curtis was a huge help, too - shooting whenever Gerardo and I were both on screen. We called in every favor possible: AFI, camera rental houses, anything we could, and we made the film for the cost of half of a star's trailer, about ten thousand dollars. One of the biggest lessons in the making of the film was finding out how many understanding and supportive people there are out here in the Hollywood industry. I would call up a place and explain to them that there were no stars, no budget and hardly a chance that this film would ever get out and go anywhere, but still we were doing something we believed in and were going to do the best we could, and I swear, every time it would fall on a sympathetic ear and the person on the other side would do what they could to make it a bit more manageable. The film exists because of the trickle down from the industry. The GoodTimesKid did wind up finding its way: Many audiences and critics really fell for it, and in a few months it's getting a really nice DVD release from Benten Films. But it's best on screen, big and on film.

Momma's Man

Momma's Man ... really came from a different place, even though it, too, is a home movie, is very contained, and was manageable on a small budget (though a lot bigger than The GoodTimesKid). I had gained a lot of confidence with the prior film, and also an idea of how to approach making a film not just day-to-day, but picturing how it would all come together when it was done. With Nobody Needs To Know, all I wanted to do was get to day-one of filming. I thought I'd figure out how to get to the next one afterward. What wound up happening is two years of torture, constantly stopping whatever I was doing to raise more money. With The GoodTimesKid, I was able to picture getting to a final cut, but getting it onto screen, on film, was out of reach and made the whole post-production a lot to deal with (luckily I had the king of indie releases, Richard Abramowitz, step in after seeing a cut and has made it all happen since.) With Momma's Man, armed with producers and a budget that would see it out to the end, I was - for the first time - able to see the film as a whole before beginning. It allowed me to only focus on directing, and to push each day for the film to be more and more of what I intended. Even though this point is a main focus of press now, using my folks as actors was really secondary in a lot of ways. I wrote it to take place in my home because it was a place I knew well, and once I had made that decision, I couldn't separate my parents from that. For me this was a story of a man's journey finding home inside of a home. I don't believe Mikey and my story are that similar; I would never think that he is playing an alter ego of some sorts (maybe a fantasy if I had a different life), but I truly don't see my parents ever having a son like Mikey. First, they would, in real life, never let me get away with what he does, and second, they would never have a son called Mikey. I don't expect people to believe this, and I mixed in enough elements of my own life to make it confusing, but that mixture of reality and acting has always fascinated me since learning how to make films. In a lot of ways it's what I was dealing with in Nobody, but now, I have learned to tell the story a bit smaller, so that it deals with a lot more.

James van Maanen: How old is the guy who made these three so-different movies?

Azazel Jacobs: I am 35 now. I started writing the first full-length film, Nobody Needs to Know, in 1997, and started shooting it in 2000.

You're the first Azazel I have known. Where did the name come from?

My parents. But it's funny: Evidently, the name is a kind of curse word in Israel - the biggest curse word you can say. It has something to do with a fallen angel, the one that was kicked out of heaven. Whenever I meet Israelis and tell them my name, they're always shocked.

Only Israelis? This doesn't happen with folk from other countries?

Nope. Just with Israelis.

You certainly got a starry cast together for your first full-length film: Emily Mortimer, Tricia Vessey, Norman Reedus! How did you manage this?

I knew Tricia Vessey, and she was friends with Norman Reedus, so she got the script to him. And Emily was already a friend of mine.

But this movie never had a theatrical release?

It was pretty tough to get the film out there, so I wound up putting this one online. We finished it in 2003, when that whole bit-torrent thing was happening, so I put it up on the web for free. One particular site - - agreed to host it. It's been there for five years and gotten around 20,000 viewings between that and the sites that share with it.

And then you moved on the The GoodTimesKid?

We wrote that one in Flagstaff, AZ. In about 10 days. We had a good time writing it, but to actually film it, we realized that it would make our lives so much easier and cheaper if we just shot it ourselves and took the major roles. We filmed in downtown LA and the Echo Park area where we live.

With Momma's Man, I am guessing that many people will want to know what it was like to work with your parents [Azazel's mom and dad actually play the "mom" and "dad" roles in the film]. Although instead of playing their son, you gave that role to Matt Boren, who was also one of the stars of Nobody Needs to Know.

Whatever issues I think I have with my folks just isn't that compelling to me. So I felt that some other actor could work into my narrative better. Using another actor was something I felt like I could live with and work with for awhile. So Matt was really not playing a substitute for me.

Is it the sight of someone else's child in the photograph that sets the main character back on track?

Yeah, that's an important moment, but his seeing the wedding dress was also an important moment: Seeing something of value that he has not seen before. All these things are building up to the point where he has examined his whole life.

What is next on your agenda?

It's a gangster story; actually it's something else I have not done before. That's my intention: to keep myself on uncomfortable ground. I try to bring something very familiar into each project I do, even though the project itself may be unfamiliar to me. This film is about a couple who maybe are both gangsters and get further involved with gangsters. It's a love story - but a love story about a certain type of people. I definitely love Chandler and Hammett. So this is my chance to visit the set of things that have inspired me - a way of connecting with them.

So how do you feel, overall, at this point in your career?

So far, I have no regrets at all because each film I've made has led to the next one, and nothing has been expected of me - except to make the kind of film I can make. Which I really appreciate.

Earlier: Reviews of Momma's Man at Sundance and David D'Arcy.

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Posted by cphillips at August 7, 2008 1:07 PM