A Conversation With Azazel Jacobs (MOMMA’S MAN)
I first met Azazel Jacobs at the Independent Film Festival of Boston in the spring of 2006 (back in the Cocaine Angel days). Aza was there with his girlfriend Sara Diaz and The GoodTimesKid, a movie that none of us knew anything about. After casually destroying me at Connect Four in the filmmaker lounge, I decided I’d watch The GoodTimesKid and see if this hotshot board game wizard had skills as a director as well. A bunch of the Red Bucket guys were at that screening, and when the credits rolled seventy-seven minutes later, we all had huge grins plastered on our faces. If you’ve seen The GoodTimesKid, you know why. Pardon me while I quote Anthony Kaufman yet again, but I simply can’t find a better way to say it. With his sophomore feature (the first being the audacious and ambitious Nobody Needs to Know), Jacobs “successfully manages a near impossible balance of indie quirk and sophisticated sentiment.” My thoughts exactly.
Many months have passed since my first viewing of Jacobs’ latest film, Momma’s Man, yet I am more confident than ever in saying that no motion picture has ever pierced me so directly to my core. Read my post-Sundance review here. While those words were clearly written in an overly emotional state, I stand behind every single one of them. Momma’s Man is a towering achievement, an act of personal expression that stands taller than most independent films could ever dream of being. It is artistic and entertaining in equal measure, and it is also one of 2008’s genuine must-see motion pictures. After a flirtation with THINKFilm, Jacobs settled on a deal with Kino, who are giving Momma’s Man an official theatrical release this Friday, August 22nd, in New York City.
Instead of simply re-posting my gushing review in conjunction with the film’s theatrical run, Aza and I decided to sit down and have a casual conversation (on the rooftop of the spanking new Red Bucket Films loft) that would hopefully feel more like two filmmakers talking than a random, generic interview.
H2N: Here we go, let’s talk…
AJ: Talk Momma’s Man?
H2N: Yeah, you’re…
AJ: Two days away.
H2N: When did you wrap? Has it been two years?
AJ: No, no. I wrapped in April. We shot the New York stuff in March and then the LA stuff in April of 2007. Then we premiered in January 2008.
H2N: That’s a quick turnaround!
AJ: Super quick, for my world.
H2N: And editing, I know you had a little struggle.
AJ: Yeah, at first it was one of those things where I’ve cut so much by myself, I really didn’t think it was possible to edit with somebody else, especially something this personal, and then at the same time I realized that maybe this thing was way too close for me to cut by myself, so it forced me to look for somebody. And then a bunch of things led up to me working with this editor, Darrin Navarro, who had approached me after seeing The GoodTimesKid a couple years earlier and I really liked his response. In fact, he wrote an IMDB comment about the film that I really liked a lot, and so it stuck with me, and then I wound up seeing another film he edited, Bug, which I also though he did a great job on. So then, suddenly I was in California and I really needed an editor, wound up showing him the footage, and that’s how that whole thing started.
H2N: So, you cut The GoodTimesKid? You’ve done everything before this?
AJ: Yeah. I’ve always tried with every film. Maybe not with GoodTimesKid, but every film before I always tried working with an editor and I knew at a certain point that it must be me. You know, it’s just like, maybe not being able to communicate the way I’d like to. So, at some point, probably with The GoodTimesKid, and some point halfway through Nobody I just resolved to cut my own stuff.
The GoodTimesKid, when I finished it, we watched the film, me and Diaz, and judging from the footage we shot it wound up being nothing — this particular time I wound up cutting it by myself — nothing the way we dreamed or hoped it to be. It was a really weird, disappointing feeling. So I wound up starting all over again, this time with Diaz sitting next to me, and that was something that we cut together and turned into much more the thing that we wanted.
H2N: What was different about it? Were you using totally different footage or was it a different rhythm?
AJ: It was a different rhythm. A lot of it was just a different rhythm. I think that’s what it was. It was something about us together, we were able to find what the rhythm of the film was, and for whatever reason, I was cutting the story that I saw and I was forcing things and it just felt off and it just felt wrong. It didn’t feel anything like the rushes. You know, when you see these rushes, that’s the only time you’re really feeling the movie, at least for me as a filmmaker, is just seeing the stuff for the first time. You go, “Oh, wow,” and you’re seeing the movie for the first time and how it’s gonna work. And then, once you start cutting it, that’s when you have to drop all that and try to figure out how to get back to that.
H2N: Yeah. And then, with GoodTimesKid, that was not as dialogue-scripted, or was it? Were you finding the film as you went?
AJ: It was a forty page handwritten script. So, you know, there was stuff there. There was a really strong map, let’s say that. But it was a totally different situation than Momma’s Man. Like, we knew how to get to there, we knew the main places, and it gave us enough to plan things ahead. But definitely, again, shooting in order like we did with Momma’s Man was the way that that felt. A lot of it evolved. Honestly, there were enough times in there where we realized, “Oh, wow, we’re rushing things, we’re trying to make a feature here, let’s slow down our action.”
H2N: How long was the New York shoot?
AJ: For Momma’s Man?
AJ: I think it was eighteen days. And then there were three days in LA. So it was about three-and-a-half weeks in New York. And those were, I think, all five-day weeks.
H2N: Did The GoodTimesKid help to get Momma’s Man made?
AJ: Absolutely. Each film has been directly responsible for the next film, for one thing or the other. Not only in terms of approach to making that film and having a better idea of how to make a movie and all that stuff, but literally. I showed the script of Momma’s Man to Alex Orlovsky early on, but having The GoodTimesKid follow-up on it and show whatever you’re not seeing could also be there. When you’re watching , what works for you, you can imagine that the script, a lot of the things wouldn’t be visible in the script. So that definitely was a thing that tipped it to them, just trusting me early on and saying, “Okay, the things that may not be spelled out so clear in the script, let’s just trust that this guy has a plan.”
H2N: And then, with the acting, have you been lucky enough to say, “This is the person I want,” with, like, Matt for the lead, and just say, “I’m not budging.” Was there any talk of, “Maybe if we get actors we’ll get more money?”
AJ: Actually, the thing is is that with Momma’s Man the talk started that way. I think after each one of these films I kinda get this idea, like, “Alright, this next movie’s gonna be a lot easier and I’m gonna make a lot of money and I’m gonna get paid and blah-blah-blah,” and then something happens where you realize that you’re just writing for a particular person and that’s the only way it can get done. And when that happened with… the only thing that happened, at least at first with me and Alex, that we agreed on is that we were gonna definitely shoot in my parents’ home. But other than that, a whole bunch of other names and this and that and ‘maybe we’ll get money this way or that way.’ So, once I realized that it really, undoubtedly was for Matt and for my parents, I was really, really afraid that Alex would bail. In fact, it had an opposite effect. It made things speed up much quicker. To his amazing credit he got really excited about the idea and it got other people excited. But I remember going to meet with him at dinner and just trying to work up the courage to say, “Listen, this is the way it’s gotta be. I hope that you’re still… I understand,” giving him a way out. He took a minute or two and said, “I think that’s a good idea.” Every film has been written for people. Even what I’m writing now, I’m writing with people in mind.
H2N: I was wondering, in Nobody Needs to Know, when you close with the auditions, it almost felt like, to me watching that, that you hadn’t cast your leads then and you based them on that audition. It really had this ambiguous quality that I think a lot of films-within-films aim for, and I was totally baffled. I assume that was your intention. Especially with Tricia Vessey, the way she read that line, it was almost like, “Oh, he found her in the audition and that’s when he latched on to her.”
AJ: That’s cool. I like that. The way I think that it also works is that the minute I find her is when the film ends and it’s like once she’s willing to do this thing then there’s no more story because she’s not wanted anymore, there’s nothing really special. With all the times where I felt weird about that movie, the casting footage always went over well with people and there was this feeling that, “Oh, you could’ve made the whole film out of that.” I mean, there are so many different movies in that film. And now I’m really glad that there are all those movies, but I definitely remember being tempted, thinking, “Alright, this is the thing that works the most, maybe that should have been the movie, just the casting, just the search for an actor while a director gets more and more upset.” But those things were scripted, and those things were actually fun to write, for the most part. Scripted to a degree, like, I knew that in the beginning it was people that wanted it, in the middle would be, you know, he’s not so sure, and by the time he starts pushing people away then he starts finding people to say, “No.” And then the movie’s shifted into just wanting to hear people say, “No.”
H2N: It definitely has stayed with me. I can’t leave it alone as a document of turn-of-the-century New York City, especially that business, the ugliness of it. To your credit, I don’t think it’s outright hateful or mocking of the scene but it is definitely capturing its grossness.
AJ: I’ll tell you, though, I feel like, for me, it’s a message from the crypt. I feel like, right now, I was telling you before that I’m alternating between being so fearful and excited for these next few days, for this film to come out, and I’m trying to figure out, what am I scared about? The last line in Nobody that a girl says is that she fears trying something and failing. What I really liked about that line, especially with watching Nobody this last time, was because this is the last line of the film, like the film has already tried, it’s over. Whether it fails or doesn’t, it’s ready to make that plunge and say, “Alright, judge me.” So, I’m trying to remember that. I’m trying to feel like that now, to just remember that this is just a fear of failing, but the thing is done and that’s what the most important thing is.
H2N: And the reception you’ve gotten has been pretty remarkable.
AJ: Yeah, but this is a different world. With film festivals you have this one screening. Like, I looked today and the screenings start at 11am and end at 12am. Eight screenings in a day?! That’s maybe as many times as Nobody got screened the whole time! (both laugh) It’s just too much for me to think about. And this is one theater. I don’t know what people must go through when they’re thinking about thousands of theaters. I think the thing that you’re afraid of is the idea of being at a party and trying to make a toast and wondering if anyone’s gonna get up and listen to you. Like, you’re standing in the corner going, “Here, everybody!” and everyone just keeps talking or they don’t. I don’t know. It seems a really odd thing to say, “I have something important, please come,” and whether they come or not, who knows?
H2N: With regards to festivals, do you think they’re beneficial or just fun or exhausting? What’s your take?
AJ: It’s all that. The thing is, when people say, “Well, you have a home crowd when you’re playing in festivals,” that’s ridiculous because it’s usually, it can be super tough. It’s a really tough crowd, in fact. For the most part you’re playing in front of other filmmakers or other people that want to make films, and that’s what makes me so curious as to what it’s gonna be like for this film in front of a theater of people who just want to see a movie. So I don’t have anything yet to compare it with. With The GoodTimesKid we had that week’s run at the Anthology, but the Anthology is also demanding a certain type of film lover to go to that place. Angelika, they might be going to see, I don’t know what movie, which is sold out and they’ll just step over to this thing.
I like the festivals, I think they’ve been incredibly supportive. I mean, here I am speaking to you, and we’re at Josh (Safdie) and Brett (Jutkiewicz)’s place. This is all stuff that is essential. It’s what you should be getting out of festivals, is seeing work that gets you going. There is some amazing, unbelievable stuff going on. If all you have around you is the dreck that’s playing in thousands of theaters, it could plummet you into depression without seeing that there’s some amazing, amazing stuff going on. I know that the world is fucked, fucked, fucked up. But when you go to some of these festivals, it’s like the bravest things are going on all over.
So, yeah, I have this fear of screening, are people gonna show up, are they gonna like this thing, and, at the same time, hopefully the movie wasn’t made with that fear. I don’t believe, at any point, that really affected any choice that I made.
H2N: I would say Momma’s Man — I’m not speaking for you — but it seems like you’re expressing yourself and you’re not considering an audience. Not in an arrogant way. I think that’s why people are calling it “definitive independent cinema” and all these big labels it’s getting, because it’s being true to itself, on its own terms.
AJ: That was the big lesson with Nobody Needs to Know. I had a manifesto. I was twenty-four years old when I started writing that film, and I Had Something To Say To The Whole World! And then to say that thing and there be hardly any reaction back, that’s where I really got an idea, like, “Well, if I’m just talking to myself I might as well really talk to myself in the way that I want to be talked to.” And that was what GoodTimesKid was for me. And again with Momma’s Man. It really was these things that, one way or another, if you know that this is something you’re gonna treasure, there’s no way of losing the situation. If nobody goes to it, if nobody likes it, man, I have seventeen hours of footage of my mom and dad in my home that I can visit, with or without a movie.
H2N: Have you told the story about the first comment you got at Sundance?
AJ: The first comment?
H2N: Remember, after the investors’ screening or whatever?
AJ: God. No, I haven’t.
H2N: (laughs) I think that really, you must have wanted to collapse, but I think it also should have made you even more defiant and more assured of yourself, especially in that context.
AJ: Yeah. It was the third screening. The first screening of Momma’s Man at Sundance, I was sitting in the back with Diaz, holding her hand, and just sweating like I’ve never sweated before. When the lights went on, I hadn’t turned my head once and there was this incredible tension. And I heard people, there was applause, very few people walked out, it felt really warm in the room, and I felt really, I just felt good. And then people started coming up and, I mean, it felt good during the screening, but I started really feeling like, “Wow,” the idea of people crying? Any of that stuff was so new and so foreign. I literally had gone straight from the lab to Sundance. So just seeing this with people was amazing enough, but then having people affected in a way that I’m not gonna get affected, like I can’t feel it to that degree, I can’t get that emotional about it. Especially at that point, when you’ve seen it backwards and forwards. So that was incredible, that first screening, people were there. Amy Taubin was there. She came up, and she was somebody that hated Nobody Needs to Know.
AJ: I got the film to her and she had liked a short that I had done before, Kirk and Kerry, so I was excited to get it to her, and when I asked her she said, “I absolutely hate this movie.” And so, that she was there and that she really cared about it, meant a lot to me. And it wound up meaning a lot to a lot of other people. You know, you hear that thing at Sundance but there are certain people that go back and start saying good things, so the next day there were all these other press people and the next screening felt even better. And the same thing happened. It just went really, really well. I think also the people that didn’t like it told their friends to stay away and the people that did like it told their friends to come. That’s how Sundance works, I think, in its best-case scenario. And that’s what happened with the last screening at the festival itself. It was a great screening. It was a good way to set this film off.
But, that night after the second screening, there was a Sundance Institute screening, for the benefactors, and I think there must have been something in the description that kinda sounded like Little Miss Sunshine, or something like, “Here’s a guy that faces his past and learns about his future!” (both laugh) I don’t know. I would say that maybe a third left during the opening credits? Like, I don’t know what could be wrong with the credits, but people just started storming out within the first three minutes of the film. I don’t know if they didn’t like the stock, I had no idea what…
H2N: (laughing) Really?! I didn’t know that!
AJ: And I had just come from these two amazing screenings, so I remember thinking, “I made a film for the masses, man, this is gonna be at every mall!” And then, people just started from the get go, I mean, he’s still on the train! I was like, “Wow, you’re leaving at this point?” So let’s just say that, by the end, it was cleared out two-thirds. This is like an eighty-seat theater. It’s a small theater. And everybody in there is, as far as I can see, is the wealthy-wealthy Utah. You know, like, jade and leather, that cowboy wealthy. And so there’s a third left, and no applause, like absolutely no applause, and I go up there, and the first question is, “Why would you ever shoot in a place like that?” (both laugh) And that was the nicest, it just went downhill from there. It was an absolute disaster. And I remember calling up my folks, they’d already left Sundance by that point, and telling them what happened and my dad got super excited, “This is exactly what you want, those were Republicans in there, you did well, son!” It gave me a sense of reality. Like, none of us, the idea of us making films for everybody would be deceiving ourselves. That’s definitely never an intention, to make a film for everyone. For me, at least.
H2N: There’s that universal sense of ego, like someone’s disappointed or doesn’t like it, but then you think about it in a bigger sense. What kind of movie does everyone like? First of all, I don’t think anyone does, or should. That said, if that was your first jolt of rejection, it’s impossible not to be spun by that, at least a little bit.
AJ: Oh, yeah. I mean, isn’t that what this is? Searching for some kind of balance between going up and down. The only thing that I get better at is having an idea of when the drops come. I know that in a few months this whole theatrical run, all that stuff is gonna be something else, it’s gonna be a completely different situation. The best thing I can say is that I expect depression now. It arms you that way.
H2N: (laughs) And the higher the high, the lower the low. It’s corny, but true. If you just had two great screenings, then that’s the flipside.
AJ: What we do is we hide ourselves in the work. That’s the only thing that appeases your mind and relaxes yourself is getting going again. So I’ve been back to writing, I’ve been back to working. I’m working with the same producers again.
H2N: I was gonna ask about that.
AJ: Yeah, I’ve been hired by, not by Artists Public Domain, but a different company that is still all of them called Verisimilitude. So I’ve been writing for that and we’re all excited. At this point, we’re being told that generally things could be easier. But it’s been relatively easy as well already. The good thing about making films like The GoodTimesKid for ten thousand dollars, those films are constant thorns to, if I ever convince myself that, “No, man, I need an HMI to make a movie, I need this,” I’ve already done something that I’ve cared about for nothing and if it comes down to it I’ll do it again.
H2N: That is ridiculous that you made that movie for ten thousand dollars.
AJ: Well, that’s ten thousand dollars of cash but not if you count every favor and everybody not being paid. That’s just something we like to say about how cheap something’s made, but in reality, people are suffering and they should be paid. The best thing, having people paid — which they were paid very little — on Momma’s Man, but anything? It was such a different situation. You know, when you’re asking people, especially when it’s your second film, you shouldn’t be doing that anymore. You’re just indebted, indebted, indebted, and I just felt this immense guilt because I know even at the most successful, they’re not gonna get paid. There’s just no way. Gerardo (Naranjo, co-writer/star of The GoodTimesKid and writer/director of I’m Going to Explode) told me recently, and this is a great secret of the trade that should’ve been told to us all early on: the only money, as a filmmaker, that we’re gonna see, is in pre-production. That’s it. Especially for the movies that we’re making. Of course I have this idea that maybe at some point I’ll get to see something back for Momma’s Man or GoodTimesKid, but that’s definitely nothing to rely on.
H2N: How about with the next one? Every film of yours has a stamp of you, even though they’re pretty different. But are you all over the place as far as genre and wanting to tackle different stuff? Is this one where they came to you with something?
AJ: No. Well, there’s a few ideas and I’ll tell you what connects all three of the ideas I’ve been pushing, are that they’re all not my story. They’re all things that are pretty far away from me and I have to find my way into them.
H2N: And is that a reaction to Momma’s Man?
AJ: Absolutely. I feel like there’s this draw to do something very familiar, there’s a pull to do something, to establish in some way, “This is what I do, I do personal, familiar things,” and I really want to make myself uncomfortable and, if anything, that’s what Nobody Needs to Know meant to me. That was the message of it, “Do stuff you’re afraid of failing at.” And that’s the idea. I really hope, my plan is to continue doing this for a lifetime. It’s already been half a lifetime. So, with that in mind, I like being scared of these screenings coming up. I like this feeling of being fearful of certain things.
H2N: I know you’re doing a Q&A Friday, but are you gonna pop into other screenings randomly, are you tempted to do that?
AJ: Yes. I think it may be torture to hang around the theaters and stuff, but there’s no way I can’t. It’s eight blocks away from my house, man! I’m just gonna keep cruising by. I’ll try not to do it to excess, but I definitely want to go. I don’t know about seeing it on Friday because I think a lot of people that I know are gonna be there, but I’m really much more interested in… I haven’t seen the film for a really long time now, for many months. At festivals, I haven’t sat through it. So, I feel like the next time I want to see it is with people who don’t know the film, who don’t know me. I’ve never experienced that.
H2N: What do you think about the fact that you had the two relatively big MoMA screenings with New Directors and then the BAM one last week? Are you thinking that may have taken people who have already seen it away from the theatrical box office tally, or is that helpful, something that needs to be done to get the word out?
AJ: Yeah, I think the latter, man. I think it’s a great thing. Especially because it went well. Those screenings were excellent. Those were really my homecoming screenings. I had people from kindergarten up there. I had basically every ex-girlfriend in the theater. (laughs)
H2N: That sold out the first screening!
AJ: I’m just saying, you know, it was just a confusing, nice way of saying, “Here, I made something,” and a lot of people that I care about, who care about me, came out to those screenings. That was the way to do it for them. This again, man, I’m hoping this is for a whole different type of audience, people who aren’t going for any other reason except that they’re interested.
H2N: It’s exciting!
AJ: It is. It’s exciting and…
H2N: Do you have a deadline on the next thing? Self-imposed or not?
AJ: Yeah, but deadlines, those are things that we need to keep to ourselves. The more you talk about those things, the more you wind up losing energy on them. I’ll tell you this. I want to be a conservationist filmmaker. I’m not trying to just rush something out because there’s maybe some kind of energy or some kind of attention at this point. I still think it’s really important that the next thing I do is something that’s precise and thought out and actually something that I want to spend my life with. I know there’s this idea that when your film’s coming out, you want to do everything you can to take advantage, and I’m trying to do everything I can to take advantage, but that doesn’t mean rushing together something that I don’t think is done. I’m trying to balance between the two, which is to get my stuff together, but still making sure that it’s something I care about.
H2N: And are you committed to celluloid still? Where do you stand on that issue? You know, Momma’s Man shot on digital video…
AJ: It wouldn’t work.
H2N: It’s a different movie. It wouldn’t work.
AJ: I’m not committed, but the less people shoot on film the more attractive it becomes. I really like being in a smaller and smaller pool. And I like the frustration that comes with film. I like the caps on things. I really am somebody who looks for limitations.
If I have a story idea that works for video and video could be an integral part of it? Absolutely. I think that was important with Nobody Needs to Know. I wanted to shoot on video because it was dealing with surveillance videos and that made sense (the film was shot on DV Cam PAL). GoodTimesKid was a film about film and Momma’s Man was in a house that was built on film. With the next thing, to be honest, when I’m thinking about it I’m always thinking in terms of film. But I guess I’ll wait until I get a little farther to know what’s the actual right thing.
Man, I love that process of going to the lab. We did an optical blow-up at DuArt for Momma’s Man and it’s a slow, painstaking thing when everything is DI’s anyway now. But I think it makes all the difference and I really feel on some level you feel these things. And that’s not to say — fuck, I see amazing things on video all the time — and I think, thank God there’s video to shoot that, ya know?
H2N: What have you seen recently?
AJ: I just saw The Plot Against Harry. Have you seen this film?
AJ: It was from 1969 and got released in 1989. But it’s an early, early, early independent film and it’s truly independent. And it just didn’t work at all in ’69, I guess, and it completely works today. So I’m definitely seeing stuff. We’ve been having an Elliott Gould retrospective at Silent Movie Theatre in LA and that’s been incredible to me. I know there’s more over here at BAM so I’m gonna go to that.
H2N: We’re doing the Bergman one on Thursday.
AJ: I’ll be there for that. And now I’m gonna see the Woody Allen film because the Momma’s Man trailer’s in front of it. I wanna see how that plays.
H2N: I’ll join you for that! Did you have any input on the trailer?
AJ: No. And I really love the trailer. I decided that, again, just like the lesson from the last thing, that maybe I was too close to get involved and the idea of pulling out the best things to sell the film, so I just didn’t want to have anything to do with that. This editor Joseph Krings, somebody I didn’t even know, I just met him recently, wound up getting the job, and I think he did a great job, much better than anything I could do.
H2N: Does it have quotes and all that good stuff?
AJ: It has the quotes and has the moments and those things. (both laugh) It’s a trailer-trailer, but I think it’s what was needed for this thing. It’s a weird lesson with Momma’s Man, it’s been about what to step away from, you know? I mean, GoodTimesKid, I was involved in every little thing and making the titles and all that stuff and I’m really happy to have done that, and Momma’s Man, I think each of these films will wind up having a different lesson, but for me, it was that here are all these personal things, there are these elements from my own life, my folks, my home, but for me to make this work I really need to learn how to hand over and let other people in to do their thing. The producers came and they produced this movie. I never saw a piece of paper. My job was strictly directing and I’ve never, ever had that and it was amazing for me. And Matt came in and knew his lines, he knew how to do it, we talked, and we’d figure out how to make this thing work. The same thing with Darrin and with Tobi (cinematographer Tobias Datum), I learned a lot about stepping back and going, “Alright, these are people who are better at doing what they do than me, and they’ll take it to some place I can’t.”
(Momma’s Man opens Friday, August 22nd, at the Angelika. Visit the film’s official website to watch the trailer and find out when it’s playing near you. Don’t miss this movie!!!)