Azazel Jacobs, Momma’s Man
Trying to make it as a director is difficult – and particularly so when your father is one of the most respected filmmakers in his field – however in the last few years Azazel Jacobs has made a name for himself in his own right with a string of individual and resonant films. Jacobs, the son of avant garde filmmaker Ken Jacobs and painter Flo Jacobs, grew up in New York City and studied film at Purchase University in upstate New York. His graduation film, Kirk and Kerry, won best short film at Slamdance in 1997, and he began making his first feature, Nobody Needs to Know while studying for his Masters at AFI in Los Angeles. The film, which played the festival circuit in 2003, fused conventional narrative with more experimental elements as Jacobs grappled with the idea of “honest” filmmaking. He followed it up in 2005 with the delightful offbeat comedy drama The GoodTimesKid, which he made for just $10,000 in collaboration with Jacobs’ girlfriend Sara Diaz and Drama/Mex director (and fellow AFI alum) Gerardo Naranjo. (The GoodTimesKid is forthcoming on the Benten Films DVD label.)
Jacobs’ third feature, Momma’s Man, sees him return home with the story of Mikey (Matt Boren), who stays at his parents’ house while on a business trip to New York. Lulled by the security of these familiar surroundings, he starts concocting reasons why he can’t return to his wife and baby daughter in California, pushing the responsibilities of his new life from his mind as he slips back into the world of his adolescence. Inspired by Jacobs’ own feelings of comfort in his childhood home, Momma’s Man draws on much from Jacobs’s life, as Ken and Flo Jacobs play Mikey’s concerned parents and it was shot in their Tribeca loft, Jacobs’ childhood home. As a result of this, the film is particularly resonant and moving, as well as being funny and tender, and Ken and Flo Jacobs both give surprising, strong performances, despite never having acted before. But it is ultimately Jacobs’ inspired writing and deft direction that make this film so remarkable, his keen eye compellingly capturing the deteriorating situation created by Mikey’s inertia.
Filmmaker spoke to Jacobs about the intersection between truth and fiction in the film, not blinking for four months during post-production, and his childhood plan to save his family with pennies and magic rocks.
Filmmaker: I believe Momma’s Man was inspired by your feelings about your parents’ apartment, and how reluctant you felt to leave it.
Jacobs: The root of this really came from the place more than documenting my folks and my friends. I’ve been out in Los Angeles for nine years, but even before I left the place my home was something that I was extremely attached to, as far [back] as I can remember. It was a this play place, there were all these things that my parents put up; there was a swing and a hoop and a Batman pole and all these things that kept me in and made me enjoy my time there. There’s these cracks between the wood floors, and I stored so many pennies and change in there, and it was all with this idea – especially during those times, Reagan and nuclear war – that I would be able to rescue the family because of all this “gold” that I was storing. So underneath, it’s filled with “magic rocks” and everything that a kid thinks is going to protect the family when Armageddon hits.
Filmmaker: There are a lot of autobiographical elements in Momma’s Man, so how instinctive was it for you to write?
Jacobs: It started off with a lot of difficulty because I was basing the son much closer to me and I was writing parents that weren’t [based on] my parents, so I needed to work out to change both those things. At first, the dad was a writer, but once I started realizing that it was my dad that I was writing, whether he would play him or not. It wasn’t so much that I was struggling with the character [of Mikey], it was that I wasn’t that interested and I just couldn’t find a reason why this character would stay if it was me. So that was the toughest thing, finding out that I needed to focusing on a stranger and once that started happening, I started to know these people really well. I knew the place really good and because I had real experiences I want to draw on – like waking up there, the cable guy and all that stuff, and I had a few images, the shaving cream, my mom’s lap – I had these few points I wanted to hit.
Filmmaker: At what point did you decided to have your parents play Mikey’s parents?
Jacobs: I was talking about it with my parents and we were talking about what the parents did. I think they had read a third or fourth draft, when the dad was a writer, and my dad said, “This is not a writer’s home, this is a filmmaker’s home.” That’s what it is, and it seemed like I was trying to avoid something. And once I thought of it, the idea of an actor playing [the father] seemed really ridiculous. So once it got that close to being based on them it seemed really silly to do something else.
Filmmaker: Did it feel right that they would play them? They’ve not had any acting experience, so how did you feel about that aspect?
Jacobs: I felt more guarded just on the idea of doing anything that would be embarrassing of them. The characters were already written that the mom was extra nurturing and there were things that were extremely extreme variations on them, so I didn’t want it to be this thing that was from Mikey’s point of view, that I was poking fun. I wanted it a lot from their point of view. In the midst of writing, I had the script pretty much done when I had to go take care of Piero, who plays the old best friend, who’d just gotten out of jail. His parents were going away and he asked me to come stay with him for 10 days while his parents were going because he just wanted to be watched over while they were gone so that he didn’t do anything stupid and fall back into old ways. So I went there and I was in the midst of writing, so I just kept writing while I was there and the idea of writing about this guy who’s making this choice and being there in Piero’s place and seeing what Piero was dealing with, it would have been insane not to put that in. So a lot of the things that came from my real life came much later on when a lot of things were already done; it’s a lot of seeing things that are in front of you, and it just takes a while to see.
Filmmaker: So how did your parents and Piero feel about playing alter egos of themselves?
Jacobs: They were nervous about the situation, definitely my mom. For my dad it was an easy thing, he’s playing a really solid, certain thing and there’s not many lines but my mom had to do a different type of acting and Piero as well. I was nervous about Piero because it’s such a different world; my whole film thing is not what we talk about when we’re together, we talk about “Back in the day…,” so I know there was a lot of tension. I’ve never said this before, but I couldn’t rehearse with them, it didn’t make sense. – and what were they going to learn? I wasn’t going to replace them at this point, I was just going to have to figure out how to make it work when I was there, so that time of finding out if they could act was right when we started shooting.
Filmmaker: I have to ask you about what happened in post-production. From what I’ve read, you were planning to cut Momma’s Man in L.A. but then (rather like Mikey) decided to stay in New York…
Jacobs: …and the Bell’s Palsy thing. What happened was I wound up working with these producers who have a space in here, and for me going to New York and working is what I’ve always dreamed of. Suddenly, not only is there a place I can shoot in but edit: there’s an Avid and everything was set up, and I found someone to edit with, Brett Jutkiewicz, who shot The Pleasure of Being Robbed. The idea was for me to leave with some kind of assemblage to show [the producers] before I headed back to L.A. I talked to [my girlfriend] Diaz – and by this point I’d already been gone off and on for about five months – and there was definitely a pressure and a strain but there was also this opportunity and maybe I could stay. I said, “Yeah, just give me two more months. I’ll be here for the summer.” And then I wound up going to the doctor… It’s hard to say if things are connected, but I left the doctor’s appointment – I got my eyes dilated – and it was a super sunny day, and I went straight back to the Avid. They didn’t give me shades, so my eyes started tearing immediately. And then I started cutting and I got this really, really strange headache, where it felt like a seizure on my brain. Every four minutes. So I said, “I better stop for the day.” Then the next morning I woke up, and half my face was paralyzed. The thing is, I already had a friend who had had this Bell’s Palsy a week earlier. My old roommate at Purchase called me and told me about this crazy shit, so I knew what it was. Next thing we know, we’re both talking on the phone…
Filmmaker: What was your response to the situation?
Jacobs: I was just so depressed, man, you know? It wasn’t even so much about being so vain… The first thing they do is put you on steroids, and as someone who hasn’t had milk or dairy, being put on steroids is super depressing and a super shock to your system. I had honestly been on the phone a week earlier saying, “This is the happiest I’ve ever been in my life.” I was cutting this thing that I fucking loved and I really knew what I was doing in this situation and there was enough for me to do it. Now that things are back to normal, I don’t have regrets about it. I think it humbled me a lot. I think it was good damage to the ego, in a certain way, like I needed to just remember how important it was to just be alive and functioning, and to do basic, simple things like blinking. To go without blinking for four months was a really brutal thing and it was a hard thing to deal with for me.
Filmmaker: The three films you’ve made so far seem extremely different to each other. Was there a conscious shift from one to the other to the other?
Jacobs: Well, know this, that for most filmmakers – at least, for me – in between each film, there are other scripts and other movies that you either don’t get together or just that the writing of it was enough to get you to the next place. So there’s missing pieces, but when I was writing those movies I was living them, so I see those – whether they got made or not – in between. So there’s a more literal bridge. How I write, what I know about the next film is that I can taste the movie and I can smell it and I know exactly how the film is supposed to feel. I have characters that I’ve fallen in love with already and I would say the story’s been going on for years beforehand, and I’m hoping it will bring me into a really uncomfortable world with this one. I do know, on one side, I really need to do something I don’t know at all. I need to go to a world I don’t know, I need to go to someplace far out of Chambers Street, far out of Jarmusch and Kaurismäki land, and I need to do something really scary. I feel the urge to do something the same, and you want to start aiming for something that could get [success], but I trust myself enough to know ultimately that I need to get myself to an uncomfortable land. There will be enough of my vision on these things that I don’t need to push for that anymore, I just need to go someplace else and I’ll see it that way and interpret the way and show it the way I see it.
Filmmaker: How was it for you growing with a father who was such an influential figure? And when you started making films, did you initially feel like you were working in his shadow?
Jacobs: As far as growing up, there was no shadow; that only happened when I got to Purchase, and I happened to get there the year right after an avant garde class by Tom Gunning was taught. So when I got there, I had no idea why the upper classmen were acting so weird to me but it was because they thought that I must have gotten in because of who my dad was. I was like “Who’s son?!” That whole thing that my dad had this name to other people never entered [into my head. I mean, growing up in public school here [in New York] – do you think anybody would care about any of that stuff?
Filmmaker: How aware were you of the work your father was producing?
Jacobs: What I would see at screenings growing up was definitely that there were individuals at the end that had their lives changed, and that struck me. And as a kid, that was something I got used to seeing – and this is after tons of walkouts. A lot of times going from a full place to a completely empty place, but those people who were left would look at my father like they though that they were on the island by themselves and here was somebody else. I got used to seeing that thing and it struck for sure as something I’d like to do in my life, that I’d want to bring to [people]. But I also found the walking out so painful, that people would be so upset that they couldn’t last for an hour-and-a-half or two hours, that they’d leave after five or ten minutes, and that there’d be a lot of angry walkouts, or you’d hear some people talking. That also had a big effect on me – I couldn’t understand why. And then with Nobody Needs To Know, I went straight from cutting that to showing it in Rotterdam: as far as I was concerned, here was a movie with actors, music and a story – it’s Hollywood, for me. That’s what I thought – I was that much in that [world]. And then I went to Rotterdam, and people started walking out in that first screening. After that first screening, I went back to the hotel with Sara and I just fuckin’ bawled, you know? I just did not know I’d made a movie like that, I did not know there was anything tough about it. I just didn’t understand that here I was in the same position as my father.
Filmmaker: What’s the worst (or weirdest) job you’ve ever had?
Jacobs: How about best? Besides working on my own films, the best job I ever had was doing construction for a summer, hard wood flooring, when I was 20. We did a whole block of buildings on 116th, I never mentioned film, no one knew I had anything to do with film, school, any of that, it was just hard work all day. I had an apartment on the East Side for 300 a month that I shared with a beautiful girl who wasn’t my girlfriend, but the bathtub was in the middle of the place so it was nice to be home. Plus I had a tab at a Chinese restaurant that I would pay at the end of each week. I never slept so good in my life.
Filmmaker: Which actor would you pay to see in anything?
Jacobs: Linda Manz. Tati. Chaplin. Paul Muni. Elliot Gould. Tricia Vessey.
Filmmaker: What’s the smartest decision you ever made?
Jacobs: One time in high school, I had some kids after me. They couldn’t find me but for some reason told people that they did and had beaten me up. When I heard about it, I just went along with it, giving them the credit and saving me the pain.
Filmmaker: Finally, what’s your best piece of advice for aspiring filmmakers?
Jacobs: There is no such thing as a spec film – whatever you do is what you will live with and define you whether or not you like it. The people that I know who did spec films thinking that at some point they will make the films they really want to, are now living spec lives.