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Azazel Jacobs on His New HBO Series with Emily Mortimer and Dolly Wells, Doll and Em

Dolly Wells and Emily Mortimer in Doll and Em

Type the words “never hire” into Google and it autocompletes an admonition anyone entering business has certainly heard. Indeed, working with your friends — not in the collaborative way we as filmmakers work together but rather with friends as your employees, having them roll your calls, drive you on errands and maybe even pick up your dry cleaning — is usually a recipe for professional and personal disaster. But while the combination of friendship and the employer/employee relationship can produce profoundly icky moments, that ickiness can also be the stuff of great humor and nuanced drama, as is the case with Doll and Em, a new, six-episode miniseries directed by Azazel Jacobs.

Jacobs, whose previous independent features are Momma’s Man and Terri, is a 25 New Face teaming here with friends of his own, the actors Emily Mortimer and Dolly Wells. Mortimer and Wells have been pals since childhood, with Jacobs bonding with them both over the past decade. The two women have “created by” credits, and all three sharing writing credits on this series, the story of a successful, mid-list actress, Emily (Mortimer), and the down-on-her-luck best friend, Dolly (Wells), she hires as her personal assistant after the latter’s romantic breakup. There’s plenty of fish-out-of-water humor as New Yorker Wells adjusts to the celebrity fishbowl of L.A. but also tremendously subtle and true-to-life observations about how people in that fishbowl can find fascinating the right sort of attractive outsider. The show’s great irony is that Dolly’s recovery from her breakup, her reclaiming of her self esteem, is what makes her an increasingly bad assistant. Mortimer, whose “Emily” has just been cast as the criminal matriarch in an Irish mob movie, deploys her trademark sense of decency to depict a woman too polite to fire her best friend but too emotionally reigned in to explode at her either. Jacobs brings his own off-kilter intimacy to the project, hitting expected laugh lines while also, particularly in the final episodes, plumbing something deeper.

I spoke with Jacobs the day after he screened all six episodes in one, binge-watching screening, for friends and press. Doll and Em is currently running on HBO.

Filmmaker: So, what were the beginnings of this project? You’ve been friends with Dolly and Emily for a while?

Jacobs: I met Dolly in 2000, and then Emily a week later. The three of us have been friends since. We look at each other’s work, and have been supportive for many years. Sometimes Emily’s films would play Sundance, Dolly would join Emily, and we’d meet up. We’ve been trying to find a collaboration, something to do together. I was at the London Film Festival with Terri, and Emily mentioned this idea, which I found fascinating and exciting. It was right around the time that TV was showing how great it could be, and [she and Dolly] were thinking about it as either a play or a movie. I was excited about dealing something episodic, and I was able to convince them to do it in bits and pieces. So, the first episode was made by a cast and crew of four or five, [including] me and Toby [Tobias Datum], my usual d.p. I was doing sound, and when Toby had to go off somewhere, I shot and Diaz, my wife, did sound.

Filmmaker: Was it scripted at this point?

Jacobs: We had an outline of each different scene, but it wasn’t as written as [the series] wound up being after this episode.

Filmmaker: And what happened next?

Jacobs: Darren, my editor, got it down to a 19-minute piece. We brought it to the U.K., showed it to Sky, they commissioned it, and the next thing you know we were writing it. We did not know where we were headed in the first episode, but it ends with a question, so we knew where we were aiming. After that everything was written out — each script was 22- 25 pages. It took two or three months to write, prep and shoot the next four episodes. After the next break of [Emily’s series] The Newsroom we shot the remaining three episodes and then, after a break, the final episode. After it was all finished, we delivered it to Sky. We showed it to HBO out of common courtesy — Emily was on their series, and they allowed us to do another series with her — but also with the hopes they’d be interested in buying it.

Filmmaker: You mentioned being interested in working in episodic. How many of your independent type of filmmaking practices were you able to continue to employ when making your first TV series?

Jacobs: It was always our intention to approach this like a film. The writing process was different with three people, two of whom were also going to be the leads. That I never experienced before. But figuring out what the world is, and how to stay true and investigate that world, that felt very similar to film. And I was surrounded by the same crew as Momma’s Man. When I have spoken to other TV directors and told them about my experience, and the incredible amount of control and freedom I had, they said it was out of the ordinary and that it sounded impossible. We really were given a lot of support.

Filmmaker: To what do you attribute being granted this level of freedom to?

Jacobs: A couple of things. We’ve all been making films together for a while. And because they got to see the first [episode] and were happy with it, we were coming in with a high level of trust.

Filmmaker: Tell me about developing the characters with Emily and Dolly. They are obviously drawing upon themselves and their relationship, but they also are departing from it as well. Where do the actors end and their characters begin?

Jacobs: I always say this is them being them playing things as if this was their [real-life] situation. If Dolly wasn’t an actress, how would things go? And if Emily wasn’t someone as aware as she is, how would things go? It wasn’t so much, “we are going to use real life and then go to fantasy” — [the two] were always combined. But at the root there was always something true, and the courage to [reach that] came from the two of them being real friends. It’s hard for me to separate, other than to say that [their friendship] was our springboard, and it allowed us to go places and try things.

Filmmaker: I’ve read interviews with Emily where she’s talked about the kinds of roles she has been given in Hollywood. Here she’s one of the creative collaborators. What were the kind of things she wanted to try out now that she had more control over the material?

Jacobs: Aside from being a writer and making something with the people she wanted to make it with, there were things like the old-age makeup scene. She’s gone through hours of prosthetics, and that whole section is something I never would have thought of. Aging was something I’ve never really dealt with, although, in my own way, I guess, Momma’s Man and Terri are about aging — or not aging, and dealing with it like that.

Filmmaker: And what about you? Were you able to find personal elements in this material?

Jacobs: I was able to find myself [in Dolly and Em] in terms of how important relationships have been in the films I’ve been making. The only way I’ve been able to make films the way I want has been because they aren’t based on business. At the root of them there’s a good intention to make something that we hope we are able to make a living at. If we can make something we like and are able to pay our rent too, that’s great. But I understand the idea of hiring a friend in need to help you, whether that’s to help you move or to help on a film. I’ve had friendships tested and friendships broken.

Filmmaker: Talk to me about the series — and your — relationship to Hollywood. You’re a New York-based independent filmmaker, so you’re obviously bringing a little bit of a different perspective to this tale. At the same time, there have been so many movies and shows set in and around Hollywood that there must have been things you wanted to stay away from in terms of its depiction.

Jacobs: Hollywood has been good to me — at least the part of Hollywood I know. It’s silly to put it down. I’ve either been able to survive off of it, or it’s been completely indifferent. We called the show Doll and Em in order to focus on their relationship, but this show could have happened [in any industry]. And I wanted to leave the All about Eve-storytelling to All about Eve. I wasn’t trying to make a deeper All About Eve, or to do what’s already been done in Extras or Entourage. It’s about these other kinds of moments.

Filmmaker: What about the show’s character that you must have some direct opinion of, which is the director?

Jacobs: To watch him from afar make something I know he cares about, and to find out how pathetic that looks — he was endearing to me. I mean, the film he’s making looks pretty bad to me, but I do feel for him. I’m earnest as a director too, so maybe it’s based on me without me realizing it! I hope not. I can see a collection of different people in besides myself in him, and Aaron Himelstein brought his own timing and rhythm to it.

Filmmaker: Last episodes of series, even miniseries, can be tough, and yours has a real tonal change. How hard was it to figure out a way to end the series?

Jacobs: It was extremely intimidating. We had a tough time doing it. That episode was us saying, “How can we end this and all say something we want to say?” There was a lot of pushing and pulling. I do believe the tonal change is really significant, but I hope the seeds [of the ending] are there in the first episode. And that while you may think during the series that is ping ponging around it is really going somewhere.

Filmmaker: Now that it’s over, are you content with the miniseries form? Are you thinking of continuing to follow these characters in a second season?

Jacobs: We made as a self-contained story, a story that ends the way it begins, or begins the way it ends. I see it as something circular. But the response has been very positive, and we had such a good time, it definitely seems there is potential for us to continue it.

Filmmaker: Were there aspects of television production you thought were better than film?

Jacobs: I love the speed between being being greenlit and shooting. I loved not having a moment to second guess myself before shooting. [The process] was somehow less precious because you have your start date and there’s no “the money is falling out!”

Filmmaker: Tonight we watched all six episodes, so it felt like a long movie. But each episode is well crafted for its half-hour or so format. Was that an adjustment for you, to think of the whole arc as well as the integrity of each episode?

Jacobs: All of us know that this show is going to be watched the way we have been all watching shows, usually after [their initial airing]. They will be watched when they are all together. That’s something this story allows, and we had that in mind. I wanted it to hold together in one sitting, because that’s, for the most part, how we are watching shows today.

Filmmaker: But you’re not on Netflix, which allows for binge-viewing. You’re on HBO, which is screening them weekly.

Jacobs: It will be on HBO Go, and then everyone will see it. It’s real existence, how it’s really going to survive, will be all six episodes on streaming.

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