Terri is a familiar coming-of-age story, but director Azazel Jacobs (who previously did Momma’s Man and The Good Times Kid) puts his personal spin on it by looking for the idiosyncrasies in each character. I had the opportunity to sit down with the director and talk about several scenes as well as how the project came together. During the interview, we chat about how his taste in music influenced the film, how the California Tax credit majorly helped get it off the ground, and how his lack of familiarity with a person like Terri encouraged him not to fall prey to generic images. Hit the jump for the full interview.
Most of the people in this film are not into mainstream or commercial things, was that something that interested you in particular?
JACOBS: I think that well, the truth is, when Patrick [deWitt] gave me the writing about Terri, I got faced with a person who is a true outcast. You know, a lot about being an outcast is stuff that you can just buy in a store—but Terri had something that was very different, and then being punk-rock, that he just was different and I liked having a character that was true, and different—that this wasn’t a character who decided to be different and who was dressing up.
Was Terri a character from the book Ablutions?
JACOBS: No, it was just that Patrick became a good friend after I read Abolutions, which mostly takes place in a bar. And we wanted to work together but didn’t know on what, and from that point we just basically went on sharing with each other what we were up to. So Terri just really came from a bunch of writing that he was doing and sharing. He didn’t know, he kind of felt like, “this isn’t a novel” but he didn’t know what exactly it was—but we did think “there’s something here, there’s something worthy there.” The story was about a bunch of different characters that semi-intertwined, one of which was Terri, and I thought Terri could make a really good film.
So when you guys began, I read that you spent a lot of time together and that he would send you every few pages. Did you have an overall outline or skeleton of the script?
JACOBS: We had a long, long internal monologue basically. We had Terri’s thinking as he went to school, and dealing with his uncle who was disappearing. There were a lot of things that wound up in the screenplay that were in that internal monologue. So the challenge was “how do we externalize these things?” and turn the lines into physical actions.
All the scenes with repetition are amazing—the ritual of the mouse traps, was that your idea or Patrick’s? How did that come about?
JACOBS: I think it came from both of us and also our influences. One of the things that we originally bonded on was really music. We both are big, big fans of reggae music, and I think something that’s great about reggae is that you can see it as repetition, or you can see that these little changes are having massive effects. And I think when I look at movies and when I like movies, especially movies that I make, there are these things that are kind of building up slowly and slowly, but if you actually look at them they’re evolving in different and unexpected ways.
What was it like getting the film made in terms of the greenlight and the budget?
JACOBS: It was relatively easy in terms of how these things go. We were definitely lucky—for any film to get made takes an incredible amount of luck. I would say that—and I mean this as a plug—getting the California Tax credit made a huge difference for this film; it really was the thing that allowed this film to happen. It was really kind of like the first money in the bank, knowing that we had—I don’t know if it’s like 20% of the budget—but knowing that that was there, knowing that whoever else came in, there was already a chunk of money.
You went for a big name actor in John—it seems like now, it’s easier to get those guys because they’re in it for the art, not for the money. Do you find that true?
JACOBS: I don’t know because, you know I’ve never gone for an actor of John’s caliber. I feel that John has always been an actor that you saw in very big films and in really small films. So the first conversation I had with him was after he had seen Momma’s Man, the film I made before Terri and he had a good response to it, so I kind of immediately walked away from that conversation thinking—Pat and I had already begun Terri, we had already started—and I thought “Wow, John would be amazing as Fitzgerald”. And because of John’s history, I thought it was a real possibility. His wife, Allison Dickey, who’s one of the producer’s on the movie, is a producer I’ve been long wanting to work with, and that’s why they were at the screening. I had been inviting Allison to my films for the past dozen years. Every time I had a new film I’d invite Allison; she was just somebody that I had met early in my career and had said some very encouraging things, and I felt like this was somebody I had wanted to work with. That’s why she was at that screening, and I thought “well maybe on this next project there’ll be something for Allison, and maybe something for John as well.”
Having a big name does help.
JACOBS: Well that’s a credit to him, you know. It’s a credit to John that he takes his time and chooses what he wants to do.
The scene when the kids are in the shed, how challenging was that for you? How did you prepare for that mentally and how did you plan to shoot it?
JACOBS: The shed scene was the very most intimidating thing going into this project. I mean I knew just reading it on page that it was different and challenging and for it to be truthful was going to be very, very difficult, and for it to have all the ingredients I thought it would need—for it to have danger and also the tension and even the humor—for all those things to come together in the right way it would very challenging to do. One of the ways that we handled it was making sure that we ended the film shooting that last scene, so by the time that we go to it, people were very trusting, and that we knew each other very well at that point. And then ultimately, you know it was the most important scene for me in terms of making this movie. Everything that goes on is important, but it’s all leading into this place that I feel I’ve never seen on film handled that way before. And I thought that was important, that we get to a place, no matter how well done everything else is, that we get to a place which handles this “night to remember” which all coming-of-age films have in a way.
Was there some things that you eventually cut from the scene?
JACOBS: Well the original scene that Pat wrote in the shed went much further and I felt like it went too far in a certain direction. And he also wanted the movie to end at that scene. So if there was any fight that Pat and I had, it was that I felt we should see the next morning and we should see a little bit of how this affected Terri and these kids.
One of the things I thought was amazing was that it feels really timeless and almost location-less. I couldn’t figure out how old the kids were, which I loved. Was that a specific intention to keep it non-specific?
JACOBS: Yeah, I’m so happy to hear that. I did not grow up in a small town or go to a small school, so my images of that were very generic. I just know them from other movies or from driving through, but I don’t really have an experience of that. What I went out to find was really Anytown, USA. And it’s not that we avoided the fact that we shot in California, you can see palm trees or whatever, but I definitely liked the idea of this being a timeless, spaceless place. It’s American.
The movie doesn’t have to have a message, but in terms of the way they’re acting in terms of experimenting with alcohol and drugs, do you have a point of view about it?
JACOBS: Well, I’m one of those people that think that what you put up on screen, no matter how you’re stating it, is usually an advertisement for it. Even if I’m saying “it’s really bad to do this, or it’s really good to do this”—regardless, the fact that it’s on film, presented in this huge way, is appealing. At the same time, I’d be the last person to cast judgment as someone who’s had very similar experiences growing up. I just felt that the reason it’s valid to show is that because this does happen, and that gave me the right to put it up on screen. And then all else I could add to it was to show it in a way that seemed truthful and realistic.
What’s your next film?
JACOBS: I’m working with Patrick on something and I also wrote a screenplay with Gill Dennis who recently wrote Walk the Line and we did an adaption of a Raymond Chandler story, so it’s a downtown Los Angeles detective story.
Do you have a certain direction you’re planning on going with your directing career?
JACOBS: I just want to make different movies. I want them to be things that I care about and not to repeat myself.