SXSW Interview: Director Azazel Jacobs on his film, ‘Terri’

Azazel-JacobsI’ve become one of Azazel Jacobs biggest fans.

First of all, he’s got a great movie called Terri, about an overweight teen (Jacob Wysocki) who lives with his uncle (Creed Bratton). Having pretty much given up on anything involving a social life, Terri soon forms a surprising friendship with his high school vice-principal (John C. Reilly).

And second, when I talked to him at SXSW, each question he answered was extremely honest and heartfelt. I could have talked with him for hours.

This is Azazel’s 4th film – his 3rd, Momma’s Man, was a Sundance hit – and it’s a touching, extremely funny piece of work.

Azazel talked to me the casting process, what he thinks kills actors when auditioning and if he ever met a kid like Terri growing up.

For the full interview, click the audio link above or download from iTunes

What’s it like watching the movie with an audience?

Azazel Jacobs: Completely different, we finished a few days before Sundance, and so by that point nothing is funny anymore, nothing is interesting, and everything seems like a disaster.

Does it really?

Azazel Jacobs: Oh absolutely. You can’t feel anything, I mean, so you’re just, you’re hoping, you’re showing it to people that you trust, and they’re telling you that something’s resonating but you’ve just got no idea. During the actual premiere, the screening at Sundance, I’m sitting there, telling my wife, “This is going horrible, I’m gonna go outside and throw up right now.” And she’s like, “You’re crazy, you’re crazy, people are loving it, you’re crazy.” And luckily I was wrong. People really responded well.

How did the idea for the film come about?

Azazel Jacobs: Well, it came from a few different ways. One was that I wanted to tell somebody else’s story. I was really interested in telling a stranger’s story. My friend, Patrick Dewiit who’s a novelist, who is a writer that I really wanted to work with and had a character – he’d given me some pages that had a character that I felt like alright, this is somebody that I don’t know at the same time felt really connected to. That felt like a good starting point.

Let’s talk about casting. How did you get John involved?

Azazel Jacobs: A few different ways. One was that he saw my previous film Momma’s Man, and really responded to it, and I got to speak to him afterwards. And it was just as Terri was beginning and so, as I walked away from that conversation and the fact that he liked the movie so much, I felt like, “Wow! That could be amazing if he played the principal, assistant vice-principal, Mr. Fitzgerald.” So, that was the beginning.

Also, his wife, Allison Dickey, is a producer that I’ve been trying to work with for about a half dozen years. Many years ago, I had a short film at Slamdance Film Festival in 1997 that won, and she wound up writing a great letter to me regarding my movie.  It was just a really nice letter and it meant a lot to me, so when I moved out to L.A. I really pursued working with her. By that point, she was just starting to have her kids with John and she kind of stepped away from producing to be mother for a while. And then each time I had a project I would go to her with something. And then finally I had this and I thought maybe we should be into it. So that really was a way in.

And the casting of Jacob?

Azazel Jacobs: That, it comes down to my casting directors.  I mean, the amazing incredible job that they did. They reached really far and wide, Nicole Arbusto and Joy Dickson. They just went everywhere; high schools and obviously to working actors. I got to see so many people and so many strong, strong people.

I saw, I don’t know, many, many kids and I know they saw 10 times the amount cause I would see who they thought was a possibility. And I saw so many strong, different ways for the movie to be. And that’s really the toughest thing for me about casting. It’s not like you see the wrong actor, you just have to figure out what movie you’re doing, ‘cause you’ll see one strong person after another that goes, ok if this film could be this way, it could be that way, that way, and then really which one does it come down to.

And then a lot of what helped make the decision work was I started grouping the kids together and start seeing the combinations and how they work best with each other. And then ultimately I was able to bring John and feel out the combinations that I had with each of the kids, one on one and also them together, and that told me what I needed to know.

At any point in the casting process, did one of the actors come in and do something completely left field and when they left, you were like, “that was awesome.”

Azazel Jacobs: Well, the thing is, what drew me to Terri is the fact that I don’t know Terri, so everybody brought in something. And Terri is a large kid, so a lot of the kids that I was seeing were big kids and they had a personal connection to this material and they had their own personal story. So, I really felt like one person after another was showing me something that I couldn’t have imagine and would bring something in there that was like, “Wow.” But I had a blank canvass. A lot of times it’s not like that, where you’re like you have a very specific idea. But it was the same thing with casting Creed Bratton as Uncle James. Creed, I know from The Office and when he came in, I know him as a comedian and it’s a very dramatic serious role and he did it and he completely threw me for loop. I didn’t see it coming at all and it just stayed with me and stayed with me and stayed with me. The more I thought about it, I was like absolutely, this is the right person. He showed me a vulnerability and an intensity and a seriousness that the Uncle needed.

As a former fat kid myself growing up, this movie completely resonated with me. Did you know somebody like Terri growing up?

Azazel Jacobs: I mean, the generic answer will be that we all have that person inside us one way or another. I feel like I see myself in a bunch of people in the film, it’s not only Terri. He meets up with some other misfits and outcasts and bullies. And honestly, I see parts of me in all of those people. For me going through high school, I really was convinced that to be punk rock was to be mean and that’s something that I’m gonna have to carry with me all the time. And I’m not saying that this film in any way makes amends for the time that. I was like, unfortunately more than anything I was kind of like a cowardly mean kid. So, I don’t know, I’m not trying to make amends but it’s something that you think about as you get older and you think about the things that, how you could have been nicer person.

That’s a really nice answer. What do you see time and time again that just kills actors? From getting the part or something like that?

Azazel Jacobs: I mean, this is an impossible thing to pin down but when you feel an insincerity. When you feel like someone is trying to force a connection to either the material or to you. I’d rather the person come in there, even if it just feels like it’s a job. Like they’re not connecting to it but they’re connecting to the work in terms of they did wanna work, rather than say that it means something to them that it isn’t.

It’s really easy to spot. It’s easy to spot as an actor as well. I got to act in a French short film when I was in AFI. Sometimes I’d ask [the director] a question, that she didn’t have an answer for, and she’d start answering me the same way that I would answer actors when I didn’t have an answer. And I could see through it so easily, and I’m like, “Wow! So that’s how easy it is to see when somebody just doesn’t know.” And lesson for me is just, admit that you don’t have that answer, or you don’t have that connection, that point and you’re still working it out, you’re still figuring it out. I’d much rather have that come from an actor that walks in and reads and says, “You know what I’m still trying to grapple who this character is,” and ask questions instead of saying, “I totally get this person” if they don’t. I mean, I think as a director all were trying to look for is truthful moments and that’s what we’re looking for in auditions.

What’s your advice to anybody who wants to get to entertainment industry, filmmaking, acting, writing?

Azazel Jacobs: I just think to take it seriously and that this matters, it really does matter. I know that this is – in the long list of jobs – this is kind of the easiest and the most fun. And it is that. But I think it’s really important what we’re doing and it can be really important and that you should give it the weight that it deserves.

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