Azazel Jacobs is best known for Momma's Man, a fiercely personal film about a young man who moves back home with his parents which, in fact, actually starred Jacobs' own mother and father. After tackling that quarterlife crisis story, he elected to direct something a little more familiar, and perhaps more immediately sympathetic, to moviegoers: the teen coming of age tale. Last week, Boxoffice spoke to Jacobs via telephone about taking on a familiar subject in his second film; in addition to talking about the conventions of coming of age stories, he examined his film's unconventional structure, and talked about creating characters that were familiar but also sufficiently fleshed out.
If I understand correctly you were interested in making a coming of age story that was inspired by the movies of the ‘80s. Did you particularly want to deconstruct or redefine it as you have, or is this just your version of that?
Well, more than anything, I wanted to tell someone else's story. After coming from Momma's Man, which was a much more personal story, I wanted to see if I could tell somebody else's, and within the writing that I got from Patrick DeWitt, there was this coming of age story. So my way into it was those movies—like, it's a place for the kid, it's a place for the town, all of these things that I didn't know in my own way of growing up and being young in New York City. So my way in was really those coming-of-age movies; that kind of gave me the idea how school worked or how principals could possibly work. And it wasn't so much deconstructing those movies; I like those movies, and I'm not interested in defining myself by pushing against them. It was more what do I have to offer—is there some unexplored territory?—and that's what I hoped for.
How difficult was it to create these three teenage characters?
Really, I wound up caring for these kids, and it was in the shoot itself to see how much they were trusting me and how much they were giving me. And even though they're very different—Bridger is very different from Chad, and they're all different from the people they're portraying—it was still with each passing day the same amount of work and trust that they were giving me. It made me feel more and more indebted, and it also made me feel more and more connected to these characters. No matter what my opinions are on who Chad is or who Chad could become, I very much wound up caring for the character as another human being—and I hoped that would translate on screen. And I thought the way to do that would be by respecting them, and not pushing them into something that was either unrealistic or unthinking and callous.
How careful did you have to be to design a story with an unconventional structure that was still satisfying?
What I loved about the screenplay and I hoped we nailed with the movie was you don't know where it's headed, but that when it gets there it all makes sense - and it only could have gone there. The film starts off like we're going a little bit to the left and then to the right, and then it comes down to the shed scene and you realize that all of those steps were necessary for that scene to have the emotional weight that I hope that it does. We know and we have an understanding of who Terri is at this point, we have an understand of what his world and what his interests are, and Heather and Chad and what they're stacked up against. And it's not that it's so planned, Act One, Act Two, Act Three, I think it's inherent in the fact that Patrick is an experienced, skilled writer, but more than anything I wanted things to feel essential without rushing from point to point.
Did the film's structure come pretty naturally from Patrick's writing?
It did. The original writing was a character study, and it was a long internal monologue about this kid that was living with his aunt and uncle and he goes to school and ends up having this long night with these two other kids. And that's the way it ended. And then the screenplay wound up coming very quickly from him, and within the screenplay and within the story, I found somebody that I felt very, very close to, without knowing them in a personal way. It thought that served as a testament to the kind of movie I could make with it.