Azazel Jacobs grew up in the world of film, understanding its importance from his father, experimental filmmaking pioneer Ken Jacobs. His newest feature, French Exit, stars Michelle Pfeiffer, Lucas Hedges, and Tracy Letts, giving Jacobs his biggest stage and audience yet as the Closing Night selection of the 58th New York Film Festival. 

Following a mother, a son, and a cat who flee to Paris after losing their fortune, the film presents a jump in scale and pressure for Jacobs, marking his latest collaboration with novelist Patrick deWitt. I spoke with the filmmaker about childhood screenings, identifying as a filmmaker, casting Michelle Pfeiffer, and crafting his newest piece of art with his best friend.

The Film Stage: When did you see the finished version of the film? 

Azazel Jacobs: Tuesday. So I’ve been working up until that moment, getting things together until Tuesday. So it’s been going, and I’m working with post production in Ireland. It was really particularly slow moving, but also it worked, ultimately, but it just took a long time to get to the link that I wanted you all to see. You’re getting me at a time where nothing’s rehearsed. It gets really safe in a while. I’ll know when to pause.

And how does it feel for it to now be out into the world?

It’s a strange feeling. It definitely feels like it’s out of my hands. And it was sinking in this past night. And today, it’s that sense of not having this thing to wake up and just be obsessed and have to escape to. And that void that I always feel after making a film is also there. It’s the lack of being in the room to see if people are laughing, when people are laughing, how people are feeling. And at the same time, it does seem like an incredible time to have a film out, to put out a piece of what I hope to be art. So this is all to say it’s conflicting. 

You mentioned this void you feel when you put out a film. Can you tell me just a little bit more about that feeling as a whole?

It’s this film that you’re prepping, and shooting, and then in post you’re judging, judging, judging, judging yourself. How to make this more precise. And then you finish and you go to the world, “Judge away.” And it’s just this strange thing, where I can only imagine what it must be like to be a parent. I mean, I know that’s like the cliché, but this feeling of just like, will this thing stand on its own? Is it what I hope it to be? Will it matter? And on the other side, I’m a person that’s made films that have come out, especially with my first film, that there was no response. And that was way more painful than any kind of criticism that could happen. It’s being seen, and it’s being part of a conversation––us talking about how it feels is the nourishment on the other side of making films that makes you energized and excited and partly inspired to keep going and make the next one. 

How did you go about creating the tone of the film, this hyper-specific blend of melancholy and comedy?

Well, that conflicting tone is something that I think I wrestle with, in all the films that I make, and that I’m attracted to and inspired by, because you’re living in this world, and I’m trying to be conscious of what’s going on, especially just the pain that goes on with part of being alive. The making of a film is so joyful for me. So there’s this contrast that just happens. And there’s also so much pain, but like the experience of being on set, looking at actors, amazing actors doing amazing things, the idea of stepping out of yourself and losing that force that’s doubting you. It’s still something that I marvel at. So it’s that twist that I feel in my own life that I really try to go towards and replicate. It’s that tone that really attracted me to this book and in telling the story. Patrick’s writing is very sad. It’s really funny. It’s really theatrical. It’s really grounded. And so that balance of going, “Okay, how do I make this theatrical? How do I make this grounded?” This sense of truth with acknowledging the fantasy of making movies. And so it was something that I pursued. So much of it was created on the soundstage. So every detail about that was something that I tried to put that conflict in.

In terms of the novel itself, when’d you first read it? How’d you decide to adapt it?

Patrick and I have been best friends for many, many years. And he wrote a previous film called Terri. Yeah. So since before that time, we started showing work that was far enough along that we felt like it represented what we wanted it to be, but also early enough that it could get some feedback, and hopefully some encouragement and some criticism. And so I’ve been reading his books since the first one in manuscript that was close to a finished version. So The Sisters Brothers, which I loved, but also instantly knew that it wasn’t my film, for whatever reason. I knew it wasn’t my story to tell. But I did see John C. Reilly. So I sent it over as a manuscript to John, because we just made Terri together. I read French Exit, probably three and a half years ago, I printed it out. I sat down in a park and read it in one sitting. I found myself very connected in ways, and I wanted to know why I found myself so connected. 

And why did you feel connected? Did you figure it out along the way?

You know, there’s two answers to that. The first in terms of making the film, I go on instinct, and I try not to double think about anything. Focus on why I am connecting and just pursue that connection and go, “Okay, this feels right, this feels interesting to me.” And a lot of it has to do with just talking about the film when it’s finished with my wife. We wound up having a talk about the film, and dealing with class in a way that I can see a connection with my other work as well. I would also say the films that I talked about a lot with Lucas and Michelle, more films about class. And now I’m also thinking about how Frances does not know what to do with her life after this idea that money is going to run out. And I was thinking about the nights, the many, many nights I’ve had in my life, where I wonder if I will be able to make another film. And who am I if I’m not making a film? What am I if this is the thing that I identify myself with? 

When did you first identify yourself as a filmmaker? 

My father is a filmmaker. And I was surrounded by artists, so that this was something really important. There was no money in their world, and it was life or death stakes, and all the conversations about the film. There would be screenings at my house. And there would be huge arguments afterward that I’d fall asleep listening to. And the fact that these words between each other meant so much that it would get into this whole thing. They’d start yelling, somebody would storm out. And then the next day, the same thing again. So it had a big impression on me. And I just remember so many times, my dad just grabbing me and my sisters, and saying we’re out of this fucking place [after a screening]. A big fuck you, and then they’d leave. And then the next morning it would be the next thing. And so that exchange had a big impression on me. The idea that art was something worthwhile was there. But then I picked up a Super 8 camera on my senior year of high school, which is not so unusual because cameras were all over the house, and just shot a film that was just glimpses of the city and pieces of friends and then projecting it and that gave me a sense of something that I hadn’t felt before. I wanted to go farther. So that was the beginning.

Does that feel like a long time ago? Picking up that first camera?

It doesn’t feel so far away. It really feels like something similar in terms of what it gives me and that sense of having no idea what is next. But I don’t know exactly why this is something that feels so essential to my being. Yet, it nourishes and excites me the same way.

It’s impossible to not put things in perspective. Every day that I was cutting, the news was horrendous as it is now. So, understanding that what I’m making is far from an essential service, it was part of the post production process at the same time, knowing what it was giving me to escape into. And also the guilt of escape is there as well.

How does it feel to have a film close the New York Film Festival? Is it an added sense of weight and pressure? How has it affected you?

Oh, yeah, it affects me. I’m always kind of nervous, and I have a lot of anxiety. Just curious. And to me, it does mean a lot on an emotional level, means a lot to me to be at this festival. And to be closing this festival. It is a festival I’m familiar with, as a kid growing up, but also at this particular time to bring me back to New York, to hopefully contribute something artistic. This film is a period film now. It’s a past when I look at the film, and I see everybody in the background eating at the restaurants and walking by. It all seems impossible to me. This will always be part of our story, that collective story. So the idea that I had the last window to shoot, when this was not even a beginning of a glimmer of a thought, in my mind, is kind of an amazing thing. And honestly, we wrapped December 15, and we still had some additional shooting, but I think we did that the last week of February. So anything later and this film would not be finished. So any anxiety that I feel about premiering is countered with the idea of just feeling like film can be shelved until who knows when.

Did you have the main cast in mind, or was it more of a process to pick each actor?

We discovered through the process. I had no idea what [Michelle Pfeiffer] would do with Frances, but I felt like it was something that she was interested in. I knew she would do something amazing with it. And I felt like she was an actress that proved that no matter how much access she has had, she’s still hungry and still curious and still wanted to try things that were challenging. In terms of thinking of her son, we thought of Lucas. I had just seen The Waverly Gallery in New York, and even though he’s not playing Malcolm, there is so much that he did within that space that Malcolm had. Malcolm has that same amount of things to express [as Frances] without words, and there are very few actors that I felt could do that, and definitely not in the way he wound up doing this for me. 

And what challenges were presented with this film that you hadn’t faced in the past, especially with this being your seemingly largest project to date?

I was working with new people for the first time, in a lot of key areas that I had never been, since I was working with the same group for many, many years. And so that was terrifying to me, and trying to find that crew and those people that had similar interests that were also hungry, that also were interested in what they were doing. That was really something that I tried to encourage, not in the way that somebody’s yelling out other lines, but that they’re seeing where we’re heading with this, and building towards that. People that are actually wanting to be present. The scope of the film is way bigger than any other film I’ve made. In the past, there weren’t so many elements for me to think about. I’m somebody that in my films, I really am looking for life to intercept and show me surprises. And using actual locations, or whatever it is. And in this case, it was such a particular world that felt like it needed to be controlled with every element, in ways that I had never tried. And also didn’t know if I had the ability to, and it scared me. And that’s why I went for it.

I got inspired by seeing how elegant all the actors were, they were all going for such a precision that inspired me. I felt like there was such an easy way to throw it off balance, to go too far into this type of comedy, too far into this type of drama. So those things, those pressures were new for me. Even figuring out the colors of this world. That was something that was extremely nerve-wracking. And just the sense that at any moment, I could let the project down. I felt immense pressure to do right by Patrick as well. He’d been extremely trusting with the script, listening to ideas, and just handing over something, and giving me full faith. And there’s something really amazing that happens when people give you that type of trust, because suddenly you put so much more pressure on yourself, because you just feel like you’re the only person that could fuck it up.

French Exit premiered at the 58th New York Film Festival and opens on February 12, 2021.

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