SFIFF – Interview With Azazel Jacobs and Creed Bratton of Terri
Terri held the honor of the Centerpiece Film at the San Francisco International Film Festival this year. It’s directed by Azazel Jacobs, written by Patrick DeWitt and stars John C. Reilly, Creed Bratton, and Jacob Wysocki. Terri first screened at Sundance and had locked down distribution even before that (it should be coming to a theater near you sometime soon!). Azazel and Creed agreed to an interview for your enjoyment.
BG: Azazel, can you talk a bit about where the idea came from for Terri.
AJ: The screenplay was written by Patrick DeWitt who is a novelist. His first book is called Ablutions, I loved it. But it was like a bar story, and I didn’t know what I could do with it. I was looking to work with Pat on something, but I didn’t know what. He had an experience of seeing a kid walking by taking care of an elderly person, and the kid was wearing pajamas. And he started thinking about that, then we started talking about it. He started writing some pages about a bunch of different characters which he shared with me. One of which was Terri, and I thought there was a movie there.
BG: You’re credited with the story, but not that script. How did that happen?
AJ: Originally, I was supposed to be a co-screenwriter on it. But what wound up happening was the idea was he would send me a few pages each day as he wrote them. But we did a cross-country trip, we drove from LA to Portland together. We took five, six days, just really took our time, went ATV driving, you know, that sort of thing. We just talked about Terri, about the story. So, by the time we got to Portland, we knew what the story was. The idea was he was going to send me a few pages each day and then I would rewrite those pages. But instead, those pages ended up being great, and I ended up not having to do much. So I decided the best thing to do would be for me to take my name off as screenwriter and just give it to Pat.
BG: So, you had distribution locked down before you even screened at Sundance, is that right?
AJ: That’s right.
BG: Can you describe Terri, the film, for those that haven’t had the opportunity to see it yet?
AJ: Descriptions have been hard because I think on the surface it’s a story about, you know, a boy in a small town school who’s having a very tough time. He’s decided he’s going to just accept his fate, and things change unexpectedly when he gets, when he kind of interacts with his vice principal. And on the other side of it, I think there’s a story about a kid that kind of feels marooned on an island, and then kind of finds out there are some other people that feel that same way.
BG: Creed, you play Terri’s uncle, James, who has an unnamed illness.
CB: Yes, it’s an unnamed illness but we kind of decided it would be a form of dementia. We don’t ever say what it is exactly, but it’s dementia. He’s out there most of the time. But some time’s he’s very lucid.
BG: It’s a very different role for you. Everybody knows you from The Office, obviously, so what drew you to this script?
CB: First of all, John C. Reilly. Just his name alone made me pay attention. When they say, John C. Reilly’s going to be in the movie, I’ll read the script! So then, I came in and read the script. I thought it was really well done. Once I met Az, I hated him immediately. [Laughs] I felt that he was a very good thing. I knew he wouldn’t put me in harm’s way, he would take care of me and do the right thing. And he promised me that [Uncle James] wouldn’t come off as the ‘Creed’ character. That was scary. I thought someone would come in and go, oh, that’s Creed from The Office, and that would’ve have been a bad thing.
BG: Personally, I didn’t see that happen at all.
CB: Yeah, most people have been saying that. That’s really good.
AJ: I actually did that for the audition when he came in. I was like, wow, it’s Creed from The Office!
CB: [Laughs] You got over that pretty fast.
BG: I was really intrigued by the relationship between Terri and his Uncle. How did you see that relationship as your character? It didn’t quite seem to be like a father/son thing, but it was still a very close relationship.
CB: I have to say that a lot of it has to do with as soon as I met Jacob [Wysocki, who plays Terri], he and I became friends. There was just an instant camaraderie there. And I believe the situation is that Uncle James believes he’s helping, he’s the caregiver. But in reality, it’s Terri. You can see that when my character is out of it, Jake’s character Terri is handling me very tenderly, walking me out of the room. You can feel he’s concerned about me, and that helps so much. The moments when I’m lucid enough, my character certainly loves and cares for him.
BG: Neither of Terri’s parents are in the film, and their absence isn’t discussed. Is there a back story there?
AJ: There is a back story there. But ultimately, I decided that it was just important that they weren’t there, that he was left in the charge of this man who was fading away. The balance of who was in charge of who was quickly changing.
CB: Didn’t you tell me originally that [Terri] was left with my wife, who died?
AJ: Yes, originally Terri and James weren’t even really related.
CB: Yes, so she was left with my wife who was lucid. Then she died and suddenly, here we are.
BG: I read that you won an award at Slamdance back in 1997 which kind of influenced Terri in a roundabout way.
AJ: That’s how I met the producer Alison [Dickey], and the casting director Nicole Arbustow. Nicole had seen Kirk and Kerry, that’s the name of the film at Slamdance in 1997. I won that award and I came back to an answering machine full of messages from every studio, from people that wanted to see the film. It was a twenty six-minute experimental film, so all of these people wanted the VHS. I sent it out to everybody, including Nicole, and I hear back from no one except from Nicole. Apparently, everyone else saw it and went, whoa, why did this win an award? But Nicole got it, and wrote such a nice letter back to me about this movie. That meant a lot, especially since I didn’t hear back from a single other person. The fact that they wanted to be involved in something else that I did meant a lot. So that’s how the conversation with Alison began. From that point on, we’ve kind of talked to each other and tried to find the right project.
BG: Slamdance is really cool for finding some stuff other festivals miss. This is your forth feature, but you haven’t had a cast of this caliber to this point. Can you talk about how you got everyone on board?
AJ: It was a very long courting process with John. You’d think it would be easier since Alison and John are married. That kind of helped, the fact Alison and I had been searching so long for something to work on together. You’d think that would kind of guarantee John would hear about the project, but there’s no way he would just attach himself to something because his wife was working on it. It doesn’t work that way. What ended up happening is they both ended up seeing Momma’s Man, which was my previous film. They responded very strongly to it. I also kind of got lucky in that John had this guidance counselor character that he had long want to play, and saw in Fitzgerald the possibility of getting that person in, and that he responded really well to the material.
BG: Tell us a bit about Terri’s relationship with John’s character Fitzgerald.
AJ: You know, I think that there’s something extremely humane in their relationship. And I really like how flawed John plays Fitzgerald. I think ultimately he speaks the truth, even though he has a bizarre way of getting there. And he has these actions that could end up getting someone fired or whatever. But I think this is an honest relationship, these are people that are recognizing themselves in each other.
CB: And John didn’t play it for laughs. Even in the office stuff.
CB: Yeah, he said he wasn’t trying to get laughs all the time.
AJ: Yeah, and I don’t think you get that. I think that the laughs come from the material. The material is there, and allows things to come to the surface. And also just the situtation–how do I make this funny? My closest relationships are with people that make me laugh. Mine and Pat’s relationship is about making each other laugh. But at the same time, I wasn’t just interested in making something quirky, or playing anything for laughs.
BG: I find it interesting that people are comparing it to Napolean Dynamite since this is such a very complex drama. And I like what you said about these characters being flawed. In the film, Terri set up this date with a girl who wanted to come and meet this mentally vacant Uncle James. But when the time came, Creed, your character was extremely lucid during that time–
CB: So Terri pushed the drugs on me. That was a very dark moment. You’d think it’d be unlike him. I think it goes back to Fitzgerald saying, everybody’s flawed at times, we’re only human. The girl took priority over the uncle that night.
AJ: It would have been so weird if she had shown up and the uncle was just there and normal.
CB: It would ruin the whole reason she came over for.
BG: Was there room for improvisation? Were any of the scenes improvised?
CB: No. I never did a thing. It was all in the script, all written out that way. Az, I think you mentioned John did a bit.
AJ: Yeah, there were a couple lines. And it was the same thing with Momma’s Man, you know, people would say, I think I’d feel more comfortable saying it this way. Especially when I was working on my parents in Momma’s Man, the shifting would always be, well we’d say it more this way, since it’s based on the characters. And then sometimes people would say something like, I think I’d say it this way, and I’d be open to trying and seeing what that felt like. But again, I felt like the screenplay was great. I think it was one of the best screenplays I had read. And I really wanted to tell that story.
CB: And to its credit, it comes off really natural.
BG: What’s it like watching this movie with an audience? What sort of reactions are you getting?
CB: This was the third time I watched it. I saw it twice at Sundance, oh, and then I saw it again when I showed my manager. So this was the fourth time, I see the humanity in the movie. More and more, I see the resilience in Terri. I see this guy who is an outsider. I think we’ve all seen people like that. In high school, we see how cruel kids are. He doesn’t just have tough, thick skin. He’s resolved, he’s resolved to his fate. And I watch him, and he’s just stoic. He’s stoic. And he’s strong. He doesn’t get himself coerced. He doesn’t allow himself to be snowed over at all. It’s a strong piece for him.
BG: Is Terri autobiographical in any way, or based on someone you knew? Like you said, everybody knows a Terri; we all went to high school. But there seems to be a very personal element to this film. I related to several parts of it.
AJ: I really see myself or at least parts of myself in many of these characters. What’s interesting for me is that this is not a story based on my personal experiences. I wanted to do something that wasn’t that. I wanted to tell somebody else’s story. But in terms of screening it to people, I feel like the feedback I’ve been getting is that I told a lot of people’s story. A lot of people came up to me and told me that some character, some part of it is their story and they’ll tell me about their high school experiences. You know, it’s an amazing feeling to feel that I was able to get a personal connection to the work, through the work of it. But I like the idea that I was able to tell a bunch of people’s stories even though I didn’t know them.
BG: A character like Terri in real life would have been ostercized and made fun of it quite a bit. And it seems like there was a conscious decision not to focus on that.
AJ: That’s because you already know that. The thing about great high school movies, we have Clueless, we have the Hughes movies, we have all these great coming-of-age high school movies. And that allowed me to be like, okay, we know he’s tortured. Everybody can see. I don’t need to go into that. It’s been done, and done correctly, like in Welcome to the Dollhouse. And now I can try and tell a different aspect of it.
BG: I like that you mention Clueless right along side Welcome to the Dollhouse.
AJ: They’re both great films.
BG: Are there specific movies that inspired you with Terri?
AJ: I went back to all of them. I was so impressed with them. They had such a big impact in shaping me, in terms of the films that me and Toby [Datum], the DP, watched a lot before, what was most discussed was just being there, actually being there. Finding a tone for the humor, the way that we’re going to work with camera. And also Joseph Losey’s The Servant, these are all high school movies that kind of gave us an approach. But personally, just going back to all my favorites, I just went, wow, these still hold true. Clueless is really great.
CB: What I really do like about what you did with it Az, is you have a light touch. And it could have shifted any time into a parody. It could have shifted into some awkward places. And you just rode that light, delicate balance where you just stayed true to its nature, and never went heavy. That thing could have been maudlin. It could have been maudlin. And it never went there.
BG: You mentioned that some of the actors weren’t going for laughs all the time. Are you surprised at how funny people are finding it? Is that what you expected?
AJ: You know, it’s what I hoped for. I love hearing that. When you’re sitting in the theater and you’re hearing people respond to it, it’s such a great feeling. I have never felt people laughing at the work. I feel like they’re laughing with these characters and they’re feeling what they’re feeling. I think we’re strange bizarre people. And think this is what we do, we all went to high school and remember what a weird, weird time that was.
BG: So what projects do you have coming up?
AJ: I’ve been working on a detective story I want to tell next. There’s a couple projects, but that’s what I want to do next.
BG: Are you working on that with Patrick?
AJ: Patrick and I are working on something else. I wrote the detective screeplay with another screening writer Gill Dennis, who most recently wrote Walk the Line. We’re hoping to make that next.
CB: I’ve got a film coming out called I Am Ben. Then there’s Melvin Smarty. That was shot here in San Francisco. Another film called The Ghastly Love of Johnny X. I play an alien musician from the Planet X who dies from debauchery. And then a promoter holds his son’s girlfriend hostage so the son has to come down with a “resurrection suit” and bring me back to life for one last final concert.
BG: Wow, that sounds amazing.
CB: It should be pretty bizarre. And I’m doing some gigs with my band. Oh, and I’m doing a Barbara Streisand movie, too.
BG: Are you really?
CB: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
AJ: Aren’t you on some show or something?
CB: Oh yeah, I’ve got this TV show called The Workspace, The American Workspace. The Cubicle, or The Cubicle Chronicles, something like that.
BG: When are people going to get to see Terri?
AJ: July 1st. I just got confirmation it will be playing in San Francisco on July 1st, as well as other markets. I know for sure New York and LA. The company that’s releasing it, ATO, really believes in the film. It’s been getting this kind of great reaction. I’m really hoping people will go out and see it. And that will dictate how far it goes.
BF: Is there anything else you want people to know about your film?
AJ: You know, I’m just really proud of this movie. I think what the people did in terms of making this film is something different. And it’s worth seeing.
Check out Terri on July 1st. Check out my review of the film here.