The son of avant-garde pioneers Ken and Flo Jacobs, Azazel Jacobs has the most conventional career in his family. He’s still far from a household name, but he’s been steadily scooting closer to the mainstream ever since his first feature, Nobody Needs to Know, a satire of New York City’s theatrical subculture that doubles as a call to resist the capitalistic powers that be.
His latest, The Lovers, which premiered at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, is a tart, smart, moving, and genuinely dramatic romantic comedy. It stars Debra Winger and Tracy Letts as Mary and Michael, a long-married couple who’ve both turned to affairs after growing apart but are beginning to wonder if they’re even more tired of the affairs than they were of their marriage.
I spoke to Jacobs, who I last interviewed in 2011 for The L Magazine, at Manhattan’s Smyth Hotel about taking inspiration from 1950s romantic comedies, the chemistry between Winger and Letts, and how it felt to cede ownership of his latest film to the audience.
I love the screwball comedies and comedies of remarriage of the 1930s and ’40s, and I always wish someone would make smart, funny movies like that these days—relationship movies that respect their audiences and respect women. And you just did it!
Thank you so much. I also really love those films and was raised watching them. My parents are still watching those films. Those aren’t light films. They’re always coming from a war, approaching a war, there’s a depression going on, and all these things are very much on the surface. Also, if you go a little bit pre-code, they’re riskier than anything that’s being made today.
Were you influenced by them when you were working on this?
I hope so. I definitely saw the ability to at least think about those films with this movie, to have a connection to them. It’s a little too high of a goal to think, “Oh, I’m gonna make one just like that.” But during the writing the script, it was like, “I can see that influence on this, and there’s a way for me to respect that influence in a way that I don’t think I had a chance to before.”
Once you became conscious of that influence, did it change anything about how you were writing?
Instead of picturing present-day actors, I was able to think of, like, William Powell or Myrna Loy, people that you’ll never have a chance to work with, but you could feel their qualities in it. I definitely saw that kind of screwball ability in Debra, from past work and from meeting with her as a person.
It’s great to see Debra Winger in such a good part. So much of the story is told just by her eyes: the way she looks or the way she looks away.
How did you get her?
That’s really thanks to Terri. She saw it and she wrote a letter to me, being really touched by the film. It took about five years of me going to her with different projects, trying to figure out something we could work on. We’d meet up almost once a year and just talk and see where we were. No surprise, but she wanted to find the right thing, so it took a while.
So did you write this with her in mind?
Definitely with those eyes in mind, at a certain point. The thing that really stayed with me more than anything while I was writing, when I started thinking of her, was the way that she looks at things. You really could see what she’s thinking. I wanted this film to take advantage of that in a way that I hadn’t seen for a long time with her.
Last time we spoke, you said you’d lost the confidence, and maybe the arrogance, that made you want to tell big, important stories. But a case could be made that The Lovers is about some pretty big human themes, like the importance of living an authentic life and of seeing the people in front of you, the people you say you love. And the ways that the sins of the fathers get visited on their sons. Do you think you might be learning to see the significance of things that you used to dismiss and petty and personal?
I’m hoping that you’re seeing that because I’ve learned how to get tighter and a bit more precise and defined. My hope is that the smaller that I’ve gotten with the premises of these stories, the more worldly they’ve become.
I started writing this after experiencing the death of a close friend, and then, in the process of writing it, my dog of 16 years was dying. So it started, really, from a very low place, and trying to focus on something that was making me happy by connecting to a celebration of life. Both my dog and this person were foundations that were suddenly gone below my feet.
But I’m trusting people like you on what this is about. This screening I just saw two days ago was the first time I’ve seen it with people, so I don’t know what this movie is until I start hearing from people. I know what it feels like. I know I had a very good and important time in my own life making it. But in terms of what’s registering, if you saw that, that’s something I can hope for.
The score reminded me of the Doris Day/Rock Hudson rom-coms of the Eisenhower era, like Pillow Talk. I see them in this too, like you’ve replicated the DNA that made those movies wonderful but updated them, taking out the paternalism and lockstep 1950s conformity.
I think a lot of that has to do with the contrast of the music to the scenes, especially at the beginning. We’re starting off with something quite happy, in the way that those films usually are, in the openings. And when we see a relationship or an affair happen, we usually think of that thing. But we’re actually coming into the exhaustion, the draining feeling of where you go, “This is more work than anything I was running away from,” and then having this big explosive score. That did come from temping out songs from some of those films you’re talking about, putting it there and feeling like, “There’s a clash there that’s interesting. Let’s see what else is possible.”