The ongoing miniseries stars childhood friends Emily Mortimer and Dolly Wells as fictionalized versions of themselves — with Wells crashing with Mortimer in Los Angeles following a bad breakup at home in the UK, and taking on the awkward role of Mortimer’s personal assistant. While the two stars came up with the premise to riff on their real life relationship, Jacobs was the secret ingredient who helped bring the idea to life, having directed and co-written each episode (the second two installments air tonight). On Facebook during the week of the premiere, Jacobs was prone to posting photos of himself alongside the ads for the show, holding up a phone to mimic Mortimer’s own pose. It was a canny gesture, and also more than a little precious, like most of Jacobs’ work.
“I’m stopping that,” Jacobs said last week during a trip to his old stomping grounds in New York. He laughed. “But, you know, this really is a thrill for me.”
Jacobs might not be a marquee name, nor has the 42-year-old managed to cultivate an underground following anywhere near the appreciations allotted to his father, avant garde filmmaker Ken Jacobs. But Azazel Jacobs — who goes by “Aza” — has produced some of the shrewdest character-driven dramas developed by an American director in the past 10 years.
His 2005 film “The GoodTimesKid,” a deadpan comedy about two men with the same name and a confusion involving army recruitment, was shot on stolen 35mm film and infused with a punk rock attitude that turned it into a sleeper hit of the festival circuit. Jacobs’ 2008 followup “Momma’s Man” premiered at Sundance to great acclaim and capably bridged the gap between two generations of filmmaking in the Jacobs family. Its tender story is set in the Tribeca loft of Jacobs’ parents, who co-star alongside Matt Boren as a fictionalized version of Aza avoiding his wife and child by hiding in the nostalgic sanctuary of his childhood home. When “Doll & Em” premiered on HBO last Wednesday, Jacobs planned to watch in bed with his parents, “just like ‘Momma’s Man,'” he said.
After the success of that film came 2011’s “Terri,” one of the subtlest coming-of-age stories to play at Sundance since it became a cliché. With a supporting role for John C. Reilly as the well-intentioned assistant principal who tries to convince an overweight, alienated teen (Jacob Wysocki) to come out of his shell, “Terri” showed the first indications of Jacobs’ unassuming storytelling approach making advancements on the mainstream side of the industry.
But with “Doll & Em,” which unfolds over six half-hour episodes, Jacobs has made his first truly commercial work. Along with reflecting the wider migration of indie filmmakers to the television arena, the show also has the sort of flashy exterior that one could easily mistake for a superficial mold: Yet another improv comedy about a famous person’s boring Hollywood lifestyle. But Jacobs, in close collaboration with his actors, has crafted something much more nuanced.
As Mortimer reveals her insecurities to Dolly, whose own sense of failure gradually expands as she lingers in her famous friend’s shadow, “Doll & Em” veers away from the tired realm of showbiz satire and instead personalizes its narrative. Eventually, the cavalcade of celebrity cameos — everyone from Chloe Sevigny to Andy Garcia surface in various episodes for intriguing vignettes — recede to the background, and we’re left with a magnification of the unspoken tensions that have dogged the eponymous friends for decades. The final installment, which takes place in England, is a welcome breath of fresh air.
“We didn’t have any interest in doing an exposé of Hollywood,” said Jacobs, who speaks in a casual manner beneath a mop of curly hair. “‘All About Eve’ already did it. It’s done. We’re not talking about extras on set or the entourages that come along for the ride. All that is secondary. The reason it’s called ‘Doll and Em,’ and my focus as director, was just to see how fragile and flexible a relationship can be.”
It’s a motif that Jacobs has explored since his undergraduate days at SUNY Purchase, when his senior thesis film, “Kirk and Carey,” involved “two actors who are playing two people who are really in a relationship that are playing two actors in a relationship that were doing a student film together.” The meta quality of Jacobs’ investigation surfaces in “Doll & ‘Em” around the third episode, when Wells accompanies Mortimer to a set of her latest film, and scenes from the production start to comment on situations outside of it. “There were moments in there when it felt like this experience from 20 years ago,” Jacobs recalled. “My biggest job as a writer was to find my way in. If I can interpret it, then that was a good testament to this story being universal.”
Jacobs first met the actors while wrapping up his graduate film production work at the American Film Institute. They both had minor roles in his thesis film there, “Nobody Needs to Know,” another little-seen project that Jacobs credits as part of his evolution, “a kind of response to the very narrative language I was learning.” The trio reconnected years later, when Jacobs attended the London Film Festival with “Terri,” and the actors discussed the concept for “Doll & Em.” Jacobs was the one who suggested turning the premise into a show.
The concept has already encouraged comparisons to “The Trip,” Michael Winterbottom’s wry portrait of comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon exploring the countryside’s food options while dealing with career tensions. But Jacobs said he reached further back in film history to find echoes of his project’s concept in Joseph Losey’s 1963 drama “The Servant,” in which the titular character struggles against his master’s dominance and eventually overtakes it. “There’s something that’s horrendous and dramatic about it,” Jacobs said. “But there are also parts that are really funny.”
That blend tends to crop up a lot in Jacobs’ films, which veer from awkward humor to melancholic moments with ease — in one distinctive moment from “Terri,” the oddball comedy of the teen’s crush on a local girl turns gradually creepier and tragic over the course of an extended sequence in the shed behind his house. “That was the first time I had read something where things equally horrifying and funny were represented in the ways that I really remember as my youth. Your life was at risk, but at the same time you were having the time of your life.”
Jacobs’ own early career ambitions were upended when he discovered an industry for independent filmmaking far more robust than the experimental realm where his father worked. “I didn’t even know there was a space for a commercial world,” he said. “I just thought there was art and then there was movies and some of those big movies.” Seeing Jim Jamrusch’s “Stranger Than Paradise” as a teenager changed all that. “I realized there is an in-between,” he said. After struggling in New York for several years, he moved out to Los Angeles to attend AFI in 1999. “I really just couldn’t figure out how to make a living making art here,” he recalled. In Los Angeles, he took out a loan to attend school for two years, and when he finished up, felt confident about his career prospects. “That only happened because there’s this industry over there,” he said. “That trickle-down has allowed me to live and to work.”
Shifting from filmmaking to TV wasn’t much of a hardship fro the director. “I had a bit more meetings and got paid better,” he said. “And things moved faster. But, really, it was the same process.”
If anything, Jacobs said he appreciated stepping away from the indie world in order to explore a much healthier business. He complained about the emphasis placed on opening box office figures for movies of all sizes. “It’s ridiculous that that number isn’t related to video-on-demand figures,” he said. “We’re not getting full information. It shouldn’t even be reported. These are small works. No one is succeeding at not having a film be deemed a success or a failure. No one’s making ‘Clerks’ now. This is an impossible thing to achieve.” At HBO, by comparison, “it’s going to out and then after a few weeks going to be done and then it’s just going to exist.”
Considering his childhood roots in a world of radical left wing bohemia, Jacobs sounds notably optimistic about the prospects of working in a commercial arena. Told as much, he recoiled. “Every time we pursued a company for resources, we found a human being on the other line, somebody usually responsive and open. I have to function on the belief that they want to do something they care about,” he said. “That why I’m not a banker. That’s why I’m making movies.”
In fact, he’s already plotting a return to the feature-length arena, sorting out the details for a bigger project he has yet to reveal — aside from his dogged intentions of shooting on 35mm film. Of course, that would put him in the company of next entry in the “Star Wars” franchise. Jacobs reflected on that irony. “So people say ‘Star Wars’ destroyed independent film, and now it’s going to help?” he said. “Thank you.”