While he’s spent more than a decade both producing and working as First Assistant director on the films of Steven Soderbergh, filmmaker Greg Jacobs is much more than just second fiddle. A utility player who wears several hats in the creative process, Jacobs has produced over two dozen films, acted as a second-unit director or assistant director on two dozen more, directed two feature-length films (2004’s “Criminal” and 2007’s “Windchill”), and has one more in the works. It’s a little film called “Magic Mike XXL” which you may have heard of.
But Jacobs is more than a jack-of-all-trades shortstop. He’s a creator, and his latest endeavor is “Red Oaks,” a TV series he conceived and co-wrote for Amazon. A coming-of-age comedy set in the “go-go” ’80s, “Red Oaks” centers on a college student trying to enjoy a last hurrah before summer comes to an end and his uncertain future begins. But with neurotic parents who want him to be an accountant, a hot girlfriend who he’s unsure he loves, and a country-club tennis instructing job that’s nowhere as cushy as it should be, this young man is more confused and adrift than you might initially believe (you can watch it for free here).
Directed by David Gordon Green, a filmmaker that Jacobs hand picked, the pilot for “Red Oaks” is a comedic delight and a throwback to the ‘80s, but not overtly or desperately so. The show is uncannily authentic to the era, and the script, written by Jacobs and Joe Gangemi, is wry and sharply observed. And then there’s the cast, which is terrific. On top of veterans like Paul Reiser and Richard Kind (doing hilarious work, no less) “Red Oaks” features Craig Roberts as the young protagonist — you should remember him from his breakout role in “Submarine” — and Jennifer Grey. Then there’s the up-and-coming cast who are equally terrific. As his slick and sly tennis instructor boss Nash, don’t be surprised if Ennis Esmer is on our actors-to-watch list, as he’s a riot. And young actor Oliver Cooper (“Project X”) feels like he was lifted right out of the 1980s he’s so much the real deal.
As usual, Jacobs is juggling many balls in the air, but of late, it’s terrifically intense. “Red Oaks” is on Amazon, and if the show gets picked up, he and his co-writer have a gigantic bible ready to go for more episodes. And then there’s “Magic Mike XXL,” the film he’s switching roles with Steven Soderbergh for. In pre-production now and shooting soon, Jacobs will direct the sequel with Soderbergh working as his DP, cameraman and editor. We spoke to Jacobs this week about “Red Oaks,” the “Magic Mike” sequel and more.
“Red Oaks” feels autobiographical. Tell me how the idea of this show came together.
Yeah, some of it’s based on — I taught at a bunch of posh tennis clubs in the New York City area when I was going through college over summers and winters when I was going to classes. So I had four or five years of stories and experiences. I had forgotten about it, and when Soderbergh and I were doing “Behind the Candelabra” he and I started talking about it and he was sort of encouraging me, he said, “Dude I think it could be a good TV show.” And then when we started working pre-production on “The Knick,” that’s when it started coming together.
These country clubs must be such a fertile environment to send up and satirize.
Definitely. And Joe Gangemi, who is writing with me, we’re of a similar age and both were teenagers in the ‘80s, so between the two of us we could definitely have some stories to toss back and forth.
I love how it’s very throwback, very ’80s, but not in an overt way. It feels authentic.
I’m glad to hear you say that, we were trying to be pretty careful about that. We didn’t want it to be kitschy. You look back at it and you’re like, “My god that was like a simpler time” but none of us wanted it to be some pastiche or sport. Just make it about “Hey, here’s a guy with a Rubik’s cube and he’s getting out of a Dolorian.”
How would you describe your adolescence from that time?
I think it’s like any kid, that’s what the hope is, that people find it universally appealing. That idea that you don’t know anything at that age, but you think you know a lot when you’re in your 20s and you’re constantly trying to find yourself. Even though it’s set in that period I hope that it’s sort of relatable to everybody. Every generation of kids is constantly going through that same experience.
Even watching “The Graduate”— there was a little bit of Benjamin Braddock that we wanted to riff on with Craig Roberts. This is why I sort of loved his look, he reminded me of Dustin Hoffman in that first 30 minutes of “The Graduate” when you see him sort of wide eyed going through this world. I just happened to be lucky in that I had that kind of a fertile interesting environment over a couple of summers. But it’s sort of very relatable I hope.
I love both the character Nash — the douchey, but likeable tennis instructor boss — and the actor who plays him. What a find.
[Laughs] He’s definitely loosely modeled after somebody I work with. This actor, Ennis Esmer, he’s fantastic. Carmen Cuba was the casting director, she cast a bunch of stuff for Soderbergh and I over the years and was really great in finding Ennis and a couple of other unknowns.
You’ve done so many jobs on set from top to bottom. Did you know you weren’t going to direct this one yourself going in?
You know, I just really love the collaborative process and I just thought it would be fun to have somebody come on and sort of be another partner with us. Then I thought, “Who do I love? Who would I want to work with?” And David Gordon Green is somebody I’ve known kind of socially over the years and I just liked the breadth of his work. He makes a drama like “Joe,” but he also makes “Pineapple Express.” So he seemed like the perfect guy to work with on this and immediately responded to the script which was great, and then it turned into a super fun collaboration. I was thrilled. It’s fun to have somebody else’s point of view sometimes. It’s another sounding board and that’s the fun thing about when you get to make movies and TV shows. There’s always one director but even the greatest directors know that they’ve got to have great people around them.
Considering your roles, you must be a sounding board for a lot of people as well, including Soderbergh.
I try to be, and I enjoy that, I really do. I love being part of the creative process. It’s satisfying even if you don’t see it onscreen or just attribute it to someone else.
You’re switching roles with Soderbergh on “Magic Mike XXL.” This kid Peter Andrews is shooting your movie. What’s that going to be like?
I know, I wish I could get a good DP [laughs]. We’re switching roles. I think it’s going to be really fun. I mean, I’m on set every day when we’re shooting [Steven’s projects] as it is. We’re constantly suggesting stuff to each other. It’s really intimate and collaborative and it always has been. So I think it’ll be a lot of fun. We already shot some second unit stuff which was a total blast. I think it’s going to be a good time.
So how much are you involved in like the script level for something like this where you’re not a writer on it?
A good producer and director’s really involved in when you get in early. You become involved in helping to develop the story.
They say directors are the bosses in film and writers are the bosses in TV. Is it fair to say “Red Oaks” is your show?
Yes and no. I think that even on something like “The Knick,” for example, it really is collaborative. I’m not even sure who you’d say the showrunner is. Steven and I and the writers Jack [Amiel] and Michael [Begler] were there every day, [it’s] a super collaborative effort. I mean those guys wrote incredible material, but Steven was very involved in helping to develop stories, and to a lesser extent I was a sounding board. When one filmmaker is directing every hour of a show like “The Knick” – I think it’s as much his as it is the writers’.
We’re seeing that more and more, like the last season of “True Detective.”
It feels like it’s becoming a new way for filmmakers to try something beyond what’s inside of a two-hour movie. “I want to do a whole season of something.” You get to go long and wide with the characters and the story.
I feel like the mediums are starting to merge in a really interesting and healthy way.
Yeah, definitely. I mean that was my hope with “Red Oaks.” There was a moment when I was like, “Should this just be a little indie comedy?” Then Soderbergh was the one who said, “No, let’s do it as a series.” Because there’s so many stories, and the first season could be 1985, the second season could be ’86 and there are so many things we could do.
So you guys haven’t shot any more of this, but I’m assuming you’ve written it?
Joe and I have a Bible for the first season and we’ve written a couple of episodes, but we only shot that pilot in the hopes that we get it picked up. Which would be great.
It’s an interesting model, the way it gets greenlit with the help of audience input on Amazon. It feels like uncharted territory.
It really does. There’s just so many opportunities and outlets for making stuff. I just find it pretty exciting. I have two teenage sons, and they go between Netflix, Amazon and the Discovery channel. They’re not watching network television. They’ll watch shows on their computers. It’s really fascinating to me, and cool. I think it’s great.
“Magic Mike XXL” will be your third directorial feature. Why don’t you direct more?
I’ve just been happy, man. Like I said, I like working on good projects with good people and there’s always great opportunities with Steven and a couple of other interesting filmmakers when I have time. I really enjoy that and I like producing. I like being able to help somebody like Steven achieve his vision but I do love directing too.
The prospect of directing “Magic Mike” [the sequel], it excited me and I really wanted to do it and I loved the first one, which I produced and was part of too. I love Channing and I love the guys and so it just felt like it was a story I knew I could tell in conjunction with those guys.
What can we expect from this one? How is it different from the first one?
It’s definitely very different. What can I say about it? It’s a road trip movie and, put it this way, it’s different enough that once you see it you’ll understand why we made a sequel. No one will be accusing us of making the same movie twice.
Is McConaughey coming back for this?
No. But there are definitely some new people. I can’t quite talk about whom yet though.
So if “Red Oaks” gets picked up, where will the story go?
It definitely goes in some pretty unexpected directions, especially the family dynamics with Craig and his parents, with Richard [Kind] and Jennifer [Grey]. The [main] character’s personal life and the women in his life will be entertaining too I hope. There’s some great stuff from Paul Reiser, which I hope we get to do.
Anything else you’re working on?
There’s another script that I wrote that looks like it’s getting put together that somebody else is going to direct. I think that hopefully you’ll sort of hear about it in the next few weeks. It’s a little thriller.
“Red Oaks” is free to watch on Amazon now.