Celebrity Interview: Azazel Jacobs talks on French Exit, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Filmmaking

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French Exit starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Lucas Hedges, and a cast of spellbinding characters has received critical acclaim and accolades worldwide. Director Azazel Jacobs took some time recently, via Zoom, to talk about the film, his cast and the process. 

With the pandemic placing restrictions on life globally, the film, which was picked by Sony Pictures Classic, saw little theatrical exposure after receiving rave reviews after closing the 2020 New York Film Festival.

Below is an excerpt of my interview with Director Azazel Jacobs.

French Exit Review – Bewitching with Captivating Character Driven Performances

Janet Walker: Congratulations on the film. French Exit is unique, quirky, and really very interesting. So, tell me a why this project interested you?

Azazel Jacobs: It offered me an escape from my own life and my own world, and my own experiences into some place completely different, some place completely unexpected and some place totally new that I wanted to go to.

JW: Describe how did you became attached to the project?

AJ: Patrick DeWitt who wrote the book French Exit and also wrote the screenplay is a close friend of mine. He wrote a previous film I made, called Terry about ten years ago, and we've traded each other's work with each other in close to finished stages for many years now, to get feedback. And so French Exit, the novel, I got to read as a manuscript before it was completely finished. It was mostly there it just hadn't been edited, maybe a few scenes were missing, read it, read it in one sitting and gathered my thoughts for a couple minutes, called him back up and just said, "'hey, I think the book is just beautiful and it's a book that I would live to turn into a movie if you're game for it"' which he was.

JW: There are always hurdles to filming, the nuts and bolts of building a film. So you read the book in 2017, how long before the film became ready to send out?

AJ: We wrapped shooting on December 15, 2019. I had a good couple of years of working on the script. Luckily, we got to a good draft of the script pretty quickly. Good enough that I was able to get it in actor's hands and was able to submit and get it in Michelle's (Michelle Pfeiffer) hands, and then continued to work on the script with her attached and then Lucas Hedges attached and so we kept on really working on the script all through the process as we started pulling the film together. Which also kind of because they both came on quite early in the process, I was able to do a lot of rehearsals, a good six month's lead up, which is a lot for me from the world I come from in terms of independent films.

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JW: Speaking of Independent films. Having actor's attached to the project and putting them to work is something else. When did the project officially get the greenlight and how did you work out the financing?

AJ: And on top of that getting final cut on the film is a whole other thing. When you're putting together the money which I was also able to achieve. The production is a Canadian Irish co-production, Patrick was born in Canadian, so that was one of the avenues that we were able to go to towards in terms of pushing this film together.

It's a film that rarely gets made now. I would say it was a bit more common a bunch of years ago, but this type of film, that really follows it's own beat, it's not a very timely film but is aiming for something timeless that's not about a big life changing event. These films that really follows its own whims, yea, and goes into odd places, they are very particular and it was amazing that kind of drew us to look for funding from outside the US, and it able to piece together that we were able to tell as story in the scope that it belonged in and on top of that one of the things I knew because the story was so particular the final cut was really important for me to get so that I could make sure the story that it was that it turned out to be.

JW: When you say Final Cut,  do you mean that you had final cut authority?

AJ: I did. There are so many things that feel like, I mean with every movie they are near impossible and when you make them you're like, oh wow how that get together. But in this case, the film felt impossible to make back then and even more so now I just can't see how a film like this gets together that's not about a quote unquote important situation but I do think they are really needed, loved and really necessary for me to have a place to escape to that's very far away from my own experiences and my own world, into something else completely.

JW: The press notes explained you filmed over 28 days. That's a condensed time frame. Describe how you pulled it off?

AJ: That' true. I've been making smaller films on a smaller budget for many years so the approach is very similar which is you have to be as prepared and be as precise as you can. Because preparation is what is cheap, and shooting is so time consuming and costly.

So just starting early and learning how to use those limitations for our benefit. I've been working with our cinematography for 15 years now, Tobias Datum, so we know how to move quickly and just getting on the same board, having the conversations that usually slow down shooting, a lot, while you're shooting, cut the conversations getting on the same page with your cast or your crew having that before shooting was essential in this case because how quickly we were moving.

At the same time, it didn't feel quick it felt correct and that is all a part of shaping the schedule is making sure you're working with people that understand we can do this if this location is near-by and it doesn't take that much time and making sure that all the time you can possibly can get out of a situation is put towards the actual shooting of it which I always felt we had the right amount of time to shoot.

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JW: How did you determine which events were important to drive the narrative?

AJ: Whim. Instinct. I loved all the different tones of the book. One of the things I loved about the book, was that it's narrative is in the title, French Exit. It's a story. It's life and death but it is life and eventual death. Instead of like having this life and death situation which is something I think I connect to a lot more just on a personal basis.

Okay so this is a person who is ultimately deciding whether to make a French Exit, this idea of disappearing without saying good-bye, really alleviates a lot of things and then for me that resembles life a lot more because I hardly ever see the chorus until way after the time as past. And that is the same with French Exit. In a weird way there is a sense that things are thrown together but I think over time, you'll see stepping back that each of these moments and beats and experiences were necessary for the next that lead us to the conclusion. That's the kind of art I love.

JW: What was your memorable moment of the entire process?

AJ: You know, I could give you one of the most memorable. I don't know I could give you the most. This film wound up being so incredible rewarding to me as a place, in the edit room, to escape to over this past year just to have this wonderful world and these strange, interesting, and compelling characters to go be with and to go onto the streets of Paris from my home and just see what life was like before this pandemic was even an inkling of a thought. It gave me so much and that was such a memorable experience just having that escape in this past year.

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I would also say that the first moment I met Francis Price. I had been working with Michelle Pfeiffer for six months in preparation, working on the hair color, the clothes, and the details, all the jewelry, the lighter, the search for that lighter that would have the history and the weight that we needed, to feel like she had been using this for thirty years, all these elements finally coming together on day one of shooting, and meeting Francis Price and Michelle Pfeiffer was gone and here was this new character in front of me breathing, and that something that made my heart swell and my jaw drop.

JW: What's next for you?

AJ: I've just completed directing an animated series for kids. So, a completely different way of working which was with motion captures actors but strangely something, it felt very connected to the stories. I see all the films I've made as fables and so this one was very much a fable and getting a chance to work with physical actors without, when you're directing motion capture which is completely new for me, meant that I was directing these actors without a costume, no camera, no lighting, there was very minimum props because this whole world was being created in a similar way that French Exit was but in this case completely created.

Having that world to escape to and still finding truth and finding myself in wound up being the same challenges in the same rewards and that theatrical-ness that it wound up directing through a screen, a Zoom screen, did for the eight episodes that I directed. It works, it's odd but it works.

JW: And you've been doing this through the Pandemic?

AJ: Yes. I just finished shooting them. I'm in the edit room now. Directing and working on this animated series for a company called Bron digital.

French Exit is available on streaming platforms and will make the return to theaters as the world slowly reopens. See it.

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