Interview: Azazel Jacobs on Having the Confidence to Make a Departure with “French Exit”

In the kind of delicious irony that would usually turn up in one of his films, it has been a pleasure to watch Azazel Jacobs emerge as one of the cinema’s great chroniclers of unhealthy codependent relationships when they’ve been the product of such fruitful, ongoing collaborations. Take for example, his latest “French Exit,” an adaptation of Patrick deWitt’s 2018 novel about Frances (Michelle Pfeiffer), a woman of considerable means who absconds to Paris with her adult son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) when the well threatens to run dry in New York and not being one to take much luggage with her, carries only the acidic sense of humor that had been her escape at dull dinner parties and the whispers around the mysterious circumstances of her husband’s death, as well as the black cat that’s taken on his voice, beyond what cash she has left on hand.

Jacobs got his hands on deWitt’s novel before it even was in galley form, owing to a longtime friendship that began at the bar where the author once served drinks before he could make a living at writing and there’s been a gentleman’s agreement to share first drafts ever since, sparking the pair’s first collaboration “Terri” when a script evolved from what was originally intended as a novel. The two would find success apart in their respective follow-ups, with deWitt’s revisionist western “The Sisters Brothers” luring Jacques Audiard to make his English-language debut and Jacobs making his finest film to date in “The Lovers,” the delightfully diseased romantic comedy involving Debra Winger and Tracy Letts as an unhappily married couple that turns back to each other when their affairs on the side start going south. Even though the two never lost touch, the reunion of Jacobs and deWitt on “French Exit” draws on the confidence that each has in their own distinctive voices to bring out the best in each other, making a story about the collection of oddball characters that find comfort in the community that grows around Frances and Malcolm as beautiful to behold for what it reveals of its creators as what happens as it unfolds.

With Jacobs’ strong connections to frequent collaborators such as cinematographer Tobias Datum and casting director Nicole Arbusto exposed in how he cinematically folds in all the pleasing peculiarities that make deWitt’s prose so enjoyable, the film explores the unexpected bonds that Frances and Malcolm make with the likes of a fellow ex-pat (Valerie Mahaffey), a fortune teller (Danielle MacDonald) they meet on the cruise ship over and a private investigator (Isaac de Bankole) who needn’t do too much digging into their lives when they invite him to stay at their apartment, and moreover, the unusual dynamic the mother and son share with each other, at once discouraging him from making a stronger commitment to his girlfriend Susan (Imogen Poots) yet serving as a source of strength for both in a world that they never fully feel at home in.

While Pfeiffer can’t help but stand out, “French Exit” feels quite generous as an ensemble piece and for as many odd couples as Jacobs has put on screen — in the lovely HBO series “Doll and Em,” a fictionalization of the real-life friendship between Dolly Wells and Emily Mortimer, in “Terri,” where a picked-on high schooler (Jacob Wysocki) found a friend in his assistant principal (John C. Reilly), or even in “Momma’s Man,” when a father (Matt Boren) faces his midlife crisis by moving in with his own parents as a retreat from the family he started — the illuminating thought that it takes at least two to make one better has made for a truly joyous career. Recently taking the time to kindly put up with a super-fan, the director spoke about how he has adopting a more overt sense of style in his recent work, his excitement about going by the book for his first proper adaptation and working with Pfeiffer all the way through the edit on one of her greatest performances to date.

It seemed that after “Doll and Em,” you started embracing theatricality more or a more heightened sense of style. Was there actually a turning point for you?

Oh, no, I think this is a longtime obsession. Really in my first year at SUNY Purchase as a freshman studying film, I remember being so amazed when I was told that two shots being joined together were shot in different times — and sometimes these actors are facing a C-stand or facing a stand-in — and suddenly you have this other experience where they seem to be speaking to each other. Trying to figure out ways to address the mechanics and the magic of film has been really something that I can’t get enough of, so when I see it done in “Sunset Boulevard” and other films that really seem to balance [that theatricality] where they’re addressing it and embracing it, using it, pushing it against, making it part of the story, it has been an intention from the beginning.

My senior film at Purchase called “Kirk and Kerry” starred two actors whose real names were Kirk and Kerry and they were playing a couple in the film, but they were a real couple and that push and pull between these two things was fascinating then and I see it throughout my work. I think the difference between each project that I do is that for me, it feels like an opposite direction of how can I find that in some other world. That’s been more been my guiding principle, like “Okay, that really interesting and I feel like I have my hands around it. Now can I go into some place that I don’t know what it’s going to be like” and [seeing] what that experience will ultimately be.

You’ve said you actually liked having a book to adapt from – even though you go way back with Patrick deWitt, was it a different experience having something to reference like that?

Yeah, it was a good challenge and a safety to have it. It was also extremely intimidating because now we had these rules for a world that has no rules, especially dealing with a couple that’s this wealthy and don’t have to exist in the time that we do. They don’t have to function the way that we do. With “Terri,” that also began as something Pat was thinking of as a book, so when he gave me the story of “Terri,” it was one long internal piece coming from this kid Terri and then we talked about turning this into a script, so it was a much greater jump, but then with this book, I read it and I wanted it to live in very much what Pat had already laid down. I wanted to take what he did and fit it as best as we could into the mechanics of films now and make the changes happen everywhere around it to adapt to okay, how could we make this dialogue work. In what world, could this exist in? What characters could possibly say this? And really bend everything towards the direction of his writing.

One thing that was interesting is I gave the book to every actor, so I asked them to embrace that conversation of certain things that happened in the book that were not in the script. There were things that they really wanted to embrace as well, so experiences that let’s say Julius the detective [played by Isaach De Bankolé] had or Susan [played by Imogen Poots] had with or without Malcolm, these are things we constantly referenced in the midst of shooting that I believe are there. I still see them. I see this whole backstory of these little things, like if it’s the flick of a finger, I that was laid out for us and that we ran towards. It was interesting because “Sisters Brothers” was such a departure from Patrick’s book, which is not saying it should be one way or the other, but this all began with a love of this world and wanting to step out of myself, going to some place new and see how ultimately, hopefully, affect me.

Did the aesthetic come pretty naturally? I loved the idea that the frame gradually fills up over time.

Yeah, that was one of the things that started happening in the book and ultimately I was so looking forward to happening [in the film] because I love those screwball films that had that happening a lot. In this case, I think of “French Exit” as a screwball tragedy and if you’ve seen a bunch of my work, I’m trying to mix these things so it’s clear to me what my intentions are, and I know sometimes for other people it seems like I’m not deciding one way or another, but actually the decision I’m making is taking all these things in the effort of going some place I’ve never been before.

Something else I loved were these small camera push-ins when you’ve got all these beautiful tableaux-like frames — it really feels like having a pebble ripple in a pond. Were you pretty conscious of what kind of impact the small movements like that could have?

Yes, and it was something I hadn’t really done before with Toby [Datum, the cinematographer]. We’ve been working now for so many years and we are looking to go places as well with each other that we just haven’t had a chance to do. Suddenly, shooting this widescreen, getting the sense of this theatrical [feeling] you were talking about and addressing the camera as a machine, I’m pushing Toby so far away from anything that possibly could draw attention to the camera, but in this case, I really wanted to go the other way. And I think it’s humbly done, these [aren’t] egotistical camera moves, but we’re really dancing with the image as much as the characters in front of it are. That came from a bunch of places. Both Toby and I got a lot of energy from “Phantom Thread,” I got energy from “The Favourite” and then the classic movies that I love and that I kind of go back to all the time, which I just haven’t had a chance to think or have a response to in films before.

Did you have a strong idea for the score early on? I know on “The Lovers,” it became such a major part of the film after you might’ve thought about not having one, and here you’re working with Patrick’s brother Nick, so I suspected it might’ve been in mind from the start.

Nick’s a musician that I’ve long admired and it’s his first score for a film, but I had no idea what that collaboration would be like. I’m trying to remember what I had before shooting. I definitely know that Patrick writes to music and I work to music, and we completely let go of any idea of using those songs. But what it comes down to is I hear it and it’s something I could never have thought of beforehand or asked for completely. When I started working with Nick, [it felt like] your hands are in the dark, going, “Okay, you don’t know anything about how this is being made, but please could you go in this direction.” And especially when you’re working with a composer for the first time, you have no language, so you’re always grasping for words to convey emotions. It usually comes out in these grunts and impossible [expressions to comprehend] and you’re just creating this other language that you’re trying to understand each other through. So that’s what I hear. I hear the excitement of a new adventure in that music.

It was intriguing to hear Michelle Pfeiffer say that the more Frances was made to feel sympathetic in the edit, the less sympathetic she felt she was, which brought up two questions for me — one, what was like to figure out the right tone for the character, but also, is it commonplace for you to let the actors into the edit to shape the performance there?

I never worked with an actor like Michelle at all who was interested in continuing to have that conversation. I think I’d be really open to it if I had been asked before, but I definitely was definitely open to it from Michelle because I found her notes and ideas from preproduction through production so essential. There were many times where there was something in there that she’d go back to the book and point out, “Oh, this is actually a really important moment for me to be able to get to over there.” And she was right. So many times. And it wasn’t a dictation. It was a conversation. So I wanted that, especially because I couldn’t have screenings with other people [because of the pandemic while I was editing], so having that as feedback throughout was really helpful. And she’s completely right [about Frances]. The truth is that this is a fucked-up person and the person is not begging you to like her, just like the film is not begging it. It’s either for you or it’s not, and that’s how way Francis is, so that’s the way to handle both the character and the story itself.

Even without your longtime collaboration with Patrick, you have a tendency to explore codependent relationships. Is it actually something you gravitate towards?

I don’t know if I want to ask that of myself. I see those things. [laughs] I will tell you this. Two years ago, I went to a therapist because I was struggling with something and I just handed a therapist “Momma’s Man” and said, “I think this should jump us ahead 10 meetings because this is pretty much everything I have.” So I do know that I’m probing something that is very personal for myself, but also it’s always surprising. At the end of the day, I look at these things and I go wow, this came from me. How strange that this is going on? And it’s only something that can happen when the work completely represents yourself and you weren’t influenced in directions that you didn’t want to go, which I’ve been lucky enough or strong enough or fortunate enough to be able to do in so much of my work.

It surprised me to hear you say in another interview that you had total control over this one when it seems like you’ve generally been able to make the films you’ve wanted to make without compromise. Is “French Exit” particularly meaningful to you?

Yeah, this has been a life-changing experience in ways that I haven’t felt with the other ones. It’s so close to me, it’s so much how I hoped and more. It’s everything I look up to in terms of wanting to be as far a being an independent filmmaker. It’s so not dictated [by anything] other than my interest and that includes the people that I work with. I was able to go out of a lot of my own safety areas, having to work in a different country than I ever had and having to work with a different crew than I used to on a different scale and working with all these different actors. At the same time, I was able to work really hard to make sure I had final cut and this is truly an independent film and I think it’s a rare one at that, so I guess, it’s my type of movie. It’s the kind of film that during this time I really, really appreciate having as a refuge.

“French Exit” opens in select theaters on April 2nd. A full list of theaters is here.