Azazel Jacobs’ unique worldview—a place populated with characters that seem too strange to be real, and too sympathetic to be completely invented—proves to be the perfect fit for Doll & Em.
When I first enter the room, filmmaker Azazel Jacobs seems hypnotized by a collection of books on film festivals and history lined up on a bookshelf. He obviously wants to grab one, but doesn’t seem sure of which one to go for, and as he shakes my hand and sits down for our talk, seems to already be thinking about which book he’ll pick once I’m gone. As I talk to him, I learn that this is the way his brain works “[there are] so many different stories I want to tell” he explains, when I ask him about whether he’s thought about doing a detective film, based on his devotion to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.
Doll & Em
Dolly Wells, Emily Mortimer, Jonathan Cake, Aaron Himelstein, Chloe Sevigny, Susan Sarandon, John Cusack, Bradley Cooper
“One minute someone’s telling you an idea and you’re like ‘oh that sounds interesting’ and then Dolly flies over with an idea and there go the next few years of your life…” he continues. He’s referring to Dolly Wells, the leading actress and co-writer of his first foray into television, HBO’s Doll & Em, in which she plays an exaggerated version of herself along with her real life best friend (as well as co-writer and co-leading star), Emily Mortimer. The six-episode series is a biting satire of Hollywood that has Dolly flee London to Los Angeles after a bad breakup, only to end up working as her best friend’s assistant.
The lines between where the friendship ends and the professional relationship begins are almost impossible to determine, to say the least, and we see both actresses turn in deliciously self-aware performances. Jacobs is no stranger to this kind of fiction, in 2008 he directed his parents, American experimental filmmaker Ken Jacobs and his wife Flo, in Sundance sensation Momma’s Man, that had them essentially playing variations of themselves (the film was even shot in their home).
Jacobs’ unique worldview—a place populated with characters that seem too strange to be real, and too sympathetic to be completely invented—proves to be the perfect fit for Doll & Em, in which we see actors like John Cusack and Chloe Sevigny play outlandish Tinseltown types (essentially what people think they’re like in real life) and quips about aging and being discarded by the system are camouflaged under false flattery and anxiety about getting the job done.
I talked to Jacobs about working with Mortimer and Wells, about his father’s influence in his work and about why he wanted Doll & Em to be on TV instead of movie theaters. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, he ended up grabbing a book about 1992 film festivals where he was enthralled by a picture of Baz Luhrmann, “Wow, he had black hair once…” he said with a smile on his face.
I’m sure by now you’ve answered this a million times but…
...how did you start? (laughs)
Dolly and Emily, they’ve obviously been best friends since they were little girls. I met them over a dozen years ago when we were early on in our careers. Dolly had been working as an actress in London, Emily was working all over the place and I was in film school at that moment. We did a small thing way back then together and we just had the hope, interest and intention of working together again.
So we always would check in with each other to see if we had any ideas and then they came to me with this idea a couple of years ago. We talked about it, the next thing we know we sketched up a few different scenes, we shot the first episode with a crew of two just to see what we had, where we could go with this. We cut it down to the pilot, got excited and said “let’s keep going with this”.
And you were the one who suggested they turn it into a TV show instead of a feature length film. Why?
First off, I was watching TV being handled the same way as movies, with the same director, but also with the same intentions, same ability to go from dark to light. I liked all the stuff that I was seeing, so that seemed encouraging. But I also wanted to take advantage of doing slices, instead of like on a film where you have to have transitions from one scene to another. I liked the idea of isolating how we were looking at this relationship from this point and how we were looking at it from over here. That felt like something new to me.
Since Dolly and Emily have been friends for so long, they probably have a unique language they share. How was it for you to become part of this unit?
It was helpful in the writing, because if we were able to get the language to a point where I understood it, it was a good sign that the crew would understand and so would the audience. It allowed for it to always be someone from outside this relationship looking in, so it didn’t get so internal, or become something other than what we wanted.
You’ve said before that you’re devoted to your screenplays and rely on them a lot when you’re shooting. Were Emily and Dolly more improvisational or was it easy to stick to the script?
Not really, definitely at first, on the first ep we shot maybe, but afterwards we didn’t even have time to think about doing improv. You read about a Judd Apatow film, where you can try a scene this way, but I’ve never had that ability. So it meant, “OK, we have this much time to do this episode”, it didn’t allow a lot of playing around. So we tried working things out a lot before we got there. Obviously if lines weren’t working, we’d shift them, especially with the name actors, if they wanted to stick to something it was great, if they wanted to change it, we were just happy they were there…
Now that you mention the name actors, on the second episode we see Susan Sarandon smoking pot, and then you have that scene in the hot tub… which led me to wonder if there are any subjects that were completely off limit when you were working on this?
There was never anything like that and that’s why I really wanted it to be called Doll & Em, because I wanted to credit their friendship, the friendship that allowed them to do things like this. I think in order to do things like these, the relationship has to be very healthy. When I see that in movies you can either tell someone’s working their therapy or trying to dig into something, or it’s because they’ve actually gone through a process, they’ve seen these things. They know they’re flawed and fucked up, but accept it and say, “It’s OK, that’s what we are.”
Everyone seems so spot-on. How did you cast the smaller parts in the show?
That was between all of us, but a lot of credit goes to casting director Nicole Arbusto (who also cast Terri). She saw this world, understood it and tried to find the right people. We got people who were game, the same from the big actors to the people who were playing crew members, who were just people who were up to have some fun.
And how was it, to direct your co-writers?
They were never precious and I’m glad I never thought about it in those terms. If I didn’t understand something, we would talk about it and they were open about it.
Mikey and Terri and to a certain degree Dolly, all seem to be characters caught up in some sort of arrested development.
(Smiles) Oh shit, that’s for you to see. I always am starting off with trying to do something very different but my interest is the same. I’m interested in holding on, I’m still wearing Doc Martens after 20-something years (points to his shoes), so I’m not so far off.
I like the idea of—we can call it being stuck—but for me it’s the ability to play, the one thing I’d like to hold on from being a kid or being stuck in a certain place is the time and space. So yeah, Dolly’s stuck and Mikey’s stuck but it doesn’t mean their journeys aren’t worthy. It’s a real luxury to be stuck, it could be celebrated, to stay in a place and see how it works out.
Following a style you used in Momma’s Man in Doll & Em you also go back to combining fact and fiction to a point where the lines between what’s autobiographical and what’s invented are completely blurry.
But that’s the oldest trick in the world. I’m only doing that because you watch Stranger than Paradise or t Opening Night and you see that this is something that’s been so fruitful and it’s always so nice to have something that can’t be faked. In the end all I’m trying to do is not to be full of shit.
As your projects become more surreal, I can’t help but wonder if you get input from your dad when you’re working on something new.
I see the relationship in the way we’re playing with people stuck in motion. I see that when he’s playing with the nervous system and I see my characters in a similar way. It’s a dance we’re doing. When I show [my parents] work it’s when I definitely want their opinion but I’m also secure enough not to be distraught if they don’t like it. They’ll be very, very candid if they don’t like something, so I can’t show something if I’m in a too vulnerable stage. I have to be at a place where I know I’m on the right pathway and I just want to make it more precise and I’m ready to see if they like it or not.
So far I’ve been on a winning streak, they’ve cared for everything I’ve done including this show. So maybe my ultimate goal is to make stuff they like (laughs).
Two of my favorite things in Doll & Em were how well thought-out the fictional pieces within this universe were. We have Valerie Lee the film Emily is shooting, and we also see Dolly in a very unique production of The Tempest. Did you put much work into these pieces?
No, ‘cause every time I was thinking of a scene for Valerie Lee, I would just think of an equivalent from The Godfather. I used The Godfather as a template and then for The Tempest, that play existed, it was something Emily had seen, I think her nephew directed it, she’d seen it a while ago and she wanted to really incorporate it.
We couldn’t picture it until we were shooting it but for the most part we were able to get the same actors that had done the play, we were able to utilize something that had been done for many months before. It was again, something, we couldn’t have done on our own.
Besides The Godfather you have all these references to Citizen Kane and All About Eve. So which movies were you watching when you got to work on this?
I don’t know if I watched any movies while we were actually making it, but definitely, of course, the films that always go to my head are Sunset Boulevard, the whole fight in the end, my intention was for it to be a conversation with that film. I probably watch it every couple of years and I just can’t believe it exists. It says so much and it says everything to me in such a precise way.
The other film we talked about a lot was Joseph Losey’s The Servant and that was something that had an influence on us. Personally I was going through a big Altman phase inspired by Terri. I kinda was in that world of using zooms and figuring out how to be present with the camera without making it too much of an intrusion on the story.
This is the third project you’ve done with cinematographer Tobias Datum. How do you guys decide how to shoot scenes? Do you storyboard everything?
No, not at this point. Some things were like that but I love the way that he sees things, we usually meet for coffee once a week and we have a conversation about what we’re working on or the way we’re seeing films or life. That’s the preparation that goes into it. He knows what I’m looking for and I know he’ll see it better than I’d be able to.
Now that binge watching is so popular, is this the way you want people to watch Doll & Em?
It doesn’t matter what I recommend cause in reality people will watch it all at once. ‘Cause that’s how we’re all watching these things. All I wanted episodically was there to be some black inbetween the episodes, I wanted a refresh button, so whether that happens over a week or two minutes, that’s all I wanted. In the end I’m just hoping people watch.