Azazel Jacobs, director of the new independent dramedy “Terri” in which a trio of high school students eventually reach a point where they “speak the truth,” recalls a particularly insightful date with a girl from his youth.
“She came from a very conservative family and my family is very not conservative,” Jacobs explains. “We wound up getting into this huge argument and, honestly, we could have care less about this stuff. We were mostly just kind of defending our parents. I wish I had the guts at that time to say, ‘This is not us.’”
In “Terri,” a large 15-year-old boy (Jacob Wysocki) in a small town struggles to adjust to his difficult life. According to Jacobs, “Terri’s” story evolved shortly after his screenwriter Patrick Dewitt – whom he met at a bar in Los Angeles – witnessed a pajama-clad kid taking an elderly man for a walk.
“At first, I thought, ‘OK how am I going to handle a kid who goes to school in pajamas and eats beans on toast?’ Jacobs explains. “I didn’t want it to be taken as just weird. That was a challenge to somehow make these things in some way grounded in reality.”
One of the ways in which Jacobs accomplished this was by using visual metaphors to describe Terri’s thoughts and emotions. Therein lies the character’s obsession with catching rodents in mousetraps and offering up their carcasses to wild birds. The director notes that the character – still discovering life – is fascinated by things.
“He clearly has nothing going on and is therefore able to look at what is right in front of him,” Jacobs adds. “Most kids are dealing with the social pressures of how everything is going to be looked at. He doesn’t have that. There is nobody who is looking at him. So he winds up kind of focusing on what is happening around him in nature – this cycle of life.”
Jacobs also found a way to round Terri out by giving the role to Jacob Wysocki, a young actor who exhibited a confidence the director wanted the character to posses. Wysocki’s other credits include the short-lived television series “Huge” and Matthew Lillard’s upcoming directorial debut “Fat Kid Rules the World.”
“I think the quirk that comes with these characters is usually this ‘woe-is-me’ characteristic,” Jacobs explains. “When we’re opening up, Terri is OK because he has to be. He’s not somebody who is looking for help. I thought this was something that Jacob himself had as a person.”
Jacobs was equally impressed with “Terri’s” female lead Olivia Crocicchia, who is most well-known for her role on television’s “Rescue Me” and will appear next year alongside the likes of Jake Gyllenhaal, Jessica Biel, James Marsden, Catherine Keener, Kristie Allie, Paul Reubens, James Brolin, Tracy Morgan and Jon Stewart in “Nailed.”
“Olivia brought in something that I really wanted with Heather, which was not to be a villain or a victim,” Jacobs says. “I feel like these hot, fast girl characters are generally portrayed in that way and I kind of wanted to shy away from that for one to just understand her. When I watched what Olivia did with Heather, I’m really touched by her and feel for her.”
As for “Terri’s” biggest star – John C. Reilly – Jacobs recalls being a bit intimidated knowing that he was directing someone who has worked with Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman. However, acknowledging that he had a very limited amount of time, Jacobs pushed past the feeling and discovered that Reilly is not only a great actor but also a very good person.
“We shot this over 24 days but that pressure is good,” Jacobs notes. “I’m somebody who went to film school because I really liked having to deliver certain things by certain dates. Having a finite amount of money and a finite number of days just made me kind of have to push harder and not be lazy.”
Jacobs is pleased that audiences are responding to “Terri,” something that he claims helps him feel “a lot less alone.” He is collaborating with Dewitt again and believes that the screenwriter is somebody he should definitely “hold on to” – a welcomed revelation in the grand scope of things.
“Especially in Los Angeles, everybody has something they are working on – a book, a screenplay, etc.” Jacobs says. “It is a strange place to cross with a person who you are just getting to know because you want to keep liking them and you know if you don’t like their work thing are going to be altered.”
“Terri” (R – 105 minutes) opens Friday exclusively at Harkins Camelview 5. Visit FirstLook.com for specific showtimes.
Listen to Joseph J. Airdo’s “Movie Maverick” radio segment, every Friday morning at 9:30 a.m. during “The Daily Blender with Jeffry O’Brien” on KBSZ – NBC 1260 AM and 96.1 FM.