Keeping it real

Azazel Jacobs on mixing the comedic and dramatic in Doll & Em.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Doll & Em director Azazel Jacobs: "I'm interested in looking at humans and seeing how people are with each other"
Doll & Em director Azazel Jacobs: "I'm interested in looking at humans and seeing how people are with each other" Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
After the premiere screening at New York's Museum of Modern Art of all six episodes of King Bee Productions and HBO's Doll & Em, starring Emily Mortimer and Dolly Wells, I met up with director Azazel Jacobs to talk about the spirit of place in Hollywood and how it allows him to communicate with Charlie Chaplin, on site with Roman Polanski's Chinatown, Joseph L Mankiewicz, Laurel and Hardy. He told me about the human growing from an idea and why tone triumphs over story.

We see Bradley Cooper stay on the red carpet, Jonathan Cake practice a pick-up line worthy of Hong Sang-soo, while ice cream determines master and servant.

Anne-Katrin Titze: The series producer Alessandro Nivola told me that the idea started with seeing Michael Winterbottom's The Trip.

Azazel Jacobs: Oh really? That makes sense. When they came to me, I had just seen Joseph Losey's The Servant [1963 screenplay by Harold Pinter] and they had recently seen it and I was so excited I was thinking about it a lot. It had a very big impact on me so when they brought this idea it played in really well with something that was already on my mind.

AKT: Were you part of Doll & Em from the beginning?

AJ: They came to me with just the idea. What if Emily hired Dolly?

AKT: And All About Eve? How did that come in?

AJ: All About Eve is just one of those films. For us, All About Eve laid down a story that we could now examine in a different way. It was already told as best as could be and allowed us now to use it as a backdrop and focus on something else, which is the in-between.

AKT: Of course, when you have that mix of fiction and reality and not really having either, the audience wonders about what their relationship is actually like. After seeing all of the episodes at MoMA last night, I thought that when you are dealing with Hollywood and actors, what layers of reality are we even talking about here? How did you deal with inventions and various accuracies?

Dolly Wells and Emily Mortimer working on Doll & Em: "What if Emily hired Dolly?"
Dolly Wells and Emily Mortimer working on Doll & Em: "What if Emily hired Dolly?"
AJ: I think the invention was the premise and then from that point on everything we did was to try and be truthful of what that could do to a real relationship. Now I could see this from Emily's side, now I could see this from Dolly's side and see how they split. You know going in that there's going to be a split. It allowed us to see where the splits start happening. How does it happen and how can we see this in both a comedic and a dramatic way? The Trip did that perfectly as well, where you go from just laughing to something completely emotional.

AKT: The production of The Tempest on a boat at the end, did that exist or did you make that up?

AJ: No, that was real. Emily's, I think, cousin had directed that play on that boat and she had gone maybe a year or so earlier. She managed to get the cast and crew for the most part back together and we shot a very abbreviated version. I don't think that would have been nearly as powerful if it had been a construct of ours. The same thing with Hollywood. Hollywood life wasn't so much our focus.

AKT: The feudal system?

AJ: Yeah, the feudal system. The base of it exists everywhere. Wherever you turn your camera, you see, okay, Chaplin shot there, this was in Sunset Boulevard. All of it is there already in the foundation.

AKT: The relationship to come between the two is set up perfectly in the scene with the ice cream in episode one. Everything is there in a nutshell, or an ice-cream cone, if you will. How did this scene come about? Alessandro also told me that the first 20 minutes stayed the way they were shot at first.

AJ: That first episode was shot just with me and Dolly and Emily. I was doing sound. Exactly where you said, this was where we start seeing what's got confused already. We wrote the basic idea. How are we going to show that difference? That episode in particular was the most improv-based because we weren't making it for anything else. After we got permission, we wrote everything else. That scene, in particular, unfolded itself. Once we started laughing and cringing making it, it got us very excited.

AKT: Even after seeing it all unfold, the scene holds up. The tree grows out of that ice cream. I like the opening credits. We see Bradley Cooper with Emily on the red carpet and the desperate phone call. You never go back to that moment. You weren't tempted to?

AJ: No. It's the same with my movies as well. Story for me is the least interesting part of this. I'm interested in looking at humans and seeing how people are with each other. If you are cuing into the show to get a story you are going to be left disappointed. I hope it is revealing something about humans and friendship in a way that we haven't seen before. Trying to tell a story that hasn't been told before seems impossible.

Dolly Wells and Emily Mortimer: "Now I could see this from Emily's side, now I could see this from Dolly's side and see how they split"
Dolly Wells and Emily Mortimer: "Now I could see this from Emily's side, now I could see this from Dolly's side and see how they split"
AKT: There was one moment of confusion for me. Did I catch this correctly, that it was the brother at the end with the bike? The scene suddenly turned into something from the theatre of the absurd, a powerful switch. The torn-off sleeve reminded me of a tale of transformation, where the sister does not manage to finish knitting a sweater for one of her brothers who had been turned into a swan. He then returns to his human form with one swan wing for an arm.

AJ: That's good! Our hope is that you start out with something that is funny and as time goes on they become more and more human. In that scene, in particular, for me, you see who Emily is, how much she needed Dolly, how her immediate family has such a distance, how much of a loss Dolly was. It was the brother.

AKT: It was one of the darkest moments.

AJ: It surprised us too. But everything we took seriously, even comedy.

AKT: One of my favourite moments of physical comedy is when Emily eats cauliflower with a straw. Was that improvised?

AJ: No, that must have been something Emily had gone through. We all wrote together but some things, definitely only they could know.

AKT: And that wild fake chin she has in that scene. Who came up with that?

AJ: That really came down to budget. To do an all-new old-age face is so much money. We had this incredible make-up artist that had done an ageing scene in something else but it was based on somebody else's face. So they just made it work and put that person's chin on her. It has that kind of Jay Leno effect.

AKT: "All my friends become acquaintances," is the running gag Hollywood party pick-up line. Something you heard?

AJ: Something we wrote. We saw the potential with each character. We expect them to be - okay they're from Hollywood, so they're flaky. We already distrust them. We played with that. Again, I hope you see by the end with Buddy, there is something tight with Dolly and he actually ends up caring. It goes beyond that mantra he has to pick up girls.

AKT: The repetition works similarly to some lines in Hong Sang-soo films. The relationship between Dolly and Buddy (Jonathan Cake) has progressed quite a bit when they walk in the empty river bed. That scene had a flavour of Polanski's Chinatown for me.

AJ: We had to shoot there. I wanted that. I've been living in Los Angeles and I can't get enough that I live on the sets of Chaplin. That I'm there where Laurel and Hardy were. Even if things have been shot out as much, I still, maybe even more so, the fact that there could be a connection to Grease or to Chinatown - I wanted this so much to be there.

AKT: The spirit of place?

AJ: The spirit of place that these things exist. You get a chance with films to communicate with directors or filmmakers who are no longer living, it doesn't matter. But there is this chance to pick up on their language and speak back.

AKT: The director in Doll & Em…

AJ: Nothing to do with me!

AKT: Interesting choice to have him be the one no one really ever listens to.

AJ: I know. Poor guy! I feel so much for him. I really do. Of course I relate to this juggle. The film that he is making does look pretty bad to me. I like that he is pushing to say something that he wants to.

AKT: Higher justice comes into the picture at the handicapped parking spot. What is that saying? The Lord punishes little sins immediately?

Azazel Jacobs on the ageing make-up in Doll & Em: "It has that kind of Jay Leno effect"
Azazel Jacobs on the ageing make-up in Doll & Em: "It has that kind of Jay Leno effect"
AJ: Yeah. I know. What's so nice about making this and especially about TV right now, where Breaking Bad could be so scary one moment and so funny, is that we could go immediately into slapstick and onto something else. That we can have all these tones within one piece is so much fun for me.

AKT: And you need great actresses. And in this case you found them.

AJ: That's where it all began. That's what this show is a celebration of - a creative friendship. When they talk about making something together, well here it is, what we just watched. This could only come from a real friendship and not the characters that they are portraying.

Doll & Em's third episode is on HBO in the US, March 26, at 10pm. In the UK it is currently showing on Tuesday nights on Sky Living at 10pm, the sixth and final episode will air on March 25.

Read Part 1 and Part 2 of our interview with Alessandro Nivola.

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