Terri held the honor of the Centerpiece Film at the San Francisco International Film Festival this year. It’s directed by Azazel Jacobs, written by Patrick DeWitt and stars John C. Reilly, Creed Bratton and Jacob Wysocki. Terri first screened at Sundance and had locked down distribution even before that. During my time at the SFIFF, I was lucky enough to catch up with Azazel and Creed to talk to them about their film. Check it out below.
We Got This Covered: Azazel, can you talk a bit about where the idea came from for Terri?
Azarel Jacobs: The screenplay was written by Patrick DeWitt who is a novelist. His first book is called Ablutions, I loved it. But it was like a bar story, and I didn’t know what I could do with it. I was looking to work with Pat on something, but I didn’t know what. He had an experience of seeing a kid walking by taking care of an elderly person, and the kid was wearing pajamas. And he started thinking about that, then we started talking about it. He started writing some pages about a bunch of different characters which he shared with me. One of which was Terri, and I thought there was a movie there.
WGTC: Can you describe Terri, the film, for those that haven’t had the opportunity to see it yet?
AJ: Descriptions have been hard because I think on the surface it’s a story about, you know, a boy in a small town school who’s having a very tough time. He’s decided he’s going to just accept his fate, and things change unexpectedly when he kind of interacts with his vice principal. And on the other side of it, I think there’s a story about a kid that kind of feels marooned on an island, and then kind of finds out there are some other people that feel that same way.
WGTC: Creed, you play Terri’s uncle James, who has an unnamed illness.
Creed Bratton: Yes, it’s an unnamed illness but we kind of decided it would be a form of dementia. We don’t ever say what it is exactly, but it’s dementia. He’s out there most of the time. But some time’s he’s very lucid.
WGTC: It’s a very different role for you. Everybody knows you from The Office, obviously, so what drew you to this script?
CB: First of all, John C. Reilly. Just his name alone made me pay attention. When they say, John C. Reilly‘s going to be in the movie, I’ll read the script! So then, I came in and read the script. I thought it was really well done. Once I met Az, I hated him immediately. [Laughs] I felt that he was a very good thing. I knew he wouldn’t put me in harm’s way, he would take care of me and do the right thing. And he promised me that [Uncle James] wouldn’t come off as the ‘Creed’ character. That was scary. I thought someone would come in and go, oh, that’s Creed from The Office, and that would’ve have been a bad thing.
WGTC: I was really intrigued by the relationship between Terri and his Uncle. How did you see that relationship as your character? It didn’t quite seem to be like a father/son thing, but it was still a very close relationship.
CB: I have to say that a lot of it has to do with as soon as I met Jacob [Wysocki, who plays Terri], he and I became friends. There was just an instant camaraderie there. And I believe the situation is that Uncle James believes he’s helping, he’s the caregiver. But in reality, it’s Terri. You can see that when my character is out of it, Jake’s character Terri is handling me very tenderly, walking me out of the room. You can feel he’s concerned about me, and that helps so much. The moments when I’m lucid enough, my character certainly loves and cares for him.
WGTC: This is your fourth feature, but you haven’t had a cast of this caliber to this point. Can you talk about how you got everyone on board?
AJ: It was a very long courting process with John. You’d think it would be easier since Alison and John are married. That kind of helped, the fact Alison and I had been searching so long for something to work on together. You’d think that would kind of guarantee John would hear about the project, but there’s no way he would just attach himself to something because his wife was working on it. It doesn’t work that way. What ended up happening is they both ended up seeing Momma’s Man, which was my previous film. They responded very strongly to it. I also kind of got lucky in that John had this guidance counselor character that he had long wanted to play, and saw in Fitzgerald the possibility of getting that person in, and that he responded really well to the material.
WGTC: Tell us a bit about Terri’s relationship with John’s character Fitzgerald.
AJ: You know, I think that there’s something extremely humane in their relationship. And I really like how flawed John plays Fitzgerald. I think ultimately he speaks the truth, even though he has a bizarre way of getting there. And he has these actions that could end up getting someone fired or whatever. But I think this is an honest relationship, these are people that are recognizing themselves in each other.
WGTC: I find it interesting that people are comparing it to Napolean Dynamite since this is such a very complex drama. And I like what you said about these characters being flawed. In the film, Terri had his big date, but Creed, your character was extremely lucid during that time–
CB: So Terri pushed the drugs on me. That was a very dark moment. You’d think it’d be unlike him. I think it goes back to Fitzgerald saying, everybody’s flawed at times, we’re only human. The girl took priority over the uncle at the night.
AJ: It would have been so weird if she had shown up and the uncle was just there and normal.
CB: It would ruin the whole reason she came over for.
WGTC: Was there room for improvisation? Were any of the scenes improvised?
CB: No. I never did a thing. It was all in the script, all written out that way. Az, I think you mentioned John did a bit.
AJ: Yeah, there were a couple lines. And it was the same thing with Momma’s Man, you know, people would say, I think I’d feel more comfortable saying it this way. Especially when I was working on my parent’s in Momma’s Man, the shifting would always be, well we’d say it more this way, since it’s based on the characters. And then sometimes people would say something like, I think I’d say it this way, and I’d be open to trying and seeing what that felt like. But again, I felt like the screenplay was great. I think it was one of the best screenplays I had read. And I really wanted to tell that story.
CB: And to its credit, it comes off really natural.
WGTC: What’s it like watching this movie with an audience? What sort of reactions are you getting?
CB: This was the third time I watched it. I saw it twice at Sundance, oh, and then I saw it again when I showed my manager. So this was the fourth time, I see the humanity in the movie. More and more, I see the resilience in Terri. I see this guy who is an outsider. I think we’ve all seen people like that. In high school, we see how cruel kids are. He doesn’t just have tough, thick skin. He’s resolved, he’s resolved to his fate.
And I watch him, and he’s just stoic. Even when Fitzgerald starts telling him stuff, he says, no, no, you’re trying to get out of this, and he tells him exactly like it is. He doesn’t get himself coerced. He busts everybody. He doesn’t allow himself to be snowed over at all. It’s a strong piece for him.
WGTC: Is Terri autobiographical in any way, or based on someone you knew? Like you said, everybody knows a Terri; we all went to high school. But there seems to be a very personal element to this film, I related to several parts of it.
AJ: I really see myself or at least parts of myself in many of these characters. What’s interesting for me is that this is not a story based on my personal experiences. I wanted to do something that wasn’t that, I wanted to tell somebody else’s story. But in terms of screening it to people, I feel like the feedback I’ve been getting is that I told a lot of people’s story.
A lot of people came up to me and told me that some character, some part of it is their story and they’ll tell me about their high school experiences. You know, it’s an amazing feeling to feel that I was able to get a personal connection to the work, through the work of it. But I like the idea that I was able to tell a bunch of people’s stories even though I didn’t know them.
WGTC: You mentioned that some of the actors weren’t going for laughs all the time. Are you surprised at how funny people are finding it? Is that what you expected?
AJ: You know, it’s what I hoped for. I love hearing that. When you’re sitting in the theater and you’re hearing people respond to it, it’s such a great feeling. I have never felt people laughing at the work. I feel like they’re laughing with these characters and they’re feeling what they’re feeling. I think we’re strange bizarre people. And I think this is what we do, we all went to high school and remember what a weird, weird time that was.
WGTC: So what projects do you have coming up?
AJ: I’ve been working on a detective story I want to tell next. There’s a couple projects, but that’s what I want to do next.
CB: I’ve got a film coming out called I Am Ben. Then there’s Melvin Smarty. That was shot here in San Francisco. Another film called The Ghastly Love of Johnny X. I play an alien musician from the Planet X who dies from debauchery. And then a promoter holds his son’s girlfriend hostage so the son has to come down with a resurrection suit and bring me back to life for one last final concert.
WGTC: Wow, that sounds amazing.
CB: It should be pretty bizarre. And I’m doing some gigs with my band. Oh, and I’m doing a Barbara Streisand movie, too.
WGTC: Are you really?
CB: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
AJ: Aren’t you on some show or something?
CB: Oh yeah, I’ve got this TV show called The Workspace, The American Workspace. The Cubicle, or The Cubicle Chronicles, something like that.
WGTC: Is there anything else you want people to know about your film?
AJ: You know, I’m just really proud of this movie. I think what the people did in terms of making this film is something different. And it’s worth seeing.
Be sure to check out Terri on July 1st.
Thanks to Tom Ellis for the opening photo!