We interviewed French Exit director Azazel Jacobs about what he connected to the story, his work with the film’s talented cast, and much more.
French departureBased on the novel of the same name by screenwriter Patrick DeWitt, it is a surreal family drama that is sure to surprise. On February 12, the film explores a strange mother-son dynamic after penniless widow Frances (Michelle Pfeiffer) moves to Paris with her son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges).
Director Azazel Jacobs spoke with Screen Rant about his long collaboration with DeWitt, how they worked to bring the unique story to the screen, and why their stars were perfect for their roles.
You read the book in one day and contacted Patrick DeWitt, the writer, to adapt this movie right away. What was it about the source material that you connected with so strongly?
Azazel Jacobs: I think it was instinct. I read it, and I think there was something so contagious about Francis, this idea of going for it and doing it your way, that it gave me the courage to say that I want that in my life. I want to be close to this person; I want to surround all these people; I want to be in this room with them.
And at the same time, I really wanted what Frances has: to do it my way and ask people to lean forward. You have to know her or not, but she’s fine with it.
Michelle Pfeiffer did an amazing job playing that role. Can you tell me about collaborating with her?
Azazel Jacobs: What struck me when I first sat down with Michelle was that I was still hungry as an artist. She was still looking for things; I still wanted to try things and kept going towards things that I didn’t know how to play. All I’m looking for is for the filmmaker to be people like me who say, “Okay, I don’t know how we’re going to do this. But I know if we can be honest with each other about that, and so it’s true, [we can do it]. “
When you play someone who isn’t you, or when I tell a story about people that I didn’t grow up with, didn’t grow up with this way, I ask you to be much more honest about the things you may not want to see in yourself. That really changes the conversation. When I’m writing a story that I really know, when it’s my own story, I know how to hide it. I know how to fake it; I know how to present my best forward angle.
But when you are talking about people who are far away, but there are also reprehensible things, you have to find yourself in that. That conversation started at the beginning, and Michelle was sincere, clear and honest and asked me to do the same.
Someone we wouldn’t expect to be in a role like Malcolm is Lucas Hedges. Can you tell me about what made it the right choice?
Azazel Jacobs: It was one of these things. The casting started with Michelle and I seemed like it was all a family. I worked very closely with my casting director, and the second person I thought of was Tracy Letts, because I had worked with him, and The Lovers and his voice is amazing. I’m just thinking of Small Frank, and that made sense.
Then connecting those two, even though he doesn’t really see Tracy on screen, does get him thinking of certain other actors. I end up watching Kenneth Lonergan play that [Lucas Hedges] it was inside. Even though Malcolm in the book is a bit older, I’m looking at Lucas and how much he’s doing without words, and how much security he requires. It’s something I lose, the older I get.
You have to be really confident in order to go into a role where there is so much silence, and you’re saying a lot by being supportive and laying the groundwork like Malcolm does with Frances. I saw those qualities in Lucas: he is a person who knows how to react without having to say it; just be.
The source material is brilliant, but adapting something can be quite tricky. What were some of the challenges that excited you when undertaking a project like this?
Azazel Jacobs: I deeply love Patrick’s writing and I love his lines. I didn’t want to change it, and we really worked hard to translate that. It’s one thing to script it and then make it feel somehow natural in the world we define. Because it’s definitely not the way most of us talk. How could this exist on this planet? How could this be real? That was something really complicated.
And many times, I kept thinking about the dialogue he wrote and also how the movie is like spaghetti. You don’t know where it goes, but it has its end. And then when you get to the end, you realize that it’s gone like this the whole time. This is the only way it can go, and it feels like you’re spinning around and around each other. That’s a lot like dialogue, when suddenly you have it.
And I feel that way about the whole movie. When I looked from this scene to that scene, many times I was looking at the entire trip instead of ABCD; only the narrative beats.
You and Patrick DeWitt go back a long way. Can you talk to me about how you connected and the collaborative process of working together?
Azazel Jacobs: I met Patrick many, many years ago, when he was still a bartender. I’m not a big drinker, but I ended up going to his bar more and more just to talk to Patrick. We had a great love of punk, reggae, and ska, and we had these conversations about music that I really enjoyed. I just ended up going there more and more, figuring out what days it was, and it charged me very little to sit there.
And then one day, he said, “Hey, I write too.” And I said, “Oh no. No way.” Like, “No, this was such a nice thing.” Of course you write, this is LA. And he says, “I printed my manuscript for a book. And it’s right here in a manila envelope. Will you read it?” And I just said, “Yeah, that sounds good.” Because he didn’t know he was going to respond to what turned out to be the manuscript of his first book.
Like French Exit, I ended up sitting down thinking, “Okay, I’m just going to go through this for a few pages,” and then I read everything. That started a conversation where I started sharing my movies with him. I made a movie, Good Times Kid, in 2005, it was a very low-budget movie, and I thought, “I need a bartender, I’m going to pick Pat.” We then started sharing work on previous drafts, and that really ended up building a lot of trust as we watched each other develop as artists. We realized that we had similar views and similar goals.
What specifically surprised you about Michelle and Lucas’s performances that you weren’t anticipating?
Azazel Jacobs: Both methods as actors were completely different, but neither of them wanted to touch the thing before we started filming. So the conversations I was having with Lucas had a lot to do with other movies. We watched all these movies together: Play Time; we watched King of Comedy twice; we look at Popeye; we look at the Rules of the Game; we watch Being There and Charismata.
That was our conversation; like deciphering Malcolm’s world and all that mixing of tones that people have made in impossible movies like, “Oh my gosh. How does King of Comedy exist? How did they do this?” He gave us some advice.
With Michelle, it was so precise and annoying; so much preparation and detail that I’ve never had to do. We could talk questions and have many, many conversations, but it wasn’t until the moment that I’m actually filming with the two of them that I see Frances emerge and I see Malcolm. It was instant for me with both of them, where I said, “Oh, there they are!” So long, Michelle. See you soon, Lucas. Hi Frances and hi Malcolm. It just appears, and you don’t know if it will be there, but it was there.
Next: Lucas Hedges interview for the French departure
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