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Oct 08, 2008

Azazel Jacobs, the director of Momma’s Man, finds that sometimes you really can go home again.

By Rachel Fernandes

Azazel Jacobs’s darkly comedic new film, Momma’s Man, begins with a tender exchange between mother and son. During a visit to his childhood home, Mikey stares deeply into his mother’s large, haunting eyes while holding her hand as the two sit at a warmly lit kitchen table. Mikey (played with enormous depth by lead actor Matt Boren) is reluctant to leave her.
Mikey’s reluctance to move out soon becomes denial, as he pulls out all the stops to avoid leaving his parents’ loft—where he grew up—and return to adult life.
As Mikey weaves his web of deceit in order to allow himself to remain indefinitely in his nest-like room, we see the character nostalgically rummage through his memorabilia, relearn angst-ridden songs he had written in high school and enjoy a thorough pampering from dear old mom.
At times, Momma’s Man is a difficult film to watch, mostly due to the director’s success in drawing out an intense empathy for the characters. The story calls to mind the famous James Agee quote that “you can never go home again.” But in this case, the director asks instead, can you ever truly leave it?

Watch three short clips from the film, Momma’s Man.

In Jacobs’s case, the comforts of home prove to be the perfect environment for the young filmmaker’s compelling narrative. Casting his actual parents, Ken and Flo Jacobs, and setting the action in the family’s actual longtime residence (a filled-to-the-brim downtown New York loft), Jacobs’s film forms at once a loving portrait of the familiar and a somewhat horrific imagining of how those comforts affect a fragile individual.
The apartment is a labyrinth of belongings—a sort of museum of family artifacts, doo-dads and artwork. A long-standing and still-active member of the downtown New York arts community, Ken is a well-respected and established practitioner of the avant-garde, having created a myriad of experimental films (fragments of which are featured within the movie).
While the parents in the movie differ only slightly from their real selves, Mikey is quite a ways off from their not-so-agoraphobic offspring and director, Azazel.

In our video interview, the leading actor, Matt Boren, talks about his most memorable moments during the making of Momma’s Man.

Interview with Azazel Jacobs
Recently, FLYP caught up with the Los Angeles-based director to discuss his artistic choices, sleeping on set, the Indigo Girls and, of course, mom.
FLYP: What, other than convenience, lead you to use your own parents as main actors?

Azazel Jacobs: It actually wasn’t as much convenience as it was the location the film takes place in.
First and foremost, I wrote the script with plans to shoot in the home I was raised in. I wanted it documented the way I saw it, which would allow me to visit it whenever I wanted to. At a certain point, I realized that it was impossible to separate my folks from the place, which I think is a real credit to them.
What are typically marketed as “artists lofts” are usually big, empty white floors with brick walls. While for my parents, their place is filled with their work and what inspires their work.

Were there any particularly awkward or challenging moments in creating this film?
Really just asking my folks to do it. They are private people; it’s a private home. I was asking them to give me a lot of trust and support, and it put the pressure on them to come through.

Your mother’s performance was so natural—how did you go about making her comfortable in front of the camera? Or does it come easily for her?
She’s a natural. I had no idea. I didn’t do any rehearsals with them—just talked a bunch about the story and went through the script twice.
I could really rehearse Matt Boren, who plays their son Mikey, because acting is what he does, what he’s been trained for. But doing exercises with my folks—it’s just not them. So when I first saw that they could act was really when we shot the first scene.

What inspired the story, and how different is the main character from yourself?
The loft, getting older, still not an understanding of how time works beyond a literal level, people and places I want to hold on to, a love of making films: these are some of the things from which the film came.
I see similarities in myself with Mikey, besides just the external stuff, which is the easy part. And I understand his drive for stability and his regrets.
Of course, there are many differences between us, too. For one, I have a sister, Nisi. Sometimes I think maybe without her, I would have wound up like Mikey.

Did you ever consider acting in the film yourself, Woody Allen-style?

Nope. I wrote it for Matt from the first line on. I knew that to tell this story, which is a lot of just a man by himself, he would have to be really talented.
I am not an actor and wouldn’t trust myself to try. I think I would have tried to play it safe so that I came off cool.

Were you lodging in the apartment during shooting?

Yes, I was, which made things easier on one side, because I was waking up on the set, and also weird on the other, because I was waking up on the set.
I think it works for the film, and I’m really happy with the result. But I wouldn’t do that again. Just a bit too close.

Did you always want to become a filmmaker, following in your father’s footsteps? Or did you consider pursuing a different career?
I was interested in cartooning in high school but wouldn’t say I pursued it other than taking the free art classes at the Museum of Modern Art and sitting in on Will Eisner’s class at the School of Visual Arts.

I heard that you are a fan of John Cassavettes. Which of his films are your favorites?
Yes, I’m a fan for sure. I don’t know if I have a favorite, I love many: Opening Night, Faces, Husbands. I know that I think about them—all of them.

Do you prefer L.A. to New York?

L.A. is the best place I have found to do the work. New York is the best place to make the work.

In the movie, what inspired you to use the Indigo Girls in the scene with the ex-con/former friend?
That’s what Piero [who plays the former best friend] told me. We’ve known each other since being in strollers, and he’s playing a shade of himself in this story.
When he got out of jail, he told me that the Indigo Girls and Dixie Chicks made him feel free when he was locked up.

What can we expect next?
The best I can.

Mining for Moments
Besides being a father and husband, Ken Jacobs is an experimental filmmaker with a unique body of work.
One of the key figures of the early experimental film scene of the ’60s and ’70s, he is committed to history and politics, as seen in the way he celebrates the small and forgotten fragments of photographic memory. He continues to progress as an artist, employing new technologies to further question the nature of the moving image.
“I usually take short lengths of film and pore over them, or pour into them. Dig into them. So it’s mining,” Jacobs says in an interview with Harry Kriesler at Berkeley College. “And I’m looking for things that literally you just don’t see when it zips by at 24 frames per second, normal sound speed…What I’m after, of course, is vital, interesting, amusing, crazy-making stuff.”

Watch short clips from two of Ken Jacobs’s acclaimed films.

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