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Accidentally In Sync: Azazel Jacobs on “The Lovers”

I know you, I walked with you once upon a dream
I know you, that look in your eyes is so familiar a gleam
And I know it's true that visions are seldom all they seem
But if I know you, I know what you'll do
You'll love me at once, the way you did once upon a dream

These immortal lyrics set to the tune of Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty Waltz are left unsaid in writer/director Azazel Jacobs’ “The Lovers,” but they still manage to haunt every frame. We hear the melody ever so briefly during a dance recital taught by Lucy (Melora Walters), who is having an affair with a married man, Michael (Tracy Letts). Michael’s wife, Mary (Debra Winger), is in the midst of her own affair with Robert (Aidan Gillen), and just when she is planning to leave the long-stagnated marriage, something awakens between her and her husband. We catch it in small glances and double-takes that are brilliantly performed by Winger and Letts, as their bewildered characters suddenly find themselves having a new affair—with each other. This revelation comes as a shock to everyone, especially their son, Joel (Tyler Ross), when he comes to visit for the weekend.

“The Lovers” is Jacobs’ first feature since his acclaimed 2011 gem, “Terri,” which explored the friendship between a 15-year-old outcast (Jacob Wysocki) and his assistant principal (John C. Reilly). Jacobs is remarkably gifted at crafting slices of life that are endearing without being sentimental, conveying a sense of hope without betraying the reality of his characters’ circumstances. The morning after “The Lovers” had its Chicago premiere, Jacobs spoke with about his use of music, his love of “Magnolia” and his memories of Ebertfest.

I just reread Roger Ebert’s review of “Terri,” in which he wrote, “the entire film moves at a human pace,” demonstrating how cinema can engage us in human life rather than mock it. That same statement could apply to this film.

I started using that line after reading his review because I’ve always been told that my movies move slow, and I don’t think of them as slow. I think of them as moving like life and life doesn’t feel particularly slow to me. I’m never slowing things down purposefully, I’m trying to represent how they feel. In that morning scene where Mary and Michael are sitting on the bed, you could say that they are moving slowly toward one other, but for me, there’s something new that’s happening in each of those moments. I want to represent the way that we experience things while placing my characters in worlds that are similar to our own. At the same time, I thought “Terri” was a film that existed about a foot off the ground. It felt more like a fable to me, and the same may also be true of this film. It exists somewhere between today and 80 years ago—or at least the films from 80 years ago.

There’s a disconnect between the Elmer Bernstein-esque flourishes in Mandy Hoffman’s score and the film’s more painful, awkward scenes that mirrors the disconnect that technology brings into the characters’ lives, taking them out of the moment by causing them to yearn for the past.

It’s that contrast—even more than a disconnect—that I’m really excited about. I wanted to convey the history of these characters in terms of music by having the score convey what they cannot express themselves. At the beginning of the film, you see people who are unable to express exactly what it is that they need to say to each other, whether it’s the lovers or the couple themselves. Once I had some older scores from composers like Georges Delerue play alongside the footage, it created a schism, a spark of something that felt both timeless and timely. It was something that I hadn’t personally seen before. It’s similar to how it must’ve felt when audiences saw the first period film that had a rock n’ roll soundtrack. 

Sometimes the music syncs up with the scenes rather than plays against them, sort of like how Terri finally makes the basket, much to his surprise. 

That’s exactly right. When the music and the events sync up, it’s almost as if it happens by accident. What the characters aren’t expecting to happen, the music isn’t expecting either. What happens when that same romantic track keeps playing long after you are feeling romantic? We are always surrounded by that. A song will come on the radio—maybe a song that we didn’t even like when it came out—and it will instantly cause us to feel how we felt when we first heard it. That’s been a curiosity to me, especially as I’ve gotten older. I’ll think, ‘I hate this song, but I’m going to turn it up because it’s reminding me of something that I otherwise would’ve forgotten.’

During last night’s Q&A, you spoke of how your visual approach was dictated by the performers themselves. How did you go about conceiving that wonderful scene you mentioned where Michael and Mary inch toward each other on the bed? 

I wrote the film with Debra Winger in mind without knowing whether she was going to do it or not. When I was writing it, I would think about Debra’s eyes and the way that she can look at people, both after meeting her but especially after seeing her previous work. I made sure to fill in details for the scene such as, “Mary looks at the water running down Michael’s back.” These details didn’t necessarily need to be so specific, but they gave us time so that there was an understanding in terms of script pages how long the scene needed to be. It could’ve been written in a paragraph, but since it took up about four pages in the script, we were able to spend as much time on it as we would any other four-page scene. That is what you have to do when you have limited time to make a film on a limited budget. Debra and Tracy figured out how to make the scene charged. This was the beginning of their first sex scene onset, so the actors’ nerves were playing into the moment when we shot it. I was able to close the set so that it was just the actors, cinematographer Tobias Datum and the crew. I’m usually next to the camera, but in this case, I was watching the scene from a monitor, and it was amazing to see what the camera could actually capture. I can’t tell you how crucial the sound design by Alexandra Fehrman is to that scene. There’s no music in that moment, and every sound down to the little creaks in the bed really serve as the dialogue.

You are able to illuminate such rich tonal complexities simply in the amount of time it takes for Michael to turn toward Mary.

That scene was the closest I could get to envisioning how the film may have played in hands of Ernst Lubitsch. It achieves a weird balance between being very broad and hopefully being very particular.

It seems to make perfect dramatic sense why you shot the scenes between the main characters and their respective lovers prior to shooting the scenes where Michael and Mary are actually together. 

It all came down to scheduling. I always start off determined to shoot a film in order, but when that turns out to be impossible on a logistical level, you start constructing a new story to make it work with the schedule you have. As a crew, we are going through the story in a totally different way than the movie is structured. I’ve been working with the same script supervisor, Tecia Esposito, for a long time, and she is the person who keeps me on track. I’ll ask her, “What happened before this shot? How did the characters walk into the room and how did they exit?” In terms of the emotional narrative that I’m going through, it’s all about the order of what we’re shooting on a given day. Then it’s up to the editor, Darrin Navarro, and me to go back and hopefully reclaim the original narrative. There’s no chance of fighting these logistics and winning. You just have to figure out how to use them to your advantage. 

I’ve greatly admired Tyler Ross ever since I saw his work in Stephen Cone’s “The Wise Kids” and Nathan Adloff’s “Nate & Margaret.” He has an extraordinary vulnerability that is rare among his peers. 

Again, it really goes back to Debra’s eyes. I wrote the character of Joel as being a muscle-bound jock who lifted weights, and you can see in terms of what happens in the story why I would’ve initially envisioned that. I saw a number of amazing Joels during the casting process, but there is something in Tyler’s eyes that reminded me of Debra. They shared something that I felt a mother and son would have, and maybe it’s that thing that you’re talking about. Debra Winger is someone who is going to go all the way in a performance. She’s not going to shy away from anything, and the same is true of Tyler. From the minute that he walked in for the audition to his every day onset, it was clear that he was going to go all the way. It’s a similarity between Tyler and Debra just as it is between Joel and Mary. For a long time, Joel has embraced his mother while considering his father a bum, and things get a bit twisted. Joel is trying to not see Mary in a certain way, and that is what Tyler conveys so beautifully. 

You have now worked with both halves of one of my favorite cinematic couplings, John C. Reilly and Melora Walters in “Magnolia.” I was reminded of that film in how Walters’ character of Lucy is both unhinged and achingly human. 

I often wonder if her character in “The Lovers” is the same one that she played in “Magnolia” many years later. That film has had such an impact on me from the moment that I saw it. It has really played in a loop in my head. It’s not a film that I can make or that obviously needs to be made again, but I feel that so much of it—even the camera movement and the use of music—has had an effect on “The Lovers.” Maybe I’m just reaching for it, but I see this bridge between the films. When my casting director, Nicole Arbusto, suggested Melora Walters, I just dropped everything and went, “That’s exactly who should play Lucy.” Melora turned out to be available and she responded to the script. When I sat down with her, I felt as if I were sitting down with Lucy. I just thought that Melora was Lucy, but of course, that turned out not to be the case. She just knew who Lucy was, and showed up at our first lunch meeting as the character. That’s sort of what Michael likes about Lucy as well. She is committed—certainly much more committed than he is—and that is something that I find incredible about Melora. She really set this film off because the first scene was between her and Tracy. Tracy didn’t know me—he knew Debra, he knew the script—but he didn’t know me or my work. But during his first time working with Melora, I could see him going, “Oh, this is the real thing. This is serious. This is something that I can sink my teeth into.” He was going into the project with hope more than anything, and we all are, in a sense. You just don’t know whether it’s going to work until those first few moments.

What was the inspiration for Lucy’s startling choice to hiss at Mary?

I’ve been carrying that scene around for 25 years. It did not happen to me, but it happened to a roommate of mine in college. The person that got hissed at told me about it when I was about 18, and there is something about it that just gets to the bones of a relationship in such an incredible way. There are a bunch of scenes that I’ve been carrying around for many years, and as a filmmaker, you kind of collect them. People will ask me, “Where did that idea come from?”, and so many of them have come from either actual experiences or stories that people have told me. For 25 years, I wondered how that idea would get itself into a script, and suddenly I pictured Lucy hissing at Mary as I was writing this film and went, “There it is! It’s out in the world! It’s everybody’s now.”

What was it like having “Terri” screen at Ebertfest in 2012?

Jacob and I were there, and I have a picture of him and Roger shaking hands. It was a big moment not just for the film but for both of our lives. Like all of my work, “Terri” isn’t for everyone, but Roger wrote that it was for him, and his response to the film meant an enormous amount to me. He expressed all of those feelings by the way he held my hand and looked me in the eye, and that has stayed with me ever since. I think in a lot of ways the words that he gave my movie have kept it alive. I still hear from people who have found their way to the film, and I’ll bet you it’s because of his review. He’s had such a big impact on all of us. 

“The Lovers” really began because of “Terri.” Debra saw the film and wrote me this letter that I wound up putting right above my desk. Right next to my desk is the Golden Thumb award that I received at Ebertfest, which I’ve placed just beneath Debra’s letter. It meant so much to me that Chaz was at the screening last night. Sometimes when you read reviews, you see critics asking, “What is this filmmaker giving to me?” What they should be asking is, “What can I see in this filmmaker or this film?” Roger put in the work to find his way into a film, rather than tell the filmmakers what their intentions are and whether they succeeded in fulfilling them. That is what set Roger apart from other critics. 

Matt Fagerholm

Matt Fagerholm is the former Literary Editor at and is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association. 

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