Terri - Director Azazel Jacobs with Olivia Crocicchia
Terri - Director Azazel Jacobs on the set with Olivia Crocicchia ©2011 Team Terri / ATO Pictures

Azazel Jacobs’ award-winning film Momma’s Man premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2008, and quickly became one of the most lauded films of the year.

His new movie Terri, also found success at the Sundance Film Festival. It tells the story of an oversized high school misfit named Terri (Jacob Wysocki) and his relationships with two other school rebels, Chad (Bridger Zadina), and Heather (Olivia Crocicchia), and the well-meaning vice principal, Mr Fitzgerald (John C Reilly).

How did you get this project together?

Terri -  Poster
Poster © 2011 Team Terri / ATO Pictures

(Screenwriter) Patrick deWitt wanted to bounce something off of me. We both have been doing that since we became friends, we’ve been sending each other work or ideas. This is one of those where he didn’t know exactly what this was, he didn’t feel that it was a novel and at the same time felt like there was something worthy there.

From the moment we started connecting on each other’s work we’ve been talking about working with each other, so there was definitely that idea but we didn’t know whether it would be this one.

What was it that stood out and spoke to you about the story?

I loved that it was somebody else’s story and, at the same time, it felt very, very close to me. That this took place in a town with people that I don’t know, they were not that familiar in my own life and yet they felt very familiars through the words that Pat used.

I thought it was a story I could tell, a movie I could do well. As much as independent film shaped me, the Hollywood coming-of-age stories of the 1980s also had a big impact as I was developing as a filmmaker, whether I had those particular problems or not.

How hard was this to cast?

Terri - Bridger Zadina and Jacob Wysocki
Chad (Bridger Zadina) and Terri (Jacob Wysocki) © 2011 Team Terri / ATO Pictures

We were able to get the casting directors started very early on before the financing was even together for the film. We knew it was going to take forever.

The thing that was most daunting about it was I saw many good Terri’s and they all offered a completely different direction, which was kind of an exhausting thing to go through, to keep picturing how your movie could go this way or that way, especially as this wasn’t my own story.

Ultimately I brought John (C Reilly) in and tried him out with Jacob (Wysocki), and that was the telltale sign of which way to go.

Did John have a big say on who would play Terri?

I definitely would have cared what he thought, but it also became very obvious to me what was working. He never had to go, ‘This is working,’ or, ‘This isn’t working.’ It became very clear that once I had Jacob and him in a room that they were feeding off each other and giving each other what they needed.

You shot this on film, what was your consideration between film and going digital, which would have been so much cheaper?

Terri - Jacob Wysocki and Olivia Crocicchia
Terri (Jacob Wysocki) and Heather (Olivia Crocicchia) © 2011 Team Terri / ATO Pictures

Well, I think that’s debatable, because I wound up [spending] a lot less. I enjoy having the limitations that film gives you. I like not being able to keep going. I like having to get things done in a certain about of time.

For me, the movie that I was drawing from for inspiration was Being There, and a few other films, and they all shared that they were all shot on film, and I wanted this movie to exist alongside those.

What was it like working with John C Reilly?

I don’t think he could have given the film or me any more respect. In less skilled hands, the character could have been completely derivative. John brought the honesty and humanity that he brings to his best work. I can’t imagine him giving any more to any other director. It takes a very particular person to get the trust and interest that was needed for Terri to start opening up and John found him.

You did all the scenes with John and Jacob together at the beginning of the shoot. Was that a plan that you had because you thought that Jacob’s performance would raise working with John?

Terri - Creed Bratton
Uncle James (Creed Bratton) © 2011 Team Terri / ATO Pictures

I like that, it was definitely that! No, we shot all the school stuff first and John had just come from another film, We Need to Talk About Kevin, that just premiered in Cannes, and he had a little bit of time off and then he was going off to the Roman Polanski film (God of Carnage), so it made sense to shoot that stuff first.

Also, the most daunting scene was the shed scene [at the end of the movie] and I knew that I did want to shoot that last. It was very important that that scene was done at a time where the kids and me and the crew were very comfortable and trusting of each other.

You’ve said that you felt a very a strong connection to the material, what was it?

The film expresses adolescence in a way that is very recognizable to me. It’s not about a kid who becomes comfortable with himself and starts wearing pajamas to school. He is someone who is already so comfortable with the fact that he’s never going to be cool that he might as well be comfortable physically by wearing pajamas.

The challenge was to connect to the material in a way that was both specific and grounded in the way I see things. The question I asked myself every day on set was, does this ring true? Does it feel in some way familiar, even if I haven’t experienced it before?’

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.