Later, I found out he, in fact, did perform with The Groundlings (another infamous improv company), and had his own two-person show. When I finally was able to make it out to see his show, The Understudies, I was blown away. It was one of the most impressive performances of any kind I’d ever seen! I knew I wanted to interview him as an improv actor, but I soon discovered that improv was just scratching the surface of his many incredible talents.
I’m so honored Jacobs took the time out of his extremely busy schedule (as you’ll see!) to let us in on his journey as a creative in the entertainment world. Read on for a very entertaining and insightful interview with one of the most talented, hardworking people I’ve ever met, and find out why Chris Messina (who stars in his first feature film) punched a hole in Jacobs' wall!
I grew up in the metropolis of St. Louis, Missouri as a poor black boy. I have an older brother who is a prosecutor for the justice department. And pickles are my favorite food. Most of that is true. I didn’t get involved in acting until I was an undergrad at Stanford. Growing up, I was way too into academics and had almost no time left over for anything but the millions of clubs I was involved in. I was getting into movies as a teenager but wasn’t a performer in any way. Then, when I got to Stanford, on a whim almost, I auditioned for this thing called Gaieties – which is a student written, produced and performed musical that focuses on the Stanford – Berkeley rivalry. It’s a ridiculous show and it’s hard to call it “theater”. It’s more like some weird combination of burlesque, sketch and Kabuki. But I loved it and I basically spent the next four years doing as much acting as I possibly could – from Shakespeare, to Chekhov to everything in between.
At the end of my first quarter at school, I attended a show by the SImps (Stanford Improvisers), and was called up on stage as a volunteer for a type of short form game called “Standing-Sitting-Kneeling-Lying.” Even now, years and years later, I can recall that moment with such clarity. It was as if a switch turned on in my brain that had never been switched on before. I can recall the details of that scene with a frightening amount of detail. And I remember feeling an intense calm as the scene played out. I just instinctively knew what to do. And it changed my life. Creatively, it was a real fulcrum for my journey as an artist. I love the form with all my heart, though, and it can sometimes be difficult for me when I see improvisers that don’t respect the form. When I see jaded, casual, gaggy improv, it just disheartens me because it propagates this idea that improv is only about telling jokes or making people laugh, instead of what I view it as: a rival to great theater. I think improvisation can do anything that a great play can – it can make you laugh, cry and gasp. And when I see the bar set low, it really bothers me.
Soap box over.
To tell the story of my genesis as a writer and director, you have to go back to when I was six, and I met a taller, fatter version of me in first grade – Darren Grodsky. We became best friends and grew up together until we separated for college. He went off to Northwestern to major in television and film and I went off to Stanford. Now, Stanford, at that time, had no film major or screenwriting classes or anything like that, so Darren started clearing it with his professors for me to complete his screenwriting assignments with him as long as he emailed me the notes from class. So during my junior and senior years, I basically took a bunch of Northwestern screenwriting classes while in Northern California. And Darren and I developed this communal goal of writing and directing feature films. So three weeks after I graduated, I moved to LA and we started writing. We always intended to direct our own scripts, so the directing side of it just came out of that.
3) After seeing you perform in your improv show, “The Understudies,” it was incredible to me that it was all made up on the spot. You make it SEEM effortless, but what kind of training have you done to get to where you are, and what preparation do you do before a show?
Thanks so much! Improv is my jam. I love it with all my heart. The most important training I received was in my college improv group at Stanford. I really believe that the best place to learn improvisation, anywhere in the world, is at Stanford University. It has a totally unique, institutionalized system where improvisation is treated with the kind of respect it deserves as an art form. It’s not relegated merely to “student group” status. There is a dedicated improvisation professor and it is taught not just as a performance form, but a philosophical approach to life. I was lucky to have an amazing teacher and coach (Patricia Ryan, who has written a wonderful improv book called “Improv Wisdom”), but the true foundation of my study of improv was Keith Johnstone and his book, “Impro.” That book changed my life. It uses story structure as the underpinning for improvisation and it has been the guide by which I’ve approached the form ever since. When I got to LA, I was dismayed that Johnstone’s work is so ignored, and in some cases maligned. To me, it’s the key to improv being everything it can possibly be.
But in terms of The Understudies, I was in another group with Seth Brown (the other half of The Understudies), and I really loved his style of play. Not only that, but we both came from the same Johnstone-based training so we really got each other in an improv sense. So at some point I reached out to him, and not knowing what exactly we would do together, suggested we hang out. Over the next year we developed The Understudies, which is basically just the two of us improvising a three act play over the course of an hour based on a single suggestion. And the main thing we wanted to do was strip away all the artifice of most improvisation and limit our tool set. Our rule is that if you can’t do it in actual theater, then we can’t do it in the show. So we don’t really change characters and we don’t change locations. It truly is improvising without a net. If things aren’t going well, we don’t have the option of just starting a new scene or changing the location. We have to find a way to make it work. Additionally, telling one story over the course of 60-70 minutes means that we have to be real and grounded, while also being funny. We can’t rely on the typical bigness and broadness associated with most improv performances. We have to make the audience care.
And in terms of our prep, we generally like to meet once a week and we do anything from just spend time together, hanging out or watching a movie, to talking through a narrative or doing little exercises. Because we both have a short form background, we recognize the value of short form games to work long form muscles, so we’ll often use those games to work on specific parts of our narratives.
We’ve been lucky to have a big supporter in The Groundlings. They’ve let us play pretty regularly on the main stage of their beautiful theater on an almost monthly basis. Though we’ve played all around town, that place feels most like home. But we’re also now starting to play festivals around the country. In fact, for those up in the Bay Area, we’ll be playing SF Sketch Fest on Wednesday, February 4, 2015.
When Darren and I got to Los Angeles after college, we started working on a script which we thought was going to be our first film. But we were having trouble getting inspired while writing at the Denny’s on Sunset at 2 AM surrounded by pimps and prostitutes, so Darren suggested we head up to Humboldt County in Northern California. He had family up there and thought we could get a cheap hotel room for a month, hole ourselves up in the redwoods, and write our faces off. It was a super romantic idea of writing and it worked, just not in the way we expected. When we got up to Humboldt, Darren introduced me to his family and I was immediately interested in their lifestyle and world more than the script we had gone up there to write.
Darren’s uncle was a UCLA physics professor who had a mid-life crisis in the early 1980s and moved into the middle of the woods of Humboldt and started growing pot for a living while continuing his work in physics. And what we found up there was a whole little ecosystem of fascinating people who, for one reason or another, had abandoned the world. Some were aging hippies who had lost their way, while others were hiding from their past. And it just felt like the perfect world to set a film in – especially considering that we were always really inspired by films like Five Easy Pieces and The King of Marvin Gardens. So we put our original script in a drawer and spent the month putting together a first draft of what would eventually be Humboldt County.
The only other major cast member was Peter Bodganovich – who was a hero of ours. For the uninitiated, Bogdanovich is the writer/director behind some of the greatest films of all time and if you don’t know who he is, then I’m sorry you grew up in a cave.
We shot the film over 18 days. Darren and I hadn’t directed anything before that experience (except for a couple of tiny student things) and it was harrowing and frightening and exhilarating all at once. In the end, though, we were so pleased with the final result. We did the only thing you can hope for as a filmmaker: we made the film we set out to make. Not everything is perfect about the picture, but at its core, it has the soul we intended for it to have.
Three weeks before the film came out, we called up Laszlo Kovacs, who is one of the greatest cinematographers ever to live and had been a mentor of ours for several years, and told him we wanted to get him together with Bogdanovich to view the film. Laszlo and Peter had worked together on many films but hadn’t seen each other in over 10 years. It was such a pleasure not only to show these two titans our work, but to provide an excuse for them to reminisce about shooting Targets in the 60s, and running away from the cops when they were filming illegally near the 405. It was an amazing night. And three days later, Laszlo died. He hadn’t been in great health, but it was still a shock. And I found myself listening to Peter do an interview on NPR talking about how he had just seen Laszlo, and the silver lining was that our first film was responsible for bringing them together one last time.
5) You have some pretty big names and amazing talent in your first movie. How did you go about recruiting the actors and crew for the film? Any memorable/funny experiences/stories you'd like to share from shooting it?
The only other story that might be interesting to tell is that we had an actor attached to the role of Max, in the film, for about a year. And about three weeks before we were set to start shooting, we lost him. Darren and I were freaking out. And that’s when Jeremy Strong, who we had already cast, told us that the guy he was staying with out in Los Angeles might be good for the role. That guy? Chris Messina. He came in, did a kick-ass audition in which he punched a hole in my living room wall, and we hired him two days later. You must have serendipity on your side when making a film.
6) Tell us about your writing process. What are some of the most challenging obstacles about writing, and what are some methods you do to overcome them? Where do you derive your inspiration from?
My main obstacles for writing are the same obstacles most writers have – I hate it and I love it all at the same time. Getting started is always a bear. I’ll usually browse the Internet for several hours until my guilt and shame overwhelm me and I finally open Final Draft. My other two keys to writing are showers and running. Whenever I’m stuck, I’ll try to either take a run or take a shower. Both activities allow my brain to work on a particular problem without focusing on it head-on. I also get really clean.
Oh, man. My days are completely ridiculous and lack consistency of any kind. Right now, I’m writing on a pilot so I’m in the writer’s room (and really shouldn't be answering these questions), so my day is pretty regimented. But most of the time, I’ll get up around 9 AM or so, futz around on the internet for a while and then get down to start writing by about 10:30 AM. I might have an acting audition or two over the course of the day, so that’ll break up my writing time, and then I might have rehearsal with Seth or something at night. But depending on what’s happening in my creative life at any moment, that could change.
It’s tough and I don’t really have a “plan” per say. I just kind of prioritize whatever needs prioritizing on any given day. If I’m on an acting gig, then that obviously takes priority, but I’ll often sit in my dressing room or trailer and write whenever I’m not on the set. If we’re gearing up to shoot a film, then that obviously is the priority and everything else sort of recedes into the background. Thankfully, in terms of improv, I’m lucky to have a great producer, Jordan Bogdanovage, who helps Seth and I get everything done so I can just focus on the creative side. And that’s the same with the producers I’ve got for my films. It’s that support network that makes the balance possible.
9) What are some goals you have for yourself in the upcoming years, and what do you do to try and reach them?
I’d love the career of Mark Duplass. He has a thriving acting career while he also makes great, and personal films with his brother. I’d love to be in that position. I’ve written and directed two feature films but at a pace that’s way too slow for my tastes. I’d love to make a film every other year or so while acting in other people’s projects in between those efforts.
My new film is called Growing Up and Other Lies, and it stars me, alongside Adam Brody, Josh Lawson, Wyatt Cenac and Amber Tamblyn. Additionally we have some really great actors in supporting parts like Scott Adsit, from 30 Rock. It’s a comedy about four friends – who all live in New York – and decide, on the eve of one of them moving out of the city, to recreate their greatest adventure, which is to walk the entire length of Manhattan from the northern tip to the southern tip in a day. It’s a road trip movie on foot as they meander down the island and it all takes place over 24 hours. It’s a comedy, but a rooted, grounded one in the vein of Diner.
Compared to our first film, this one had a whole set of new challenges. First of all, instead of shooting in the middle of the woods, we were in the middle of Manhattan – which is its own beast. Second of all, because of the nature of the film, we had 57 locations to shoot in 18 days. We almost broke our location manager (and our production designer for that matter). So it really felt like an entirely different kind of project than Humboldt County. But I’d say the biggest difference for Darren and I was that we were just more prepared. We came into this project knowing what we needed to do to be prepared to shoot fast and loose. There was much more improvisation in this picture than on our last picture, and the fact that I play a lead role in the movie was an added challenge for us. But I’m so pleased with the final result. We’ve been playing the festival circuit the last few months and I’m really excited to announce that we’ve sold the film and it’ll be coming to theaters and Video On Demand on March 20th of 2015. So please look out for it! Indie films need all the help they can get.
(Check out their new blog for the movie, where Danny and Darren discuss more in depth of how it was made and the process throughout: http://growingupandotherlies.tumblr.com)
11) Any current projects you’re working on that you’re excited about (and can tell us about)?
Darren and I are hard at work on our next script, which I’m really excited about. It’s by far the biggest picture we’ve attempted yet - an order of magnitude bigger than Humboldt County or our new film, Growing Up and Other Lies. What I can say, right now, is that it’s in the vein of the great Altman film, The Long Goodbye. It’s a comedy but steeped in the Raymond Chandler tradition and it’s set in Kansas.
12) What are some of your other hobbies (if you have any spare time!) that you enjoy doing?
I’m a huge baseball fan. Growing up in St. Louis, the Cardinals are basically my religion and I care way too much about the fate of the franchise on a day-to-day basis. But I can’t help it at this point. Other than that, I’m a big foreign policy wonk. I majored in international relations at school and when I went to college, I thought I was gonna return to Missouri and run for office. I was even a White House intern (insert joke here), so I was pretty focused on that whole world. And though I’ve obviously moved on from that pipe dream, I still love it.
13) If you could make the project of your dreams with no regard to budget, what would it be, who would be involved, and where would it be set?
There was a time a few years ago that Darren and I were briefly attached to write and direct an adaptation of Buzz Bissinger’s (Friday Night Lights) novel, Three Nights in August – which is about a Cardinals/Cubs series in 2003. And for a few months, my two passions – film and baseball – were combined and it was amazing. We hung out with Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa and had some incredible opportunities to see the Cardinals franchise up close. In the end, we moved on from the project, but it hasn’t gotten made yet so Darren and I are still hopefully that, someday, somehow, it’ll come back into our hands.
14) Do you have any advice for people who’d like to follow in your footsteps?
Don’t let people who aren’t creative themselves tell you how to live a creative life. Don’t let your desire for validation prevent you from taking risks. And remember, you don’t have to climb your way up one rung at a time. Despite what anyone says, there actually is no ladder.
15) Where can people find out more about you?
- My account with Darren: @DarrenDanny
- My personal account: @DannyaJacobs
- My movie’s account: @GrowingUpAOL
- Darren and I have a page: www.facebook.com/darrendanny
- The page for our new movie: www.facebook.com/growingupandotherlies
- My improv group’s page: www.facebook.com/understudiesimprov
I know he's changed my outlook on improv. Leave a comment below if Jacobs has personally inspired you somehow in the past, or if his story has motivated you to do something for your career - we'd love to hear it!