By Scott Essman
Gregory Jacobs has been Steven Soderbergh’s exclusive first assistant director since King of the Hill in 1993. Now he has co-written a screenplay with Soderbergh called Criminal, which Jacobs himself directed and Soderbergh co-produced. He talked to Below the Line about how he made the transition from first AD to first-time director.
Below the Line: You based Criminal on an Argentinian film called Nine Queens. How did and Steven Soderbergh approach adapting the script?
Jacobs: I think we both agreed that the film had a terrific framework. Steven agreed with my idea of having the young guy be Latino and the older guy be a white guy. I wanted to make the subtext about race and class and the stratification of L.A. The difference between the original and ours, really, is the issues of race and class.
BTL: Was your movie always slated to be set in L.A.?
Jacobs: From the minute we sat down to write it, I always imagined L.A. I didn’t want to set it anywhere else. I wanted L.A. to be a character in the movie. It seemed like if I did it in Vegas, it’d feel like the poor stepsister to Ocean’s Eleven.
BTL: How did you and production designer Philip Messina determine the locations and look of the film?
Jacobs: From the outset, one of our challenges was to try to find places you don’t always see, to shoot things naturally and as they really appear. We really dug around to try to find unfamiliar places, or at least try to shoot familiar places in a way they’re not normally shot. Plenty of people have shot at the Biltmore, but they generally don’t play it for the Biltmore. Everyone shoots in L.A., but half the time they’re cheating it for some other city or some other place. And I thought it would be interesting to try to do L.A. for L.A. and find interesting locations and play them for what they really are.
BTL: What made you decide upon Chris Menges, ASC as cinematographer?
Jacobs: There was a particular look I was going for, which was real naturalism. I didn’t want the movie to feel like Hollywood was visiting these locations, but at the same time I wanted it to be beautiful looking. I’d always been a big fan of Chris’ work and was very aware of who he was and the stuff he has done as a cinematographer, so I sought him out, and sent him the script. We really hit it off, and had this incredible working relationship, and have become good friends.
BTL: Having worked with Soderbergh consistently as his first AD, how was it adapting to your new role as director to his producer?
Jacobs: It was really great. He left me to make the movie I wanted to make. And he and [co-producer] George Clooney were great in helping me get the movie green-lit. It’s not a commercial movie, certainly, and it doesn’t star Tom Cruise. It was very low budget, but still, it’s hard getting movies made in Hollywood. And then when I wanted their advice in post-production, to look at a cut of the movie, they were really supportive.
BTL: How did your history as assistant director affect the way you directed this film?
Jacobs: Ultimately, it helped me get the movie done in 30 days. Since it was my first time as a director, I felt like I was prepared, but there were certainly things that came up that you can never prepare for. There’s just so much information to process as a director, so I really had my hands full. But I think the fact that I’ve been an AD helped me have a sense of how to achieve the amount of work I needed to achieve in order to get the movie done.
BTL: What of Soderbergh’s directing style did you incorporate into your direction of this film?
Jacobs: I can’t think if there’s anything specific, but I think I ripped off a lot of the guy. John Schlesinger was a real mentor of mine, and I’d done a couple of things with Richard Linklater. I think I stole from all of them. If there was anything in particular I took from Steven, I guess it’s just that he makes a decision. He doesn’t ever waffle and he’s really specific and decisive, and I think that’s important as a director.