An Interview With Mike Jacobs, Director of ‘Audience of One’

Audience of One (2007)

If you follow my posts at all, you’ve probably noticed that I’m fascinated by cinema vérité.  In fact, someone once told me that I used the word ‘vérité’ too many times in one of my pieces. Well fuck that.  What else are you supposed to call it?  Anyway, the concept is interesting to me: you tell a story by just filming people in their daily lives.  How do you know when to stop shooting?  Or start, even?  How much does your observation have an effect on what’s happening?  (I have a theory that Mark Borchardt finished Coven BECAUSE he was being followed by Chris Smith’s camera in American Movie).

Vérité is one of the most naked modes of storytelling.  You’re out there without a script or even an outline, you shoot on instinct and rely on your wits and intuition to build the story in your head, only to stitch it together later in your editing suite.

I was fortunate to sit down with Mike Jacobs, whose documentary, Audience of One, is one of the most fluid, interesting, and hilarious examples of cinema vérité ever made. It’s about a pentecostal pastor, Richard Gazowsky, who receives a message from God that he has to make the biggest science fiction epic of all time, telling the story of Joseph. He then embarks on this lofty pursuit with the help of his congregation, and of course, their donations. As one might assume, they run into many, many ups and downs along the way.

I saw Audience of One for the first time years ago at a screening at a little bar in Brooklyn called Barbés—I don’t think it had even come out yet, I think it was still doing its festival thing—and one of the producers was there and I had wanted to ask questions, and I think I only got to ask one question because this guy kept asking these really long-winded questions and he like, monopolized the whole question and answer thing, so thanks for doing this, man! I’m excited to talk to you. I really enjoyed it and I bought on DVD when it came out and I’ve been a big fan for a while now.

Oh thanks! I appreciate that, that’s very sweet. It always means a lot when filmmakers, and film writers, and film appreciators take a vested interest in it.

I spent a little time on Smug Film the other day and I really like your writing on it, and I really like the types of films you guys are writing about and the angles you guys take; it’s very thought out and well-researched and properly positioned, and I think as far as taste-wise, I’m probably on the same page.

Thanks man, I appreciate it! That’s really nice to hear. So, to start things off, did you always want to make movies? How did you get bitten by the bug?

For me, I think it was a little bit different than a lot of filmmakers that I know in that I didn’t grow up always wanting to make movies, I fell into it much later. I didn’t start making movies or experimenting with cameras until I was a junior or a senior in college. I think I always fancied myself a bit more of a writer, and then I picked up a camera and realized that the camera could do a lot of writing that I could never do. The camera was able to get me there more quickly and give me an excuse to walk into strange environments and talk to people and do research that I couldn’t do without it. So I sort of fell in love with the idea of filmmaking without any knowledge of what filmmaking ‘is’.

Then, right after school, I got hired by an action sports production company in Colorado, so I got to see a little bit of the professional application of filmmaking, but I didn’t really think about making my own films until about a couple of years after that, which means I didn’t really get ‘bitten by the bug’ until I was 25 or 26. That’s when I started thinking about crafting a story and making a documentary. I did two short documentaries before Audience of One, but Audience of One was my real earnest, committed, filmmaking experience where I said no matter what it takes, no matter how long it takes, this is what I’m gonna do. And I fell in love with the vérité approach, and I knew it was for me and that that kind of filmmaking appealed to me, and I watched as many vérité films as I could once I came across this story. I knew it was the only way to make a film like this.

When you got more interested in filmmaking, did you notice that you started to look at films in a different way?

Oh absolutely. I think that happened kind of right away, in that once I  started watching movies—and not just documentaries, but all sorts of movies—with more of a critical eye and an eye towards wanting to make a film of some kind, I evaluated them really differently. Anything from camera movement, to techniques when it comes to editing, to approaches to potentially sensitive subjects, all of that I really focused in on. And now, of course, I’m forever changed—I can’t really watch movies anymore from a dispassionate place. I’ve been spoiled.

What were some of the vérité movies you watched that helped inspire and inform your visual and editing style for Audience of One?

I would have to put it on one film in particular. The first film I saw in the vérité approach that quickly overwhelmed me and I became obsessed with was Gimme Shelter by the Maysles. I never went to film school, so I didn’t see that movie until I was in my mid-twenties, but when I saw it, it forever changed my perception of what a documentary could be. And then I saw all the Maysles films, and Salesman, to this day, remains one of my favorite films. And then of course, more applicably, a film I watched frequently was American Movie, for obvious reasons.

One thing I was struck by with Audience of One was that it’s a great example of vérité, but there’s no talking head sit-down interviews, you’re just following things as they’re happening. And even in American Movie, here and there, they actually sit down with characters and talk to them in a very lit interview situation. I think I actually asked the Producer at the screening if you had done any of these, and he said you did, but ended up cutting them out. Is that correct?

I probably shot maybe five sit-down interviews, towards the end of the film while we were editing, because I wanted to go back and cover some bases, but they ended up not making it into the film because the film really worked without them.

I think any time you shoot vérité you’re a little worried about the audience connecting the dots, and I think in particular with this story, some of the ideas that the pastor and this church were going for were so out of this world, and so abstract and goofy and zany, that I wanted to make sure I got everything right, so that was really the motivation for the sit-down interviews I tried.

When you were out there shooting, this being your first film, what was the experience like? Were you sort of editing in your mind as you were shooting?

I think first and foremost, I had what I thought to be a very captivating subject, a group of people that were mesmerizing and lived their lives in a very unique way, and provided for what I knew would be very watchable stuff. And within that, there was of course a narrative structure I was cognizant of, built around their journey and what the church was trying to do, and their process of trying to make their film. But yeah, you’re constantly taking mental notes about where things are going to fit together, where you might reorient things or highlight certain character beats, and you’re also discovering wonderful surprises, perfect unscripted moments that just happen by virtue of patience and showing up to shoot again and again and again.

Did you find there was an observer effect, that you were having an effect on what they were doing to some extent?

Broadly speaking, I think just by virtue of showing up with a camera you’re altering behavior, but I think on the flip side of that, if you’re showing up every day for like eleven months straight, living and breathing with these people, you can get to a point where you’re pretty damn close to not having an effect. I think at certain times and moments, I was the last thing on their mind, and I got really pure, great stuff. And then there were other times when there was more of a performative nature, especially with someone like Pastor Gazowsky, who’s such a big personality and loves the camera and I think was flattered by my presence and interest in him. I’m sure there’s plenty of moments where he’s putting it on for me and the camera.

But you have to remember that I was pretty much a blip on my radar. I don’t think they had any idea what I was really doing, or had any idea what I was making would get anywhere and play at festivals and have distribution. And I was always transparent with what I was doing and my goals, but I’m a pretty unassuming guy, and my footprint was most of the time me, my headphones, and my camera. I was pretty much a one man band and shot the whole thing myself and ran sound myself. So I wasn’t this big presence in the room, it was more just me in the corner, and I showed up frequently enough that I was in the fabric.

And the way that these folks are, to their credit—they’re wonderful human beings in this capacity—they were extremely welcoming and warm, and believed that ultimately, on a spiritual level, I might join their journey. I think at a certain point they thought I’d just put the camera down and start praying with them. If that happened, I don’t think any of them would have batted an eye.

What was the learning curve like of shooting, this being your first feature film? Did your shooting style evolve at all over the course of shooting these people pretty much every day for all that time?

Most of the work that I did as a filmmaker on this film was with the cameras off. It was about navigating the relationship, endearing myself to them, earning their trust, in order for me to be able to turn the cameras on and get an unfiltered experience. So for the first few months, I didn’t get my camera in their face much, it was mostly just me hanging out, wrapping my head around what they were doing, explaining just enough of what I was there to do, and then as that relationship got a little more comfortable, I showed up more often with the camera on and ready to go.

And then of course, it wasn’t long before we were off to Italy, and at that point, I didn’t really know what the hell they were talking about but I figured if they were going to Italy I had to go too. And so I go to Italy, and at this point they were moving so quickly and doing so much that I was the least of their worries. That’s why there’s such great stuff from Italy. And I think because I went through the experience with them and lived and breathed with them, I think they figured ‘well, this kid’s not going anywhere, his intentions seem good, so we’ll let him stick around’.

I will say though that there were a number of times where things got a little awkward, more so on an indirect level rather than someone specifically saying ‘you can’t shoot anymore’, but I’m pretty good at reading signals and there were a number of times Richard definitely didn’t want the camera around. When we came back from Italy, I showed up with the camera and I felt a weird vibe from them, so I took about six weeks off to let the dust settle a little, and maybe I was over-thinking it but when I showed up again, it was a little bit safer. And then another cycle like that would happen a couple months later; it was a little bit of a chess match. I was always trying to get the great stuff I was getting without alienating them, or pushing things too far.

I stuck to the playbook of vérité, of being honest and authentic with them all of the way, but I treaded lightly as far as where I pushed the camera. So that was always shifting, but as far as actual filmmaking, that stayed the same pretty much the whole time. You always want more, and I was getting in pretty deep, but I think the deeper you go in a story of like this, the more ‘dangerous’ it gets because you get closer to maybe some ugly truths, so I was conscious of that. I think my film has great depth to it, but there are also a ton of holes in it that are left up to the audience because there were things I never saw, and things I wasn’t ever going to be able to see.

When you’re shooting, and you’re in a moment when you feel this uncomfortability that maybe he doesn’t want to be on camera, did you find yourself maybe standing further away, giving yourself more physical distance and zooming in on a longer lens?

Unfortunately, I just had the lens that came with the camera, so I didn’t have the option to do what you just suggested, even though I wanted to. I did have some zoom range, I can’t remember to what focal length, but it wasn’t that great a distance. So if I walked twenty feet away, I was probably stuck with it pretty wide. So more often than that I literally just left the room, or put the camera down and turned it off if the vibes were getting weird. And there were times when Richard was like, “You can’t film this, this is top secret”. But I think a lot of those times he was talking more about the copyrights of the ideas he was working on for the film, but other times he was maybe using that as a screen to keep me from filming things that he didn’t want people to see. But really, it didn’t happen that often. I was getting pretty much all the access you’d want as far as a window into their filmmaking process, and the church. Some of the home environment stuff, I would have liked to have gotten. But Richard really didn’t want that filmed, and I respected that.

I did use certain techniques for sure, like placing the camera on a tripod and walking away from it, and whether or not people knew it was running or not, I didn’t know, but I think because I was around so much I don’t think people always knew whether or not I was shooting. My approach was so fluid and malleable, and like I said, it was literally just me with the most baseline camera by my side.

I’m sure you’ve answered this a million times, but how did you meet the subjects? Was there a moment of spark where you were like, ‘I have to film this’?

I read an article in SF Weekly, this cover story of the two daughters, in movie lights, in black and white, and this story of this film production company at the church, and it just sounded wildly entertaining and like everything you would have wanted in a vérité film, and it just kind of sounded too good to be true, so I contacted the woman who wrote the article and she was like, “Oh you’d love this, you should definitely go make a film about them, I’ll introduce you”. And I think within a week I showed up at the church service, no camera, and I’d never seen a church service like this before. Very wild—not ‘fire and brimstone’, but certainly evangelical pentecostal—really entertaining music and dance and performance. And then this pastor comes up and he’s talking about this epic movie he’s gonna make, and to myself I’m like, you’ve gotta be kidding me, this is in my backyard, my apartment was only three or five miles from the church, and I’m like, man, I can really chip away at this over the course of six months or a year at pretty low cost.

So I approached the pastor after the service and said “Hey, I’m a local filmmaker and I’d love to make a little documentary about you, and I don’t know where it would go or what it would be, but can I pursue that?” And he was like “Oh, well let me think about it and get back to you”. And I called him in a week and he said, “you know, I think it’s probably okay, why don’t we see how it goes”, and before you know it ,I just showed up with a camera and just said “Hey, I told Richard I was gonna make a film about you guys, I really think it’s awesome what you’re doing, I think it’d be a pretty cool thing to capture.”

And at this time, I really firmly believed they were gonna make a movie. I knew they wouldn’t make the movie that was in his mind, but I figured they were at least gonna make something. I was as disappointed as they were, if not more so, when the wheels came off as quickly as they did after Italy, because when we came back I was like, man, I probably only have like half a documentary, I was hoping I’d have something like American Movie where there were scenes of their movie, and also a lot of action of them making a movie. But instead it of course spun into something more surprising. As their vision got bigger, and the promises got bigger, they were making less and less of their movie.

In the film, it’s mentioned that Pastor Gazowsky hadn’t seen a movie until he was 30 or 40 years old. Why did he wait so long, and what was the movie he finally did see?

I think he waited until he was 40, and he saw The Lion King. He grew up in a very, very strict pentecostal environment where pop culture was frowned upon, and he definitely didn’t grow up with a TV, they probably only listened to christian radio. And after spending a lot of time with his mother—who, this aside, is a wonderful human being—I pretty much believe it. She really did keep them under lock and key as far their exposure. Even living in a city and doing some of the performative stuff that they did, I really think he was in his late 30’s and 40’s when he was finally exposed to grand cinema outside of christian storytelling.

Then, he went and saw fifty films over the course of a few weeks and fell in love with filmmaking. He had always been part of choirs and put on plays, and I spoke to SF residents who were here in the 80’s that would go to church service just to watch these plays, and I guess they were pretty epic and pretty badass, and I don’t know if you’ve heard Richard sing but he has a beautiful singing voice. So there’s always been this creative talent there, and a spark to make things. But this transition to filmmaking—and we all know what goes into filmmaking, as far as the variables and the costs—was probably not the best use of the church’s time and efforts. Even his mom was like “Why aren’t we doing plays and choirs anymore? Why is it all about the movie?” And maybe they’ve gone back to that lately. I haven’t been back to the church in about three years, so I honestly don’t know what they’re up to now and if they’ve reverted back to less costly and more immediate stuff.

Before we go, I’d like to ask two questions that I ask at the end of every one of my interviews. And you can interpret them however you want, and answer them however you want, or even not answer them at all. The first question is: What’s your favorite movie?

Hm. It’s very difficult to pick a favorite, but until I was twenty, my favorite movie was Fletch, and I still probably have to stand by that to a certain degree. But of course, as far as films that have a richer whatever—I don’t know, it’s just so tough. And it’s not like I’m worried about saying the wrong thing. I guess I would have to do it generationally: I think I would say the first twenty years of my life it was Fletch, and then the next five years it would have to be Requiem for a Dream. That film took hold of me and very much surprised me with its immediacy and power, and then going back and watching it for its technique, it’s equally impressive to me. I spent a lot of time thinking about that film. But then later in my twenties, I’d have to say Gimme Shelter. Or maybe I’d tip the scales to Salesman a bit more, but Gimme Shelter I really had such an obsession with, whereas Salesman I approached a bit more academically.

Last question—and this might even be harder—what’s your least favorite movie?

I don’t see that many movies now that I have a kid, so I very rarely have a least favorite because I sort of self-select what I watch, since I don’t have time to watch as many, whereas a while back I’d see way more movies and very easily have one that really pissed me off.

It’s a tough question, because if you see some poorly executed blockbuster movie, sure, it’s easy to pin that as your least favorite, but I feel more betrayed by films I’m really looking forward to, that I think had a great opportunity to be good, and you get really pissed of by the choices that were made—I dunno, I’ll have to think about this for a minute here.

Okay, I’ve got one that I will stand by, and this is gonna sound like a strange one, but I would say that in the last three years there was only one movie that I just really hated. And I think she’s a good filmmaker, I loved her first movie, but I hated this one. It was Miranda July’s follow up to Me and You and Everyone We Know, called The Future. I respect her, but I hated that movie. So I will, for the record, say that that is my least favorite movie. And I bet, if I watched it again, I might find certain things I liked about it, but for now, I just hate that movie.

Good choice. I couldn’t stand that movie either. Thanks man! This was really fun. 

Cool man! Thanks a lot.

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