Greg Jacobs Loves the ’80s

Published September 17, 2014

ABOVE: CRAIG ROBERTS AND GAGE GOLIGHTLY IN RED OAKS. PHOTO COURTESY OF AMAZON.

“I just like to make movies,” says Greg Jacobs over the phone. “I like the process and I like collaborating and being part of something exciting—I like doing it all,” he continues. “I try to be ego-less.”

One glance at Jacobs’ filmography will tell you that he’s not exaggerating; over his 28-year career in the entertainment industry, Jacobs has consistently rotated between the positions of assistant director (Erin Brockovich, Ocean’s Eleven, The Good German, Behind the Candelabra), director (Criminal, Windchill), writer (Criminal), and producer. He frequently collaborates with Steven Soderbergh, but has also worked with the Coen Brothers, John Sayles, John Schlesinger, Richard Linklater, and Jodie Foster. His most recent credits include The Knick, the turn-of-the-century hospital drama starring Clive Owen and Juliet Rylance and Cinemax’s most prized possession; Magic Mike XXL (he’s taking over as director from Soderbergh); and a comedy pilot for Amazon titled Red Oaks and directed by David Gordon Green, which Jacobs both co-wrote and produced.

Set at a country club in Jacobs’ home state of New Jersey over the summer of 1985, Red Oaks is a love letter to the whimsical, inventive, capricious yet caring comedies of Jacobs’ young adulthood. In the opening scene, a father suffers from a heart attack. Believing he is on his deathbed, he first tells his son that he loves him. He then launches into a deluge of confessions: “I think your mother’s a lesbian!” “I should have married Soon Yi.” “I love the Orientals!”

All the key characters are present: from David (Craig Roberts), the slightly geeky and generally clueless teenage protagonist, to the mysterious love interest who reads erotica and finds it boring; the overweight, stoner parking valet; the blond, athletic asshole; the hot girl with hidden depth; the inappropriate mentor, doling out romantic advice; and the misanthropic, rich, 60-something antagonist. There are some familiar ’80s faces in the cast as well, Dirty Dancing‘s Jennifer Grey plays David’s overbearing mother and Paul Reiser, of Beverly Hills Cop, plays the aforementioned antagonist.

Red Oaks is one of five original pilots commissioned by Amazon. Whether or not it is picked up for a full series depends on public opinion, so please watch it and vote for it here.

EMMA BROWN: What made you want to write about the ’80s?

GREG JACOBS: [chuckles] Well, those were some important years for me. I’m in my 40s, so I came of age then and a lot of movies of that era were formative for me.

BROWN: Any films in particular?

JACOBS: Certainly, there’s a bit of Caddyshack that inspired us. Although for Craig’s character—not that the show is anything like that movie—I love The Graduate and Dustin Hoffman. That’s such a great coming-of-age story. A little bit of Craig’s character and the way he played it with the world reacting around him, we tried to be a little bit of the first 30 minutes of The Graduate. It is a little bit of a pastiche to those movies, but we tried to make it our own and keep it sincere and sweet.

BROWN: How did you first come up with the idea for Red Oaks? How did you get involved with David Gordon Green and Amazon?

JACOBS: I had been an assistant tennis pro at a bunch of posh country clubs while I was going through college. I’d always had fond memories and I thought it would to be fun to do as an indie movie. Then Steven Soderbergh and I were making The Knick for Cinemax and I started thinking television might be the way to go. I wrote it as a pilot with my buddy Joe [Gangemi], and Soderbergh had always loved the idea, and he loved the script. David is someone I knew socially, and I admired his films and we just thought he’d be a good partner—he can go from really broad comedy to emotional drama. We went out to a few places and we really liked the offer Amazon had—we liked the idea that the pilot gets seen by people. A lot of times you shoot a pilot and it never sees the light of day. But the idea of putting it out in front of people was pretty fun for us.

BROWN: Have you written the entire first season? Or are you waiting until Amazon gives you the green light?

JACOBS: We’ve written the kind of bible of the first season, and we’ve written two more episodes that are ready to go. Once we hear from Amazon, fingers crossed, we’ll get writing. I think we hear sometime in October. We’re hopeful. I feel good about it. I’m happy with the way it turned out and what I’m hearing from friends, they seemed to enjoy it.

BROWN: Are you allowed to tell me anything about what the bible of Red Oaks looks like?

JACOBS: Without giving anything away, there’s a lot of family dynamics with his parents that will play out in a very funny but also emotional way, in addition to the crazy escapades at the club. I think it’ll be a nice blend; there will be more of Richard Kind and Jennifer Grey and then there are a couple of new, fun characters. One in particular who we couldn’t get into the pilot but who’s introduced in the second episode.

BROWN: While you were writing the pilot, did you think “Wouldn’t it be amazing to get someone like Jennifer Grey?” Or did she come up after you’d finished?

JACOBS: We definitely thought about the people who were in it, which was great. Jennifer, Richard Kind, and Paul Reiser were certainly people we had in mind. Ennis Esmer was a discovery.

BROWN: Ennis’ character Nash, the tennis pro and Craig’s boss, is hilarious. Was there a Nash at any of the country clubs you worked at?

JACOBS: That guy is an amazing actor. He’s a great comedian. Everyone in it is very, very loosely modeled—a sort of hodgepodge of people I knew.

BROWN: Has anyone reached out to you—”I remember working at that club with you”?

JACOBS: Not yet. Maybe if it goes to series. [laughs]

BROWN: Have you seen any of the other Amazon pilots?

JACOBS: I haven’t yet.

BROWN: Are you holding off on purpose?

JACOBS: No, I want to. Especially Whit Stillman‘s, I’m curious to see what he did. That’s the one I’m most interested in. I’ve never met him but he seems like an interesting guy.

I wish I had a Twitter account with lots of followers. I feel like I’m supposed to be on social media telling everybody to watch but I haven’t been able to get my head around it yet. It feels too self-promoting.

BROWN: But that’s what social media is.

JACOBS: I just can’t. I’m too old school! Come on, I made a show about the ’80s. [laughs]

BROWN: Do you miss anything about the ’80s? Are you nostalgic?

JACOBS: No. Not really.

BROWN: Not floppy discs?

JACOBS: Not at all.

BROWN: You’ve worked with Steven Soderbergh many times. How did you first meet?

JACOBS: We met working together on a movie called King of the Hill. It’s good actually—it’s a really good little movie about a young boy coming of age during the Great Depression. Steven did a great job on it. We met on that. I was the assistant director.

BROWN: So he interviewed you?

JACOBS: Yeah. We clicked and became friends and have done a lot of stuff off and on over the years. I think I was 25 and he was 28 or 27. The movie was in 1992.

BROWN: What was your first professional credit?

JACOBS: I went to NYU and really the first person I started working with was a guy named John Sayles. I was his assistant while I was going to NYU. My first real movie that I worked on was a movie called Matewan—one of John Sayles’ movies—about a coal mining strike in West Virginia. I think that was in 1986.

BROWN: What did you want to be when you were five years old? Did you want to be in the film industry?

JACOBS: No. I think probably a baseball player.

BROWN: Do you come from a creative family?

JACOBS: No, not at all. But I love movies. When I was about 12 years old, I took an after-school class in Super 8 filmmaking and that’s when I fell in love with it. I started making little short films on and off. I know there was one about a teacher that had superpowers…

BROWN: Do you still have them?

JACOBS: No. I had a bunch of them for years. I held on to them into my 20s, but then when I moved from New York to L.A. I lost track of a bunch of stuff.

BROWN: I talk to a lot of writers who describe screenwriting as a particularly thankless job, and I imagine you must have much more weight and control as the director or producer.

JACOBS: Something like Red Oaks was fun because we wrote it, but we were also the producers on it. I love working with writers and on The Knick, for example, I was the executive producer, but I worked really closely with Steven [Katz] and Jack [Amiel] and Michael [Begler], who wrote it. It was a very collegiate process and it was really important to Steven [Soderbergh] and I that those guys had a voice. It wasn’t like they wrote it and we never saw them again, and that’s not the way Soderbergh works—the writers are always very closely involved.

BROWN: I love The Knick.

JACOBS: It’s hard to watch, I bet. Some of the operations…

BROWN: I had some trouble with the first episode, but you learn when to look away.

JACOBS: Yeah! I’m really happy with it and proud of it. It’s fun to be able to do a comedy after that.

BROWN: Have you started working on Magic Mike XXL yet?

JACOBS: We shot over Labor Day weekend we filmed some second unit stuff in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. But we don’t start shooting the main unit for another couple of weeks. It’s going to be pretty fun.

BROWN: Do you feel comfortable taking Magic Mike over? Or is it a bit scary?

JACONS: No, I feel very comfortable. I was so much a part of the development and process and the shooting of the first one, and the guys are all so great. It will be really fun.

RED OAKS IS CURRENTLY AVAILABLE TO WATCH ON AMAZON. THE KNICK AIRS FRIDAYS ON CINEMAX.