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Second banana to top dog

Gregory Jacobs, with a successful career as an assistant director, steps up to co-write and helm his first film, 'Criminal.'

September 10, 2004|Kevin Crust | Times Staff Writer

There have probably been more accessible spots than a West Virginia holler for the launch of a successful film career, but for director Gregory Jacobs it was ideal.

While working as a production assistant on director John Sayles' "Matewan" in the fall of 1986, the New York University student made an observation that would help shape his destiny.

"I certainly wanted to be a director," Jacobs recalls, "and I remember noticing the person standing next to John, in this case, a woman [Matia Karrell], who was the first assistant director. I thought, 'If I'm not going to be a director right away, that job could be good because you get to stand next to the director and help figure out what's going on.' I worked toward being a first A.D., but always with the hope and dream of being able to direct my own movie."

Eighteen years and an enviable resume of work with notable directors later, Jacobs fulfills that dream with "Criminal," a character-driven caper film he directed and co-wrote starring John C. Reilly, Diego Luna and Maggie Gyllenhaal. It opens today in selected cities.

Based on the 2002 Argentine release "Nine Queens," Jacobs' film follows petulant confidence man Richard Gaddis (Reilly) as he recruits an inexperienced new partner, Rodrigo (Luna), and puts him through the paces over a 24-hour period. The pair stumble upon a con that may be too good to be true involving the fencing of a forged piece of rare U.S. currency.

The majority of the film, which presents a rare realistic view of Los Angeles, plays as a culture clash between Richard and Rodrigo, but also concerns Richard's dysfunctional relationship with his sister Valerie (Gyllenhaal), a concierge at the Biltmore Hotel. Jacobs further trades on issues of race and class by setting the film in three distinct cultural zones: downtown L.A., Beverly Hills and East L.A.

Steven Soderbergh, Jacobs' friend and mentor, co-wrote the script (credited as Sam Lowry, one of his many pseudonyms) and served as one of the producers. Jacobs first hooked up with Soderbergh in 1992 when mutual acquaintances recommended him for Soderbergh's third feature, "King of the Hill." He has been Soderbergh's A.D. on nine of his features since, including "Out of Sight," "Erin Brockovich," "Traffic" and the recently wrapped "Ocean's Twelve."

"Greg is more than an A.D. for me," Soderbergh says. "He's the person closest to me on the set and the person that I'm talking to the most, having the most detailed discussions with about what we're trying to do and what I'm trying to accomplish. He has lots of ideas and is a good sounding board and has been a very integral part of the core creative team on all the films we've worked on together."

When Soderbergh and George Clooney started their production company Section 8, one of the first things they discussed was finding something for Jacobs to direct.

"It had been this constant search," Jacobs says, "and then when I saw 'Nine Queens' I thought, if we can get the rights to this, I'd found the thing. It had this great structure, this great framework in which to work and ... I had an idea of what to do with it."

With help from executive producer Jennifer Fox and Warner Bros., Section 8 got the rights to do an English-language adaptation of "Nine Queens."

Jacobs and Soderbergh wrote the script in a month and moved immediately into preproduction.

"The most challenging thing was trying to bring L.A. into the movie," Jacobs says. "And [also] to try to bring these issues, subtle as they may be, of race and class and this stratification of the city without making it seem like this heavy piece and keep what I like about ["Nine Queens"] which was this mix of dysfunctional buddy movie, con movie, caper movie, black comedy and family dysfunction."

Armed with his script and ideas, Jacobs wooed Reilly and Luna (the actors he'd had in mind when writing the script) over some long lunches. Gyllenhaal was the first and only actress he saw for the part of Valerie.

Reilly, for one, based his decision on the script. "This was a well-written, interesting, complicated character, so I was already primed to like [Jacobs]," the actor says. "Then I sat down with Greg and within 10 minutes I could tell this guy had done a lot of thinking about this story, he's got a really strong point of view and that's really what you're looking for in a director."

A 39-year-old native of New Jersey, Jacobs began making films very early, first borrowing his father's Super-8 camera when he was 9 or 10 and a few years later taking a filmmaking course at a local community college. He got away from filmmaking in high school, but returned to it in college.

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