Second banana to top dog

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.

It was through someone he met at NYU that he landed the job on "Matewan," which led to Jacobs working as Sayles' assistant in New York City. He continued to move up the production ladder, working on Sayles' "Eight Men Out" and other films. He then became a second assistant director, working on "Miller's Crossing" with the Coen brothers, Jodie Foster's "Little Man Tate" and back with Sayles for 1991's "City of Hope." Soon after he achieved his goal of becoming a first assistant director.

Another key influence would come from working with veteran director John Schlesinger on 1996's "Eye for an Eye."

"John was this incredible mentor, professorial and open-minded, an inspiring and wonderful guy to be around," Jacobs says. "Even when we weren't working on a film together and we'd go out to lunch and I'd pepper him with questions about his films and the things he'd done, he was always willing to talk about it and explain why he did what he did."

Another filmmaker Jacobs worked with who encouraged him to direct is Richard Linklater. The two became good friends after Linklater hired Jacobs on two films (as a producer on "Before Sunrise" and first assistant director on "The Newton Boys"). Linklater had no doubts about Jacobs' ability to make the leap.

"He was more in the European tradition of an assistant director who saw the really big picture of what you were trying to do and could collaborate," Linklater says from Austin, Texas, where he is in post-production on his adaptation of Philip K. Dick's "A Scanner Darkly."

Inspired by films such as "The French Connection" (1971) and "Midnight Cowboy" (1969), Jacobs and his team attempted to transcend simple genre and stylistically evoke the earlier films.

Everything was simplified to keep the emphasis on the characters and allow the crew as much mobility as possible, especially working on the streets of downtown L.A. Jacobs kept the camera at eye-level whenever possible. When the characters move, the camera moves.

"I wanted to shoot the movie in a way that wasn't like every movie [set] in L.A. has been shot," says Jacobs. "It was fun to take everything I've learned from all these great filmmakers and try to absorb it and put some of that into this."

"The one thing I feel confident about is that I know, right or wrong, it's my movie. I felt really lucky. I got to make the movie I wanted but I had this group of people who were great with notes and suggestions. You only get one chance to make your first film."

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