There was a time in his life when Jacob Aaron Estes was preternaturally obsessed with getting rid of the raccoons that had taken over his lawn. After several failed attempts and a few bloody fingers, the independent filmmaker and UC Santa Cruz alumnus did not have a vermin-free yard. But he did have something — his next film.
From the raccoon encounter was born, “The Details,” which Estes will screen at the UCSC Media Theater on October 4.
The film, starring Tobey Maguire, Elizabeth Banks and Laura Linney, focuses on the complexities of adult morality and the sometimes bestial ways in which they arise.
“It’s about misbehaving and the way in which people behave like animals,” Estes said. “I don’t think that that’s a cynical point of view, I think it’s a way that I look at human behavior and I think it’s what we are. I would call that realism.”
Grappling with the raccoon incident inspired Maguire’s on-screen obsession to represent the kinds of inane situations that adults have to deal with in everyday life.
“I thought that would be a funny central obsession for my character,” Estes said. “The raccoons were a set up for marital tensions, a wife who’s angry at the character for being so obsessed with the raccoons, that anger really being misplaced, to do with sexual [dysfunction] and everything unspooling from there.”
Estes sought to expose adult issues of moral ambiguity in opposition to his first feature film, “Mean Creek,” which followed a group of children through the repercussions of a prank gone wrong. “Mean Creek” won 2004 Independent Spirit Awards and propelled Estes to the foreground of independent filmmaking, with big-name critics like Roger Ebert calling parts of it “extraordinary.”
Christened the “Indie darling,” by Tatiana Siegel of the Hollywood Reporter, Estes made a name for himself with his emphasis on drawing the dark and raw out of human behavior.
“A lot of the events of my childhood were intense, dealing with pretty unusual family circumstances and death,” Estes said. “But, truthfully I think most art is exploring extreme and intense things.”
Estes, who graduated from UCSC with a media studies degree in 1994, first learned how to translate experience to inspiration through the guidance of theater arts professor, James Bierman.
“He really helped me explore what it meant to be a dramatic writer at a time when I was just learning to be a dramatic writer,” Estes said. “[Bierman] was a great force in my life for a couple of years.”
Students wrote plays in Bierman’s class and then produced them the following quarter for the UCSC Chautauqua Festival, a student theater and film festival that takes place every Spring.
Estes hopes that by showing “The Details” at UCSC, he will be able to give back to the engaged faculty and students that shaped him.
“I don’t think that there’s a much better program in the United States for learning how to be a playwright,” said Estes of Chautauqua. “It’s not me just fluffing up UC Santa Cruz, when I was there it was a truly great experience.”
Estes, who grew up far from the film culture of Hollywood, didn’t know anyone with a successful art career before he moved to California.
“To me, when I was 19, that seemed like a thing that aliens did. When you first start conceiving of a career in art or film, it can seem impossible,” he said. “You just put one foot in front of the other and you keep working and you get better at what you do.”
Nearly two decades later Estes makes films that strive to serve as a forum for political issues. In “Mean Creak,” his debut film, one of the characters is harassed for having homosexual parents.
“It’s not talking about politics, but it’s bullying and the way that we attack each other for familial circumstances which are out of our control,” Estes said. “That’s not political per se, but it is political.”
In his next project, “IOU,” produced by David Fincher, Estes also channels wider themes through the narrative of a family-man going to extreme lengths to overcome economic difficulties.
“Good art is attempting to communicate ideas, emotions, human experiences, whether it’s a painting or a movie or a short story or a novel,” Estes said. “The people creating those are attempting to reach out and have a common experience with the audience.”
A special advanced screening will take place at the UCSC Media Theater Arts Center on Oct. 4 at 7 p.m. followed by a Q&A session with the director.