Sundance Preview: John Hawkes Stars as a Heroin-Addicted Jazz Pianist in 'Low Down'

2:35 PM PST 01/16/2014 by Chris O'Falt
"Low Down"

Jeff Preiss talks about his unusual journey to directing one of the most intriguing films at Sundance this year.

The Sundance Film Festival is a mecca for independent cinema and a pool of fresh filmmaking talent. But with nearly 200 films selected for exhibition, it can be a dizzying game of catch up. So this year, The Hollywood Reporter decided to do a bit of prep work for you: Here's the who/what/where/when/why on a film worth putting on your radar.

There are many different paths directors have taken to get to Sundance, but this year, none has been more winding and unintentional than that of Jeff Preiss. Associated more with the New York City art world, experimental filmmaking and commercials, the director of Low Down never set his sights on making a narrative feature. Instead it was his lifelong obsession with jazz and the desire to film it, along with a chance friendship with the daughter of legendary pianist Joe Albany, that's led him to Sundance this week.

Based on her memoir, Low Down is about Amy-Jo Albany's (Elle Fanning) unconventional upbringing with her heroin-addicted, musical genius father (John Hawkes) in the 1970s Los Angeles bohemian jazz scene. It's the rich tapestry of the film's source material and Priess' unique approach to filmmaking that makes Low Down easily one of the most intriguing films playing at Sundance this year. In anticipation of its premiere on Sunday, THR spoke with Preiss about his career, the unusual way he befriended Amy-Jo Albany, and John Hawkes' transformation into a virtuoso piano player.

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Background: "Maybe I have a slightly different way of thinking about film because of being dyslexic or that I'm into experimental music," Preiss tells THR. "I say I'm a filmmaker, but when I'm asked to elaborate, I find it hard because my practice is so wildly diverse."

Preiss' diverse filmmaking roots stem from when his father finally allowed his 12-year-old son to have an 8mm camera, which Preiss used to obsessively film his friends on the block. He then went to art school at Bard, where he studied with some of the greatest experimental filmmakers and minds -- Adolfus Mekas, Warren Sonbert and Bruce Bailey.

Preiss says he modeled his filmmaking approach after the improvisational jazz musicians he grew up idolizing. He felt the need to practice all the time and be comfortable with the camera the way a musician is with his instrument. "Jonas Mekas had a quote: 'I'm really more of a filmer than a filmmaker,' " Preiss recalls of his hero and the godfather of avant-garde cinema. "When I heard that, it was a like a ray of light that shined on me. Jonas, on so many levels, gave me permission to feel that filming was an end in of itself. So I filmed every day. I had my wind-up little movie camera with me every day, more or less, since college."

The culminating project of Preiss' constant filming is Stop, which is constructed of footage he shot from 1995 to 2011 and premiered at the New York Film Festival in 2012.

Big Break: One day in 1986, the phone rang in Preiss' 200-square-foot apartment, and it was legendary photographer Bruce Weber. Weber had heard about Preiss' 8mm films and asked to see them. "I had no idea who he was," recalls Preiss. "He came over the next day, and I showed him six minutes of silent 8mm film." Weber liked what he saw. This set into motion a three-year collaboration between Weber and his new cameraman, Preiss, which resulted in a series of documentaries, most notable of which was Let's Get Lost, the Academy Award-nominated film about jazz musician Chet Baker.

It's hard now, in retrospect, to quantify just how influential Let's Get Lost was at the time, because so many of its art school conventions were soon to become commonplace. "Things did not look like that at the time," explain Preiss. "It took six months to a year afterward of people catching up and realizing this film was having an influence." This was at the moment when music videos were starting to free themselves of shooting with big TV cameras and embracing experimental film practices of the past. Preiss quickly went from being a filmmaker working well outside of the marketplace to becoming an in-demand director of commercials and music videos for everyone from Iggy Pop, Malcolm McLaren, REM, The B52s and Mariah Carey to Apple, Nike, Coke, Sony and American Express.

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How the Film Came Together: "You know how sometimes you can look at someone and know they are interesting?" Preiss asks, reflecting on the first time he met Amy-Jo Albany. He was shooting a commercial when he stopped at the craft service table for a snack. The woman working there was listening to Baker on a boom box. Preiss remembers trying to strike up a conversation with Albany: "I thought maybe she'd think it was impressive that I knew Chet Baker, and it might be something for us to chat about." Albany wasn't used to meeting nonmusicians who had heard of her father, but Preiss, a lifelong jazz aficionado, owned her father's album The Right Combination and had seen him play at the West End Cafe. Preiss recalls how the two became fast friends:

"We just started talking, and she started telling me stories of growing up in LA. Amy is so gifted with language, and to listen to her tell a story is hypnotic. I got hooked. I had an idea of just recording her, but she got very self-conscience, and instead, she started writing her stories down using her manual typewriter."

This turned into the manuscript for Albany's well-received memoir, Low Down: Junk, Jazz, and Other Fairy Tales From Childhood. The book was quickly optioned by Bon Fide Productions (Election, Little Miss Sunshine, Nebraska) after it was released, but the material never really clicked with the directors they approached, which is when Albany and Bona Fide's Albert Berger approached Preiss about doing the project.

All the years Albany had been sharing her memories with Preiss he'd been seeing the film play in his mind, but he never said anything about wanting to film it himself. He knew her dream was to get it made into a movie, and his assumption was that there were big-name directors out there who could make it happen. "I never wanted to be presumptive about feeling entitled to film it," Preiss explains, "but more importantly, I didn't want to be a determent to it actually getting it made."

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When It All Seemed to Click: One of the big challenges for Preiss was making a piece of art, while also making sure he stayed true to Albany's memories, especially those of her father. How the musical performances were shot and reenacted were also of vital importance to Preiss, who wanted to use historical recordings of the real Joe Albany whenever possible. This meant that whoever played Albany would have to match the fingering of a virtuoso piano player.

"John [Hawkes] had to travel quite a distance to go from himself to Joe Albany," explains Preiss. Hawkes is a guitarist and songwriter, but he was not a piano player. In the weeks leading up to shooting, the actor worked intensely with musician Ohad Talmor, who kept assuring Preiss that Hawkes was more than up for the task. What Preiss did not expect was that Hawkes would nail it perfectly on the first take of the first music scene (a trio playing at a party). After calling cut, Preiss recalls, "There was a stampede in the hallway of everybody who had been watching from the video village, running to set, because they couldn't believe what they'd just seen on the monitor."

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