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When Low Down finished production late last summer, like most American indies, it adopted an aggressive editing schedule built around the hope it would premiere at Sundance in January.
“We got it done based on an arbitrary date on a calendar,” director Jeff Preiss told The Hollywood Reporter. This meant a seven-day-a-week editing schedule, without a day off, which then came to an abrupt conclusion.
The Low Down team went to Park City in search of distribution, a particularly reasonable aspiration for a competition film with two Game of Thrones stars (Peter Dinklage and Lena Headey) and powerful lead performances from Glenn Close, Elle Fanning, and John Hawkes as the heroin-addicted legendary jazz pianist Joe Albany.
Low Down though didn’t get bought at the festival (it eventually sold to Oscilloscope this Spring), but instead Preiss left Sundance with something he now views as being far more valuable: perspective.
“It had gotten hard for me to watch the movie alone,” explains Preiss, “but having the vicarious experience of seeing the movie through an audience’s eyes is heart pounding. You have a much greater trust in what you like and don’t like in that setting.”
Seeing his film through the eyes of six different Sundance audiences, and removed from the day-to-day grind of the editing room, Preiss saw his film in a new light. The first thing that jumped out at him was there were three key points in the film that could have greater clarity and land in a more direct way with an audience.
The biggest of these potential changes was “re-editing the film’s ending so the viewer enters Amy’s (Joe Albany’s 13-year-old daughter, played by Fanning) mind,” explains Preiss, “so that we’re bonded with Amy’s psyche in a specific, overt way, which had always been the goal of the film.”
After the festival, Preiss and his editor Michael Saia returned to New York to make the changes. What the two collaborators discovered in re-opening the film is they had an energy, sharpness and freedom they didn’t have prior to the festival. The result was they went far beyond making the three specific changes.
“If it had been acquired at Sundance,” reflects Preiss, “I would have not even opened up the possibility of indulging in being able to continue pressing into the clay, but it was malleable again and suddenly it became this guilty pleasure.”
What’s unique about Low Down, compared to other films that are significantly re-edited, is no scenes were eliminated. The narrative structure is the same, so much so that people associated with the film recognize that it is different, but are unable to put their finger on exactly what has been altered.
“I think there must be over a thousand changes,” reflects Preiss. “It kind of accordioned a little bit. By trimming back and making certain beats a little briefer it made the languidness of other sections of the film seem more purposeful. The result is the languid moments become more powerful in their atmosphere by virtue of being surrounded by scenes that are paced sharper.”
Preiss summarizes the changes by saying what screened at Sundance was more ethereal, while the new version is more gripping. The director insists he was pleased with the version that showed at Sundance and the reaction it received. And while not intentional, the changes do address what was a common criticism of the film back in January. For example, THR’s own Todd McCarthy, who gave the film a mixed review, found Low Down to be “frustratingly amorphous, with little sense of dramatic molding or pacing.”
Loved or hated, and the film did elicit strong opinions, Preiss hopes people will give the film a second look: “It is certainly different enough that it might alter someone’s first experience of the film.”
‘Low Down’ screens Saturday night as part of Brooklyn’s BAMcinemaFest and will be released theatrically later this year.
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