PARK CITY, Utah — Directed by a filmmaker who had no interest in making a feature and adapted from a memoir by a writer who never thought of her book as movie material, "Low Down" has the feeling of a film that was meant to be.
Entered in Sundance's dramatic competition, "Low Down" is based on Amy-Jo Albany's beautifully written memoir of growing up with her father, legendary jazz pianist Joe Albany, a heroin addict living in the on-the-skids Hollywood of the 1970s. It's a haunting film, unblinking and unromanticized, atmospherically directed by Jeff Preiss with a dead-on feeling for time, place and mood.
Starring two actors, John Hawkes as Joe Albany and Elle Fanning as his daughter, who never set a foot wrong, "Low Down" gets this story so right that it's a shock to learn how many twists and turns had to be navigated to get it up on the screen in the first place.
Friends for years, Preiss and the writer met when Amy-Jo Albany was on the crew for a commercial he directed. "She was listening to Chet Baker, and I asked her how she knew him," Preiss remembers. "She said, 'My dad played with him, and if you've never heard of him, that's the end of the conversation.' I'm kind of a jazz nerd, so I even had one of Joe's records." (Joe Albany died in 1988.)
Albany has always loved books — she worked for 10 years in all three Dutton's bookstores — and it had long been what she called "my secret ambition" to write a memoir. Preiss was so encouraging that he's one of the people the book, which came out a decade ago, is dedicated to.
It was at her first signing, at Book Soup on Sunset Boulevard, that Albany was approached by veteran producer Albert Berger ("Nebraska" is one of the many credits he shares with partner Ron Yerxa.)
"I had absolutely no interest in a film; it didn't even enter my world," Albany remembers. "Though I was born and raised in Hollywood, when he said, 'We're interested in optioning your book,' I didn't know what he meant. Honestly, I thought someone was putting me on.
"I checked Albert out and found out he was the real deal, and for 10 years, he re-optioned the book every 18 months. Sometimes people would say I should go elsewhere, but my street instincts said, 'I trust these people; I'm not going anywhere.'"
As for Preiss at this time, as someone who came out of the experimental world and who was the cinematographer on Bruce Weber's Oscar-nominated documentary about jazz trumpeter Baker, "Let's Get Lost," he was happy making music videos, commercials and experimental films like "STOP," which played at the New York Film Festival.
Yet though part of Preiss also felt that "it would be my dream" to make "Low Down" into a film, he "didn't confess to the fact."
"I didn't want to insert myself if it didn't help the project get made," he said. "The filmmaking I do has to do with caring about something in a very personal way, and I thought I might be too passionate to get a film financed."
However, when Preiss did a favor for producer friend Mindy Goldberg and set up a meeting between her and Berger, "all they talked about was 'Why doesn't Jeff want to do this film?'" With that, the secret was out and the deal was made.
Yet even now, things were far from set. "Low Down" was set up with a different cast, with Mark Ruffalo originally cast as the pianist, Chloë Grace Moretz to play Amy and Jacki Weaver thought of to play Amy's grandmother (a role now taken by Glenn Close). But then financing fell through, Ruffalo had scheduling problems, and everything was back to square one.
With input from Albany ("She has amazing casting instincts," says Preiss), the new cast, which includes Lena Headey, Peter Dinklage and Flea, was set. "The page is what cast it," says the director, referring to the memoir. "Everyone wanted to bring their best game."
Despite all this high-caliber acting talent and an excellent script (written by Albany and Topper Lilien), both Albany and Preiss agree that the key element in the film is its visual style.
"The image is privileged over dialogue for me," says Preiss, a big silent movie fan. "Images are in our heads in a way the mind can't manipulate." Albany adds, "I felt good about that. It's always images for me. The words come from images. I see a situation before I hear it in my head."
It was his concern for images (the cinematographer was Christopher Blauvelt, a disciple of the late Harris Savides, whose work together included 2013's "The Bling Ring") that made Preiss insist on shooting in anamorphic 16 mm and not digital. "There is a story that is nested in the images, and that doesn't happen with digital," the director says. "There is color and feeling that ties everything together, and you miss that."
Albany was on the "Low Down" set every day, seeing the early years of her life portrayed on film, and that was a situation she's still processing.
"It was a very sort of out-of-body experience; I thought I'd have a nervous breakdown, and it still could happen," she says, smiling. "There was the reality of what happened, my memories, the book, the screenplay, the filming: Each step was a step away from reality, and I had to embrace it for the reality it had become."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun