A Story of Storytellers: Jeff Preiss Talks About the Making of Low Down

by Kayleigh Hughes

In the world of filmmaking, there’s no shortage of movies described as “passion projects.” What’s rarer are those few projects where that term is shown to be inadequate–a weak turn of phrase that isn’t remotely capable of summarizing the intimate personal connection and diehard commitment of the filmmaker to the subject. As I speak with director Jeff Preiss, it quickly becomes clear to me that Low Down–adapted from the memoir of Amy Jo Albany, daughter of talented but troubled jazz musician Joe Albany–falls into the latter category.

During a fifteen-minute phone interview that effortlessly expands into thirty-two minutes, Preiss, a natural storyteller, bubbles over with stories both of the making of the film–of spending nearly a decade trying to get financed, of John Hawkes’ remarkable, off-script performance of a mesmerizing, true-to-life Albany monologue, of the shared nonverbal storytelling methods of music and cinematography–and also of the film’s subjects, Joe and Amy Jo, both of whom Preiss unabashedly admires.

Of Amy Jo, he says, “She’s really an amazing storyteller and an amazing memoirist. To listen to her tell her stories, so many images just appear in the air as she speaks–it does seem inevitable that those stories would sooner or later become film.”

And so they did. Preiss, a longtime lover of jazz music and its history, met Amy Jo on a set many years ago and the two were equally delighted when the subject of her father came up–Preiss because he was such a huge fan of Joe Albany’s work, and Amy Jo because she had finally run into someone who recognized and appreciated her often-historically-unacknowledged father.

Low Down Elle Fanning

Elle Fanning as Amy Jo

The two initially planned to share Amy’s stories in the form of a tape-recorded road trip to the places and spaces, the hotels and jazz clubs, of Amy Jo’s childhood in 1970’s Los Angeles. However, once it became clear that Amy Jo’s true talent was in writing, she began communicating her history to Preiss in written letters, small vignettes that she would mail to him and which he regarded so highly that he once ran home from a party to retrieve them for editor Jeanne McCulloch. McCulloch’s publishing house Tin House Books would soon become the one to publish Amy Jo’s memoir, Low Down: junk, jazz, and other fairy tales from childhood.

From there, the mysterious forces of the universe continued to push this story of storytellers forward, inching them closer to “inevitable” feature film production. Unbeknownst to Preiss, the book was optioned as a movie by Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa at Bona Fide Productions, and after several attempts to find what Preiss describes as “a good, experienced director,” the two came to him–having no idea that he was one of the book’s biggest champions from the beginning.

“So,” Preiss says succinctly, with a sense of wonder at the remarkable happenstance of it all, “the memoir just kind of happened because we were talking about Los Angeles and jazz.”

And the movie?

“It all came full circle, and it all seemed very fated and meant to be.”

* * * *

Adapting a memoir into a feature length film is difficult under any circumstances. Add in a personal and profound connection to the subject, and you amplify both the toughness of the task and the willingness to put everything you have into accomplishing it.

Preiss carefully describes, with the enthusiasm of someone who respects the art of telling a good story, the way that a film must take the “little points of memory” that make up a memoir and create a blueprint, a linear narrative.

“And of course,” he adds, almost as an afterthought, “it needs to get much shorter, you know, and extremely condensed.” Preiss admits that given such a wealth of material, and having such an abiding love for the subject, it was extremely difficult to kill his (and Amy Jo’s) darlings in the service of a screenplay that would translate effectively into a feature film.

“We [Preiss and screenwriter Topper Lilien] wanted to get everything in. There were lots of things in the book that just were so precious to us, it was heartbreaking to consider not using them.”



After nine years of writing and rewriting, with invaluable input from Amy Jo (“she has such a beautiful sense of the way people spoke then”), a screenplay emerged that was built on “little short stories…episodes and character portraits and little digressions,” that worked together, allowing the film to maintain a clear narrative trajectory while keeping what Preiss refers to as the “free associative quality of the memoir.”

* * * *

Many of Low Down’s most notable qualities are related to its aesthetic sensibility. The color palette, dominated by a gritty, mustardy-ochre, gives the film a rich and murky feel that perfectly encapsulates the shifting cultural environs of Los Angeles in the 1970’s, and the camera’s eye floats through scenes, equal parts inquisitive, enraptured, and anxious. The intention there, Preiss explains, was for there to be “a sense that it’s in Amy’s head.”

And of course, most importantly for a film about the lush and remarkable world of jazz, there is the music.

“When people hear that this is a movie that uses jazz as inspiration, it sets up an expectation that this will be kind of choppy or improvised–that it’s made up as we go along.” At this point in the interview, Preiss really lights up, his fan-status charmingly evident. “But for me, jazz is very different from that–jazz is about a devotion. Jazz musicians are so masterful, and the freedom that they’re allowed to have and that they’re capable of is the result of such dedication and hard work. The effect of it isn’t choppy or rushed–even though it’s very fast–it’s kind of sublime.”

He summarizes: “We wanted, as filmmakers, to inhabit the story in real time and be responsive to it, but without losing its cinematic surety and its cinematic stability.”

* * * *

Jazz music is the soul of Low Down; drifting through every scene are original recordings, primarily of Joe Albany himself, painstakingly chosen by Preiss based on which pieces provided the best emotional mirroring for the moment. The final collection of tunes was all chosen, he says, by “kind of imagining what I think Joe would have wanted to use.”

And if jazz is the film’s soul, the heart is the complexity of the relationships between its main characters. Low Down represents the reality of being a family with oft-painful honesty, marked by constantly shifting expressions of passion: tender love, seething hate, devotion, disappointment, and everything in between.

Low Down

In movies, love, Preiss tells me, “is often overstated and reserved for romantic love, But Low Down is much more about the genuine love among family and friends that isn’t contradicted by the problems that are equally intense and equally omnipresent…In Joe’s life–and I think this is true of all life–these things are coexisting in a way that seems almost impossible, but in Low Down we’re always trying to show that they can both be there at the same time.”

As the interview draws to a close, I ask Preiss to tell me, in his own words, what makes Low Down a story that is so worth telling, and again it is clear that his involvement in the project was not only necessary, it was profoundly meant to be.

He hesitates, explaining, “I have to think about it. There’s something so self-evident that I really have to take a step back.” Then he settles into a final reflection on the film’s intentions: “One of the center themes of Low Down is the outsiderness of being highly creative, the outsiderness of belonging to art culture. In the seventies, there were all these musicians and they were playing from a place that required so much love and passion and mastery and they were giving one of the great cultural gifts ever given to the world with their music, but there was no place in the popular culture where that was relevant.” The goal of Low Down, Preiss says, is to give respect to these artists, and to provide “an answer to their work, a reflection, a response to it that, hopefully, will have some cultural significance now.”

Low Down, directed by Jeff Preiss and starring John Hawkes, Dakota Fanning, Flea, Peter Dinklage, and Lena Headey, opens today, Friday, November 14th, at the Regal Arbor in Austin, Texas.

Kayleigh Hughes is an editor, freelance writer, and overthinker. In addition to contributing to Ovrld, Kayleigh is the film editor at Loser City and occasionally writes for xoJane. Talk to her about literally anything–she doesn’t have that many friends–on twitter or via email.