Q&A: Jeff Preiss on the Jazzy ’70s Hollywood of ‘Low Down’

Based on the memoir by Amy-Jo Albany, Low Down is a compassionate look at the complex relationship between Amy-Jo (Elle Fanning) and her father Joe (John Hawkes), a man torn between his musical ambition, his devotion to his teenage daughter, and his suffocating heroin addiction. Set against a sensuously textured 1970s Hollywood, the film, from director Jeff Preiss, beautifully evokes a colorful, seedy world of struggling musicians, artists, and vagabonds, in which Joe and Amy-Jo strive to live the lives they want against seemingly insurmountable odds.


How do you describe Low Down in your own words?

Jeff Preiss: Low Down is a narrative film that grew out of a very long conversation, one that carried on for many years, actually, with my close friend A.J. Albany, about her growing up in the run-down Hollywood of the 1970s. She was raised by her Dad, Joe Albany, a wonderful, larger than life jazz pianist, who, despite drug addiction, poverty, incarceration and all around tragic luck, had enough love in him to be almost magically loved back by her.

What inspired you to tell this particular story?

Jeff Preiss: Joe was not at all well known by the general public, even by most jazz fans, despite his being among the inner circle of the great be-bop innovators. When I met Amy, I think she was surprised that I was a fan of her Dad’s music, so she was very generous talking about him, and I couldn’t get enough of hearing her stories. So I started out inspired right from the start. It was a very long journey to becoming a film, though. These conversations really led to her writing a memoir, and the film grew out of that, over almost 10 years.

Amy-Jo Albany also co-wrote the script (with Topper Lilien). What’s it like to take the reins on such a personal story? How involved was Amy-Jo in the production, casting, etc.?

Jeff Preiss: The quality of it being personal is, to me, the same as the quality of its being universal and beautiful. At first glance the book didn’t seem to lend itself to a film adaptation. The voice is first person, and it is almost like a broken mirror reflecting many different faceted episodes.

I love that quality of the book, and didn’t want to replace it with a boilerplate story structure. But at the same time I wanted to hold the audience in the development of Amy’s life, of linear action and consequence that add up to knowing a person through their very becoming. This very challenging ambition is what I first took on with Topper. He built this first reconstruction, and then later Amy was able to just take it to another level and breathe life into everything with her uncanny feeling for the people and the time.


Making a period piece is never easy. How challenging was it to conjure the specifically seedy vibrancy of 1970s Hollywood? How did you inspire your cast (specifically Elle Fanning and John Hawkes) to travel back to that era?

Jeff Preiss: Many people have commented on the vivid period feeling we were able to effect. A lot comes from the way it’s shot, on 16mm film and with anamorphic lenses. But there’s a more mysterious level to it, which comes from many subtle things, even the film’s sense of time. We paced it in a rhythm that is true to the past, a lost observational patience. Amy and I both came of age during this time. And we were very disciplined about not compromising our memories. And then there is Amy’s beautiful dialog, the way she wrote the mannerisms and expressions. The cast almost seemed to become ghosts of the past; they enacted Amy’s words so vividly.

Music is a theme that threads through your film. Can you talk about the role that music plays in your story?

Jeff Preiss: I really love silent movies, and I think when a story is told without words, it can nest in us more deeply, like haunting memories from childhood. We tried to tell as much of our story silently as possible, so it might have this mysterious effect. But what’s interesting is that music can go to the same part of the mind and pull on feelings in the same deep way. Jazz was very much on the skids in the 70’s— but it was still this music that required intense commitment and love to master. And Joe was among the great artists that were living outside of their time, and in a way it’s so sad and so unfair. So I hope that the music itself embodies Joe’s personal sadness: the lovely, lost but passionate place he inhabited.


Do you have one piece of advice for aspiring filmmakers?

Jeff Preiss: Yes, I do. My advice is to try and find what is fragile and honest in the dying vocabulary of the amateur.

What would you like HIFF audiences to take away from your film?

Jeff Preiss: I can say with absolute conviction that Low Down was a genuine labor of love. I hope they leave the theater knowing that.

Low Down will screen in the World Cinema section at HIFF 2014. Find tickets. 

Jeff-Preiss-headshotJeff Preiss’ earliest works, Big as Life, A History of 8MM, were singled out for The Museum of Modern Art, New York. In 1987, he joined photographer Bruce Weber as Director of Photography on a series of short films and two feature documentaries, Broken Noses and Let’s Get Lost (winner of the Venice Film Festival Critics’ Prize and Academy Award nominee for Best Documentary). After 3 years working with Weber, Preiss’ career branched out to include directing commercials and music videos. His 2012 experimental feature film Stop was a selection of the 50th New York Film Festival.