Director's Chair: Dan Pritzker — <I>Bolden</I>
Issue: March/April 2019

Director's Chair: Dan Pritzker — Bolden

Buddy Bolden. Never heard of him? Not many people have, but for many musicians he’s the unsung American hero who invented Jazz and was then largely forgotten.

Now a new film, Bolden, aims to set the record straight. Directed and co-written by Dan Pritzker, a guitarist for the Chicago-based rock/soul/R&B band Sonia Dada, the drama takes an appropriately inventive, free-wheeling and immersive approach to its little-known subject. With scant biographical information and no found recordings of his music on which to base a traditional biopic, the film’s narrative instead comprises fragmented memories of his past, set against the political and social context in which his revolutionary music was conceived.

Charles “Buddy” Bolden was born in New Orleans in 1877 and was a bandleader sensation before Louis Armstrong and the first cornet player to emerge from ragtime and blues, playing a new kind of music. Jelly Roll Morton’s “Buddy Bolden’s Blues” (“I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say”) was an early and rare hat-tip to this seminal but mysterious artist who died in 1931 in a bleak Louisiana insane asylum where he spent the last 25 years of his life.

Starring Gary Carr as Bolden, with original music written, arranged and performed by Wynton Marsalis, Bolden conjures up a world fueled by passion, greed and musical genius in early 1900s New Orleans. The film co-stars Erik LaRay Harvey, Yaya DaCosta, Ian McShane and Michael Rooker. It was edited by Thomas J. Nordberg, with production design by Brian Stultz and cinematography by Neal Norton.

Here, in an exclusivePost interview, Pritzker talks about making the film, and why he loves post.

This was obviously a labor of love.

“You have no idea! (laughs). I actually shot a version of it in 2007, came back and put all the footage together and I just didn’t have the film. It didn’t work. So I licked my wounds, rewrote the script and basically totally reworked the whole thing, and I feel I got it this time, but it’s been a long road to get here.”

This is definitely not your usual biopic. What sort of film did you set out to make? 

“I had this image of Bolden, alone in the asylum, and after years and years there he hears Louis Armstrong playing on the radio, and I thought, ‘What would happen if that took place?’ So it’s a fractured journey through his tragic life and times, and his huge influence on New Orleans’ music, and I wanted to make a film about the man and his musical genius, and an allegory about the soul of America.”  

Photo (L-R): Director Pritzker with Wynton Marsalis

How challenging was it bringing Bolden and his music to life, considering so little is known about his life and no recordings of his music exist?

“A huge challenge, but that was the reason I wanted to do it. And because there’s so little known, it allowed me to essentially make some American mythology. And of course having a jazz legend like Wynton do all the music was a key part of the whole project.” 

Can you talk about the very impressionistic approach you and DP Neal Norton went for visually?

“We knew we didn’t want to shoot it as a traditional, linear story and Neal is really a brilliant guy and it was a great collaboration. We were completely on the same page together, and our influences were more paintings than cinema. I love movies, but sculpture and painting really informed this. I was living in Florence, Italy, when I rewrote this version, so I was surrounded by the works of some of the greatest painters and sculptors in history, and it was fitting as I was trying to create this allegory. So Neal and I’d look at tons of paintings there and also at photos by Sally Mann, who uses black and white so beautifully, and we’d discuss the use of black space in her large-format prints and chiaroscuro in Renaissance painting. 

“I wanted to shoot the film digitally as it’d give me the chance to blow up a frame and also allow us to shoot in very, very dark spaces, as there was no lighting inside the asylum. Any light at night came from the moonlight outside filtering in windows. But in order to lessen the hard digital edge, we used a lot of hand-made vintage lenses, most of them from the 1930s and 1960s, and they gave the film a really nice, softer glow and texture, with a more impressionistic look at the edges of the frame. And as the film has relatively little dialogue, all those visual elements became even more important as I wanted to tell the story visually. That’s what I was really interested in, and that in turn let his music take center stage in a lot of places.”

How tough was the shoot?

“It was very challenging and hard but I loved every day, and working with Neal was a real joy. We shot in New Orleans, Atlanta and Wilmington, North Carolina — and mostly in Wilmington as our crew was all based there. We did a lot of exteriors in New Orleans and various scenes in Atlanta, and we shot for eight months, a long time. Our digital guy told us that we shot the equivalent of 300 miles of film, and we ended up with a cut that’s equivalent to about one and three-quarter miles of film. It was a crazy amount!”

Where did you post?

“We did a lot of it at my house in San Francisco, and then we rented a bungalow over on the lot at Warners in Burbank.”

Do you like the post process?

(Laughs) “I do when it’s a good day. The thing with post is that when it’s a bad day and nothing comes together, it’s very depressing, but when it’s all working it’s the most fun part of making a movie.”

Talk about editing with Tom Nordberg, whose diverse credits include Alexander for Oliver Stone, The Host for Andrew Niccol, and What Women Want for Nancy Meyers. What were the big editing challenges?

“We worked partly at my home and then down in LA where he lives, and Tom is a very adventurous, creative editor, and he’s opinionated, and so am I, and I like that. I want to get in a room with an editor who cares as much about the film as I do — not someone who’s like, ‘Yeah, whatever.’ So we’d duke it out, in a really good way, and he brought a huge amount to the project. The first big challenge was just going through all that footage, so I gave him three months by himself to just look at all the material and start cataloging and sorting it the way he saw it, without me interjecting or commenting, so we’d have his pristine view of everything. I’d come down every other week or so, and we’d talk quite often, and after the three months he had the first reel done, and I thought it was quite brilliant. We tinkered with it a bit, but he really had the template for the film. But then it took us another two years to finish, but that was for both the edit and the sound. 

“The other big challenge was that there were so many ways we could have gone narratively, as I’d scripted far more than you see in the finished film, as I wasn’t sure what was going to work. And I wanted to tell the story from Bolden’s POV, but I didn’t know if he could be both protagonist and antagonist in this. I thought you could do that more successfully in a book, as in a film that presents more challenges. So I also had a lot of third-party narratives of stuff happening around him that involved a judge, other family members, and so on, in order to cover myself. So Tom worked very hard to tell it from Bolden’s POV and ultimately it all worked.”   

The sound and music obviously plays a huge role in the film. Tell us about working on that.

“The beauty of working with Tom is that he’s also a very musical guy, so he really understands the interplay between visuals and music and sound, and he cuts in a very rhythmic way. He’s got ‘big ears’ as they say, and he was critical in all the sound design — and as I’m also a musician, that’s where I come from too, and that’s also my focus. I’ve worked with other editors who hardly do any sound design — even rough ones. But Tom was all over it from the very start and knew how vital it all was, so he was the right guy for the job. 

“We did all the sound either at my house or at Warners, and Mike Babcock was the sound designer at Warners. And then I also worked a lot with our music editor Scott Steiner, who’s also an excellent musician, engineer and sound editor, and we began doing all the sound work while we edited. So we did all the basic work at Warners, then took it all up to my house and Scott and I worked on it there, and then we did the big final mix up at Skywalker.”

All the VFX play quite a role in the overall look of the film and creating Bolden’s hallucinations. Who did them?

“Our VFX supervisor was Dan Rosen, who has a company called Evil Eye Pictures, based up in San Francisco, and I met him through the team at Skywalker. It was quite an undertaking in terms of all the VFX, as I had this idea about using projections, and I didn’t know how to do it. So Dan and I met with the guys from this company called Obscura Digital, and they were experts at creating projections. But it’s very tricky and I had to work very closely with the DP, because if you’re shooting a projection, and if that’s moving and the camera is also moving, and you also have live actors, there’s a point at which you’ll see the gag if you’re not really careful. So you have to match them up exactly to make it all look real. And then we had various other VFX, like the parachute scene.”

Where did you do the DI and how important is it to you?

“We did it at Technicolor in Hollywood with colorist Mike Sowa, who has an absolutely brilliant eye, and I’d worked with him before on my silent film Louis. To me, the colorist is a very big deal. They should be near the top of the credits, not at the bottom as they usually are!”
Did the film turn out the way you hoped?

“Absolutely. I’d say the film I made is as close to what I originally had in my mind as I could get. It’s the one I wanted to make.”