This past Wednesday night, the New York Film Academy in Union Square held a special screening of the star-studded film, Low Down. The emotional drama is based on Amy-Jo Albany’s powerful memoir of growing up in the care of her gifted, tormented and frequently absent musician father — a bebop jazz pianist named Joe Albany. The film focuses on the years 1974 to 1976, when Amy (Elle Fanning) had few resources other than the love of her aging grandmother (Glenn Close) and a ragtag bunch of Hollywood outcasts and eccentrics that were her friends.
Joining us after the Sundance award-winning film was director Jeff Preiss. Jeff emerged as a professional filmmaker in the eighties, through his involvement in the production of experimental cinema. He was co-director of the pioneering Lower East Side Film venue, Films Charas, and a board member of The Collective For Living Cinema. In 1984, he traveled to Berlin to shoot the Rosa Von Praunheim produced Punk Vampire Film, Der Bis.
In 1987, he was invited by photographer Bruce Weber to be Director of Photography on a series of short films and two feature documentaries, Broken Noses and Let’s Get Lost — the latter winning the Venice Film Festival Critics Award and an Academy Award nomination for best documentary. After three years of collaborating with Weber, Preiss’ film career began to include directing commercials and music videos (clips for Iggy Pop, Malcolm McLaren, REM, B52s, Mariah Carey / Apple, Nike, Coke, American Express among others).
In 1995, Jeff became a partner with Mindy Goldberg at Epoch Films. Preissʼs experimental projects include video installations in venues including The Whitney Museum of American Art, MOCA, The Wexner Center for the Arts, Musée d’art Moderne de la Ville Paris, Museum and the Museum Boijmans in Rotterdam.
He has collaborated with artists including Rem Koolhass, Joan Jonas, Andrea Fraser and Anthony McCall. His work is in the collection of MoMA, New York and The Reina Sofia, Madrid.
In 2005, Preiss cofounded the artist run gallery, ORCHARD, in New York. He currently sits on the board of Light Industry, a venue for film and electronic art in Brooklyn. His 2012 experimental feature film, Stop, was a selection of the 50th New York Film Festival.
During the Q&A, moderated by NYFA Instructor Ben Cohen, Jeff recounted how his nine year passion project came to be after an encounter with Amy-Jo Albany. He elaborately delved into the process of working with his superb cinematographer and all-star cast. Jeff compared working with his camera team to that of falling in love with a spouse. As for his cast, which consisted of John Hawkes, Elle Fanning, Peter Dinklage, Glenn Close, Lena Heady and others, Preiss said, “I could not have picked a better actor to have suited each part.”
Jeff had a bit of anxiety in his approach toward directing, considering the stature of talent he was working with. Once he discovered how powerful just knowing the story was, his confidence grew. “All I’m doing is getting everyone in sync, telling the story,” said Preiss. “I would tell them the story like it happened to me. Then, everything is in service to them.”
From there on out, Jeff’s mastery of the story and keeping everyone on the same page was what guided the performances. Though, he admits, Glenn Close was in character from the moment she arrived on set and never broke. As always, her commitment to her craft shined on the big screen.
The twenty-two day shoot came together through moments of serendipity and perseverance. With a bit of luck and having Jeff behind the wheel, we’re fortunate to have this truly emotional piece that captures Amy-Jo’s story. If you weren’t able to join us for the screening, be sure to check out Low Down when it’s in theaters or On Demand.