Dan Pritzker has formalized plans for a three-month shoot he hopes will finally allow him to finish his film about Buddy Bolden, the coronet player Pritzker believes invented jazz. The billionaire son of Hyatt Hotels magnate Jay Pritzker began shooting this movie in 2007, so this means resurrecting the period sets that have sat in storage for five years in Wilmington, N.C., and rounding up everyone who worked on the film in 2007 and did extensive reshoots in 2009. Well, not everyone will be back. Anthony Mackie, who before starring in the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker played the title character in Bolden, has bowed out of doing the performance again. He has been replaced by Downton Abbey’s Gary Carr.
Despite running up a budget he acknowledges has surpassed $30 million already, and despite hanging on to the film so long that it cost him his lead actor, Pritzker believes he is on the verge of accomplishing what Bolden never did. You see, the musician who died in 1931 at age 54 left behind no recordings of his work — rumors are the only one was lost in a farmhouse fire — before his genius was overtaken by madness; Bolden’s legacy amounts to folklore stories passed around among the musicians Pritzker grew up playing with. Pritzker’s own perfectionist nature put him in danger of not being able to provide a movie the world could see. After a five-year hiatus, he now is confident that this scheduled shoot to replace about half of the movie will reflect his evolving vision of the musician and filmmaking techniques in general, and then he will be ready to meet with distributors. “The idea is to have Bolden go crazy before I do,” he told me.
This isn’t exactly Pritzker’s directing debut, because during the original shoot he got the idea to also make Louis, a black-and-white silent movie about the formative years of jazz great Louis Armstrong. That film — which seemed a crazy proposition when it came along before The Artist won the Oscar — played a limited run in a concert hall tour, with Wynton Marsalis leading a live orchestra as the film played on the screen. “I came back from that and looked at Bolden, and just felt it didn’t come together the way I wanted it to,” Pritzker said. “Obviously, I’ve had a steep learning curve, and I just decided that I wanted to tell the story in a different way than I had captured it.” Pritzker spent the past year living with his family in Italy, where he learned some photo techniques he is weaving into the new shoot to convey the surreal and dreamy nature of a story that springs to life in the mind of Bolden. Pritzker showed me some of the footage, and the technique is effective in expressing genius mixed with insanity.
“The film starts out in this asylum where Bolden has been living for 24 years, and a radio is turned on and there is a Louis Armstrong concert being broadcast,” Pritzker said. “It is important that the audience understands this music is the trigger to taking this guy on this cinematic trip, and it opened the door to using some projection techniques and still photography I have been working on. They help tell the story quite effectively.”
Although Pritzker was pleased to make this breakthrough, he was crestfallen to have to find a new Bolden. In the time since Mackie shot that movie, his career has flourished, and scheduling didn’t work out. It also seems a lot to ask of an actor to go back and re-create a character he played seven years ago — and again in the 2009 reshoot — for a performance that never saw the light of day.
Clearly, Pritzker has the money to be overly indulgent here. He’s a fixture on the Forbes list of 400 Richest Americans, and as was the case with Louis, Pritzker is footing the bill for Bolden. That kind of latitude can work against a filmmaker; I’ve spoken to many directors over the years who said a film basically had to be pried from their hands to make a deadline. Imagine how long they would have continued to re-shoot and refine if there was no distributor banging down the door? Pritzker has no such pressure, answering only to himself. He said this odyssey never has felt like an albatross; Pritzker said he wakes each morning excited about his passion project. The only bottom-line concern here is doing justice to the subject.
Said Pritzker: “There are different kinds of pressures, and one has been my kids always saying to me, ‘Dad, are you ever going to finish this?’” He describes hanging onto a film this long as “being a little like AA, it’s a day at a time, but I have never felt like, ‘I’ll never be able to get done with this.’”
While in Italy the last year honing his film technique, Pritzker also immersed himself in the art world and found consolation in the fact that whole game is based on patience. Compared to the great painters, Pritzker’s movie sojourn hasn’t been that long at all. “I’m not likening myself to any of these people, believe me, but I think Michelangelo took 10 or 12 years to paint that ceiling, and Leonardo carried the Mona Lisa around for 30 years, pulling it out of a closet from time to time to mess with it.”
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