Pritzker and Zsigmond work with shadow and light in movie about Louis Armstrong

Anthony Coleman as the young Louis Armstrong in the silent film, "Louis."
Anthony Coleman as the young Louis Armstrong in the silent film, "Louis." (Peter Sorel - 42West)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 22, 2010

At a time when high-definition video, 3-D technology and instant downloading are redefining the cinematic experience -- and not always for the better -- making a silent film seems downright radical.

But that's what first-time director Dan Pritzker decided to do with "Louis," his movie about Louis Armstrong that is going on tour this week and has a one-time screening Saturday at the Music Center at Strathmore.

The film stars Anthony Coleman as a 6-year-old Armstrong and Jackie Earle Haley as a corrupt judge in a mythologized version of the trumpeter's early years in the Storyville district of New Orleans. When "Louis" unspools at Strathmore, the soundtrack of compositions by L.M. Gottschalk and Wynton Marsalis will be performed live by Marsalis, pianist Cecile Licad and a 10-piece ensemble.

As transporting as that performance promises to be, the images in "Louis" are often just as musical as the sounds themselves. Filmed on location in New Orleans and on a soundstage in North Carolina, "Louis" has the sepia-toned hues of a bygone era, along with flashes of contemporary wit. At once archaic and dynamic, the film's visual design was conceived by Pritzker in collaboration with production designer Charles Breen and Oscar-winning cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond.

Making a silent film came naturally to Zsigmond, best known for his work on the 1970s films "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "The Deer Hunter" and "McCabe and Mrs. Miller." As a film student in Hungary in the 1950s, Zsigmond had steeped himself in the silent era and did all his early work in black and white. "That was all we had, because we didn't have color film yet," he said recently from his home in northern California.

With "Louis," Zsigmond said, "the challenge was to make a movie with modern technology and make it look like it was shot in the 1920s. That was really our concern: How much we should we borrow from the style of the past and how much should we make it look like the movie was shot today?"

Pritzker chose Zsigmond, now 80, to shoot his film because the cinematographer is so renowned in Hollywood for his sensitive attention to shadow and light. "I like silhouettes in movies; I don't want to light people all the time," Zsigmond said. "When I light any movie, even a color film, I always like to light it like it was black and white. I don't want the color to dominate."

Zsigmond shot "Louis" on 35mm color film, then desaturated it "to show a touch of color, as they used to do in silent films, when they were actually hand-painting the frames." The filmmakers used old-fashioned lens effects and adjusted the number of frames per second to achieve the signature sped-up or "undercranked" look of silent pictures.

But the signature moment in "Louis" occurs by way of new technology, when a Steadicam camera travels through a Storyville brothel in an unbroken five-minute shot that roams from room to room, with about 50 extras and dancers precisely hitting their marks and making it all look spontaneous. Zsigmond spent the better part of a day lighting the set, a task made more complicated by the fact that it would be filmed in 360 degrees.

Pritzker, Zsigmond and camera operator Neal Norton spent hours in rehearsals with the cast. They shot the take several times, often coming nearly to the end when they would run out of film. "We basically had only five takes that went all the way to the end," Zsigmond recalled. The result is one of the best sequences in "Louis," a bravura ode to cinema's past and present.

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Louis will be shown at 8 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 28, at the Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. Tickets may be purchased for $95, $65 or $55 at the box office, at http://www.strathmore.org or by calling 301-581-5100.

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