Blue Like Jazz: How a Movie Based on a Book Became a Story

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The story of Blue Like Jazz began in a confessional. Not the story in the best-selling book by Donald Miller—a quasi-memoir with the subtitle “Non-Religious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality” that Paste named one of the 20 Best Books of the Decade. Not even the story in the new movie by musician-turned-director Steve Taylor. But the story of how the book became a movie.

“There are a lot of great scenes within the book that I thought would translate well, but the confession booth scene was the one where I was like, ‘I gotta make a movie, and I gotta end it with this scene,’” Taylor recalls, as we gather with him, Miller and lead actor Marshall Allman around a table in Austin, Texas, during SXSW, where the film premiered. “We worked backwards from the confession booth scene and crafted the story so that scene would answer the questions posed by the rest of the movie. And if not answered, at least bring some kind of closure and ending to the rest of it. Once you have an ending, everything comes alive easier and I just thought that was a great scene and would be a great ending.”

But getting to that ending required its own story, one with its share of suspense for everyone wanting to see the movie made. On Sept. 16, 2010, Miller posted on his website the sad news that, “The book that swept the country will not sweep theaters. … After spending a year writing the screenplay, and another year trying to raise money for the movie, everything seems to be on hold indefinitely.”

Just after Taylor set production in motion, one of the film’s primary backers dropped out, leaving the filmmakers $125,000 short of the funds they needed to make the film, and running out of time they’d scheduled with Allman, who was due to return to the set of HBO’s True Blood in December.

“I actually wrote the blog to give Steve a final, kind of burial for this project,” says Miller. “You know how sometimes you have to have a friend sit down and say, ‘She just doesn’t like you?’ It was a little like that. ‘This isn’t going to happen, Steve. You’ve got to stop riding your bike by her house.’”

But not everyone was satisfied with this unhappy ending to the story. Zach Prichard and Jonathan Frazier, two fans of Miller’s book, launched a KickStarter campaign to save the film. Taylor jumped on board, setting the deadline at 30 days and offering to personally call anyone who gave to the campaign. It only took 11 days to reach the $125,000 goal, and when the month ended, Save Blue Like Jazz had raised a then-record-for-Kickstarter $345,992.

“This story is full of miraculous stuff,” Miller says. “Blue Like Jazz doesn’t have a title you can get your mind around; it’s not a ‘how to’ title. When people read this book, they have a very difficult time summarizing it. So, the book has always felt like it was out of my hands. There’s something else to it that’s really special. The movie felt that way in terms of the writing of the screenplay, but the fundraising, didn’t feel that way at all. It felt extremely strategic, very business-oriented, not super people-oriented, so I was excited about saying, ‘Let’s just do the extremely risky thing, call it quits and see if something happens that we can’t exactly explain because that’s the story of this book.’ And, man, that’s exactly what happened. It won’t happen for anyone reading this article, but I was amazed and at the same time not super surprised. It was exciting to have this movie have that little element of magic in there, you know?”

Another fortuitous step in the process was finding Allman, who plays a fictionalized version of Miller. Taylor had seen Allman in his roles in Prison Break and other television shows, and was particularly impressed by his lead performance in Paste favorite The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle. “You know, in the first section of the movie there’s so much of Don observing and reacting,” says Taylor, “and Marshall was really compelling at that. He was really good at just taking it in, and you could kind of see the wheels turning as he was trying to process things. That’s what we needed for the early part of the movie. But you can’t just call up an actor and say, ‘Read my screenplay.’ You have to go through the agent, and the agent wants to know when you’re starting, what the budget is and how long you’re going to need him, how much are you going to pay, and all that stuff. And then you put money in escrow, and then the agent gives the actor the screenplay. I would have never been able to pull this off except that… somebody had Marshall’s home email address.” The table erupts in laughter.

Allman remembers that initial contact, but he didn’t pay much attention to it at the time. “I had gotten an email from a friend and it said, ‘Hey buddy, I’ve got some people who want to contact you,’” he remembers sheepishly. “You know, it was kind of nondescript, and I blew it off. I’m not great at responding to emails. Then two weeks later I got another email that said ‘HEY’ in capital letters, ‘I’ve got some friends who want to get a hold of you,’ and then I said, ‘Sure, fine’ and they sent me the email.”

Once the initial contact was made, though, Allman’s level of interest spiked considerably, to say the least: “I got the email that said, “Hey, I’ve got some friends turning Blue Like Jazz into a movie, and I didn’t even read the rest; I was just like, ‘Yes.’ Later Steve wrote me and said, ‘Hey, you’re on the short list of actors we’re considering for the lead part of Don. Please read the script and consider it. Just let me know if you’re even interested; if not we can just go on and pursue someone else.’ I emailed him back and I said, ‘Hey buddy, I don’t know who else is on the short list, but you found your lead actor. I’m in. Thanks for the offer. 1,000%. I’m yours.’ And he emailed me back and said, ‘Well, that wasn’t an offer.’” Again the table erupts in laughter (and not for the last time—the trio’s bonhomie and camaraderie are evident).

“So we met a week later,” Allman continues, “at Steve’s favorite Thai place, and I was really nervous. I showed up 30 minutes early. In walks Steven, and he hands me a mix CD that he had made as sort of a pseudo-soundtrack for the movie and said, ‘You got the part.’” With an actor’s perfect comic timing, he pauses for effect, then continues: “Which was great, because it made it a lot easier for me to eat after that.”

Music proved to be a key component of the pair’s new relationship. “We bonded over music from the start,” Taylor agrees. “Menomena was on that CD, and I think Deerfoof was in there, and Viva Voce, and Be Your Own Pet.”

Not to be outdone, at their next meeting Allman had his own mix CD to give Taylor. “It had Vampire Weekend,” he remembers, “and Campus was on there, and Neutral Milk Hotel. It followed the inner narrative of the story. His CD focused more on the music, whereas mine was more about the lyrics and what was going on with the character. And it was a pretty big moment for me when he said he liked the CD, and then we just nerded out.”

“I sent mine as well,” adds Miller with a straight face. “It was mostly Celine Dion.”

While the film condensed many of the vignettes Miller writes about in the book into a fictionalized version of himself at Reed College in Portland, Ore., the author has a short cameo in a bookstore scene. He takes some good-natured ribbing at the table about his performance. “I remember after that scene,” says Marshall, “I was like, ‘Don, man, you play a great asshole.’”

“It took us 14 hours to film my cameo,” adds Miller, “and it’s only seven seconds long.”

“We brought in $10,000 for lighting,” jokes Marshall. “I didn’t have a trailer for the whole film, just so we could do his scene.”

“Then we had to spend $100,000 on CGI to get my expressions right,” retorts Miller. “And then, that’s not my voice. But other than that, I think it went well.”

Creating a fictional story loosely based on some of Miller’s experiences proved tricky, though, and involved more than a few phone calls to friends. “Lauren is actually based on my friend Laura who’s also fairly accurate in the film. We needed to make Laura a lesbian so it wouldn’t be a love triangle in the movie that would confuse viewers. So I remember calling Laura and saying, ‘Hey, you know, we need you to be a lesbian.’ She literally said to me, ‘Well, I experimented, I’m fine with that [everybody laughs].’”

He also had to check in with mom: “We needed something really drastic to happen toward the end of the film to serve the story and I came up with [spoiler alert!] the idea of having Don’s mother get pregnant,” Miller says, referring to the character version of himself. “So then later I realized, ‘Oh wait, my mother….’ [All laugh.] She’s not been involved in this nine-month process of disassociating ourselves from these people.’ So I email my mother, thinking this is going to be a lost cause and say, “So what do you think about getting knocked up for the film?’ I said, ‘We really need this character to get pregnant. People are going to think it is you, even after we explain that it is not you, and are you willing to do that?’ My mother is a very adventurous woman and funny. She wrote back, ‘Of course, I would love to, no problem! I can’t even believe you would ask me, that you think you needed to ask me.’

“So we write it into the screenplay,” Miller continues, “and we’re screening it at our first big screening in Portland, Oregon. I’ve got 500 people streaming into the theater in downtown and my mother is pushing my grandmother in a wheelchair across the lobby and I say to her, ‘Mom, I really hope you like the movie, it’s a rough cut, I hope you like it and by the way, way to take one for the team because people will think you got pregnant,’ and my mom stopped. The wheelchair stopped. She looked at me and said, ‘You were serious?’ [Everybody laughs.] It was a very uncomfortable two hours. But she saw it, she loves the film and she’s great with it now.”

The most completely fictional character in the film—and the most difficult to cast—was the irreverent Pope, though the tradition does indeed exist at Reed. “I must have seen a hundred auditions for the Pope, and Justin [Wellborn] was not only the guy, there was literally nobody else who came close. It’s just a really tricky role, you know. And it could easily have turned into some bad theatricality. If it doesn’t have some sort of presence to it it’s just nothing. And it was really depressing, because every time I watched somebody read for that role I thought, ‘We just didn’t write a good role here.’ But then Justin came in and he just nailed it. I love watching the movie with the sound off, they all do a good job, but Justin in particular does all these gestures that aren’t showy but are exactly what the part needs.”

Casting the right actor was key, especially for that ending scene in the confessional. “The filming of that [was tough],” says Taylor. “Because it’s just two talking heads, in a really confined space so it was all to do with the actors and their performance. They both came totally prepared.”

“It was important to keep it understated,” says Miller, “to keep it where the principal character is not dramatic. Because the Pope character says, ‘Do you really believe this stuff?’ And the Don character says, ‘I think I do,’ which is not an evangelical line. An evangelical line is, ‘I do, and you should too.’”

“I remember when you guys changed the ending and it went to black on that line, I got chills,” says Marshall, “It was like the film became a baton almost. It made me want to take the film home and have it actually impact me as a person.”

And that’s a much happier ending to the story.