Billionaire first-time filmmaker backs biopics

And you thought silent films were dead.

Billionaire and first-time director Dan Pritzker has completed shooting a pair of films, including one that’s a silent, complete with the dialogue title cards that were commonplace before those films became obsolete nearly 80 years ago.

Son of the late Hyatt Hotels chain magnate Jay Pritzker, Dan Pritzker is listed 246th on the 2008 Forbes list of “400 Richest Americans,” with a reported net worth of $1.9 billion.

He fully financed both films and spared no expense, according to production sources who watched the shooting in North Carolina, where Pritzker spent the better part of a year lensing.

The 68-minute silent film “Louis” covers the childhood of Louis Armstrong, who learned to play the horn from the back of a horse-drawn truck that sold coal and firewood in New Orleans.

Pritzker is also in post-production on “Bolden,” a traditional talkie biopic of horn player Buddy Bolden, who may have invented jazz but went insane before he recorded a note of music. “Bolden,” which stars Anthony Mackie and Jackie Earle Haley, will be completed by late summer.

Pritzker put 15 years of planning and a lot of money into the dual film project. There were rumors that the shoot sometimes became as improvisational as its jazz music subject matter. In 2007 Pritzker told the New York Times that he hoped to shoot the films for around $10 million; he’s now gone past $25 million.

“I’m in the extremely fortunate position to be able to do this my way,” Pritzker said. “No studio was going to do this, especially now with what’s going on in the economy. Even if this dream dies with me right here, I’m sure happier having my money into these two films than having given the money to Bernie Madoff.”

A musician and songwriter by training, Pritzker was touring with his group, Sonia Dada, and learned about Bolden in a casual conversation. He became obsessed with making a movie.

“Music is religion to me, and here was Bolden, this guy who might have invented this truly American art form that I love, that every musician, from Louis Armstrong to Elvis Presley, benefited from,” Pritzker said.

Pritzker recently met with Lincoln Center officials to arrange a “Louis” tour in which screenings of the film would be accompanied by a performance by jazz great Wynton Marsalis (a producer on the film and composer of much of the music) and his orchestra. Pritzker and Marsalis have just decided instead to organize their own six-city tour without Lincoln Center to begin in summer 2010.

Though Hollywood decisionmakers might have seen Bolden’s anonymity as a drawback (born in 1877, he was institutionalized in 1907 and died in 1931), Pritzker saw an opportunity.

“Nobody knows Bolden, and it was less about concretizing the events of his life than making a story that is mythical,” Pritzker said. Beyond the audacity of a wealthy first-timer making a silent film, Pritzker is aware that some may wonder why a wealthy Jewish man from Chicago took it upon himself to chronicle the black experience in early 20th century New Orleans, where Armstrong overcame severe racism, and Bolden was a casualty of excess. But Pritzker has grown accustomed to quizzical looks as he explained his passion to actors like Haley, who committed enthusiastically to “Bolden” but was less convinced about “Louis.”

“He said, “You’re making a … what?,” Pritzker recalled.

But Haley is the real star of the film, acting in the exaggerated manner common in those early pictures.

Pritzker will show “Bolden” to distributors later this year.

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