South By Southwest Film Interview Ė BAYOU MAHARAJAH director Lily Keber

By Jason Whyte
Posted 03/07/13 03:25:20

ďBayou Maharajah tells the story of James Booker, a black, gay, one-eyed piano wizard from New Orleans. Bookerís genius on the piano was endless and unbridled by the conventions of genreó a typical gig might start out with Rachmaninoff, medley into some pop tunes, throw in a hymn or two before settling into Sinatra reimagined with a secondline beató but his talent was always mediated by his chemical dependencies and mental instability. Booker embodies the essence of New Orleans: heís wild, uninhibited, intensely talented, unclassifiable, uniquely himself even to the point of detriment. But his humor, wit, and artistry make him accessible and universal.Ē Director Lily Keber on ďBayou MaharajahĒ which screens at this year's South By Southwest Film.

Is this your first SxSW/Austin experience?

Yes, this is my first time at SXSW and my first film. I love Austin. For me, itís the next best American city after New Orleans. Itís got spontaneity, a devotion to living the good life...ďLaissez les bons temps roulezĒ, as weíd say in Louisiana...that makes it feel very familiar. And the love of music, food, dancing, blowing off work, being together with friends all makes it very special to me. Plus, the tacos. Oh my, the tacos!

Tell me a bit about your background and how you became a filmmaker.

In 2007, I co-directed a film called Hutto: Americaís Family Prison about a prison just north of Austin in Taylor, TX. It dealt with the issue of family detention, which, during the Bush years, was an increasingly common answer to the immigration question. We made the film to spread awareness of this grossly inappropriate policy. In 2009, I co-founded a group called New Orleans Video Voices. Our goal is to increase media literacy and empower community voices in New Orleans and across the Gulf South.

What was the biggest challenge, or challenges, in making the film?

Money! This film is a total labor of love. But labors of love donít pay the bills. Iíve never had much of a budget for this and always have had to work jobs on the side. There were long stretches where very little happened on the film because Iíd have to stop and go replenish the bank account for a while. But Iím not sure how else someone gets a first film made.

What was your single favorite moment out of the entire production?

Going fishing with Dr. John. I had just met him and he asked me to come along on what turned out to be an overnight fishing trip. It was a ton of fun but because I didnít realize it was overnight, I didnít bring anything. No toothbrush, no change of clothes, no rain boots. I didnít catch anything, but they gave me a fish to take home so the neighbours wouldnít know how bad I am at fishing. But there are so many favorite moments. I met so many of my musical heroes. I went to brunch with Allen Toussaint. I got to shake Irma Thomasí hand. I got to hear Harry Connick, Jr. play Sunny Side of the Street. I got to hear Hugh Laurie play piano. Oh, and lugging my camera equipment across Europe in search of people who remember Booker, digging through their attics and record collections and stumbling through my crappy French. Yeah, there are a lot of good memories from making this film.

What keeps you going while making a movie? What drives you?

I started making this film not really knowing what a huge presence Booker is in the musical canon. But as I got farther along, the love and support I got from his friends and fans kept me going. If it had been just me, I might have given up. But knowing that I had such a large and supportive community of people helping me (and correcting me!) who are excited to see this film has kept me together.

I would love to know about the technical side of the film, your relationship to the director of photography, what the movie was shot on and why it was decided to be filmed this way.

The film was shot on primarily on a Panasonic HMC 150, along with a t2i, a 7d, a 16mm camera, and a bunch of archival footage thrown in. We edited on FCP7. I interviewed all my subjects in their natural habitat, either in their house or in bars or in an environment that would seem familiar to them. New Orleans itself is such a strong character in the film, so I wanted the settings of the interviews to always reflect that.

What do you want audiences to take from the film?

James Booker is a very complicated character. There are no easy answers to the questions that his life raises. Every story has multiple versions, every question has multiple answers with many qualifiers. I hope that audiences leave knowing that Booker was a monster musician. But I also hope that audiences also leave questioning how much an incredible talent could suffer so much. And to question what we, as audiences, can do to ensure that the next generation of ďJames BookersĒ donít suffer the same way.

How important do you think the critical/media response is to film these days, be it a large production, independent film or festival title?

Oh, itís huge. There is just so much content being created today, whether digital video, on laptops, with After Effects, on cell phones. The democratization and accessibility of media production means there is so much more content out there for audiences to sort through. So itís crucial that films get a distinct critical response. Itís a powerful curatorial tool and sets your project apart from the zillions of other projects out there.

After the film screens at South By Southwest, what is the future release plan for the movie? Where would you like it to go?

Iím not sure where the film will go next. Iím definitely planning a special New Orleans premiere with a live music element. But beyond that.. well, Iím still sorting all of that out.

What would you say or do to someone who is talking or texting during a screening of your film?

I spent three years of my life making this film. If you canít wait one hour to check that text message, you should probably stay home and watch Netflix.

There are a lot of up and coming filmmakers both at SxSW and reading our site. I was curious if you had any advice to aspiring filmmakers?

You have to believe in your project 100%. It sounds cheesy, but itís true. No one else is ever going to believe in your project as much as you. You have to be confident in your vision because itís going to get shot down constantly. Also, allow people to help you. Making a film is too much to do on your own. Retirees were my secret weapon in getting this film done. Older people with time on their hands can be a valuable asset. And youíll be surprised how many people will volunteer their time just for the love of the magic of the filmmaking process.

And finally, what is the single, greatest movie that you have seen at a film festival?

Without a doubt, itís ďAt Night They DanceĒ. I saw it at Hot Docs and doubt Iíll ever see it anywhere else. It was just amazing. I was glued to my seat. And itís a movie you just have to see in a theatre. But I have to say- a fair amount of people walked out. To this day I canít understand why anyone could not love that film, but it just goes to show that even the most stunning, beautifully crafted, artist pieces wonít please everybody.

This is one of the many films screening at the 2013 SXSW in Austin, Texas between March 8-16. For more information on the filmís screening, point your browser to

Jason Whyte,
Twitter: @jasonwhyte Facebook: jasonwhyte

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