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Spotlight: Lily Keber, Director, ‘Bayou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius of James Booker’

Bayou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius of James Booker explores the life and music of piano legend James Booker, who was described by Dr. John as “the best black, gay, one-eyed junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced.” Director Lily Keber took on the challenge of documenting this complicated and mysterious character.

How would you describe your approach?

James Booker. Photo by Roland Stucky

Lily Keber: My approach in crafting the film was to strike a balance between the man and the music, between the zany stories about him and the skillful refinement of his artistic output. We decided to structure the film as Booker might have structured one of his live gigs: a seamless medley, drifting from theme to theme, taking time to explore an idea before moving to the next, privileging emotional truth over chronology.

How did you assemble your production team?

James Booker is a very important figure in New Orleans. Though I had very few resources to get the film underway, it was relatively easy to find people who wanted to work on the film. All the New Orleans interviews were shot with a local crew.

How did you choose cameras and production equipment?

The film was shot primarily on a Panasonic camera with an adapter for 35mm photo lenses. We wanted a filmy look with grain and depth of field, but avoiding the extreme DOF that’s in vogue now with the DSLRs. Though I am very picky about visuals, I didn’t want our aesthetic choices to distract from the subject matter or the interviewees. The people we interview in the film are themselves interesting people, so we filmed them in their home environment or in locations they felt very comfortable in, wearing their natural clothes.

How did you find the archival footage?

Shooting the interview with Texas Johnny Brown

That was a massive undertaking. Most of the concert footage is from Europe. Some are from big-name jazz festivals, others are from Super 8 and VHS dubs that collectors had tucked away in attics. Dealing with the wide range of archival formats was difficult, especially because so much of that stuff had to be subbed in a hurry to make sure we met the SXSW deadline. We pulled three weeks’ worth of all-nighters, ingesting a complicated cocktail of NTSC and PAL, HD and SD transfers of film, 3/4-inch video transfers, digital files coming to us on FTPs from around the world. Man, it was overwhelming. We had Betacams and DVDs and 16mm reels stacked up in the editing room. Luckily my wonderful editors Tim Watson and Aimée Toledano and technical director Ted Morée understood all those formats and how to make them work together.

What did you find most challenging in terms of the production process?

When working with a crew, it is crucial that everyone have the same understanding of the goals of the project. Even if you don’t know exactly what the final product is going to look like or how it’s going to be structured or how it’s going to get made, it’s important to be able to articulate what you want and what you don’t want—and to have the confidence to follow through on it.