USA TODAY US Edition
Making ‘Jazz’ required faith and a little improvisation
Crowd-funding brought book to big screen
It took a miracle for Donald Miller’s best-selling memoir, Blue Like Jazz, to reach theaters.
That’s fitting for the film, which is based on a book about Miller’s crisis and rediscovery of Christian faith. Even though by his estimates the book has sold more than 1.5 million copies since its publication in 2003, Blue Like Jazz had to overcome many hurdles in making it into 130 theaters in select cities Friday.
“It’s very meta as a film on so many levels,” says Marshall Allman ( True Blood), who plays a fictionalized Miller, “because it is so non-traditional and we’ve had so many miraculous ways that this film came about.”
Also in the movie: Claire Holt ( The Vampire Diaries) and Tania Raymonde ( Lost).
Miller never expected a film to arise from a book about his evangelical Baptist upbringing in Houston and his spiritual revival at the secular Reed College in Portland, Ore. “That was pretty hard to imagine,” he says. “It’s a series of essays.”
Blue Like Jazz didn’t sell well initially but gained momentum through word of mouth. At a reading in Nashville about two years after the book’s release, Miller was approached by filmmaker Steve Taylor ( The Second Chance), who wanted to make a movie out of it. “We worked out a fictionalization of the topics and the main characters, and within three or four writing sessions, we knew we had something special,” says Miller, 40, who co-wrote the screenplay with Taylor and Ben Pearson.
In the film, Miller, as played by Allman, is an incoming freshman who rebuffs admission to a religious college. The decadent and progressive lifestyles that Miller finds at Reed College (which allowed filming on campus) make him question his beliefs — and provide comedic moments.
Another fictitious plot twist involves the character of his mother (Jenny Littleton) becoming pregnant from an affair with their church’s married assistant pastor. For the film, it made sense to take some liberties, says Miller, who was 31 when his spiritual journey led him to Reed College. “We had to play with some stuff to make it work.”
Near the film’s end, Miller’s charac- ter apologizes for the sins of Christianity in a mock confessional booth. It addresses “some really hard stuff” about organized religion, Miller says. “This movie could fly under the radar or it could stir up controversy. I just have no idea.”
Despite its low budget, the project took nearly four years to get adequate funding. Just as filming was to begin in 2010, a major investor bailed. On his blog (donmilleris.com), Miller wrote that Blue Like Jazz probably would never be made.
Then, two twentysomething fans, Zach Prichard and Jonathan Frazier, contacted him for permission to start a crowd-funding campaign on Kick starter.com, a site just then beginning to gather attention. “There were so many that wanted to see this happen, why couldn’t we all come together and fund it?” Prichard asked in a video to stoke the fund drive.
In 30 days, the campaign raised nearly $350,000 — the goal was $125,000 — and set a Kickstarter record. “Donald Miller was (Prichard and Frazier’s) favorite writer, and they ended up saving his movie,” says the site’s co-founder Yancey Strickler. “It should be a movie on its own.”
Taylor called about 3,300 people who gave $10 or more. “I love making these calls,” he says, “because every time you call somebody, I would remember that if it wasn’t for this person, I would still be banging my head against the wall wondering why I couldn’t get this movie made.”
Miller hopes that Blue Like Jazz is just the first of many crowd-funded films. “It is changing our culture,” he says. “We will have these minor projects that get made because 10,000 want it to be made.”