In the new drama Max Rose (out in New York on Sept. 2), a musician attempts to unravel a mystery concerning his recently deceased wife of 65 years. The film is an extremely personal film for its writer and director, Daniel Noah. “It’s based on my own grandfather who was a jazz musician and an arranger by the name of Bob Loewy,” says the filmmaker. “[He] had one hit, which was a song he arranged called ‘Jealous Heart,’ sung by Al Morgan. It did very well, but it didn’t really happen for him professionally, and he shifted all of his energy to his family, and in particular to my grandmother and their marriage. Growing up, I really idolized that relationship as the paragon of what romance and marriage could be. When my grandmother passed away in 2001, I was very close to his process of grieving. After his passing [in 2003], I came away really interested in this idea that, if we’re lucky enough to have someone that we love that much for that long, there’s the inevitability that someone goes first. What happens to the person who’s left behind?”
To play the lead role of Max, Noah set his heart on Jerry Lewis, the famed star and director of such comedy classics as The Nutty Professor and The Bellboy, who had shown off his dramatic acting chops in Martin Scorsese’s 1982 film, The King of Comedy. The problem? Lewis was officially retired and hadn’t appeared in a film since 1995’s Funny Bones. “He had no agent, there was no way of reaching him,” says Noah. “We tried a million ways to get through to him and we were shut down in every one. We finally discovered that he had an office in Las Vegas. So, we kind of cold-called and his secretary said, ‘He doesn’t make pictures any more. You can send the script, but he won’t read it.’ We sent it and and expected never to hear from him again. While we were waiting he was given his honorary Oscar (in 2009). I remember sitting in front of the TV watching him and I thought, This is the closest I’m ever going to get to Jerry Lewis. About a week later, we get a call from him. He had read the script and he committed on the phone. He said, ‘Let’s make a movie,’ and we were off and running.”
But running towards a dream or a nightmare? Lewis has a reputation for not suffering fools gladly and, while the comedy legend may not have directed a movie since 1983’s Cracking Up, the star has far more experience in that department than Noah. In recent years, Noah has produced a number of films, including the Elijah Wood-starring Cooties and the upcoming The Greasy Strangler for SpectreVision, the indie-horror company he cofounded with Wood and Josh C. Waller. But his sole directing credit prior to Max Rose was 2001’s tiny-budgeted, sci-fi thriller Twelve.
“Everyone warned me that he was going to be extremely difficult and I was steeled for a very painful experience,” says Noah about Lewis. “What I kept telling myself was, ‘It’ll be worth it! Just suck it up!’ And I don’t know if I can explain to you the incredible chasm between the man that I was warned I would encounter and the man that I actually did encounter. From the first moment, he was incredibly lovely, and kind, and warm, and supportive. In the many years that it took to put the film together, I got to know him really well. He understood that the nature of this material was so intimate, and so raw, and emotional, that the only way it was going to work was, if he and I had genuine love for each other. So, we built that love, we built that relationship. You know, I’m sitting at his kitchen table with him and he’s serving me lox and bagels. It really started to feel like I was with my grandfather again in some ways. I thought, Is everything going to change when we get on set? And it didn’t. Early on, he said, ‘I know you’re probably scared that I’m going to try and take over your movie. I will not do that, I will never cross the line, I will never go behind the camera, I will only be in front of it.'”
Lewis is not the film’s only notable cast member. Kerry Bishé from Halt and Catch Fire and Kevin Pollak play Max’s granddaughter and son respectively while Illeana Douglas is the manager of a retirement community. The cast also includes Lewis’ fellow comedy legend Mort Sahl, Quantum Leap and Blue Velvet actor Dean Stockwell, and English actress Claire Bloom, whose big screen career dates back to Charlie Chaplin’s 1952 film Limelight, and who plays Max’s wife, Eva.
“One of my all-time greatest movie star crushes is Claire Bloom,” chuckles Noah. “I was just completely beside myself that I was going to get work with her. I think she was 82 when we filmed, and was just as lovely, and radiant, as ever. Mort Sahl, talking to him is a little like talking to Forrest Gump. He was present for every major event, and knew every major figure intimately, in politics, and movies, and music. Some of the stories I heard from him about JFK, and various other people that he was close with, were just amazing. Dean Stockwell? You know, I’m a real student of cinema, and so a lot of people go, ‘Oh, Quantum Leap,’ and I go, ‘No! Long Day’s Journey into Night!’ It’s bucket list-stuff to get to work with people like this.”
While it may have taken years for Max Rose to reach the screen, Noah’s toils were compensated by his star’s reaction to seeing the film for the first time at Los Angeles’ Cinefamily theater. “The movie was over, and I was sitting next to him, and he was incredibly quiet for a really long time,” says Noah. “No one wanted to speak because we were all waiting for him to say something. He finally took my hand and he said, ‘I’m sorry I’m being quiet, I’ve never seen him that way before.’ What he meant was, he’s never seen the Jerry Lewis character that way before. I’m so proud of his performance and in many ways there is no performance. Very early on, he said, ‘The only way this movie’s going to work is if there is not acting in it.’ And there really isn’t. I think that the man that you see in the film is as close to Jerry Lewis as anyone has ever been allowed to go in terms of what he’s been allowed to be documented. He truly let his guard down and let us film the real him. We were being allowed access to the most intimate place inside one of the most legendary, well known, larger-than-life icons of the world. It was really powerful stuff.”
Max Rose will be released in Los Angeles on Sept. 9, and and will expand nationally from mid-September through October. You can exclusively see the film’s new poster above.