In many ways, the spark of ideas for writer and director Daniel Noah’s film “Max Rose” was ignited in Chicago, the filmmaker’s hometown.
Not only was Noah born here — growing up in Wrigleyville, Rogers Park and Evanston — but it was the relationship with his grandparents that provided a lot of inspiration for “Max Rose” (opening Friday at Landmark Renaissance Place in Highland Park).
The character of Max, an aging jazz musical star, “was inspired by the story of my grandfather, Bob Loewy, who was a jazz musician, pianist and an arranger in Chicago who had only one hit,” Noah said. “He arranged a song called ‘Jealous Heart’ for Al Morgan in 1946. After that, the career kind of just didn’t happen for him professionally, so he shifted his lust for life to his family — his marriage to my grandmother and raising his three girls. One of them is my mother.”
Another one of those Loewy daughters is Noah’s aunt, jazz artist Judy Roberts, long a major musical personality on the Chicago scene.
Noah said, “I grew up in jazz clubs in Chicago. I’d be the only kid there. I fondly remember sitting on the piano while Judy was playing. I really romanticized the jazz era, which I think is evident in the movie.”
As much as the music, it was his personal relationship with his grandparents that inspired the “Max Rose” script.
After his parents divorced when Noah was age 2, it was his grandparents who became what he called “the one force of stability in my life that was under constant change,” as his single mom worked and his grandparents cared for him.
“I had a bond with them which exceeded what is normal for most kids,” he added.
Furthermore, when his grandmother died in 2000, Noah said, he not only grieved for her himself, but “I was also very close to my grandfather’s grieving process. He and I had such a special relationship. … So, in addition to processing my own grief, I was processing his too.”
When Loewy died in 2003, Noah realized that the loss of his grandmother had initiated a downward spiral that led his grandfather to give up the will to live. “Here was a man who defined his whole existence by his marriage. When that marriage was gone, I saw in him a total loss of identity. Without her, he had no idea who he was.”
In the film, Max goes through his wife’s personal effects after her death and makes a discovery that, Noah said, did not mirror his own grandparents’ life or relationship. “There was no affair in their life,” he said.
The title role in “Max Rose” is played by Jerry Lewis, who turned 90 in March and hadn’t starred in a movie in more than 20 years.
“Very early in our process of getting to know one another, I went out to dinner with Jerry and his wife, Samantha,” Noah said. “He told me that he had become a star when he was 19 years old. For some 60 years he and his fans had grown up together. They had come of age together. They’d become parents and then grandparents together.
“Now that they were approaching the end of the story, so to speak, he wanted to make one more movie because, as he put it, ‘I wanted to show them they don’t have to be afraid of growing old.’ ”
Speaking of growing old, Noah pointed out one of the main reasons it took a decade for him to get “Max Rose” made was Hollywood’s “widely held belief that you cannot make a movie about elderly people, unless they put on Groucho Marx glasses and rob a bank. The idea we wanted to make a film about old people, played by old people, that looked unblinkingly at some of the difficulties of old age — without glamorizing it or hiding the challenges — was something that was met with ferocious resistance throughout the whole process of raising the money.”
Before ending the interview, Noah reminisced a bit about his teen years at Evanston Township High School. “I was right on the heels of [John] Cusack and [Jeremy] Piven. They had just graduated when I first started there. The funny thing is, it took me years to realize mine wasn’t a normal high school experience. Movies had such a strong presence there.
“John Hughes was always filming in the neighborhood. The Cusack camp was always casting people from around the town. It was a funny way to come of age — but I loved it, and it certainly planted the filmmaking bug in me!”