At just 32, Damien Chazelle has ‘overachiever’ written all over him. Oscar nominated before 30 – for his 2014 film Whiplash (Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay), Chazelle has now broken records for standout picture of the year La La Land, with over 7 Golden Globe wins. It’s hard to deny, things are looking bright for this unassuming New Jersey boy who’s had an electrifying start to his film career – really, the stuff of fantasy.
It’s clear Chazelle is a special sort of guy. A man who understands the power of pure slog, he is pushing boundaries with brave choices, persistence, self-belief and apparent willingness to veer far out of his comfort zone. Fear doesn’t seem to hinder this man, nor does hard work deter him… a cracking combination for any given pursuit or path to creation.
Whiplash scared me. I feel you should only do projects that scare you to some degree. I get motivated by those sorts of feelings.
Here are 5 things to know about this exciting, young director, bursting onto the filmmaking scene in extraordinary fashion…
All of the films he’s directed feature a Jazz musician as a protagonist. Chazelle, himself, tried to be a musician in his student years, but struggled to make it as a jazz drummer at Princeton High School. (His own music teacher was the inspiration for the character of Terence Fletcher, played by JK Simmons, in Whiplash.) The Harvard grad has said that he knew instinctively he didn’t have enough talent to be a great musician – the only type he’d ever want to be.
I actually grew up wanting to be a filmmaker. I wanted to make movies, and music was a detour, almost.
Ultimately he managed to merge the two together: making films ABOUT music – in the musical genre.
Chazelle has made no secret of his love of musicals. His passion sprung up most unexpectedly, and was borne from his first viewing of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, a 1964 French musical where they sing every line of dialogue (which he hated at first) but which, by the end, had totally knocked him sideways. “I was transported, demolished, blown away, elevated. Everything you can be from a movie. It was the moment where I realized that art can change your life…” (He told W Magazine). His favourite film? “Singin’ in the Rain is probably the best film ever,” he said. “But I love the melancholy in It’s Always Fair Weather. ”
Before Whiplash, Chazelle had a string of failed scripts. “I’d pour my blood, sweat and tears into them, and no one would like them. This one (Whiplash) was definitely different than anything I’d ever written — it was more autobiographical. But it wasn’t clear it was any better.”
Interestingly, Chazelle also had to bide his time with La La Land – a film he’d been wanting to make for several years before Whiplash. He just couldn’t get the backing until after the success of his drummer flick – and of course getting the timing right was key with this nostalgic, old-Hollywood style film.
A BUDDING PARTNERSHIP
Chazelle’s fellow band member and roommate from Harvard, American composer and screenwriter Justin Hurwitz, is the musical master behind all three of Chazelle’s features – the first being ‘Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench’, which the two made in Boston at the age of 24. His amazing scores have earned him a whole heap of awards; for La La Land he’s won two Golden Globes (Best Original Score and Best Original Song – for ‘City of Stars’) and a BAFTA Award for Best Film Music. He’s also currently nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Original Score and Best Original Song twice (for ‘Audition (The Fools Who Dream)’ and ‘City of Stars’).
Hurwitz on Chazelle:
He’s very demanding with how much material he asks for at the beginning, but looking back I’m grateful when he’s that ruthless because I do my best work when he pushes me. I always look back and realize that thank god we didn’t use the first twenty-two things, because the twenty-third thing made the most sense.
Speaking of partnerships, Chazelle will be reuniting with Ryan Gosling for his next movie, First Man, a first-person account that covers astronaut Neil Armstrong’s famous space mission in the 1960s (based on the book/biopic by James R. Hansen). The screenplay has been written by Josh Singer, writer of Spotlight and The West Wing. There’s also a yet unnamed Chazelle project on the horizon which sees him take on his fourth picture as both writer and director.