The Rise of Damien Chazelle

Now the dust has settled from the 89th Academy Awards we can begin to truly appreciate Damien Chazelle’s meteoric rise to Hollywood’s front page. At the ripe old age of 32, he has become the youngest person in history to win the coveted Academy Award for Best Director. Three films is all it took to reach this incredible milestone, with each achieving dramatically more success than the one before it.

Born in Providence, Rhode Island to Celia and Bernard Chazelle (professors of history and computer science respectively) he was always drawn to filmmaking and as a child constantly wrote scripts. That was not his only passion however as whilst studying at Princeton High School he attempted to be a drummer in Princeton’s prestigious jazz program. An intense music teacher (the inspiration being JK Simmons’ character in Whiplash) and a self attributed lack of talent meant that keeping up was a constant struggle. By the end of high school a fork-in-the-road situation arose: attend a vocational music school and properly dedicate himself towards the art, or concede and follow another path. This other path was his old passion of film and he described music as ‘a detour, almost.’

After finishing high school, Chazelle went on to Harvard University to study for a degree in Visual and Environmental Studies. Throughout this time he attended as many film classes as possible culminating in his first film, ‘Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench’, released in 2009. A completely improvised jazz musical, directed, written, produced, shot and co-edited by Chazelle. Originally planned as his thesis film, he ultimately left Harvard temporarily in order to focus on finishing the film. It set the tone projects to come, from it’s jazz based plot, to the musical collaboration with Justin Hurwitz. Shot completely in black and white 16mm film, this debut feature made just $35,556 at the box office but was met with wide acclaim scoring 90% on Rotten Tomatoes and 84 out of 100 on Metacritic.

The next few years were not too comfortable for Chazelle as he was forced to become a ‘writer for hire’ to pay the bills. This resulted in several writing credits in films such as ‘The Last Exorcism Part II’ and ‘Grand Piano’. Although continuing to create his own screenplays, none ever materialised into film and he cited this as a low point in his career, ‘I’d pour my blood, sweat and tears into them, and no one would like them’. One particular script caused him much frustration, mainly due to various aspects of the film that made it impractical, such as a dance sequence on a freeway. Unable to get the project off the ground he channeled his frustration into another script, one that drew on his past experiences with jazz drumming, titled ‘Whiplash’.

Initially he found difficulty showing the script to others as it felt too personal, but eventually ‘Whiplash’ gained interest from several producers, including Helen Estabrook (Labour Day) who suggested JK Simmons for the conductor role. Chazelle’s problems didn’t end there as no investors could initially be found, with the script featuring on a top 10 list of unmade films for 2012. To overcome this a proof-of-concept short was made, with JK Simmons in the role Estabrook proposed, and submitted to the 2013 Sundance Film Festival where it won the short film prize. The following year ‘Whiplash’ was released to universal praise, 94% Rotten Tomatoes and 88 out of 100 on Metacritic, a notable improvement from his first directorial effort also achieving $49 million in box office sales.

When award season came around it was hardly surprising that Chazelle’s second project got nominated for several Oscars, five in total including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor for JK Simmons. There was some controversy surrounding one of his nominations in particular. Critics widely suggested that Whiplash was a sure winner of the Best Original Screenplay category but when the nominations were released the film was placed in the Best Adapted Screenplay category. The reasoning behind this seemingly bizarre decision was to do with the concept short made a year prior. The Academy deemed the short film the original screenplay thus making the subsequent feature length film adapted. Any anger was short-lived as Whiplash took home three Oscars, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Mixing and Best Supporting Actor for Simmons.

Riding the wave of success Chazelle decided to revisit an old script that gave him frustration previously, La La Land. The idea was ‘to take the old music but ground it in real life where things don’t always exactly work out’. The casting decisions almost led to a very different film with Miles Teller (who also starred in Whiplash) and Emma Watson in the lead roles. Both ended up departing from the project due to long contract negotiations and a commitment to 2017’s Beauty and the Beast respectively. As a result small adjustments were made to the script, making the leads older, struggling to achieve their dreams rather than just starting out. Chazelle immediately cast Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone after Summit Entertainment bought the rights to the film calling them ‘the closest thing that we have right now to an old Hollywood couple’.

Multiple aspects of the production caused trouble for those involved with the film. Firstly, Gosling didn’t know how to play the piano, at all. For three months during pre-production his job was to become adept at the piano and he called it ‘one of the most fulfilling pre-production periods I’ve ever had’. From the beginning of the film Chazelle pushed for the musical numbers to be filmed in a single take to emulate his inspirations Ginger Rodgers and Fred Astaire. The consequence of this is several of the scenes took several days to shoot. One specifically, the six-minute long Prius scene had a one hour window each night to be filmed, called the magic or golden hour where the sunlight is softer and redder than normal. After eight takes the pair finally nailed it and ‘everybody just exploded’.

To get the tone of the film just right, Chazelle and Tom Cross spent nearly a year editing and that time was obviously well spent as when ‘La La Land’ was rolled out at the end of 2016 it received worldwide acclaim, with 93% on Rotten Tomatoes and 93 out of 100 on Metacritic. At the 74th Golden Globes, usually used as an indicator for Oscar performance, it won every category it was up for, a record-breaking seven. All eyes then turned to the Academy, and when the nominations were released ‘La La Land’ equalled the record of fourteen with 1997’s ‘Titanic’ and 1950’s ‘All About Eve’. Sadly, Chazelle faired the same as ‘All About Eve’ winning six rather than the eleven won by ‘Titanic’. Those six wins included Best Director for Chazelle, Best Actress for Emma Stone and two for former roommate and long time collaborator Justin Hurwitz for Best Original Score and Best Original Song ( for ‘City of Stars’).

It seems that Chazelle is not content to stop now as his fourth feature film is already in the works. Titled ‘First Man’, this biopic will follow the life of astronaut Neil Armstrong. Adapted from the book of the same name by Josh Singer (Spotlight) there will undoubtedly be high expectations from a director who has produced nothing less than excellence throughout his career. With Ryan Gosling already announced in the lead role this will not be a film to miss.

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