A smart 31-year-old is a growing new phenomenon in American cinema. His name is Damien Chazelle. He is not an actor; he is a writer and director of feature films. He has actually made only three feature films. And all three films have one common factor—music—which towers over all others. And each film seems to outdo the previous effort by leaps and bounds.
His debut feature film was a jazz musical Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009), which very few have seen. His second feature film was Whiplash (2014)—and it won 3 Oscars out of the 5 it was nominated (which included the Best Picture of the Year). The movie won at the Sundance Film Festival (the Grand Jury Prize), a Golden Globes award, and three awards at the BAFTAs (the British equivalent of the Oscars). If one thought that was a flash in the pan the person would be proved wrong as Chazelle’s third film La la land (2016) has already won a major award at the recent Venice film festival (best actress award for Emma Stone) and the important People’s Choice award at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Whiplash, made on a $.3.3 million budget, made $50 million worldwide in sales. With such a baptism, the film La La Land is likely to be a major Oscar, Golden Globe and BAFTA nominee in several categories in the months ahead. It is a film about a jazz pianist and his love interest, an aspiring actress in Hollywood.
Director Chazelle said he made the film as he wanted to take the old Hollywood musical and “ground it in real life where things don’t exactly work out.” The success of his previous work allowed him to work with major contemporary actors Ryan Goslin and Emma Stone.
The 31 year old Chazelle has already achieved what many wizened directors of Hollywood (and elsewhere) would have dreamt to achieve over decades of work and struggle. Of course, the late brilliant Orson Welles wrote, acted and directed his awesome Citizen Kane (1941) when he was only 26. Welles won the Oscar for writing the original screenplay Citizen Kane but the Oscars bypassed Chazelle’s original writing for Whiplash, though he was nominated in that category. If Chazelle is nominated for a scriptwriting Oscar for his La La Land and wins the statuette, he would be following in the footsteps of the legendary Welles.
The career path of Damien Chazelle is interesting. He studied filmmaking at Harvard University, graduating in 2007. Harvard has contributed some of the most respected names in American film. These include directors Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life), Joseph Losey (Accident), Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream), and Mira Nair (Salaam Bombay!), actors Tommy Lee Jones, the late Jack Lemmon, Matt Damon, and last but not least the talented Indian screenplay writer Sooni Taraporevalla.
Chazelle’s debut film Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench was originally a black and white thesis film made for the Harvard film school. Young Damien initially wanted to be filmmaker. In high school, he wanted to be a jazz drummer and under the tutelage of a music teacher like the intense and exacting character of Terence Fletcher (the Oscar winning role of J K Simmons in Whiplash), Chazelle realized that he was not talented enough to be a musician and returned to his initial passion. The three feature films of Damien Chazelle emanate from his two loves—filmmaking and music.
The writing skills of Damien Chazelle are not limited to the three feature films he directed. In 2013, prior to the release of Whiplash, he wrote another script of a concert pianist who threatened by a sniper to be killed during his performance if he played a wrong note. That film was Grand Piano (2013), with The Lord of the Rings star Elijah Woods playing a major role. He then co-wrote the script of another important 2016 film 10 Cloverfield Lane, a psychological thriller directed by Dan Trachtenberg.
Interestingly, the script of Whiplash was developed as a reaction to the creative frustration of Chazelle working on another script. A short film was the initial outcome of the Whiplash script screened at the 2013 Sundance film festival. The positive critical reaction led to the director to make the longer version which went on to win the top jury and audience awards at the 2014 edition of the Sundance film festival. In many ways, Whiplash is not a typical Hollywood product but a product of independent cinema nurtured by the film festival circuit and good film schools’ academic traditions. The Chazelle rise to fame could be an interesting career path for aspiring filmmakers to follow.
Possibly genes also played a part in Damien Chazelle’s remarkable success. His mother is a writer and a professor. His father is an accomplished Professor in Computer Science at Princeton University, specializing in computational geometry and is the inventor of the “soft heap” data structure.
The year 2017 will give a complete picture of the acceptance of Chazelle’s bigger budget film La La Land around the world by a wider public beyond film festivals.
Irrespective of that, young Damien Chazelle has made his presence felt with a bang—just three films old and a long way to go.