EDITOR'S NOTE: In 2009, Damien Chazelle, Harvard ‘08, screened his film "Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench" at the Tribeca Film Festival. As an Artist Development Fellow, Damien spent his time at Harvard honing his skills as a filmmaker -- and the special attention he paid to his artistic side has paid off. "Guy and Madeline" has been screened at festivals around the world and is soon to be released theatrically. A special pre-theatrical screening will take place 7 p.m. Oct. 4 at the Harvard Film Archive. Juli Min interviewed Damien last year for the Harvard Arts Beat. Her interview is below.
Damien began work on Guy and Madeline in his junior year as his final thesis project in Visual and Environmental Studies, but as the project grew larger and larger, and as he amassed more material for his short, he decided to take a year off to shoot a full-length film. In the past year, he finished his film and submitted it to Tribeca, and has been accepted as an official selection for the Festival in April.
Guy and Madeline, as described on the website, "is about the often uneasy but always beautiful relationship between music and love. It tells the story of a young Boston jazz musician who drifts from affair to affair, his trumpet the only constant in his life. He makes a promising connection with an aimless introvert named Madeline, who immediately takes to his music. Their relationship is cut short, however, when Guy leaves her for another, more outgoing love interest. The two separated lovers slowly wind their way back into each other’s lives, through a series of romances and near-romances punctuated by song."
After watching the beautifully written and directed film, I sat down to talk to Damien about his process of shooting the film, as well as his goals for Tribeca and his upcoming projects.
Damien walked into the coffee shop with what he had told me would be black curly hair and a green jacket. I saw him first and flagged him down. He didn’t want any coffee. The things I knew about him already were that 1. he had graduated last year from Harvard 2. he was a jazz musician himself and had won a national drum competition in high school 3. that his film would be screening at Tribeca and 4. that the film was really very good.
That’s quite the list of accomplishments for someone so young. But Damien didn’t bring any of these things up. He had a confident way of talking about his film and about about art, without ever coming off as pretentious. He stated his opinions articulately and then tended to make some off-handed remark or two that let me know that it was really no big deal. He’s realistic about his film, but aware of its virtues. I immediately took a liking to him.
From the beginning of the project, Damien was set on shooting a musical. Although so much about the film evolved and changed throughout the filming process, the idea of making a musical was foundational for Damien. In our interview, he talked a bit about why he made this choice.
Formally i think it’s interesting that you have movies with conventional narrative; but what makes a musical a musical is the willingness to stop telling the story for a few moments and revel in abstract performance. It’s a very unclassical thing to do and yet the musical is just as classical as you can get. Musicals always have had one foot in documentary, outside of narrative. Whether it’s Gene Kelley or Louis Armstrong or whoever who just performs for us, it’s not scripted. This gives it an interesting dichotomy. And that’s one of the things I like about musicals, other than that i just get a kick out of them.
Performances pop up throughout the film, jazz music improvised, or characters singing standards to themselves as they walk through a park. In this slow, moody, black and white film with little dialogue and shots that tend to zoom into faces and places, music becomes elemental to expressing and explaining what is happening emotionally in the film. When I asked Damien about his shooting technique, he said
That was an early on decision that had to do with the way i think – a kind of simplistic vision of jazz – grainy 16 mm 1960s images. The classic embodiment of jazz. There’s something about those images of the 50s and 60s that are so evocative. I wanted to approximate that. I wanted to bring that look into today. It was a choice early on.
But there is also a sense of constant improvisation to the film and the way it was shot. Most of the actors cast in the film weren’t professional actors. Damien cast them based on their interesting lives, and during his year off delved into their world, documenting their daily routines and conversations with others. The intimacy of the film grew out of this experimentation and collaboration with his actors.
A lot of it was that we shot in such a quick, cheap way: it would be just me and a sound guy. I wanted things to be as intimate as possible, and we did not having a lot of lighting. I wound up liking getting closer and closer to them. And I just realized that this is sort of a trend in the movie. What I kept trying to do was keep zeroing in on moments that were half scripted and half not.
When I asked Damien about his decision to use jazz (sometimes familiar and standard, and sometimes experimental) in the film, he gave me both an intellectual answer and a personal one.
Jazz has gone into two forms since jazz used to be the popular music. On one end you have stuff that approximates elevator music. And then on the other end, you have a very out-there free form or experimenting with tones kind of jazz that is the kind of stuff that Jason Palmer [Guy] tends to play. Jazz is this kind of split art form. And i guess what i wanted to do in the movie was acknowledge jazz as a popular art form that’s rooted in popular song traditions; most of the jazz is pretty traditional. But there are some places where you see Jason doing his own more modern thing. I liked have both things. Jazz as a popular art form doesn’t mean it’s elevator music. It was for 50 years and can still be a vibrant popular art form.
So I brought up Damien’s own successful history with jazz music and wanted to know why he had chosen to leave his music career behind for one in film. He responded
I played music a lot but would never consider myself a musician the way [Jason] is. Music is his life. He knows it inside out, has a kind of brilliance for it. I’ve always really loved jazz but don’t pretend to have knowledge or skill with it the way that he does. And I’ve always been a filmmaker, always wanted to do films more than anything else. A good chunk of my life that was kind of on hold and everything was devoted to music. I think the difference is that even when I was devoting 8 hours a day to practicing drums, for whatever reason I never seriously considered or wanted to do that for the rest of my life. I knew film was what i wanted to make my life out of. And so I try to combine the two in a way. But it was always film first.
Damien’s appreciation and knowledge of music is apparent, and the film achieves beautifully what it sets out to do – to express the relationship between music and love. So what does the future hold for this budding young film maker? The market for small films like Guy and Madeline is tough to find, but there seems to be hope in alternative forms of distribution and marketing, working through the internet and other media networks to spread the news about the film. Damien is currently living full-time in Los Angeles, working on writing new scripts, and preparing submissions to other festivals. Towards the end of our conversation, I brought up the fact that the Depression was when musicals became remarkably successful. He smiled, clearly having had thought about this before. "We’ll see," he said easily, as if he hadn’t just spent the past three years working on the film. "Whatever happens will hopefully be a win-win situation."