Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, the second feature by the young director who’s turning thirty in a matter of days, made a strong showing for itself during yesterday’s Oscar nominations, garnering five notices overall, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (where it’s a frontrunner), and Best Adapted Screenplay (for Chazelle). You’d be forgiven to think that the Harvard-educated director came out of nowhere, fully formed. But that isn’t the case.
When I worked at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2009, I had the chance to talk to Chazelle about his debut film, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench. Even during that time where I was watching at least one to two movies a week, mainlining techniques and stories and cinema, Chazelle’s work stuck out for its ambition, audacity, and its talent.
Guy and Madeline was a made-on-a-shoestring musical, with full-blown, singing your heart out numbers, about a jazz musician and a woman who edge towards each other, filmed on location (and on the cheap) in flickering 16 mm black-and-white in Boston. “I feel very strongly about Boston as a city and I wanted to show it in a light that I haven’t seen so much before… as a sort of romantic city on par with New York or Paris,” Chazelle said. It was amateurish at times, boring at times, but when it worked — especially in a wordless seduction scene on the train — it really worked.
Guy and Madeline was a simple story. Boy meets girl, boy and girl break up, and we see Guy living his life in the Boston jazz scene and with a new girl while Madeline’s flailing around. The characters were unexpressive — until they burst out into full-blown, magic days of MGM musical numbers. There was a feel of John Cassavettes and the French New Wave in the film’s quiet moments, the bulk of them, and much of the story moved along visually, rather than through anything like dialogue. Chazelle said, “I was interested in trying to take a very artificial, familiar Hollywood genre and trying to trace the passage between real life and that kind of genre.”
There are a couple of interesting things about Guy and Madeline as a debut. Chazelle came out of the same Harvard undergraduate film program as the first mumblecore director, Andrew Bujalski (Funny Ha Ha, Computer Chess), one that’s interested more in documentary and experimental film. It’s why the phrase “mumblecore musicial” is occasionally attached to Guy and Madeline and is a bit of a misnomer.
Music has played a large role in Chazelle’s work so far. As well as Guy and Madeline and Whiplash, he also wrote the original script for Grand Piano, which was made last year with Elijah Wood as a concert pianist and John Cusack as “the sniper who will kill him if he plays one false note.” It is Speed with piano playing. It is about anxiety and performance, familiar themes for Chazelle. (Our film editor Jason Bailey described Grand Piano as “bananas”.) His next film, La La Land, will star Emma Watson and Whiplash‘s Miles Teller, and it is an “original, MGM-style musical” that’s like like “Gene Kelly meets Thelonious Monk,” according to Chazelle. It’s hard not to imagine it as Guy and Madeline with bigger names, perhaps.
So far, Chazelle has been able to produce his own work and to keep his voice in the process. While Whiplash has clearly hit a chord with both critics and audiences (it’s still in theaters in New York, to be sure), it’s the first shot in what could be a career colored by his passions: jazz and obsession. Guy and Madeline, which had a small release that was “presented by Stanley Tucci” after spending nearly a year doing the festival circuit, is a really fascinating debut, by no means perfect, but suffused with ambition, love, and the occasional bit of magic, that may go down as the genesis of a major cinema talent.
Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench is available on DVD.