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“Guy and Madeline” First Time Helmer Takes Gamble with Gritty Musical

"Guy and Madeline" First Time Helmer Takes Gamble with Gritty Musical

This interview with first-time director Damien Chazelle was originally published during indieWIRE’s coverage of the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival. His debut “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench” opens in New York this Friday, November 5.

“Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench” 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.

A full-fledged musical that recasts the MGM tradition in a gritty, near-documentary style, “Guy and Madeline” stars Jason Palmer, recently named by Down Beat Magazine one of the top twenty-five “Trumpeters for the Future,” and features all original music composed by Justin Hurwitz and recorded by the Bratislava Symphony Orchestra. The film was shot on black-and-white 16mm and also features Desiree Garcia, Sandha Khin, Andre Hayward (trombonist with Betty Carter, the Dave Holland Big Band, and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra), and Kelly Kaleta (cast member of Imagine Tap). [Synopsis courtesy of the film’s website]

Director Damien Chazelle on what lead him to becoming a filmmaker…

I always wanted to make movies. I can’t remember ever wanting to do anything else. Then, in high school, I began to take jazz drumming really seriously. I didn’t think I’d make a career out of it, but for whatever reason it became my life, and I’d lock myself in my basement summer after summer, practice 8 hours a day, play out whenever I got a chance. Then I went to Harvard and majored in film there; they have a small, tucked-away film department, and from then on it was once again all about filmmaking for me. Meanwhile, I entertained the notion of making something about the world I used to know — the world of young aspiring jazz musicians trying to make it.

Chazelle on what prompted the idea for “Guy and Madeline” and what excited him to undertake it…

I knew I wanted to make a musical, and watching films like “St. Louis Blues” and other of those thirties two-reelers had started me thinking of different ways to approach the genre. I’m less interested in the theatrical aspects of the musical and more in the vision of the world musicals present: a world in which there’s a very fine line between conversation and song, between casually walking down a street and tap-dancing down it. I had no money, a sixteen-millimeter camera from the seventies, and I wanted to do big Stanley Donen musical numbers. It was an exciting gamble, and a lot of the time I was half-waiting for the pie to hit my face. I think you have to be willing to look like a fool to make a movie.

Chazelle on the approach he took to making his first feature…

The film started as my senior thesis, and it was just me and a few classmates banding together to get it going. Things changed course a bit when I found the movie’s lead, Jason Palmer. I’d gone to Wally’s Jazz Cafe to see a drummer play who I was considering for the role, and Jason happened to be leading the band that night. I knew immediately I wanted him in the film, and as a result the film changed shape. It became about his world, the community of jazz players he’s a part of. My pick for the greatest acting in film history is Dexter Gordon’s in ”Round Midnight’, and Jason and I both loved that performance and talked about it a lot throughout the filming. In general, I tried to keep things as loose as possible, use whatever accidents invariably happened on set. Whether it’s Gordon or Jason, screen acting is not so far from playing music; you’re given lines or certain bounds and it’s up to you to interpret them, to weave your way around them, or throw them out altogether.

Chazelle on the biggest challenge he faced in completing his project…

Money. We had none. At first I had a much more pragmatic strategy for making the film: I would shoot it on video, and that would be that. Then, at a certain point, I realized I was fooling myself, that I needed to shoot this on film and that I was just trying to justify video in my mind. So the film stock and processing became my number-one expense. It meant more time spent fundraising than I ever expected, lab disasters (one early lab we used accidentally destroyed the rushes of our first musical number by dropping them in the wrong vat of chemicals), other such hurdles… But it was worth it for me, because I adore 16mm, the grain, the texture, the shape of it. It was a challenge worth taking.

Chazelle on how he defines success and on what he has lined up…

I just want to make movies. If I can’t get the funds to do one project, I’ll just go and shoot something else for a lot cheaper. These days, one can always be making something, so my goal is to be constantly productive.

I love the classic genres. I want to do a big gangster movie, sort of in the vein of those fatalistic French crime movies from the fifties and sixties. I want to do a prison movie, part-documentary. And one day I’d like to make another musical.

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