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Tribeca ’09 Interview: “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench” Director Damien Chazelle

Tribeca '09 Interview: "Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench" Director Damien Chazelle

Editor’s Note: This is one of dozens of interviews, conducted via email, with directors whose films are screening at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival in the narrative and doc competitions as well as the Discovery section. The festival takes place April 22 – May 3.

Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench
(Discovery section) Feature Narrative, 2009, 82 min., U.S.

Director: Damien Chazelle
Primary Cast: Jason Palmer, Desiree Garcia, Sandha Khin, Andre Hayward, Frank Garvin, Alma Prelec
Screenwriter: Damien Chazelle
Producer: Jasmine McGlade
Co-Producer: Mihai Dinulescu
Executive Producer: W.A.W. Parker
Composer: Justin Hurwitz
Choreographer: Kelly Kaleta
(Romantic comedy, Musical)

Synopsis: First-time director Damien Chazelle infuses his black-and-white, 16mm verite-style relationship drama with all that jazzy romance of an old-Hollywood musical. Backed by a grand, alternately rollicking and melancholy score, Guy and Madeline tracks a pair of young lovers in Boston after they separate, search for new romance, and perhaps find their way back to each other. (Description provided by the Tribeca Film Festival)

Please introduce yourself…

My name is Damien Chazelle, I’m 24 years old, based in LA. I shot ‘Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench’ when I lived in Boston, and it’s my first feature.

What lead you to become 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.

What prompted the idea for “Guy and Madeline” and what excited you 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.

Elaborate a bit on your approach to making your film.

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.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the 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.

How do you define success as a filmmaker, and what are your personal goals as a filmmaker?

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.

What are your future projects?

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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