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Damien Chazelle Shares Thoughts On Good Producing At Produced By 2017

By: Marjorie Galas

Damien Chazelle shared a revealing truth about “La La Land” during a conversation with John Wells and hundreds of producers attending the 2017 Produced By Conference.  In the middle of the Fox Lot, perched on the Zanuck Theater’s stage the 2017 Oscar-winning director told the principle at John Wells Productions (“Shameless”, “The West Wing”) that his original concept focused on a “prison sort of thing.”

“It involved a jail break.  The main character was a suicidal depressive,” said Chazelle.  “Somehow they went into a planetarium and flew into space.”

The interesting anecdote came in the middle of the panel that focused on Chazelle and the importance he places on producers.  Chazelle had spent several immersed in the production world before he directing “La La Land,” and becoming the youngest person to win the covert Best Director Oscar at 32-years-old.  After graduating from the film studies department at Harvard University in 2007, he began his career as a writer, working for hire in various writers rooms and ultimately landing the gig of re-writing the script for J.J. Abrams/Bad Robot feature “Ten Cloverfield Lane.” Throughout his writing tenure, he experienced the challenging task of accommodating studio notes.

“The studios send an over-written packet of note that really say nothing,” said Chazelle.  “They’d ask you to make additions, and make the script half as long.  I like to get specific notes.”

Chazelle was the intended director for “10 Cloverfield Lane”, however he had other ideas.  After receiving positive attention and praise for his first feature, 2009’s “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench” Chazelle was excited to work on another story concept he wrote.  Loosely based on an experience he had with an abusive music instructor he had during his youth in New Jersey, Chazelle crafted “Whiplash” as a short to get funding for a feature.  The film marked his first time working with producers. “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench” was virtually a one-man show for Chazelle who did everything from write, shoot, produce and direct it.  For “Whiplash”, Helen Estabrook, Couper Samuelson and Nicholas Britell, a fellow 2017 Oscar nominee for his score to “Moonlight,” came on as producers and provided a comfortable and supportive environment. For example, they only attended pitch meetings, allowing Chazelle creative freedom in other production meetings.  In addition to managing financing, they did offered important suggests regarding overall production decisions.  These included strong suggestions about casting.

“They suggested J.K. Simmons right away for the teacher.  I felt their idea was wrong but I listened to their reasoning,” said Chazelle.

Chazelle was so taken with Simmons performance that he fought to keep the actor when financing was in place for the feature, a decision that the feature’s producers suggested would affect foreign spend.  Simmons went on to win the Best Supporting Male Actor Oscar in 2015.

As Chazelle developed the script for “La La Land” he enjoyed the “speed bump notes” his producers Fred Berger, Gary Gilbert and Marc Platt share with him. They outlined areas of the script that were problematic without necessarily highlighting how to fix them, which matches Chazelle’s work preference.  During the beginning of prep, he worked with his producers to narrow down images that were absolutely necessary for the audience to take away with them – a method that ultimately reduced cost.  He also met with his line producer to do a page by page breakdown to ensure what was written was necessary.

“This helped us get in the same universe,” said Chazelle.  “It helped us avoid the pitfalls of having something written that is not necessary for the story and sops up the budget.”