6 Filmmaking Tips From Damien Chazelle

Damien Chazelle La La Land

The ‘La La Land’ director on how to make it in La La Land.

Typically, filmmaking tips are best shared from longtime veterans of the movie business. But relative newcomers are also worth learning from, especially since they’re the ones who just recently broke through and can tell you what that’s like in today’s industry as opposed to how it was 40 years ago. Damien Chazelle has only made three features, though he’s already an Oscar nominee and his latest, La La Land, is a frontrunner for Best Picture at next year’s Oscars. He is a favorite for Best Director, too, and he’d be the youngest ever to win that award if that happens.

Want to follow in his footsteps? You’ll need experience, passion, and the drive to make it happen. And you can start by following these six pieces of wisdom and advice on how to break through and make it in Hollywood:

Start With a Short

“You’d think that’d be all you need.” Chazelle writes in a 2015 MovieMaker article about the moment he finally found producers interested in making Whiplash and how that wasn’t enough. It was still difficult for those producers to secure financing for “a movie about a jazz drummer.” So they told the filmmaker to choose a scene from his feature script and shoot that alone as a short, as a taste. He continues:

Now, I’ll be honest: I did not want to make a short. I’d written Whiplash as a feature, and that’s what I wanted to do. But, as it turned out, the producers’ idea was a brilliant one. Not only did it arouse interest in the project that hadn’t existed before, it also allowed me to get my feet wet, to fine-tune what I really wanted this movie to be.

He discusses the process further in a 2014 Variety article:

Yes, it was a film about jazz musicians, but I wanted it to play like a thriller or an action movie. I was a newbie director, and so people were essentially telling me, “Show me first” … With the influx of material, I don’t think people really read anymore, so a little piece of footage can go further than a 120-page script … It was handy, because it was one location, and it was a way to introduce our approach, to show that you can put musicians in a room with a teacher, where there are no guns or ticking bombs, and make that feel like life or death. If we could make that work, then we knew the movie as a whole could work.

Have Patience and Persistence

Even after the success of Whiplash, it wasn’t a piece of cake getting La La Land made either. Earlier this year, Chazelle visited The College of New Jersey for a masterclass for communication studies students. The advice he gave them was to have patience in order to deal with this industry:

When you reach the 90th “no,” that voice in your head returns, telling you this isn’t right…the one that tells you, “Maybe I should have listened to my parents and went to law school.” Be persistent. Withstand the nos.

Here’s a similar response he gave to a request for advice to aspiring young artists in a 2015 The Hollywood News interview:

Hopefully, there’s a sort of simple message: Don’t give up. It takes fifty or a hundred or a thousand “No’s” before you hear a “Yes.” Certainly, that applies to both music and my experience as a writer/director. This movie wasn’t easy to get off the ground. It required a lot of strain and heartbreak. At the same time, I wanted to sort of question that process in this movie and show someone who goes through so much to achieve something that maybe it’s too much. So, I don’t necessarily mean to condone what happens in the movie. It’s more a matter of trying to question what we’re willing to sacrifice in the name of art.

You’re Not Born With It

According to Chazelle, anybody can make it. It’s not about who was born a music prodigy or who intrinsically has what it takes to be an artist. He quite strongly expresses his opinion on this subject in a 2014 San Francisco Weekly interview after being asked how much should one suffer for their art:

I think everyone has to decide that out on their own. I think it’s less about suffering and more about the value of hard work. I think there’s this very bullshit notion that I think is really damaging that talent or genius is something that you’re born with and you can’t learn it. It’s not only a notion I disagree with but I think it’s a damaging notion because it tells people that it doesn’t really matter how hard you work because either you’ve got it or you don’t. Mozart was born Mozart. Charlie Parker was born Charlie Parker. I think that’s bullshit. I don’t think you have to suffer for your art. That’s just a romantic notion that I think is not always right. At the end of the day the only common thread that geniuses in any discipline have is that they work harder than anybody else and this notion that they just roll out of bed born with it is just utter horse shit.

“The More a Project Scares You, the More That Probably Means It’s Worth Doing.”

Jumping off from the tip that you have to work hard, he gave a different answer to a similar question in a 2015 GQ interview:

There’s always some amount of suffering, and certain sacrifices you have to make. I guess I really do believe in pushing yourself.

The more a project scares you, the more that probably means it’s worth doing. So all that stuff does dictate a certain amount of anxiety, a certain amount of pain. But I also think there’s something to be said for the sheer joy of making music, or a movie.

… I think we need to return to how we were as a kid, just making something without any real worry about what anyone’s going to think of it, outside of yourself. It’s a constant struggle.

“I think you have to be willing to look like a fool to make a movie,” he says in a 2009 IndieWire interview about undertaking his debut feature, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench. More on the fear:

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.

Make It Personal

Chazelle’s own experiences as a drummer and an artist have informed his movies, so it’s not a surprise he’s a “write what you now” kind of guy. When asked for advice, he often tells people to make projects personal in some degree, but that doesn’t mean autobiographical. Here he explains on the red carpet for a recent screening of La La Land at the Savannah Film Festival:

Make Art But Make It Marketable

The last tip comes secondhand by way of filmmaker Rachel Goldberg, who wrote at IndieWire of her experience at the 2014 Film Independent Screenwriters Lab. Chazelle was one of the mentors, and this is what she learned from him:

All of us in the Lab have written scripts that we are deeply passionate about, most inspired by a profound personal connection. We have been motivated by an intense desire to share our stories and, for some of us, the artistry of character or story may come before genre. Damien Chazelle (“Whiplash”) validated the importance of art and passion, since it can take years to shepherd a script to life. But he emphasized the need to focus on genre as well. Damien had learned the hard way that artistry is not enough and subsequently changed his approach. When writing “Whiplash,” a personal story about a talented young drummer obsessed with greatness, Damien thought about marketability and systematically structured the script to be a page-turning thriller. The final product is not a thriller in the traditional sense of the word, but an intense exploration of vaulting ambition that left me moved and shaken.

What We Learned

Chazelle is not some special wunderkind with built-in genius, and in fact the 31-year-old filmmaker doesn’t believe that exists. He’s early in his career, but he’s worked hard to be such a success so quickly by never quitting, never backing down from his fears, and managing to find a sweet spot between self expression and accessible genre storytelling. He seems like one of those directors who simply made a short as a calling card, but that wasn’t the case. However, doing a mini version or segment of what you’d like to make once you’ve already got people’s attention is apparently just the right tempo for entering the big time.

Christopher began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called 'Read,' back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials.