Damien Chazelle has two Oscar-winning films to his name, but the filmmaker says that “La La Land’ and “Whiplash” wouldn’t have become as critically acclaimed as they were without the help of supportive producers respecting his vision and their know-how to win over studios and financiers.
At the 2017 Produced By Conference, Chazelle talked in-depth about the vital decisions producers made during the development of his two hit films. He gave credit to “Whiplash” producers Jason Reitman and Helen Estabrook for coming up with the idea of casting J.K. Simmons as the vicious jazz teacher Terence Fletcher in what would become an Oscar-winning performance.
“I had written that role modeled on a teacher I had, so I pictured the character as a bigger, New Jersey Italian-American man, sort of red-faced and sweating,” Chazelle said with a smile.
“J.K. was definitely not that. So at first there was cognitive dissonance and I was like, ‘No, that’s not it.'[…]But my mindset quickly changed to ‘Not only is he right for the role, but we can’t do this movie with anyone else.'”
Chazelle also admitted that he was resistant to suggestions from Reitman and the producers that they turn a 15-page segment of his “Whiplash” script into a $20,000 short film starring Simmons to help attract financing for the feature-length version. As it turned out, that short became a hit at Sundance in 2013 and helped the film land a $3.3 million budget from Bold Films.
“I was snooty and arrogant at the time,” he said. “I was thinking, ‘I wrote this script as a feature and I want to direct a feature, so why are we turning this into a short?’ But the producers were entirely correct.”
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With “La La Land,” Chazelle made the script with composer Justin Hurwitz and producers Fred Berger and Jordan Horowitz, the latter of whom told Chazelle to write the “fantasy version” of what he wanted the movie to be and leave financing issues to them. That led to “La La Land” being rejected by Focus Features, who were considering the project for a young filmmakers’ program where the studio would provide new directors with a $1 million budget.
But while this approach resulted in many studios rejecting “La La Land” for several years — Chazelle began writing “La La Land” before starting production on “Whiplash” — Chazelle says he’s grateful Berger and Horowitz gave him the creative trust to make the film he had envisioned.
“The movie begins with people dancing on top of cars because of that ‘fantasy film’ approach,” he says.
Chazelle’s next film, “First Man” will feature “La La Land” star Ryan Gosling in a biopic about legendary astronaut Neil Armstrong. That film will be released October 12, 2018.