Director in Focus: Damien Chazelle

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Success seems to come naturally to Damien Chazelle. At just 33 years old, the Harvard graduate has burst onto the filmmaking scene in a manner most others could only dream of. Despite having just three feature-length film credits to date (and one to be released shortly), Chazelle has worked with the likes of Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone and J.K Simmons, directed one of the highest-grossing musicals of all time, bagged two Golden Globe Awards, and become the youngest ever winner of the Academy Award for Best Director – it’s safe to say he’s had the dream start to a career in the film industry.

Chazelle certainly didn’t become a big name overnight, yet even his limited release debut feature, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, showed early signs of the young director’s potential. Released in 2009, the romantic musical received an overwhelmingly positive critical reception on the festival circuit, demonstrating the artistic flair and thematic intrigue (an obsession with jazz music and the idealism of the Hollywood dream) that would characterise Chazelle’s later work. Even if it was only seen by a few, Guy and Madeline proved that Chazelle oozed all the necessary talent to make films that would eventually be loved by many.

It wasn’t until the release of Whiplash in 2014 that Chazelle’s work reached audiences beyond the arthouse, but from this moment onwards he became the director to watch. Originally a short-film that was later funded to become a fully-fledged feature, Whiplash followed the relationship between an aspiring jazz drummer (Miles Teller) and his insufferable, abusive teacher (J.K. Simmons) and again addressed the themes of dedication and sacrifice through its examination of a musician prepared to achieve his artistic dream at any cost. It took home three Oscars (Best Editing, Best Supporting Actor and Best Sound Mixing), but it could easily have won more, as the film has since been viewed by many as one of the very best films of the decade and left its audience in eager anticipation for whatever this man would create next.

And then there was La La Land. Few could’ve predicted just how good of a film it would be, let alone how much of a critical phenomenon it would become. Starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, La La Land captured the magic of the Classical Hollywood musical in a manner both fresh and nostalgic. Every musical number meticulously crafted, every long take cut to perfection, it is no overstatement to describe Chazelle’s direction as masterful and truly deserving of its Academy Award. The film itself may not have had the classic Hollywood ending, and neither did that year’s Oscars ceremony, but La La Land‘s global success placed Chazelle’s career trajectory firmly on the path of Hollywood fantasy.

La La Land also saw the re-ignition of the working relationship between Chazelle and Simmons; granted, Simmons was only cast in a minor, cameo-like role, but the very fact an actor so serious was so willing to rush back and work with the director again is a clear testament the director’s talent. Similarly, another familiar face returns in Chazelle’s latest project, First Man, as Gosling takes on the lead role of Neil Armstrong, again indicating that the biggest stars are desperate to work with the director time and time again. Set for UK release on the 12th October, the Armstrong-biopic will see the world of jazz left firmly behind, although it’s clear to see why Chazelle has chosen this project with its focus on another dedicated individual at the very top of their field. Whilst it remains to be seen if Chazelle will somehow incorporate a jazz soundtrack into an outer-space biopic, his extraordinary direction to date makes it pretty much guaranteed that First Man will be a testament to a modern-day auteur at his prime.

First Man, directed by Damien Chazelle, will be released in the UK on the 12th October.

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Film Editor 2018/19. Self-professed Ryan Gosling expert and karaoke master.

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