At 32, he was the youngest director ever to win an Oscar, but Damien Chazelle knows that ageism remains all too real in the film industry. “Hollywood has, and continues to be, youth-obsessed, often to its detriment,” the La La Land director said today at the PGA Producer By conference in Los Angeles.
“It’s a problem for the industry,” he said, noting that “there are a lot of filmmakers who could get anything they wanted made,” but that when they hit a certain age, find themselves unemployable. “Hollywood would argue that it’s less about age and more about what’s current, but that’s just an excuse.”
Being a young director also had its drawbacks on set, he said. “People actually asked me why the coffee was taking so long,” he laughed during his conversation with writer/director John Wells.
Chazelle said he’d wanted to make movies since he was a kid growing up in New Jersey, shooting home movies with his father’s camcorder. He took film classes in college, moved to LA, “making ends meet tutoring kids and writing college essays for lazy students.” Then he sold a script that finally got him into the Writers Guild, earning just enough points to qualify for health benefits, which he said “made my parents very happy – the health care moment.”
In those early days, he worked as a writer-for-hire on low-budget horror films, including an unsuccessful pitch for the movie Ouija, which put him in contact with a producer who told him to “send me whatever you like.” That contact ultimately led to Whiplash and then to La La Land.
“There are incidental meeting with certain key people” that every successful filmmaker experiences, he said. “You’ve got to generate the work and the hustle, but you really are dependent upon the kindness of strangers.”
“And the talent,” Wells said.
Most of their conversation was devoted to the nuts and bolts of filmmaking, and the producer’s role in supporting the director’s vision and protecting him or her from the studios and their endless notes. “I like notes that are specific and the person giving the notes can stand behind them,” he said.
Perhaps the best advice he ever got was from his producers on La La Land, who ureged him early on not to worry about the budget and to “write it with the ideal concept of the movie.” “If they hadn’t said that,” he laughed, “I wouldn’t have had 100 people dancing on the freeway.”
Perhaps the worst note he got about La La Land was from a reader who said: “Does it have to be about jazz?”
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