Produced By: Damien Chazelle Talks the Director-Producer Relationship on 'Whiplash,' 'La La Land'

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Damien Chazelle

The Oscar winner also revealed his very first pitch to the producers of 'La La Land' involved a prison break.

La La Land director Damien Chazelle made history in February when he, at 32, became the youngest person to win the best director Oscar.

At the Produced By conference Saturday at the Fox Studios lot, an audience member asked him if he thought his youth was an advantage or disadvantage in the business.

"I think it’s a two-sided thing because Hollywood has been and continues to be somewhat youth-obsessed, and often to its detriment,” said Chazelle. “It’s this obsession with whatever is new. As a young person, you can benefit from that … but that said, the flip side of that is you can seem more like a liability if you’re younger."

He added: "I certainly have had to deal with the condescension in office or film sets. People asked me why the coffee was taking so long or if I could get their food.”

Of course, that doesn't happen anymore. Chazelle's hit musical La La Land, starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, was nominated for 14 Oscars, and won six, including a best director win for Chazelle and best actress nod for Stone.

The filmmaker attended the Produced By conference to speak to the audience about the relationship between producers and directors. Chazelle, who has not produced a film he’s written or directed, spoke in conversation with director-producer John Wells about his experiences with producers on his films Whiplash and La La Land.

Notes, especially from studio executives, were a hot topic of conversation. "I like to get notes that are specific and where the person giving the notes can stand behind them," said Chazelle.

He added: “A lot of times when you get into the more studio world, that kind of goes out the window. You get these 10-page manuals that begin with an abstract and then go into the most overwritten notes you’ve ever read.

"They always end with, 'Oh, when you’ve added all these things, the script also needs to be half as long,'” said Chazelle, getting a laugh from the audience.

He looked back at his past films, including his 2014 Sundance breakout Whiplash (and the short that came before it) and his 2016 hit musical La La Land.

Chazelle, who took writer-for-hire jobs before making his own features, says it was the producers' idea to make a short of Whiplash before he shot the feature, in order to get financing for an untested director.

"I was a little snooty and arrogant at the time,” he said. "I thought, ‘Why are we turning this into the short? I wrote a feature.' … Of course, the producers were entirely correct."

The short was one scene from his feature script in which J.K. Simmons’ character criticizes (and then throws a chair at) his young jazz student.

Casting Simmons as the teacher, Chazelle says, was also the idea of the producers (including Jason Blum and Helen Estabrook of Jason Reitman’s Right of Way Films), and one he wasn’t exactly onboard with at first because he had based the character in the script on his own music teacher.

"I imagined a bigger, New Jersey Italian-American, very red-faced and sweating,” said Chazelle. But after he shot the $20,000 short (which he says was mostly financed by Moonlight composer Nicholas Britell) with Simmons, he couldn’t imagine anyone else playing the role.

With La La Land, Chazelle said he was introduced to his two producers very early on, before he made Whiplash, and he pitched them a one-page idea — that did not end up being La La Land.

"It involved a jail break and a prison sort of the thing, and the main character was an autistic suicidal depressive. But somehow they went into a planetarium and flew up into space,” he said.

The producers and Chazelle worked on the project for years, first through a program at Focus Features that was aimed at making films from new directors for under $1 million, and then on their own before the project landed at Lionsgate.

Overall, he emphasized that the producer-director relationship is one of trust, and support.

"It's that ideal balance of being left alone when you wanted to be, and then being really supported when you want to be," Chazelle said.

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