The art of screenwriting allows us to see stories in front of us, giving us something we can relate to, feel inspired from, or give meaning to our lives. Not many screenwriters are as masterful as Damien Chazelle, a filmmaker and writer with writing credits dating back to 2009.
Chazelle's first time at the helm (directorial debut) was the musical Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009), later receiving acclaim when he directed and wrote his subsequent follow-up film, Whiplash (2014). Many acclaimed films and scripts later, what can we learn from Damien Chazelle’s screenwriting?
Photo credit: The Verge
Can Your Script Be Told As a Short?
Part of Chazelle’s success comes down to what he did to sell Whiplash. While struggling to get Whiplash off the ground (with little interest in a movie about a jazz drummer), Chazelle chose a scene from his feature script to make as a short. Though Chazelle didn’t want to make a short, it showed him the brilliance of having flexibility.
The 18-minute short film received praise after premiering at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, allowing Chazelle to secure a $3.3 million budget by Bold Films. It’s a lesson that no matter how challenging it is to get a project off the ground, sometimes it’s worthwhile to do what you can to set yourself up in the future.
Openings - Get to the Good Stuff
Chazelle is known to imagine himself as the audience while writing a script. He understands the necessity to draw the audience in early, even if the film has a meditative style. Take the opening scene of La La Land as an example. It’s something easily recognizable in Los Angeles—the traffic—and takes it to an enticing area with its great dance and song opening.
Obviously, it doesn’t mean every script should begin with an epic introduction. All it means is you should get to the good bits of the film fairly early so the audience can know what they’re involved in. Even if it’s a mystery, the wonder and mystery of the film should be felt early.
The Importance of the First Scene
Going off the notion of having a grand opening comes down to the importance of the first scene. Take a look at Whiplash. How does someone craft a film about a music student and a teacher that makes it enticing enough for people to view? It centers around the idea of a theme in writing and establishing that theme early.
The opening scene doesn’t need to be insane or high-action but establishes the movie's theme. In Whiplash’s case, Neiman plays like any other day when Fletcher encounters him for the first time. We’re introduced to the two main characters and get it’ll be a story of power and excellence, competition, and struggle.
Push the Climax
The climax is a challenging feat to accomplish as a writer. Chazelle’s approach is to keep the dialogue minimum and focus on the visuals, specifically the scene description. It’s a way to cause the audience to want and demand more without having to explain everything overly. It’s pure cinema and pushes the rising tension of the plot to its total capacity.
End Early (Leave the Audience Wanting More)
Chazelle does a great job with his endings. Though some may find issues with this, Chazelle believes in ending early. It doesn’t necessarily mean to craft an interpretative ending but instead walking away right before the audience expects it. Whether it's the final performance in Whiplash, Seb and Mia’s silent exchange of smiles at the end of La La Land, or Michelle heading for Houston in 10 Cloverfield Lane, it all ends slightly early.
Make the Film Personal
Going back to Whiplash, the film was so successful because Chazelle took bits of his real life in the film. Chazelle was in a jazz band in school that was highly competitive, causing him to feel anxious and depressed for years because of his experience.
Terence Fletcher is loosely based on his old conductor (though Chazelle had JK Simmons push the character much farther than in real life). Nevertheless, the ability to take pieces from your life will elevate your writing, and the audience will recognize it. Whiplash is a better film because a person with jazz band experience created it.
My Favorite Chazelle Scripts
Whiplash - A promising young drummer enrolls at a cut-throat music conservatory where his dreams of greatness are mentored by an instructor who will stop at nothing to realize a student's potential.
10 Cloverfield Lane - A young woman is held in an underground bunker by a man who insists that a hostile event has left the surface of the Earth uninhabitable.
La La Land - While navigating their careers in Los Angeles, a pianist and an actress fall in love while attempting to reconcile their aspirations for the future.