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Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, a swooning, romantic tribute to MGM movies flecked with the grit of the everyday. It's an impressive debut from 24-year-old director Damien Chazelle, who started Guy as his thesis project at Harvard (and, according to Chazelle, received an "incomplete"). Tribeca got the 24-year-old on the phone from L.A. to talk about making a 16-mm black-and-white feature that evokes the rhythms and improvisation of jazz, whether Boston can be romantic, and Boston cops.
What makes your film a Tribeca must-see?
With doing the film, I was interested in trying to take a very artificial, familiar Hollywood genre and trying to trace the passage between real life and that kind of genre. I think what makes the movie unique is this kind of sensibility, the two mutually exclusive, at least not in certain ways. On a less kind of formal level, it’s a nice glimpse into a world that I'm at least very passionate about, especially in Boston. People don’t know much about the small, not very commercially viable, jazz scene. These people band together in these clubs that are becoming more and more scarce in the city. It’s a glimpse into a different world. I feel very strongly about Boston as a city and I wanted to show it in a light that I haven’t seen so much before. And there’s also not a sense of the city as a sort of romantic city on par with New York or Paris but I wanted to show that in my film.
What's the craziest thing that happened while making the film?
Part of the overriding problem of the film was pulling off these musical dance numbers with no resources. We were doing one of these on these train tracks with no location. Once we spent these hours getting these sort of perfect musical numbers, the police came by. It was a quadrant, more cop cars than I've ever seen in my life, trying to steamroll towards us. Then me, in my absolute delirium, was thinking I have to protect the negative at all costs and I took the camera and started running away from the scene, and that didn’t look good to them. The irony to that? The scene didn’t even end up on the screen. We shoot a ton of footage that didn’t make it in the film but make good stories.
What are your hopes/fears/wishes regarding Tribeca?
This is my first feature, and I've never been to a festival with a movie of my own. I don’t really know what to expect and I'm trying to kind of go along for the ride. I hope people see the movie and like it.
If you could have dinner with any filmmaker (alive or dead), who would it be?
It's basically sort of a tie between [Charlie] Chaplin or [Jean-Luc] Godard. Other than personal preference, they represent the apogees of two different types of approaches to filmmaking. Chaplin is this pure sense of filmmaking and storytelling and Godard is the apogee of this throw-everything-to-the-wind-and-see-what-sticks approach. It would be good to get them sitting across the table talking to each other.
What piece of art do you recommend to your friends?
Above all, this version of the song "Delilah" that Clifford Brown and Max Roach did in their famous album together. In particular, Max’s solo and Clifford’s solo on drums got me crazy about jazz and still remains one of the seminal terms of art for me when I think about that. When I first discovered that record, my mouth watering over the drum solo and wondering how the hell he did it. It’s very quiet, deliciate, and beautifully phrased, and it got me psyched about playing.
Can you talk a little bit about casting Jason Palmer and Desiree Garcia as Guy and Madeline? They've never acted before, right?
Desiree, who plays Madeline, could sing and dance but she had never really done any kind of performing. She was getting her PhD at Boston University so that was her focus. It was in '30s musicals, so we bonded over that. She’s now an assistant professor at a university in Pennsylvania.
Originally, more as a reflection of what I knew, the script had been written with a drummer at the center of it. I was scouring the city for drummers, and I had heard of this one guy who was playing at Wally’s Café. The leader of the band that he was playing in was Jason Palmer. When I saw Jason, it was pretty instantaneous, just seeing him. This way he had, without even moving a muscle, he was quietly and serenely taking over the room. He wasn’t doing anything active, it was just his presence. I kind of knew I wanted him in the film, knowing that was going to change the tone of the film.
I went up to him right after the show. I was afraid I was going to come across as another fan, and I told him I was doing this movie, a jazz musical kind of thing and if he was interested, I'd love to talk to him about it. He was still in his own world, I think, and he kind of nodded and thought about it. I wasn’t sure I'd hear from him again and he called. A lot of people in the film are his friends or family members and he’s deeply connected to that Boston jazz world. He brought his whole world along with him, as well, to flesh out the film.