Damien Chazelle 'Learned A Ton' About Directing By Visiting Grand Piano's Set [Exclusive]

So many filmmakers have found their way into the industry through genre movies. Horror has long been the genre where you can always cobble together a bit of money together and make something people will watch, because there is a dedicated, loyal audience willing to shell out for just about anything, regardless of quality. The financial risk of a film becomes much lower if you've got some prurient thrills that genre fans can't help but ignore. Some filmmakers are thrilled to operate within that realm, delivering exactly what the audience wants, but some see it as a means to an end, as a way to get their foot in the door to make the things they actually have a passion for.

Looking at the directorial work of Academy Award winner Damien Chazelle, it's clear that horror isn't exactly what gets him going creatively. He loves to make movies about people obsessed with their jobs, particularly artists, who find themselves struggling to connect with the people in their lives because of that obsession. While obsession is certainly a core theme of many horror movies, Chazelle favors the more dramatic, self-destructive elements of it than how it can be weaponized for terror against another individual.

Unexpectedly, Chazelle is one of these people who found their way into the industry through genre films, though not as a director. After making his debut feature "Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench," he found himself writing horror movies as a way to pay the bills, such as the Elijah Wood-starring "Grand Piano." Though he was just the screenwriter, "Grand Piano" ended up being one of the more valuable experiences that prepared him to direct his first feature, "Whiplash," as he used a brief set visit as a learn-by-experience film school.

The rarity of screenwriters on set

There's very little respect for screenwriters in the industry. Productions cycle through writers like mad, often not giving them credit for their contributions. For a screenwriter to actually be invited to come to set to observe production is far rarer than you'd imagine, as they might have pesky "ideas" about how things should be done. As it happens, Damien Chazelle was invited for a few days to the set of "Grand Piano," and as he told /Film's own Ben Pearson, those few days were invaluable in learning more about the directing process, particularly for a film heavily reliant on music:

"The one time I got to go on set for a script that I'd written was 'Grand Piano.' I went to Spain for a couple days while they were shooting that. Eugenio Mira was the director on it. And I've got to say, I learned a ton. I stole a bunch of tricks from him on just — it was great training for me, actually, before shooting 'Whiplash' or even 'La La Land' because it was all set to music. The music had been pre-composed. Camera moves were timed to the music, and it was a mix of live music and playback. That whole thing. I feel like I just sat there, not even knowing necessarily how I would use what I was learning, but just soaking it up."

So much of "Grand Piano" is Elijah Wood playing the piano, and finding ways to make the consistently visually dynamic is enormously challenging. Chazelle got to see Eugenio Mira, who still hasn't been able to make a follow-up feature, use trial and error before he had to do the same thing — but with drums — for "Whiplash." It's nice when someone is open to learning.