When he was in his mid-20s, Damien Chazelle wrote a screenplay about a jazz drummer. The main source of inspiration was his own self, a couple of years younger, as a jazz musician in a high school band, bullied by an overly-strict teacher. In what was almost an autobiographical piece, the young writer attempted to present music in a different light – its dark side, so to speak. Still, his very personal ties to the project’s substance, combined with a less than thrilling log line (‘A film about a jazz musician’) got him determined to shelve the project, instead focusing on writing scripts that he didn’t like at all (The Last Exorcism Part II) simply for making a living. Despite the fact that Whiplash was featured in the annual top of unproduced screenplays by Black List in 2012, the project was not getting any closer to making progress.
Then, in 2013, aged 28, Chazelle managed to get a few people interested in his project, and received an offer. Make a short which captures the essence of the feature idea, and it might get some funding. This is a widely employed technique by filmmakers who find themselves in possession of an idea, but not that much experience or funds at their disposal: making a short, through which they can showcase their talent, the potential to expand upon the initial idea and offer a sample of something that could either be of a very high quality or translate into something commercially appealing.
His short was received with considerable acclaim – winning the short film jury award at Sundance Festival. It got its funding (a total of 3.3 million USD, which is still minuscule when compared to industry standards), and Chazelle’s second feature film as a director won 3 Oscars, and now sits on the #45 spot in IMDb’s Best Films of All Time top. The newfound fame and success allowed Chazelle to subsequently tap into a much wider pool of talent and financial resources in order to film another project which had been on his mind for a while – La La Land. The latter won 6 Academy Awards, plus an additional one for Best Picture, which unfortunately lasted only for a minute or so. Even so, what the now 32-year old writer/director has achieved in such a short time, all stemming from one inspired short, is nothing short of phenomenal.
What are the most important takeaway points from this story, then? Well, for one, writing something that comes close to heart will always be infinitely more satisfying and rewarding than doing the same thing only with financial gain in mind. Two, the way up can seem very steep, but it can also lead to previously unimaginable heights within the shortest time intervals. Three, never shelve projects indefinitely – give it a try and a few pushes, at least. Four, not everything that is good or even excellent will always get produced – there’s always some degree of luck or things simply clicking together involved. I was looking at the other projects which sat beside Whiplash in the Black List 2012 listing, and I don’t exactly recognise many of them, if any.
This doesn’t mean you should give up before you start, though. It means the opposite: take that idea you’ve always had, refine it, turn it into a script, shoot a short when you thing you’ve got all the necessary conditions to achieve something that you’d be proud of, and then put it out there. Fast-forward a few years, and you might find yourself writing something completely different. Such as an Academy Award acceptance speech.