We asked Damien Chazelle to choose a favorite shot from each of his movies, as well as one from any other movie. The director of Whiplash, La La Land, First Man and Babylon breaks down each shot for us and explains what makes each one so special to him.
“Miles playing the drums on the first day of shooting. Until that moment, he was very worried. I knew he was capable of playing that role perfectly, but I’m also a drummer, so I looked at his drumming skills, which weren’t the best at the beginning of the preparation, and I was willing to use doubles and all that. But in this first take, it’s important to establish that your actor is the drummer in the film from the very beginning. So that was part of the idea of it being wide and not cutting off, making it clear that we weren’t cheating.”
“There was a lot of pressure on him, and I remember we started shooting it, and he started playing drums, and it was brilliant, and completely convincing, again for me, a drummer. I knew it would convince others. I remember that it was a happy moment. She did exactly what was expected. He established that that was Miles playing the drums.”
La La Land (2016)
“There’s one shot that I particularly like and it doesn’t seem very complicated, but it’s Emma entering her apartment. Ryan is already playing the piano, she puts her coat down, Ryan starts singing City of Stars and Emma joins in. Initially, we were trying to plot it with, I think, a mini-crane on the inside. It had a bit more complexity and just didn’t feel spontaneous enough. It’s the camera technique I had designed that got in the way of this shot. What should be a simple, genuine, raw moment between them. They’re singing live and the piano is live, so it had to have a documentary element. And I was ruining it.
“So after a few takes, we realized we had to change things up and we ended up taking the crane out, putting it on still, I think we made the shot a lot simpler. And it turned into something beautiful. It became the actors, not the camera. And when you have actors on the level of Ryan and Emma, you can do it. You get something even more glorious out of it. And, to me, that’s one of the brightest moments of their performances in the film, because you really feel them as human beings through the song, and in all their fragility, and their edginess, and the breathy vocals, And the laughter between the lines, and that kind of thing where it feels like a real love that hasn’t been dressed up too much.”
First Man (2018)
“This is cheating, because the shot didn’t end up in the movie for reasons that will be very obvious, but it’s one of the most magical things I’ve ever been lucky enough to capture on film, even though it was a mistake and we couldn’t use it. We were filming the moon in a quarry outside of Atlanta at night, with a single big light in the distance illuminating it. So hard light, black sky, rock quarry with Nathan Crowley’s production team. They had built the lamp, the actors were coming down and we were shooting in IMAX, it was my first time shooting in IMAX so it was always an emotional moment.
“You’re on this amazing set, and all of a sudden, I start to notice something in the air and it’s snow. And you have this amazing perfectly backlit shot with the astronaut coming down the ladder, but there’s this eerie snowfall all around. It’s weird as a filmmaker, where you’re like, “Oh, we can’t use that. Cut. Everyone go home.” Because in fact, it ended up being the start of the biggest snow storm in Atlanta history, I’m told. So, our set had to shut down for a while. The lamp froze, and everything ceased to resemble the moon.
“But for that fleeting moment on screen, it’s just so poetic and beautiful and strange and mysterious and not right, and yet perfectly right. I wish I could use it. I’m going to have to find a way to use it somewhere.” It would have been a problem if we had used it in the movie, but maybe one day I’ll have the balls to use it. It’s the best I’ve shot and I can’t use it. This is life“.
“A complicated scene we designed for introduce the public to the world of this party. It was too small a space, this tight space that we shot in the lobby of the Ace Theater, this amazing building from the 1920s in downtown Los Angeles. Normally this shot would be done with a crane, but we didn’t have the space to have a crane in this room, so we had to do it with a thing called a spider camera. Essentially, you have a cable running through the set from point A to point B. The camera slides along that cable, and then there’s actually a second cable that allows it to slide down.
“Then we did a stitch so that the camera could blend seamlessly with a still camera shot that takes you through. But even the spider camera part, I think it took me a day, was tricky because I wanted the camera to be moved through the crowd as they danced, but it was fast. So, If you’re not careful, you can seriously injure someone. with this great 35mm camera body.
“So you have to choreograph it and rehearse it first at low speed, then start to speed it up little by little, and finally put it at full speed and make sure that all the elements, the foreground and the background, are well synchronized. There’s stunts, people falling off balconies, simulated sex, music, dancing and extras running around, trying to fill the frame and give it density. It was one of those shots where you bang your head against the wall for a long time. because it seems that it will never work out. And finally I got it. And it felt good to get it.”
From any other movie… The Godfather (1972)
“I would say that the shot in which Al Pacino sits in an armchair at the beginning of The Godfather, when we see before our eyes Michael Corleone go from being a sweet college student to the potential murderer he is becoming. It is then that he gets the idea to meet Sollozzo at the restaurant and kill him and McCluskey. It’s such a subtle camera movement and yet, at the end of the shot, you almost don’t realize what’s happened. You’re like, “Oh shit. Now we’re close to him. We were too far away.” He was one of several people hanging out in this office, and now it’s just him.
“It’s the moment he becomes the lead in the movie and it’s brilliant. How cool that a camera movement reflects a narrative change in which we thought we were going to see a movie starring Marlon Brando in which the Godfather was the protagonist. And right at that moment, you realize, “Oh, no. Al Pacino is the lead. It’s the Michael Corleone story.” And that’s genius.”
Here you can read our review of Babylon, Damien Chazelle’s latest film that has just been released in theaters.