What You Should Know About Damien Chazelle’s Little-Seen First Film, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench

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Photo: Variance Films

Director Damien Chazelle burst onto the scene at the tender young age of 29, when Whiplash, a jazz film shot like a war movie — or a war movie set in a jazz school — won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, then rode that wave all the way to three Oscars, including a nomination for Best Picture. Now, at 31, he’s the youngest Best Director winner in the history of the Golden Globes and poised to potentially accomplish that same feat at the Oscars, although by then he’ll have reached the Methuselah-esqe age of 32.

Considering Chazelle’s age, it seems as though his two accomplished pictures should be enough. But in fact, Whiplash wasn’t Chazelle’s first feature-length film. In 2009, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, a movie that he shot mostly while he was an undergraduate at Harvard, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, marking the then-24-year-old filmmaker’s debut. “Guy and Madeline is the work of an artist — Damien Chazelle — you want to know better,” Wesley Morris wrote in 2010, but he couldn’t have imagined that we’d get to know him this well, this quickly.

Here’s what you should know about Guy and Madeline, which is available for rental on iTunes.

It’s about a couple … sort of.
The two protagonists are Guy, a jazz trumpeter, and Madeline, a grad student, both of whom live in Boston. But their relationship essentially begins and ends in the first few minutes of the film, with no dialogue and scarcely any explanation. That brief scene also comprises most of the movie’s plot: The rest follows Guy as he dates another woman, plays music, and wonders if he should get back together with Madeline; and Madeline as she gets a job, considers moving to New York, and meets an older man. Many of Chazelle’s cinematic interests pop up here: As in Whiplash and La La Land, Guy struggles to balance his romantic relationships with his musical career, and he attempts to reconcile the way that his beloved jazz clashes and contradicts with the modern world. The ambiguity around Guy and Madeline’s relationship, as well as the montage that covers its course, will later be echoed in the “City of Stars” scene in La La Land and the movie’s climactic sequence of Mia and Sebastian’s alternate-reality romance.

It’s also a musical — but a very different one than La La Land.
While Chazelle told me in 2014 that his influences for Guy and Madeline included MGM musicals, Guy and Madeline’s aesthetic, tone, and scale is far from the “CinemaScope anamorphic 1950s–1960s” of La La Land, and has even less in common with the New Hollywood hyperstylization of Whiplash. Guy and Madeline is more a melange, the kind of grab-everything effort that comes from ace students who have influences spilling out their ears: Chazelle has referenced everything from experimental musical shorts from the ‘20s and ‘30s to Chantal Akerman and Jacques Rivette. But it does have a few more heavily choreographed scenes that presage La La Land, including a song-and-dance number in a restaurant, though the low fidelity of the film prevents the kind of Jacques Tati–style richness that Chazelle would go for later on in his career.

The influences are more varied than just musicals.
If I had to give an elevator pitch for Guy and Madeline, I’d describe it as the visual look of John Cassavetes circa Faces applied to the world of John Cassavetes circa Shadows, with the same approach to character and dialogue as the mumblecore leaders Joe Swanberg and Andrew Bujalski. The French New Wave is an obvious influence, if only formally; Guy and Madeline lacks the vivacious energy and obsession with genre of Jean-Luc Godard or François Truffaut, as well as the social commentary. If you’ve quit on Breathless because you think nothing happens, well, first of all, finish watching Breathless, but second, really nothing happens in Guy and Madeline — it makes Breathless or Shoot the Piano Player look like The Avengers.

The music is also by Justin Hurwitz.
The man who would become Chazelle’s primary collaborator to date is already present here, composing the film’s soundtrack for the Bratislava Symphony Orchestra. Guy and Madeline mixes live performances featuring trumpet, drums, tap-dancing, and more with scenes in which the actors start singing over a soundtrack, isolated from the rest of the world. It’s meant to feel naturalistic, and in that way it differs greatly from the fantasias of La La Land. But while Hurwitz worked on the film, Chazelle’s other main man, editor Tom Cross — who won an Oscar for his work on Whiplash, and is favored to repeat with La La Land — is absent, with Chazelle co-editing with W.A.W. Parker. (Chazelle also shot the movie himself.)

It features non-actors and was shot on a shoestring budget.
Guy and Madeline cost $60,000, most of which Chazelle says was spent on the 16mm film he shot it on; he made the movie without permits and used non-actors for the lead roles. Jason Palmer, who plays Guy, was a promising young trumpet player whom Chazelle saw in a jazz club; Desiree Garcia, who plays Madeline, is now, I think, a professor of film at Arizona State University. During the filmmaking process, which took two years, Chazelle was constantly running out of money, necessitating a nonstop fundraising process from friends, family, and himself, and Chazelle told me that 50 rolls of film were sitting in a Harvard basement waiting for the money that could be used to edit them.

Its cast is highly diverse.
La La Land has taken some heat for featuring two white leads in a movie about a black art form, jazz; the fact that one of them fancies himself a savior of said art form doesn’t help. In that way, Guy and Madeline is a very different story: the three actors with the most screen time are black, Latino, and Asian. But where race forms the backbone of Cassavetes’s jazz-scene movie Shadows, which was a massively groundbreaking piece of narrative art in 1959, the multiculturalism of Guy and Madeline is accepted as a matter of course — it may be evocative of Shadows, but it’s a film of a far different era (and sensibility).

Chazelle appears in a brief onscreen role.
As far as I know, your only available glimpse of Damien Chazelle, actor, comes in Guy and Madeline, where he teaches Madeline to play the drums. Make of that what you will.

On Damien Chazelle’s Little-Seen First Film