Damien Chazelle’s Guide to Beginnings and Endings

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Damien Chazelle and the opening sequence of La La Land. Photo-Illustration: Getty Images, Lionsgate

The director Howard Hawks once said that a good movie has three great scenes and no bad ones. Damien Chazelle, who is Oscar-nominated for writing and directing La La Land, has adapted that old maxim to be a touch more specific. “You’ve got to have a good beginning,” he told Vulture recently, “a good ending, and no shitty scenes in between.”

That may seem like advice so obvious as to be useless until you realize just how few directors craft their beginnings and endings with as much impact as Chazelle. Over the course of only three movies — a brief but potent career that encompasses Chazelle’s indie debut Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench as well as the more widely seen Whiplash and La La Land — the 32-year-old has shown a knack for grabbing audiences from the first frame and then sending them out on an emotional high. Think of that big freeway number that opens La La Land, for example, or the tour-de-force drum solo that closes Whiplash.

“The beginning is when the audience is most susceptible, the most vulnerable, the most fertile,” Chazelle said. “How much do you maximize that moment? And then the other most important moment is when the lights come back on and people exit the theater, because that last scene is going to roll through their heads right afterwards.”

Below, Chazelle shared some of the lessons he’s learned when it comes to creating his beginnings and endings. (So, yes, there will be some spoilers.)

1. Get to the good stuff.

“Right as the screen is going black, the audience doesn’t know what they’re about to see — it could be Citizen Kane,” said Chazelle. “In other words, it’s the only moment you ever have them where their minds are as open as they’re ever going to be and they are truly ready to think of your work on the highest possible terms. You want to try not to fumble that ball, to preserve that sense of them thinking this could be an amazing work of art for as long as possible.”

For La La Land’s first scene, then, Chazelle was inspired by the Hollywood musicals from the 1950s and ‘60s that opened with a major, scene-setting “wow” moment. “A lot of those movies begin with an entrée into the world, a big ensemble number, before you introduce your leads,” he said, citing West Side Story and Guys and Dolls as his two guiding lights. That’s why, even though La La Land is an intimate story with hardly any characters beyond the aspiring artists played by Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, Chazelle opens with a sequence where it seems like the entire city of Los Angeles is singing. “I want to make sure that right at the beginning,” he said, “there’s this immediate impact on the audience.”

It worked: The high-energy opening dance number, where dozens of drivers stuck in traffic leave their cars to twirl on a freeway overpass and perform the song “Another Day of Sun,” often prompts audiences to burst into applause within La La Land’s first five minutes. “If I’m going to do a big, color, CinemaScope musical, I want to begin it in the most epic way possible,” said Chazelle. “Let’s introduce the whole city, let’s introduce the whole world. Then we’ll zero in on our characters and begin the narrative.”

2. Treat the first scene like an overture.

Since all three of his movies contain major musical elements, it’s fitting that Chazelle tends to think of his first scene as an overture, letting it introduce the themes, emotions, and aesthetic motifs that will follow. The freeway dancers in La La Land’s opening don’t just articulate the artistic dream that drives our two leads: They’re also outfitted in the striking primary colors that we’ll see repeated over and over during the movie, embodying the film’s bold-and-bright ambitions. It’s no coincidence that the final freeway dancer we see is wearing a canary-yellow dress, the same shade of which Stone will later don for her most iconic garment.

Whiplash provides what could be the most instructive example of the first scene as overture. Much of the film’s first act is about anticipation: Can jazz student Andrew (Miles Teller) somehow work his way into the elite studio band led by Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the school’s infamously punishing conductor? In a more conventional version of this movie, Fletcher’s reputation would precede him over the length of several scenes and his introduction wouldn’t come until Andrew and his goal had been firmly established.

Chazelle doesn’t do it like that. Instead, he introduces both Andrew and Fletcher in the film’s very first minute, when Fletcher happens upon Andrew drumming his heart out in a small rehearsal studio and then exits with withering indifference. It’s a conflict that will play out again and again over the next two hours. “I was like, ‘How do I distill this movie down to a nutshell?’” recalled Chazelle. “It’s a relationship between a student and a teacher where the teacher has this terrifying, could-be-borderline-abusive edge but also this charisma to him, and the student wants to do anything he can to please the teacher. So how do we establish that as the basic premise right away, without wasting any time? After that, we can deviate from it, flesh out backstory for each of them, and bring them back together, because the opening will have bought us some runway.”

That’s a trick Chazelle learned from his pay-the-bill years as a writer-for-hire on thrillers like The Last Exorcism Part II and Grand Piano. “I had been trained to think purely about ‘Get them to turn the page, get them to turn the page, get them to turn the page,’” he said. “I knew it was an uphill battle to get anyone to turn any page on a jazz-drummer movie, so I wanted to immediately get beyond the jazz drumming at the beginning and establish the dramatic meat of this movie that’s universal, that could apply to anything. So it was a calculated decision I made very early on, from the very first draft of Whiplash.”

3. Find the most impactful footage to lead with.

Chazelle’s directorial debut, Guy and Madeline, begins with a sequence that’s practically a warm-up for the dream ballet that closes La La Land. Like that audacious ending, Guy and Madeline’s first scene is a wordless montage that elides a relationship in miniature, briefly hopscotching through the small intimacies and ongoing dissatisfactions of our titular couple until finally, in a surprising gesture that closes out both their relationship and the opening credits, Guy removes the pictures of Madeline from his apartment. And on that broken note, the movie begins.

Surprisingly, Chazelle didn’t come up with that beginning until he’d already shot the film. “Everything with Guy and Madeline was pretty stop-and-start because we shot it over the course of a year,” said Chazelle, who had intended the film to be his thesis project at Harvard, though he ultimately had to leave college just to finish it. “We had a few thousand bucks that would get us through a few months of shooting, then we’d run out and have to wait to start shooting again. Editing was sort of similar.”

Pouring over the film’s black-and-white, 16mm footage, Chazelle hit upon the idea of a first scene as overture for the first time, though this one was informed less by classic Hollywood musicals and more by the French New Wave. “I became really interested in how elliptical or ‘jazzy’ you can be, and how you can almost just jump over stuff,” said Chazelle. “If you look at sequences in Jules and Jim or Shoot the Piano Player, you really get the sense that the editor and filmmaker are almost in this wild chase, and there’s this crazy, caffeinated energy that comes from that I loved.” Convinced, he assembled the love montage, and it stuck. “Instead of just doing opening credits over a painted backdrop or something,” he said, “we could use the beginning as a narrative device on its own end to fast-forward through this relationship, circle back, and unpack what happened.”

Chazelle let the same open mind guide him when it came to La La Land’s freeway number, which initially stymied him in the editing room. In the film’s first cut — “and I honestly can’t remember why I thought this was a good idea,” Chazelle said with a laugh — the “Another Day of Sun” number was bookended by two scenes with our leads: “Ryan’s playing along to the music in his car, Emma’s reciting lines, and then we pan to the other cars and digress from that to begin the big traffic number. After that’s done, then we cut back to Ryan and Emma right as Ryan honks at her.”

Like Whiplash, that narrative gambit was meant to establish the two characters and their eventual story arcs right from the jump, but Chazelle realized very quickly in post-production that it was one beginning too many. For a couple months, he flirted with lopping off “Another Day of Sun” altogether to preserve the footage of his two leads, “then we realized that didn’t work either,” he said. Ultimately, the solution was a simple one, guided by Chazelle’s maxim to start things off on a big note: “We put the traffic number back in and did a little surgery to move Ryan and Emma’s first moment to after the number, instead of before.”

4. Push your climax to a place beyond words.

In Guy and Madeline’s last scene, the film’s estranged lovers run into each other mere hours before Madeline plans to move to New York on her own. Guy, a jazz trumpeter, convinces Madeline to listen to a trumpet solo he has written while she’s been gone. As she watches him play, we wonder if maybe she’ll stay and give him another chance.

Most of the film was improvised with non-actors, and when Chazelle shot that scene with Jason Palmer, who plays Guy, “I didn’t really give him script pages,” he said. “I just described what I wanted him to do and what the emotional significance of it should be. The one specific note I gave him was that at a certain point, he needed to inject something into that final solo that he had never done before. I needed him to risk going completely off the rails.”

In essence, that’s a risk Chazelle takes every time he ends a movie. At the end of Whiplash, betrayed by his former instructor Fletcher at a jazz-festival performance, our main character Andrew goes his own way with a minutes-long drum solo that’s a frenzy of ambition and talent. The finale of La La Land is every bit as striking: As Stone’s now-successful Mia stumbles upon the jazz club run by her old flame Sebastian (Gosling), she imagines the life they could have led if they’d stayed together, which Chazelle portrays in a tour-de-force number that sees our leads dancing through a dreamy montage of what could have been. (And just like in Guy and Madeline, time is set aside for a trumpet solo.)

Ending your movie without dialogue is exactly the sort of thing that makes investors nervous, but Chazelle was insistent on it. “For a long time, I’d been really into the idea of closing a movie with a stretch of pure cinema that’s just music and action,” he said. Chazelle’s inspiration came not from a musical but from Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans, “which I still feel has this closing finale sequence that’s just an all-timer: It’s a ten-minute stretch of all the various plot strands being solved without a single line of dialogue, purely with music and action on this hilltop with all the characters converging in different place. It felt like cinema returning to its silent roots — so incredibly, viscerally exciting. It also felt, intellectually, like what cinema can aspire to be when it’s lifted from the page.”

The notion stuck with Chazelle for years, and at one point, even his initial scriptment for Guy and Madeline ended with a dream ballet. “Obviously, there was no money to do that then,” he said, “so it quickly changed track, but since my college days, I’d been trying to figure out, ‘What is my version of ending a movie in that way?’ So by the time I was making La La Land, I was writing a version of something I’d been trying to do for a while.”

5. End early.

It’s a feat that though La La Land’s two lovers don’t end up together in the end, the finale still sends the audience out on such a high note. Chazelle attributes that mainly to one creative choice: After the dream ballet concludes, Stone and Gosling share one significant look, and then it’s “The End.”

“One thing I found I really loved in certain movie endings is when it ends a little bit before you think it’s going to end,” he said. “In other words, it doesn’t close in the traditional ‘let’s tie up all the loose ends’ kind of denouement, but instead tries to end with a major sequence that gets your emotions up, and then gets out.”

We don’t see what happens after Guy plays his trumpet solo in Guy and Madeline, or Andrew goes wild in Whiplash. In La La Land, after a sequence that provides the movie’s emotional peak, we get barely ten seconds with our leads before the movie concludes. And that’s just how Chazelle wants it.

“Normally, you’re supposed to settle back into your seats, but I’ve found that easing your way into the credits is the wrong approach,” he said. “It’s better to leave people in an almost unsettled state, though hopefully not an unsatisfied state. Leave them on the edge of their seats so that they have to hash out their feelings as the credits roll.” To Chazelle, the best example is what Richard Linklater managed with Before Sunset, the middle part of his Before Sunrise trilogy. After two hours of wondering whether the film’s central couple, Jesse and Celine, will rekindle their affair, the film ends before they even consummate their attraction, as Celine slyly references the film’s ticking clock and tells Jesse, “Baby, you are gonna miss that plane.”

“That’s an example of knowing just when to get out. I think it’s one of the greatest endings of all time,” said Chazelle, though he acknowledges that a refusal to neatly tie things up won’t work for everybody. “I should say that the ending of Guy and Madeline was not exactly most people’s cup of tea,” he laughed.” I’d be at audiences doing a Q&A and the audience would be fucking hissing! They’d be like, ‘What the fuck is this?’ And then I’d have to go face them and the first question would be, ‘Yeah, I had a problem with this movie.’”

Still, Chazelle was undeterred. “It reaffirmed what I always suspected, which is how important an ending is,” he said. “It’s only with Whiplash and La La Land that my endings could be considered crowd-pleasing, but the impulse is always the same: To try to leave you in a state where you’re energized, that leaves you awake to the possibilities of the movie.”

Damien Chazelle’s Guide to Beginnings and Endings