Damien Chazelle goes from ‘La La Land’ to oh là là land
LOS ANGELES—“That’s what I should have called it,” “La La Land” director Damien Chazelle replied with a laugh when we quipped that his new Paris-set TV series should have been titled “Oh Là Là Land.”
In his first time to direct a television show, “The Eddy,” Damien takes us to Paris, specifically in a small jazz club around which the story revolves. From the college music scene we experienced in “Whiplash” to the LA we saw in “La La Land” where an intimate jazz bar also figures, the filmmaker brings us inside a Parisian club.
The youngest Oscar winner for best director intoxicates when he shows the band he assembled for the Netflix series playing live. In each episode, Damien, who was an aspiring drummer, lets the excellent band perform a song or two in full. It’s during these jazz performances that the show cast a spell.
The main story involves Elliot Udo (André Holland), once a noted jazz pianist in New York who is now the coowner of a struggling club in Paris, The Eddy. He also oversees the house band, whose lead singer Maja (Joanna Kulig, a fine singer and actress) is his on-again, off-again lover.
When Elliot’s teen daughter Julie (Amandla Stenberg) suddenly arrives from the United States to live with him, his life is further complicated. Elliot’s business partner Farid (charismatic Tahar Rahim, who starred in “A Prophet”) may be involved in some questionable practices at The Eddy.
The other directors of the eight-episode series are Alan Poul, Houda Benyamina and Laïla Marrakchi.
Special kudos to six-time Grammy winner Glen Ballard, who wrote the songs and helped form The Eddy band composed of real-life musicians: Randy Kerber, Ludovic Louis, Lada Obradovic, Jowee Omicil and Damian Nueva Cortes.
Excerpts from our video interview with Damien, who is sitting out the pandemic in LA:
Can you talk about the genesis of the show?
I remember the idea was first pitched to me by Alan Poul and Glen Ballard in 2014, right when I finished “Whiplash.” I was trying to get “La La Land,” but I hadn’t made it yet.
All they had at that point was the idea of a jazz club and Paris because they knew I liked jazz and I had a French background. So I was into the idea right from that moment.
Fast-forward to five years basically and the time it took to get a writer aboard and partner with Netflix on it. And it wound up being a real treat, especially being able to shoot in Paris. So, being able to do that and in this musical context, that was really what pulled me in.
Are you trying to continue your musician dreams through your films and, now, this TV series?
That’s probably right (laughs). There’s something I like about not just filming jazz, but jazz as a subject matter, because it’s one of those art forms that today you aren’t really in it for the money or fame. It’s people who are working hard but just basically in it because it means something to them.
In your visual style for “The Eddy,” we can sense that you loved the French films of the ‘60s, with Paris, jazz and all that. Did you insist on that style with Netflix?
The hardest thing with Netflix was what we were going to shoot on. Actually, they were OK with handheld and that kind of style. But for my episodes, we shot on super 16 millimeter, so you get this soft kind of grainy texture that I love a lot. Because it reminds me of those early jazz and music documentaries. It’s basically the old language of documentary filmmaking.
I love that aesthetic, but Netflix prefers things clear and crisp. They like to have strict guidelines on what filmmakers can shoot. I had to fight a little bit on that one, but they ultimately let me do what I wanted to do.
Can you talk about the relationship between jazz and the story that is unfolding? Or, which came first, the setting or the story?
Right at the outset, when we decided what this show is about, the setting came before the characters. The idea was that the setting was going to stir an oasis for the characters, a sanctuary, like a refuge.
And going back to that idea I was saying of jazz musicians playing jazz because maybe they need it, here the idea was going to be that there had to be this sense of need. Because it’s a medicine, it’s a healing thing for them.
How challenging is it to shoot the live band music amid the story line?
It was both one of the most fun ad challenging aspects of shooting. One of the real challenges, since we knew we wanted to do live, was casting the band. It became this puzzle to solve because all these band members would have to act. Some of them would have to be in lead episodes, but they would also have to play live, take after take, on command—and it was really difficult.
The band itself is a mix of people like Joanna Kulig, professional actors who can play, and then mostly people who had never acted before. So, getting them comfortable with the camera and with basically being themselves and improvising or doing script on camera, it was a process.
What were your first live music experiences?
I remember at a certain point my dad really loved—he still loves music—so he would take me to concerts I wasn’t interested in or I wouldn’t really know what to make of the music. But I still have these memories, where it must have been operating subconsciously on me.
What started changing for me was when I started playing myself. I would start to go every week with some friends I played with to this jazz club called Smalls. It’s a laid-back little club in the (Greenwich) Village in New York. We would take the train from New Jersey, on a Friday night usually, catch whatever show and come back. It was very cheap.
I remember just images and sitting in there.
How different an experience was this for you?
The big difference was I never had the experience of working alongside other directors. But I wound up loving it. Houda Benyamina, the French director who did episodes 3 and 4, did a wonderful movie called “Divines” that won the Camera d’Or award. She became my guide to modern Paris because Paris has obviously changed since I was there.
How important is the connection between music and movies?
There is the personal connection, again, just from having played music. It just felt like a world I knew, especially jazz. That got me into doing things like “Whiplash” or this show. I just find myself continually surprised, moved, inspired by what the marriage of music and cinema can do.
With the pandemic going on, how do you feel when you watch the show and see Paris before the lockdown?
There’s certainly a kind of nostalgia that none of us thought would be there in that way in the footage. Obviously, a lot of the crew is French, as is a lot of the cast.
Alan Poul, who directed the last two episodes, was finishing the mix and final elements on those episodes in Paris when stuff started shutting down. I was back in LA at that point, so it does feel like the show was finished just as this whole calamity descended on us.
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