Student Work Featured at NYC Tribeca Film Festival

It’s the senior thesis that people will actually see, even if for the first time at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench,” written and directed by Damien S. Chazelle ’07-’08, is his first feature-length film. Chazelle originally conceived the movie on a considerably smaller scale but expanded the project after receiving an Artist Development Fellowship (ADF) in 2007.

“Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench” was primarily shot and produced in the Boston area. With a conventional script, the black-and-white movie pays homage to the timeless formula of an old Hollywood musical and romance set against a backdrop of a roaring jazz scene. Yet Chazelle reinterprets the genre by filming the movie with an unorthodox, and often labor-intensive, technique.

“I tried to approach the genre of the musical in a documentary way by using the lives of people as the framework of the film,” Chazelle says. “This involved following the actors in real life and a lot of improvisation.”

Receiving the ADF gave Chazelle the opportunity to jumpstart his creative career in the professional industry. His film will be one of 14 entries competing in the Tribeca Film Festival’s Discovery section, a category that features the innovative works of up-and-coming filmmakers. “I feel great about the final product,” he says. “But it was essentially a lucky stroke that my film will be shown at the festival because it doesn’t have any big names or a large budget.”

“Without the fellowship, the film would never have gone off the ground at all,” Chazelle explains. “Basically, it was the launching pad for the project, and it gave me the chance to make the film I wanted to make.”

Initiated in conjunction with the Office for the Arts at Harvard (OFA) and the Office of Career Services (OCS), the ADF program recognizes students with extraordinary artistic promise and provides them with grants to help foster their development. The ADF, which is moderated by committee members of the Council on the Arts, is awarded to 12-15 students who represent a wide range of disciplines.

“We want the opportunity to be life-changing,” says Jack C. Megan, OFA Director and the chair of the Council on the Arts. “Ten years from now, we hope that some of these people will be accomplished artists and that they see this investment as the turning point.”

From Megan’s perspective, Chazelle’s accomplishments bode well for the relatively new ADF program, as his success legitimizes the effect the grants could have on the future of talented student artists.

“Is Damien’s project at the Tribeca Film Festival because of the fellowship? Not exactly,” Megan says. “But did we give him a boost? I think we did.”

Chazelle admits, however, that even with ADF funding, his limited resources presented one of the greatest obstacles to the production process. He and his team had to account for expenses, including the high costs of film stock.

“As a young filmmaker, you wind up learning how to be resourceful. We had to fundraise every step of the way and rely on the generosity of others,” he says. “But that process gave us the opportunity to step back and really think about what we were doing.”

Still, Chazelle is far from finished with the promotion of his first work. “My ambitions with this movie don’t end with the festival,” he says. “I still want to get the film out there and give it as much life as I can.”

In addition, Chazelle says, “Guy and Madeline” acts as the stepping-stone for future projects, whether they are low-budget or Hollywood production. “I’d like to ideally do both because I don’t really see them as being mutually exclusive,” Chazelle says. “My interests in movies are varied, so I just want to make as many good movies as I can.”

—Staff writer Eunice Y. Kim can be reached at kim30@fas.harvard.edu.