Damien Chazelle and Barry Jenkins on That Oscars Shocker: The Morning-After Interview

damien chazelle barry jenkins variety oscar
Gavin Bond for Variety

When Barry Jenkins returned to his hotel suite at the Four Seasons Monday at 3 a.m. after a surreal night at the Oscars, he slept for a couple of hours, then watched a clip of the show’s ending on his cell phone, finding something oddly enchanting about those final shocking moments that unfolded on live TV Sunday night.

“It’s messy, but it’s kind of gorgeous,” says the writer/director of “Moonlight,” describing the instant that he, the audience at the Dolby Theatre, and 33 million viewers were stunned to learn that his movie, not Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land,” had actually won the best picture prize. “You have these two groups of people who came together for a second. There’s a picture with me hugging Jordan [Horowitz, a producer of “La La Land”], and Adele [Romanski, producer of “Moonlight”] has her arm on his shoulder. That’s what the moment was.”

Gavin Bond for Variety

In an odd way, the most embarrassing snafu in the history of the Academy Awards offered a rare glimpse into expressions of grace, humanity, and camaraderie among fierce rivals contending for Hollywood’s biggest movie prize in a high-stakes race to the finish.

“That’s something Barry and I have talked about,” Chazelle says. “It’s weird to be friendly with someone but to feel like there’s a mano-a-mano thing, which I guess is the nature of the Oscars. So it was nice to explode that myth a little bit on a big stage.”

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damien chazelle barry jenkins variety oscar cover story

Why Damien Chazelle and Barry Jenkins Are Sharing the Variety Cover

It’s nearly impossible to deny that what happened on that stage was a direct reflection of the times and a declaration of solidarity amid the mood of a divided nation. Last November’s election altered the climate and made themes of diversity, inclusion, and empathy more powerful than ever in entertainment offerings.

While “La La Land” — an old-fashioned musical starring two sexy young stars and set in Hollywood’s backyard — was indisputably the frontrunner going into the awards season, as the campaigning continued there was a palpable shift in sentiment toward “Moonlight” and the resonance of its themes of acceptance and tolerance in the sensitive story about a young man coming to terms with his homosexuality.

Gavin Bond for Variety

In a joint interview, exclusive to Variety the morning after the Oscar ceremony, Chazelle and Jenkins — both emotionally hungover from the stunning scenario that had unfolded hours earlier — were finally able to compare notes on their respective experiences when chaos broke out on the Dolby stage.

“Everything looked so energized, I at first thought there was some kind of prank going on,” Chazelle says.

Jenkins, meanwhile, was in his seat, poised to give an acceptance speech just in case his film won.

“I had something that I had prepared to say, and that thing went completely out the window,” he recalls. “I’ve been saying that [co-writer] Tarell [Alvin McCraney] and I are that kid in the film, and that kid does not grow up to make a piece of art that gets eight Academy Award nominations. It’s a dream I never allowed myself to have. When we were sitting there, and that dream of winning didn’t come true, I took it off the table. But then I had to very quickly get back into that place. And my first thought was to get to the stage to give Jordan a hug as quickly as possible.”

In terms of their respective talents, ages, and professional experience, Jenkins and Chazelle are at similar junctures. Jenkins, 37, has directed two movies, and “La La Land” is the third feature for 32-year-old Chazelle.

The separate awards paths for “La La Land” and “Moonlight” began nearly six months ago, when the two films world-premiered just two days apart. Chazelle’s movie opened the Venice Film Festival on Aug. 31, while Jenkins bowed his sophomore effort Sept. 2 in Telluride.

After Chazelle made the trip from Venice to Telluride to screen his film at the Colorado festival, the two directors met for the first time and saw each other’s movies. At a filmmakers’ event, Jenkins caught Chazelle by surprise by leading with a question about Chazelle’s film school debut, “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench.”

“He immediately accessed my heart,” recalls Chazelle.

Jenkins saw “La La Land” at a screening later at Telluride and immediately felt a touch of homesickness when he saw his downtown Los Angeles apartment building featured in the film’s opening sequence.

“I hadn’t been to L.A. in, like, two months at that point. I had been traveling overseas,” he says. “It made me feel nostalgic for L.A., which I have never felt.”

Chazelle, meanwhile, was floored by “Moonlight,” just like the rest of the festival audience. “You could feel it,” says Chazelle. “It was so beautiful.”

Gavin Bond for Variety

Chazelle was already a fan of Jenkins’ debut, “Medicine for Melancholy,” and he knew a bit of the “Moonlight” backstory, having talked with Jeremy Kleiner about the project just before the producer hopped on a plane to Miami ahead of production.

“I was like, ‘Good luck with that. Sounds awesome,’” Chazelle recalls.

Chazelle already had awards-season training, after his 2014 film “Whiplash” unspooled at the Sundance Film Festival and plowed all the way through to the Oscars more than a year later. But the experiences of his two films could not have been more different.

“‘Whiplash’ was so kind of rushed out, in a way that I liked,” he says. “The editing was done very quickly, and then, boom, we were at Sundance. So I didn’t have as much time to have panic attacks; I was too busy to be scared.”

“La La Land” producer Fred Berger hands the best picture Oscar to “Moonlight” producer Adele Romanski.
AMPAS

With “La La Land,” on the other hand, “there was six years of trying to get it made. We edited it for about a year, which was much longer than I was used to. During that time you can second guess yourself a lot and try different iterations, and you become very obsessed with what’s not working and trying to solve it. That, coupled with opening night at Venice, it just felt like the spotlight was burning on us. It felt like higher stakes.”

With “Moonlight,” Jenkins was on home turf in Telluride, where he has served as a programmer for years. The film was, in fact, born there after a screening of “12 Years a Slave” in 2013, when Jenkins struck up talks about the project with Plan B producers Kleiner and Dede Gardner. They would go on to produce “Moonlight” at a micro-budget of $1.5 million — not something they’re accustomed to.

At one of the Telluride screenings of “Moonlight,” patrons in line for the next show outside burst into applause when Jenkins and his team exited the theater.

“I have to honestly say — and this is not just me trying to be modest — but I have never seen that happen at that festival, ever,” he says. “That was the moment when I realized, ‘Wow, something different is happening,’ by which I mean something different than my expectations. I thought the film would be relatively well-received there, but I’m inside the movie, and I had no context to what it would mean to people outside. So when we came out, yeah, it was amazing.”

Oscar winners Damien Chazelle and Barry Jenkins embrace the morning after a historic and emotional Oscar night Gavin Bond for Variety

While Chazelle and Jenkins together share in a piece of bizarre Oscar lore, they also separately made history on that fateful night at the 89th Academy Awards.

Chazelle became the youngest director winner ever, toppling “Skippy” helmer Norman Taurog’s 86-year reign. “Moonlight,” meanwhile, became the first LGBTQ film, as well as the first from a black writer/director, to win best picture.

“I will be glad when all these firsts and thirds and fifths are a thing of the past,” Jenkins says. “So it’s bittersweet. But it’s not something you set out to do. I don’t think Damien set out to be the youngest winning director. You kind of just create the work. These things just happen, until they don’t.”

Chazelle, on the other hand, has achieved so much success so early in his career that it’s hard for him not to feel added pressure going forward. He takes a moment to pose a question to Jenkins about such heady thoughts. “Do you ever think about stuff like that?” he asks.

“I’ve never been in this position, so I don’t,” Jenkins admits. “But, I mean, maybe now I’ll have to. I can’t deny that that’s something for both of us. You make a movie that grosses $300 million on a $30 million budget, that changes things. You make a $1.5 million film that wins best picture, that changes things. I hope it doesn’t change the way I approach the work.”

Chazelle pauses to take that in. “Well, that’s the thing,” he says. “We hope it changes things for the better, in the sense that it gives us more freedom. But there’s always that fear that it changes things for the worse — that pressures or second-guessing creep in. Any student of film history can look at various examples of ‘too much, too soon.’ We’re cognizant of that. But so many of the filmmakers that inspired both Barry and I have never won an Oscar, or were never nominated. So you have to keep that in mind. This only means so much.”

Watch a behind-the-scenes video of Variety’s cover shoot with Damien Chazelle and Barry Jenkins.

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  1. dancarlin says:

    Nice article, but I think this sentence says the opposite of what’s intended: “It’s nearly impossible to deny that what happened on that stage wasn’t a direct reflection of the times…” Shouldn’t it be, “It’s nearly impossible to deny that what happened on that stage WAS a direct reflection of the times…”?

  2. Rudy Mario says:

    I have seen only LA La Land so will not compare. But these two guys have their heads firmly in place and hopefully will move on to bigger things. Both come across as gracious and classy. Goodluck for your future films.

  3. Midnight Cowboy says:

    Great article as usual Kris. I think that there is something that needs correction, though. Shouldn’t Midnight Cowboy be considered the first LBGTQ film ever to win Best Picture? I am not sure about this either, but if you are saying that Moonlight is simply the first BP winner from a black writer/director, well Steve McQueen did that with 12 Years A Slave.

    • Noted elsewhere here, McQueen wasn’t a credited writer on “12 Years a Slave.” I don’t consider “Midnight Cowboy” an LGBTQ film in quite the same way (vis a vis themes, etc.), but it’s fair to mention.

  4. How did such an awful film win the best picture? I barely made it through. Dialog is terrible and nothing really happens worthy of a feature film. It’s just a political thing to award the subject matter for the subject matter’s sake and not the actual movie as a whole?

    • Moonlight FTW!! says:

      You clearly have no idea what cinema and film are all about, this was by far the BEST film of 2016 with Hidden Figures a close second, I think the hype of a Hollywood type film like La La Land was overplayed by many, and I am so glad that the smoke and mirrors of Hollywood did not overshadow Jenkins’ Masterpiece!!!

  5. Bill B. says:

    I read some criticisms about this cover. I think it’s a great and appropriate cover considering what occurred.

  6. Tom says:

    “Most embarrassing snafu”. Don’t make us laugh any harder at you smellebrities. If you want embarrassing, look at what some of the stars call being dressed. It’s gotten so that the awards shows are like a Hey, hey, look at me, I’m over here half dressed, showcase.

  7. Richard says:

    This is wonderful

  8. Shiri says:

    Variety, just put the Moonlight team on the cover please. It’s not about LLL or Damien Chazelle.

    • Sometimes accidents have unexpected and beautiful outcomes and this is one for the history books! I love this cover of Variety, my favorite ever, full of hope and I can’t wait to see the next endeavors of these two young and very talented directors!

  9. alex says:

    I am troubled by this article and find its premise problematic. You frame Damian Chazelle as a white savior very blatantly. His producers were not doing Barry any favors by revealing the truth. It is selfish to highlight the silly mistake more than a deserving and historic win. If anything your “Awards Editor title” should focus on why Moonlight won and highlight its beauty. Your bias for La La Land shows, big time.

    • Jackson says:

      The Variety cover is reserved for the Best Director, so this piece lends on more to Damien Chazelle than it should to the Best Picture’s winner. Also, there was no bias, it just state their feelings and thoughts thereafter the mess that was the mistaken announcement. Keep throwing around this stupid term “white savior” and ruin its gravity for non-issues like this… embarrassing.

  10. Dex says:

    Great piece. Extremely well-written and nicely photographed.
    Barry and Damien–as well as the “La La” and “Moonlight” casts–exemplified a grace, class and dignity that’s sorely missing from today’s society.
    Looking forward to future projects from both of these exceptionally talented directors.

  11. Jennifer says:

    Damian Chazelle, you are no Barry Jenkins. Your movies are cliche’d and make a mockery of musicianship. Jenkins films are about the human condition. Yours are… I don’t know what. No real musician throws a $3,000.00 musical instrument across the room. Ever. For any reason. In fact, they are notoriously shy, and they do not remain on the teaching staff in the middle of what is clearly a manic episode. They have health insurance. They go on leave. Also, it would help if you cast leads that could sing and dance in a show that involves song and dance.

    • Midnight Cowboy says:

      wow are you kidding me? DId Damien turn you down in an audition? Did he run over your cat? This kind of personal investment is quite loonish. Get a grip.

      • Pianist says:

        As a musician, I can tell you that everything about your post is wrong. Musicians are human beings prone to a wide range of emotions. I’ve had friends throw mikes across the stage in anger, I myself had a piano teacher who was extremely similar to Simmons’ character. As for your La La Land criticism, that’s subjective, but I felt that Gosling’s very average singing and dancing highlighted how ordinary he is – barring his piano work. Give the music from the movie another go, it’s actually quite nice.

        I loved Moonlight so much, but there’s really no reason to bag on La La Land and Chazelle especially. Chazelle has an unbelievable understanding of how musicians behave. Sure, we aren’t politically relevant, and Moonlight is far more important in that context, but you can’t dismiss Chazelle for making the movies that he does.

    • Whiplash says:

      Whiplash is directly based on his experiences with his actual teacher and also the story of Bird, which is repeatedly called upon in the film?

    • Everett says:

      You seem to be very full of yourself. “La La Land” is one of the most beautifully crafted movies in years and I think Mr. Jenkins would agree.

    • Leelee says:

      Damn, bitter much? Damien is a former drummer. I think he knows more about the mind of a musician more than you.

  12. John G. says:

    I love what this article says about the new generation of American filmmakers. Damien Chazelle and Barry Jenkins were virtual nobodies in the industry just a matter of months ago, and are now at the center of Hollywood’s biggest story in years. We don’t produce many star actors anymore, but here we have two young talents, apparently gentlemen as well, as the cusp of exciting careers. We all wish them only the best for the future.

  13. Dean Treadway says:

    Of course, it’s NOT the first film from a black director to win Best Picture (that’s 12 Years a Slave’s Steve McQueen), but it is the first from a American black director to win.

    • Yeah I was going to say. Steve McQueen won for 12 Years a Slave so technically he is the first black writer/director to win because he directed and co-wrote the script just like Barry Jenkins did.

      • Mr. McQueen was not a credited writer on “12 Years a Slave.” A writer-director is a specific label and indeed, “Moonlight” is the first film from a black writer-director to win best picture.

    • Of course, the text says “writer/director.”

      • John says:

        I would just say “first African-American director” to avoid these semantics. That’s still a clear achievement, anyway.

      • Marty says:

        Yes, and both the writer (Ridley) and director (McQueen) of 12 Years a Slave were black. Dean is correct. Tapley, why are you always so butt-hurt when someone points to a mistake on any Variety article? It makes you look like a whiny boy who can’t accept anyone who will disagree with you, let alone point out a mistake.

  14. Alex Meyer says:

    They both walked away as Oscar winners, so good for them.

  15. lilcooze says:

    Damien and Barry are the kind of directors Hollywood wants to embrace and succeed. Let’s not pressure them and allow them to make the movies they want to. Both filmmaker’s have made deeply personal films and (I suspect) they will continue to. It’s fair to say that “personal films” are a genre onto themselves.

  16. Sonny Skyhawk says:

    Although I was leaning towards LION as Best Film, the way both films involved in the mix-up reacted, showed a humanness and grace along with class that has been missing in Hollywood for a long time. I am now hoping that the Academy steps up and produces a follow-up ceremony at its headquarters and completes the aura and celebration that the production was deprived of. It can be done, and the Academy has to now show its grace.

  17. Donna says:

    The errors made the event more real than plastic. Winners and losers came together for a moment in time.

  18. Frank O'File says:

    This kind of grace and humanity is inspiring. All’s well that ends well. Thanks.

  19. Lisa says:

    ‘…mano-mano thing’. That’s right, no female directors nominated this year and nobody’s said a word. I’m glad for the minorities, however, it’s coming to the point where women are being left behind. Men still say things about women that would never be tolerated by minorities. It would be called a hate crime for minorities, but for women it’s just locker room talk.

    • Midnight Cowboy says:

      Should we come up with a new hashtag then? #Oscarssomanly or #oscarsaboysgame ? I really think that we should just try to focus on pushing for people get recognized on the strength of their work (and more often than not, the money and resources spent on the marketing campaign for awards season) instead of the skin color, gender, faith or political affiliation.

      • Midnight Cowboy says:

        PS: “mano-a-mano” thing is a reference to a spanish saying “mano a mano” i.e. “hand to hand”… it has nothing to do with a “male vs male”… you blew it out of proportion just make a comment on gender inequality.

    • Pedro L says:

      as others said… mano-mano means literally hand-hand. “mano a mano” is how you said in spanish something like “face to face”.

    • Cass says:

      I love these sort of white feminist outbursts, as if minority women don’t exist and aren’t also excluded.

    • krumhorn says:

      So tiresome, this spring-loaded to the aggrieved position.

      – Krumhorn

      • Danielle Johnson says:

        Woman are considered minorities. Did you see Hidden Figures? It was well written, it wasn’t just about the triumph of a black woman, but how women were viewed in general in the 60’s. Corporate minority promotions are not just to the advantage of a person of color. For example, the one female VP or board member is sometimes a minority promotion, and as you know they are often TWICE as good as their counterparts. Same thing for a lot of “black hires” or black publicity, the talent and skill is there.

    • EJ says:

      Mano-mano means hand-to-hand not man-to-man. Before you base your whole argument off of something make sure you know what it means.

    • Just wondering… Was there any female director better than the five guys nominated? I really don’t care who gets nominated as long as it is for their work and not because of their gender or race.

      • Oster says:

        Yep: Andrea Arnold (“American Honey”), Maren Ade (“Toni Erdmann”).

      • Annoyed says:

        The issue is that women are not being given the opportunities to direct better films. For instance, why did Hidden Figures have to be directed by a white man? It’s not because of experience, Melfi had only directed one film prior to Hidden Figures. Why couldn’t that opportunity to tell a story about black women be given to a black woman?

      • LQ says:

        Not this year.But Ava duVernay was a BIG omission a couple of years ago.

  20. LQ says:

    Love this interview.The way these guys dealt with what happened has been so impressive.Class acts.

    • @LQ; “Not this year.But Ava duVernay was a BIG omission a couple of years ago.”

      Was she better than the five nominated directors?

      • jrose says:

        DuVernay’s work on Selma was certainly stronger on all fronts than Morten Tyldum’s on The Imitation Game. She should have been nominated instead of him. But Paramount didn’t promote Selma hard enough during Oscar season – not for DuVernay’s direction and not for David Oyelowo’s great performance.

  21. THIS IS AWESOME! My two favorite movies of the year! Thank you, Kristopher, for writing this amazing article!

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