“Damien Chazelle’s Guide to Beginnings and Endings”

“You’ve got to have a good beginning, a good ending, and no shitty scenes in between.”

In a recent Vulture feature, Oscar-winning writer-director (Whiplash, La La Land) provides 5 tips on a script’s beginning and ending. Their importance?

“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.”

Here are the 5 tips:

1. Get to the good stuff.

2. Treat the first scene like an overture.

3. Find the most impactful footage to lead with.

4. Push your climax to a place beyond words.

5. End early.

A few excerpts. Re overtures:

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.

— —

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.”

Re ending 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.”

— —

“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.”

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Reminds me of Billy Wilder’s 10 tips for screenwriters, particularly these 2:

2. Grab ’em by the throat and never let ’em go.

10.The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then — that’s it. Don’t hang around.

A script’s beginning and end, hugely important, that’s for sure. For the rest of the Vulture article, go here.

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