In its own understated way, Harvard has become one of the top film schools in the country. In recent years it has gotten more than its share of Oscar recognition.
In 2012, three alumni of the Harvard film program in the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies received best documentary feature nominations: Joshua Oppenheimer for “The Act of Killing,” Richard Rowley for “Dirty Wars,” and Jehane Noujaim for “The Square.” This year, another alumnus, Damien Chazelle, was early on pegged as the frontrunner for the biggest prize of all: his film, “La La Land,” led nine nominees for best picture. All in all, “La La Land” rolled into Sunday’s Oscar night with 14 nods, including director, tying “All About Eve” (1950) and “Titanic” (1997) for most nominations ever. At press time it had won five awards, for director, cinematography, production design, score, and original song.
What’s so special about the Harvard curriculum that accounts for such success? And what is it about Chazelle that accounts for him achieving that success with just his third feature film? Two of his former Harvard professors — Alfred Guzzetti and Robb Moss — weighed in by phone as the Oscar broadcast approached.
Guzzetti taught Chazelle in a freshman seminar about nonfiction film, a one-year basic course in 16mm filmmaking, and an experimental video course. He remembers him well. Did he see signs of future Oscar greatness?
“No, it’s impossible to see something like that so early,” said Guzzetti with a laugh. “But I remember him vividly. I gave students papers to write every couple of weeks. His jumped out at me. He was a really nuanced and sophisticated and articulate writer. And that’s not true of all Harvard students.”
Chazelle also insisted on taking on the most challenging film projects.
“In the yearlong basic course the class makes a film together,” he recalled. “They made a film about a high school empowerment group for Hispanic kids in Jamaica Plain. Only a few of the Harvard students [Chazelle not among them] spoke Spanish. I told them that it was a big obstacle, but he was all for it. They took it on deliberately because it was hard.”
Moss taught Chazelle in his freshman video class. He also was his thesis adviser for the film that became “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench” (2009) which, like “La La Land,” is a feature-length musical in an urban setting. “Guy and Madeline” was filmed in the Boston area.
“It had this beautiful synthesis of all of the things he loved,” said Moss. “It was so surprising. Such a wonderful juxtaposition of nonfictional, in a fictional form, and then adding another element, a musical.”
In making that first feature, Moss saw the kind of directorial and personal qualities that would enable Chazelle to make such brilliant follow-ups as his second film “Whiplash” (which won three Oscars and was a best picture nominee in 2015) and now “La La Land.”
“Damien is the kind of person who can put together a good team and lead a crew,” he said. “So much of ‘La La Land’ is corralling the people around him. People kind of rally to him because he’s a really lovely person.”
What do Guzzetti and Moss think Harvard contributed to Chazelle’s success?
“You can’t really teach someone to be an artist but you can avoid slowing them down,” said Guzzetti. “Find out what they’re after rather than imposing something else on them.”
Moss agreed that Chazelle was motivated from the start and just needed the opportunity to fulfill his talents. “When he was a freshman and had just come to college he was already in love with the movies,” he said.
And what has the recent spate of Harvard-grown Oscar nominees, including Chazelle, contributed to the school’s film program?
“It inspires and gives hope to the students and other alumni,” said Guzzetti. “They see that the same is possible for them.”
Win or lose, though, Moss does not see the Academy as the ultimate arbiter of greatness. Just look at the way best picture played out in 1981.
“Hollywood chose ‘Ordinary People’ and not ‘Raging Bull,’ ” he said.