The first thing to realize is that Chazelle didn't come from nowhere, and his path to his current success is one you could chart for yourself.
The first thing Chazelle did to put him on this path was to make a movie. That's the first step. I often have the opportunity to get young students and aspiring filmmakers in front of more accomplished filmmakers, and we always ask what their advice is... it's ALWAYS "Make stuff." You are not a filmmaker unless you are making films, and no one is going to give you opportunities to make films unless you've taken that opportunity to do it on your own first.
Chazelle's first feature film was GUY AND MADELINE ON A PARK BENCH. It's a micro-budget film with non-professional actors improvising a lot of their dialogue. In the midst of these mumblecore principles are musical numbers, both polished jazz improvisations from the film's lead actor (trumpet player Jason Palmer playing Guy) and lo-fi full-on musical numbers. In many ways this film's feels like other low-budget filmmaking that was happening at the time: Adrew Bujalski's MUTUAL APPRECIATION had come out a few years earlier and had a similar musical vibe (albeit an indie rock vibe); Barry Jenkins's MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY had come out the year before... and (a shameless plug) Dave Boyle's SURROGATE VALENTINE hadn't yet come out, but it has a similar feel and should be watched.
But here's the thing... even though it's similar to a lot of films, it's also totally unique. Within the first few shots of GUY AND MADELINE I thought, "Oh, French New Wave." And it really feels like it... heavily. Especially Goddard. It also feels like documentary films of Bob Dylan and Miles Davis... and then it has these musical numbers. They feel strangely spontaneous and introspective. The first few songs, simply feel like people singing to themselves when they're alone - which is expressly different from typical musical theater. They're playful and sort of silly, and feel like they really shouldn't work... but they do. They're a strange afterthought, because the film doesn't introduce that it's a musical right away - it reveals it slowly. And it doesn't end as a musical at all... there's no big final musical number. It's brave, fun, experimental, and unpretentious. It seems to be made by a guy who loves movies, has studied movies, and is very, very smart.
And mixed throughout are some moments of sheer brilliance... such as the subway seduction scene.
GUY AND MADELINE got into the Tribeca film festival, and eventually got a small theatrical release from which it got great reviews from critics who understood and appreciated it.
Lesson #1: Make a feature film... but don't just make any feature film: Make a good one. Be fearless and bold. Be inventive. Look, if you're only spending your own money, time, blood and tears, then what can you lose? If it doesn't work and no one sees it, well that's a good thing. Make another one that does work. My partner in crime, Dave Boyle, made a horrible feature film that no one will ever see before he made his "first" feature film, BIG DREAMS LITTLE TOKYO, which launched his career (sort of - hahaha) - he learned a lot of hard lessons on that first one (such as: use Duane as a producer, not a cinematographer).
Lesson #2: Know movies. How can you expect to be an innovator in a hundred year old industry if you don't know (and love) the history and work of your predecessors. Think of your favorite director, picture them in your brain (got him or her stuck in there?), now find out every movie and filmmaker that influenced them and go and study their work... then find out what influenced those people. A lot of aspiring filmmakers are happy to stand on someone's shoulders... without ever looking down to see whose shoulders they're standing on. Note that two of the three Chazelle trailers on this post have shots of the female protagonist stopping to glance at a mural of Chaplin.
GUY AND MADELINE was the tree from which the acorn of LA LA LAND fell. Chazelle wrote LA LA LAND and made a big effort to get someone to make it. But with limited resources, no one could see how they could do it (it did open with a big scene on a closed freeway, after all).
During his frustration from trying to get LA LA LAND off the ground he worked on other people's films and wrote some other things... including a script called WHIPLASH - which he couldn't get off the ground either, even with some experienced producers on board. With their help, however, he made a short film from the script as a "proof-of-concept" which (low and behold) got into Sundance.
On the strength of its Sundance showings the funding came in for the feature... four million. It was shot over eighteen days (!!!) in Los Angeles (by the way). And was, of course, the best film of 2014 (in my opinion) and was nominated for five Oscars - winning three. Whiplash is brilliant, personal, intense, and totally unexpected.
Lesson #3: Make a short film. I have spoken with people trying to raise money for a feature and have made a "teaser/trailer" to promote it, often at great expense. In my opinion this is a mistake. That teaser's life depends entirely on if they will make the feature. A short, on the other hand, has a life of its own. It can get into festivals and inspire people to want to support the feature film version (some examples: Jared Hess's NAPOLEON DYNAMITE; Jennifer Phang's ADVANTAGEOUS; Wes Anderson's BOTTLE ROCKET; and there's many, many more), or it will exist as a great short film you made. If you're spending money on something, make sure it will have a life of it's own.
Lesson #4: Somewhere between GUY AND MADELINE and WHIPLASH (the short), Chazelle moved to Los Angeles. He would never have been the youngest person to win an Oscar for directing if he had stayed in Boston. It never would have happened. Do you want a career trajectory that could end you up in his shoes? You have to be in Los Angeles? You HAVE TO BE IN LOS ANGELES. Otherwise it's like saying you want to play for the Dodgers, but you're unwilling to live in LA. Can you have a successful film career and never live in Los Angeles? Yes, kind of maybe. Many successful filmmakers live in New York, Austin and... well there's some sprinkled throughout the country - but they didn't just become the youngest person ever to win Best Director. I have never lived in Los Angeles, but my career is probably not what you're aspiring to (unless you're insane). I was never nominated for an Oscar in my early thirties - because I didn't even start in the film industry until my early thirties (and for many other reasons that are too painful to discuss). The point is, if you choose to live wherever you currently live (which isn't Los Angeles), you're choosing not to be the next Damien Chazelle. Period.
Finally the door was wide open for his pet project, LA LA LAND. After Whiplash you'd think he'd be given carte blanche in Hollywood - but he wasn't. LA LA LAND had a relatively small budget at $30 million. It's the rare writer/director driven project supported by a studio... which in and of itself is exciting. With LA LA LAND Chazelle shows what he can do with money and a big brush, but his directing and intelligence isn't really as flashy or impressive as it is in his previous two films. We're washed over by design, color, song, and the good looks of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling... and of course that great music. Which brings us to...
Lesson #5: Recognize great talent when you find it, stick with it, and fight for it. Did you notice how many people at the Oscars said, "Damien Chazelle, I'm so glad I met you." Several of the key players on Chazelle's team have been with him since GUY AND MADELINE, including composer Justin Hurwitz who wrote the music for all three of Chazelle's films. Where would each of these films be without Justin Hurwitz? Part of Chazelle's brilliance, then, is his ability to recognize talent and potential in people and to stick with them and give them opportunity. Be a good friend and collaborator. Be loyal.
There you have it. How to be the next Damien Chazelle in five simple steps... just mix in a ridiculous amount of talent and ambition, and you should be fine.
One last thing, don't forget to be humble. I have never met Mr. Chazelle, but people seem to like to work with him. It's hard to go far in this industry without being humble, generous and courteous. Never forget that.