Home » Alan Poul on Crafting A Jazz Series Like No Other Alongside Damien Chazelle – Exclusive Interview

Alan Poul on Crafting A Jazz Series Like No Other Alongside Damien Chazelle – Exclusive Interview

by Michael Slavin

Alan Poul boasts a producing career that now spans three decades. If you have been watching television for some time, his work will definitely ring a bell. He was one of the creative voices that elevated programs such as Westworld, Six Feet Under, and The Newsroom to their esteemed glory. The small screen at home was proving to be not so minuscule in scale anymore. Eventually, Poul grew a knack for the director’s chair, taking the helm behind the camera on shows he was concurrently producing.

Poul takes these same talents to Netflix’s The Eddy. The jazz-centric musical series comes from the minds of Emmy-winning songwriter Glen Ballard, His Dark Materials writer Jack Thorne, and Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle to only name a few. The series set in contemporary Paris flaunts a cast featuring André Holland, Amandla Stenberg, Leïla Bekhti, and Adil Dehbi. La La Land director Damien Chazelle opens the series by directing the first two episodes while Poul brings it all home with the last two. Poul was fresh from pulling the same double duties on Netflix’s Tales of the City last year, while also simultaneously working on a new show, Tokyo Vice, for HBO Max.

We were lucky enough to have Poul for an exclusive interview. We talk his about his intricate work on The Eddy, collaborating with talent such as Holland and Chazelle, and of course his jam-packed schedule. To no surprise, the production and origins of the series are just as special as the final product itself. Check it out below!

Real-life trumpeter Ludovic Louis with Alan Poul on set courtesy of Netflix

DF: So we were wondering what the experience of developing a musically themed series for Netflix was like?

AP: Development of The Eddy wasn’t like any other show I’ve ever been involved with because it was in the traditional sense backward. Glen Ballard approached me with a suite of songs late in 2013. I was smitten by the songs and Glen wanted to turn them into a show set in contemporary Paris to show the real contemporary city, not the jewel box tourist Paris. I then approached Damien, because I knew he had a background. I knew he had been raised in France partly and I obviously knew he loved jazz. This was in early 2014 when Whiplash had been completed but not released yet. So Damien came on board and then we found Jack Thorne. The process was songs, idea, book your collaborator, and finally the writer. It was kind of in reverse of the way you normally put together a television show.

DF: Yeah, not a traditional structure.

AP: No, but I think that the fact that the structure was both untraditional and organic is responsible for the nature of the show. I think it shows originality, find the seeds in the way that it was put together. I don’t want to beat the metaphor to death, but we let the rhythms and aesthetics of jazz dictate everything from the scripting process to how we dealt with the music to the time of work.

DF: So besides Damian having lived in France, the city of Paris was always set from the get-go?

AP: Paris always came first. Glen said, “I want to do a show based in Paris”. He spent a lot of time in Paris and he loves how Paris has always been more hospitable to American jazz musicians than many cities in the States. He also felt it was an opportunity to show the real Paris, the multicultural, multilingual Paris – how it’s depicted in the show. That was already in place when I approached Damien because I knew that he had gone to middle school in France. It was certainly part of the attraction for him, but Paris came first.

DF: It must be great that Damien Chazelle came on so early. He’s become so synonymous with jazz. It’s really sort of all come together there, don’t you think?

AP: I had seen the short film of Whiplash, what they call the proof of concept that Damien had made in order to raise the money to make the feature. I had also seen Damien’s first film Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, which is very much about jazz. From those two pieces of work, I knew that A, he was brilliant and a brilliant filmmaker and B, he loved jazz. It made a lot of sense for me to approach him. I was just really fortunate in that my timing was so good.

DF: You directed a couple of episodes from the series. Because the show has a real blend of musical and non-musical scenes, how did you find balancing the direction in both of those types?

AP: Yeah, I directed the last two episodes. I think for all of our directors, the main approach was to look at the musical and non-musical teams holistically as different parts of the same whole because as you see in the show, we weave in and out of music. We show scenes of rehearsals, show how a song comes together and changes, show songs being interrupted by things. It’s never like we stop all the action for a musical number. For us, the introduction to music was always as seamless as possible. The music was shot the same way the drama is shot. Because all the music was recorded live, it was very easy to go in and out of music during the course of the scene. There was never any kind of technical stuff or playback involved.

DF: Keeping in mind the improvisational style of jazz, was there a lot of acting improvisation allowed on set, or was it very much kept to the script?

AP: Obviously Jack’s a great writer, so we always wanted to make sure we were keeping what was great about the script. But within those confines, we encouraged the actors and their improvisation, just as we encouraged them to switch back and forth between French and English. The show and its dialogue is meant to have the loose improvisational feel of jazz. But the stories are very carefully structured and in some cases, we stayed with the scripted dialogue whereas for others, we allow the actors to try things out.

DF: You mentioned about flipping back and forth between French and English. How important was it for you to have a cast that was capable of going both directions in that way?

AP: It was important to have a certain level of bilingual capability in the main cast, but to be honest, Andre (Holland) and Amandla (Stenberg) went so deeply into studying and learning French and becoming adept with French conversation – so much that we were able to put a much higher percentage of their conversation into French than we had initially planned, which was delightful.

Amandla Stenberg & André Holland courtesy of Netflix

DF: That’s very interesting. What were the key musical influences of the series and what did you pinpoint when first researching the two episodes you directed?

AP: The music of the series, with a couple of exceptions, is all composed by Glen. Glen had most of those songs written before he ever approached me in 2013. He gave me a CD of 12 songs, half of which I think are in the show. Our approach to the music was the same as what Glen had brought to it, that it should feel as authentic as possible. Filming it as the players improvise or made mistakes or something new had happened in the middle of the song. That was always fun. Everything was valid because the most important thing was that they felt like it was happening in the moment because, in fact, it was.

DF: What were the influences in terms of musical movies and shows?

AP: One of Damien’s and my earliest templates was Robert Altman’s film Nashville. It was another film in which the music was always being performed directly in the frame and people wandered through and things stopped and started – you just felt like you were there in the middle of something that was happening spontaneously, including improvisation and overlapped dialogue. Moving on from there, we gathered influences. It’s pretty clear from John Cassavetes and the French new wave. In terms of how to cover musical numbers, again, a lot of the inspiration came from concert films where you’re not staging the music but the music is happening and it’s up to you to make do.

DF: Fantastic, before we finish – you’re also executive producing a new series titled Tokyo Vice for HBO max. What can you tell us about that series and working with HBO Max?

AP: First of all I can tell you that we had to shut down after six days of photography because of the current situation.

DF: Not ideal at all!

AP: So I think I’m still producing it! *laughs*

I actually just produced two series back to back for Netflix because before The Eddy I produced Tales of the City. Now, this is my first series for HBO Max. I’ve done a lot of shows for HBO, but HBO Max is a different corporate structure. I’m finding that they have been remarkably generous in terms of following our own creative impulses, in adapting the book Tokyo Vice. The biggest difference is that Netflix has such a huge international reach. Netflix is in every country now and has its own local filmmaking apparatus in most territories. So the international and bilingual nature of The Eddy was something they were very used to and encouraged. They felt completely at home with our operating in several cultures at once.

For HBO Max, I think this experience of shooting an entire American series in Tokyo is something that’s very new to them. It’s territory that we are navigating together in terms of the balance between the American and Japanese points of view. Also of course between the English and Japanese languages.

DF: Is there anything you can tell us about what to expect from the series itself?

AP: I would say in the way The Eddy is a look at Paris as you’ve never seen it, Tokyo Vice gives you a portrait of Tokyo as you’ve never seen it before. The protagonist is somebody who’s already deeply enmeshed in Japanese culture and therefore is not the typical tour guide. Ansel Elgort’s character is coming at you from already living there for a number of years. So his point of view is one from within Japanese culture already.

DF: We are looking forward to both that and The Eddy! Are there any other upcoming projects that you would like to make our audience aware of?

AP: You know, I’ve made now 3 series back to back and God willing we get to finish Tokyo Vice. Although I have a lot of things in development, what I really look forward to is a long rest!

Read our review of Netflix’s The Eddy here!

Check out our interview with series screenwriter Jack Thorne and producer/ songwriter Glen Ballard!

You can watch the entire series starting May 8! You can also watch Poul’s work on Tales of the City via Netflix.

Follow writer Michael Slavin on Twitter: @MichaelSlavin98

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