All that jazz

All that jazz

Michael Pickard
By Michael Pickard
April 30, 2020

IN FOCUS

Pitch-perfect music meets Parisian drama in a Netflix series about an American jazz club in the French capital. Writer Jack Thorne and star Joanna Kulig invite DQ to The Eddy.

The story of how Bafta-winning writer Jack Thorne and Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle came to partner on The Eddy, a television series about an American jazz club in Paris, begins in LA several months before Chazelle would burst onto the Hollywood scene.

Thorne was there to attend a workshop when his agent suggested he speak to an up-and-coming director about his next project and sent over his latest film to watch, which turned out to be Whiplash, the 2014 music drama about the relationship between a young jazz drummer and his abusive bandleader that scored Chazelle an Academy Award nomination for best adapted screenplay. He would later win a directing statuette in 2017 for La La Land.

After watching Whiplash, “I went, ‘Jesus Christ, this guy is incredible,’” Thorne recalls. “Then I discovered Alan Poul was involved, who had made Six Feet Under, The Newsroom and, most importantly for me, My So-Called Life, and [songwriter and composer] Glen Ballard [was also involved]. It was just one of those crazy things. I went in and met them, they had two pages of what they wanted to do – an American jazz club in Paris – and they had all the music.”

Jack Thorne

At that time, Thorne was writing international crime thriller The Last Panthers, which was originally set in Paris but later moved to Marseille. His love of the French capital and his father’s experience as a town planner meant he had an “obsession” with the city’s ring road and how it had created inclusive and exclusive places, leading him to want to tell a story that reflects the multicultural, multi-class melting pot of Paris.

“I used to be a teacher and was in London at the time they were closing the Aylesbury Estate, and I became very aware of how many people were campaigning to stay, even though it wasn’t the nicest block of flats in the world,” he explains.

“But they were aware of being shunted out of London. It feels interesting to look at who the people are who live on the edge of that [in Paris], and jazz is a very good form to explore that with. I talked about all those things, they read The Last Panthers and, thankfully, they hired me. It was a long development process, during which time Damien became a superstar.”

The Eddy, which launches worldwide on Netflix on May 8 following its world premiere at Berlinale in February, is set in a vibrant multicultural neighbourhood of modern-day Paris, where Elliot Udo (André Holland), a once-celebrated jazz pianist in New York, is now the co-owner of the struggling titular club. Managing the house band fronted by on-off girlfriend Maja (Joanna Kulig), he learns that business partner Farid (Tahar Rahim) may be involved in questionable practices, while secrets come to light that have also been hidden from Farid’s wife Amira (Leïla Bekhti).

When Elliot’s troubled teenage daughter Julie (Amandla Stenberg) suddenly arrives in Paris to live with him, his personal and professional worlds quickly start to unravel as he confronts his past, fighting to save the club and protect those closest to him.

Chazelle is the lead director, alongside Poul, Houda Benyamina (Divines) and Laïla Marrakchi (Le Bureau des Légendes), while The Eddy’s band is composed of real-life musicians Randy Kerber, Ludovic Louis, Lada Obradovic, Jowee Omicil and Damian Nueva Cortes.

Damien Chazelle (left) with The Eddy star André Holland

As you might expect of a series set in a jazz club, music is a constant presence, from the house band performing on stage in front of a packed crowd to numerous characters spending a moment in contemplation tickling the ivories at home.

Each episode is also focused on a single character, so in the writers room, Thorne found himself asking three questions: what is the character arc, how does that impact Elliot and what’s the song?

“Glen and Randy wrote 60 songs together, so we had this raft of stuff to choose between and it was case of what song speaks to the story you’re trying to tell,” Thorne says. “With episode one, it’s about The Eddy, so the song ‘The Eddy’ felt right. Then it was about breaking it down into pieces so you could see this song being discovered, and that becomes the story of the episode, in some ways, as everything else goes along.”

Throughout, however, Elliot is at the centre of the story and the world of The Eddy, with his relationship with daughter Julie also at the core of the eight-episode series. “But like in jazz, it had to be democratic. It had to have space for everyone to have their moment and for us to get an understanding of them,” the writer continues.

“The question when creating the character of Elliot was why would someone be in Paris and why would they be running a jazz club? He became a jazz musician in exile and then the question became in exile from what? Everything built from that and his selfishness and his myopia. And then, hopefully, through the show you see those scales falling away as this becomes a coming-of-age story for him and his daughter, which grew through the writing process.”

Another notable quality about The Eddy is the way the characters, many of whom are not native French speakers, bounce between languages.

Holland plays club owner Elliott, while Joanna Kulig is Maja, singer in The Eddy’s house band

“The thing we always stuck to was that when people are at their most emotional, they tend to speak their own language, because that’s our basest means of communication,” Thorne says. “We were constantly analysing what language is important and when. Elliot’s French is good but he speaks with an American accent. Julie’s French is not very good, she’s learning, but she’s got a very good brain and is picking it up very quickly. In the band, Jude [Nueva] is Cuban, so he speaks French and English with an inflection. Katrina [Obradovic] is Croatian. Everyone comes from different places – this is a boiling pot of seeing how everyone works together.”

Language was also a big factor for Kulig, who plays Maja, Elliot’s on-off girlfriend and the singer of The Eddy’s house band. The Polish actor faced speaking and singing in French and English, something she says was “a huge experiment” that pushed her out of her comfort zone.

Kulig first met Chazelle and auditioned for the role in LA in 2019 when she was part of the Oscar campaign for Polish historical drama Zimna wojna (Cold War), about a musical director who discovers a young singer (played by Kulig) and their subsequent love story.

Matters were complicated by the fact she was due to give birth just two days later, but she met Chazelle in Santa Monica and talked about The Eddy for two-and-a-half hours. Then, on her due date, she met Ballard and Kerber for a music audition, while her husband, writer and director Maciej Bochniak, waited outside in the car with her suitcase ready to race to the hospital.

Kulig won the role, and a week later, on Valentine’s Day, she gave birth to baby Jan. Days after that, she was at the Oscar ceremony, and a further week on, preparations for The Eddy began.

Kulig’s character was reimagined to better suit the Polish actor

“When Jan was five weeks old, I came back to Warsaw. They sent a music coach from LA and we worked for three weeks, and later we went to Paris and spent six months together,” Kulig says. “It was one huge adventure – an Oscar campaign, then the baby and working with Damien Chazelle. I’m super proud because this project wasn’t easy. It was my dream but it was hard too. There was the live music, a lot of different cultures and different languages.”

Maja wasn’t originally Polish, with the character at one point an American called Kelly. But Kulig’s performance in Cold War saw the character changed to fit the actor. “I was super happy because this project was being developed for many years but they didn’t have the finances. Then Netflix gave them the money for this very artistic project, and they were very happy that it would be possible to show a large audience this art-house and jazz project. I jumped in at the last moment, which is why I was really lucky.”

Having lived with Elliot in New York, Maja follows him to Paris, but she soon begins to struggle with life in France. “They have a difficult relationship because Elliot is introverted and Maja wants to talk about feelings,” Kulig explains.

“She loves him very much. But when we meet them, she’s quite depressed. They have a very hard relationship. The communication is hard. Step by step, she becomes stronger and more independent, and she doesn’t want to be in this kind of relationship, so we see her progress through the series. Her episode is number five, so this is the moment when she changes and decides to be stronger and more in control of her life.”

Filmed on location in Paris, production called for Kulig to spend many hours on stage, having learned all the shows’ songs by heart. Sometimes she would have to sing quietly if dialogue was being recorded inside the club while the band was performing, before raising the volume when she was in front of the camera.

Alan Poul, one of the show’s directors, in conversation with Holland

“We had to concentrate a lot,” she admits. “We always did one song on one day – I don’t know how many times I sang each song, but Cold War was always 25 takes, so I knew this process. It was very interesting having jazz musicians acting because we had three cameras in a documentary style so we could be more free. They were great actors – they have something about them, they’re open to new things. We connected and we became The Eddy band. I had my own band!”

As for working with Chazelle, Kulig says she sometimes found improvising tough but describes the director as very gentle and sensitive. “He had a good connection with his musicians, they’ve known each other for years. And he knows all the shots. He knew how the series would look.

“I enjoyed it because you have to leave your comfort zone and use different areas of your brain. It’s scary, but what was interesting on this project was all the actors had different comfort zones. For André, it was working with European directors and singing; for me, it was the language; and for the musicians, it was how to act. All of us found different areas scary but we were together and we shared our feelings. It’s something special.”

The diversity on screen was replicated in the writers room, where Thorne was joined by Rachel De-Lahay, with whom he had worked on Kiri, while Netflix suggested he bring in Hamid Hlioua (Cannabis), whom execs at the streamer felt could speak to the French-Arabic experience. Rebecca Lenkiewicz (Secret Diary of a Call Girl) also joined alongside Phillip Howze (Mindhunter).

“Rebecca’s amazing and she also has a sense of Eastern Europe. Then Philip, who is an African-American writer, was incredibly vital because there were questions about the identity of Elliot and Julie that I was really struggling with, and Philip brought that perspective to it,” Thorne says. “We had that boiling pot of music and directors and we needed writers who were also reflective of that, rather than us attempting to tell it without that complexity.”

Music is a constant presence in the series, from the house band to characters playing at home

Thorne describes location-hunting across Paris with Chazelle as “amazing,” with the creative duo learning more about their characters through the places they would live and work, while Poul was a constant sounding board for ideas. Thorne also did a lot of work with Ballard, discussing how the live music would interact with the story.

However, he says his biggest challenge was finding Elliot’s path through the series. “We had all these different elements – a crime story, which I wanted to be a minor story where we still had space to tell the character journeys; we had music that had to play a huge role, and there were going to be long takes of live music; and this idea of each character helming an episode – so it was like, ‘How do we find the space to tell Elliot’s story well?’”

Thorne, who wrote the first season of BBC and HBO’s His Dark Materials, is now working on the fantasy drama’s second season, based on Philip Pullman’s A Subtle Knife, while he is also “thinking seriously” about the potential third instalment, based on Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass.

But given the chance, he would return for an encore of The Eddy. “I still think there’s more story to tell, I hope, but it’s a strange old show! I really hope people watch it,” he says. “Netflix took a big chance on us because it is a bit different. It isn’t conventional in how it draws viewers in, so it all depends on metrics. I’d really like to do more of it.

And how does it compare to his previous series, which are often deeply rooted in social realism, such as the This Is England series, National Treasure, Kiri and The Accident? “I see this as social realism too, but it’s got music in it,” he adds. “No one breaks into song at any point. This is just the story of musicians in Paris. And Paris, I think, is fascinating. I hope that’s enough.”

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