A Conversation with La La Land Director Damien Chazelle

Born only in the mid-‘80s,Damien Chazelle already has an Oscar-nomination under his belt. He received the nod for Best Adapted Screenplay for Whiplash (2013), a successful box office release that he also directed. This month, Chazelle is back and flirting with Oscar again with his latest film, La La Land, a musical he also wrote and directed, which stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone.

Those incredible Los Angeles sunsets and capturing them for La La Land…

“I think I was actually surrounded by enablers with this movie,” said Damien Chazelle during a conversation with Alison Bailes, hosted by the New York Film Critics Series “With every crazy idea I had, my collaborators would come back with even crazier ones. My D.P. Linus Sandgren’s ideas for some of the performances was to utilize real L.A. sunsets to capture the magical moments heading into twilight because you get these really incredible colors that look sort of fake. He pushed us to do it for real, so that meant shooting some of those really incredible takes within a half-hour window. That’s the incredible thing about L.A. You do actually get some of those technicolor, lunch colors in the sky.”

As the title suggests, La La Land is set in Los Angeles, the city Chazelle also calls home. The story follows Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a dedicated jazz musician, who are struggling to make ends meet in a city known for crushing hopes and breaking hearts. La La Land is an original musical about everyday life, exploring the joy and pain of pursuing your dreams.

On how La La Land was born and remembering the classics from years before…

La La Land tips its hat to the classic musicals of old Hollywood as well as musicals from beyond America’s shores. Chazelle has long been a fan of musicals. In fact, he began writing the feature, which is currently a front-runner in the Best Picture race, while still working on Whiplash.

“I started writing this movie about six years ago. I had just moved to Los Angeles,” he said. “I wanted to make movies like a lot of people there… There’s this strange up and down mix in L.A. of extreme happiness and extreme sadness, which felt like the right kind of emotional material for a musical. My hope was to convey those kinds of emotions through the prism of some of the musicals that I love.”

Chazelle cited French filmmaker Jacques Demy’s classics The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and The young Girls of Rochefort (1967) as well as films by Bob Fosse (Cabaret, All That Jazz) as particular favorites in addition to classics from the golden age of Hollywood musicals. While creating the aesthetic and story for La La Land, he felt it important to give due respect to the work of his movie’s predecessors, while also charting new ground.

“I’m completely head-over-heels a lover of [many] Hollywood musicals… I’m also in awe of so much of what was done in that era of film. They took risks in how far they pushed color, dance and music in film. I find them endlessly inspirational, so I think if you do a musical today, you have to at least acknowledge those benchmarks [from the past], and then ideally still make it your own.”

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling take the spotlight…

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At the center of La La Land, of course, are the movie’s two stars, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. Chazzelle acknowledged that the two may not be the first names that come to mind when thinking of a picture loaded with dance and song, but he saw their talents as something that audiences could relate to beyond the extremely stylized productions one might find on Broadway.

“The idea was to humanize and make it feel accessible — something like you and I could see ourselves in,” he said. “I think musicals get a bad wrap for being so removed from life that they have no bearing on life, but I think musicals can be incredibly truthful emotionally because they reflect how things feel. I think if you’re in love, you feel like you’re dancing like Fred and Ginger or when you’re in love, you feel like you’re floating into the stars. So, it was always the hope of this movie to literalize those feelings…but they can stop being feelings and become purely technical showcases if you don’t ground them in the character and emotion of the story. That’s what I wanted from Ryan and Emma and everyone in the cast, which is to make it about human beings first and then have each step, each move and even each fumble to be a part of that character.”

Still, Gosling and Stone have more exposure to song and dance than most mortals. Chazzelle first met with Stone about the project while she was doing Cabaret on Broadway, and while not quite the Big White Way, Gosling did get his start as a Mouseketeer courtesy of Walt Disney opposite the likes of Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake before he moved on to becoming an Oscar-nominated big screen actor.

Both actors spent three months on the set for rehearsals, including dance lessons, choreography rehearsals, vocal lessons, pre-records in addition to script meetings, workshopping characters and rehearsing non-musical scenes. Ryan Gosling also took a whirl perfecting the piano.

“I remember meeting with Ryan a few days before shooting to check-up on his piano playing. He played most of the pieces in the movie for me and I was so astonished in terms of his ability to play them, that I called up the music team and said we didn’t need the piano double anymore,” said Chazzelle. “As a result, even close-up shots of hands in which you would normally use a music double for — were all Ryan.”

On making music and in consideration of nostalgia…

Early on in developing La La Land, Chazelle turned to an old friend and collaborator for the film’s music. His friend, in fact, was already framing the tunes that would be at the center of the feature.

“I went to college with Justin Hurwitz, who composed all the music for this movie,” he said. “I’e worked with him for every movie I’ve done. By the time I had even this basic idea for this movie, he was writing the melodies that became [the basis] for the score and songs.” From there, Hurwitz and Chazelle worked with Broadway songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, traveling back and forth between Los Angeles and New York to finalize what Chazelle described as “fully lyricized numbers.”

Chazelle also began working early on with veteran choreographer Mandy Moore (Dancing with the Stars, Silver Linings Playbook) on the project. The pair began working out the dance numbers a year-and-a-half before shooting actually began. “By the time we were hiring dancers and getting the sets and putting it all physically in motion, we had this all in our heads and getting it down on paper,” said Chazelle.

The result may very well be a shot in the arm to a genre of film that has been overshadowed by the ghosts of its pioneers. La La Land has already received festival kudos, including a People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival in September in addition to other festival wins in the Hamptons and Key West. The film was also recently named Best Film of the year by the New York Film Critics Circle.

“It is about [nostalgia] but also how you balance nostalgia with the need to live in the now. I think ultimately the solution is not to bury yourself in old art forms and old things, but to bring what you love from the past into the present,” said Chazelle. “It’s not just about old and new, but also about dreams and reality, and between the solo pursuit of an art form and the need to share oneself with another human being. It’s all about finding that balance in life and that’s what I wanted to try and explore.”

See the NYFCS interview here

La La Land begins its release in theaters starting December 9th and will slowly roll out to cities nationwide via Lionsgate.