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La La Land writer-director Damien Chazelle on subverting the things he loves most

La La Land writer-director Damien Chazelle on subverting the things he loves most


‘I felt permission to explicitly celebrate these things, to fill the screen to the brim with things I personally love’

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Ever since Damien Chazelle’s La La Land premiered at the Venice Film Festival in August, it’s been hailed as the presumptive front-runner for half of this year’s Academy Awards, especially in the music, visual, acting, and directing categories. The New York Critics Circle and the Washington DC Critics Association have already declared it the best film of the year. And it doesn’t even arrive in theaters until Friday, December 9th.

Chazelle’s follow-up to his breakout film Whiplash (which was nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture, and won three, for editing, sound mixing, and J.K. Simmons as Supporting Actor) once again centers on music and performance, but it’s a very different film. Where Whiplash was aggressive, manic, and confrontational, La La Land is an unabashedly sweet, melancholy throwback musical that channels 1950s and ‘60s Hollywood in its staging and tone. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling star as two artists trying to make it in Los Angeles — she’s an actress, he’s a jazz musician — and losing their way professionally and personally. It’s a technically dazzling film, but it also feels like ready-made comfort food for cinephiles, full of old-Hollywood references and the energy of the big classic MGM musicals. I recently talked to Chazelle about why it was such a difficult film to make, and why he’s ready for people to pick it apart.

La La Land is a big spectacle film, and it draws heavily on film history. But you’ve also said it’s a private, personal film for you. How so?

I remember being nervous before showing the movie, when we were getting it ready for the Venice Film Festival. Not nervous in a way I've always been nervous before screenings, but nervous in a way that felt even more palpable to me than I'd ever experienced. I don't know if it's because it took longer to get this off the ground, or what exactly. But I feel so passionately about a lot of the things that make up this movie, whether it's musicals or the ideas in the film, the idea of reaching for a dream, whether it seems like it's gonna work out or not. I felt like my heart was way out on my sleeve. I felt very exposed. But maybe a musical always exposes. Nothing can go haywire quite like a musical going haywire.

How do you keep these deep, personal emotional feelings when you're trying to piece together so many technically complicated shots, and go through a rigorous rehearsal schedule?

One thing that really helped was the music. Obviously the songs and certain melodies had been written and developed before shooting, and even as I was writing the script, so it gave me a soundtrack to write to. That helped me maintain a certain emotional tone or register, and told me where we needed to be emotionally at any given part of the movie. And then when it came to editing, [Justin Hurwitz] the composer was by my side, and by my editor’s side, during the last year of editing, composing the underscores and scoring scenes as we were shooting them. So there was never any temp score. It was always Justin doing everything on site. So it helped maintain continuity from the early stage of the script through the shoot, all the way to being in the edit room. And the music was such a specific tone, a specific kind of language, that it helped inform everything. Any image we shot would feel a little different as soon as you put Justin's music under it, or over it. So that was incredibly helpful.

“Nothing can go haywire quite like a musical going haywire.”

But it was this challenge, especially late into the editing process, when we were really trying to navigate the tone of the movie. We’d try losing certain scenes or adding others, or switching things around, all the sorts of things you would normally do in an edit. There were so many moving pieces that it did become difficult sometimes to see the forest for the trees, and to make sure we were still on the emotional wavelength we needed to be on. And at times like that, I definitely relied on screening the movie a lot, and trying to watch it with people to see it through their eyes. Stuff like to help reorient ourselves and figure out, “Okay, this is where we are, this is what's working, this is what's not,” and then go back to work.

From what I understand, you wrote the first draft of the script back in 2010. Were your original songs already in place at that point?

As soon as I had written a basic treatment, I gave that off to Justin, and he started coming up with ideas for the theme for the score, which gets reprised throughout the movie. Once he’d locked in on that, I started writing the script itself. As I was writing the script, he was writing melodies. Sometimes we'd send stuff back and forth, or I'd send him a scene and he’d write to that. Sometimes he would send a melody out of the ether, and that would spark something in me, and I'd try to build a number around that. It was a back-and-forth dialogue between us, as well as my two producers, Fred Berger and Jordan Horowitz. The four of us basically were ping-ponging back and forth as we developed the story, the script, and the music all at once, over the course of a couple years together

Whiplash is technically rigorous, but this still feels like a huge step up in complexity. Did you approach the production any differently?

Yeah, it was interesting, because we actually had time for rehearsal on this in a way we didn't really with Whiplash. We had a much longer prep on this, but at the same time, we had a much harder prep. There were more moving elements. Doing a musical, especially an original musical, it does feel at times like you're trying to make three projects at once. You're making the movie itself, but you're also making an album and choreographing a ballet. And all those things have to ultimately exist entirely together, in unison.

“Doing a musical does feel at times like you're trying to make three projects at once.”

So even though we did have this three, four-month prep, it felt like every day, we were racing against the clock, much as it felt on Whiplash. We were trying to iron out every technical detail, because we knew we needed to have stuff really figured out before we got on set. There wouldn't be leeway to radically change things once we were on set, because we were shooting on real locations. We didn't have a super-long shooting schedule. We were often shooting for specific times of day, sunsets, or certain daylight hours, or magic hour. So there were all these practical limitations of what we could do that we needed to know how to operate within. Thankfully, by the time we started shooting, we were more or less ready and up to the challenge. But every moment of prep was this intense process. A change in any department, whether it was costumes or the script, or an idea that had just come up in the choreography, would necessarily ripple down to every other department. Everyone had to be flexible. We had to be constantly realigning while trying not to lose grip on the overall vision of what we were trying to say.

What wound up being more of a challenge than you expected?

The thing I was struck by most in prep was — I knew theoretically, but had not deal with it in person — that idea of how much everything depended on everything else. It was so important to me that everything on the screen ultimately feel like it was meant to be. The production, the music, the acting, the story, I wanted all that to feel seamless, like one sustained, continuous statement. But that can be very challenging when you’re working on the script, and working with your actors in prep as they’re learning their dance routines. And then an idea comes up that you want to take advantage of, and to accommodate that idea, the change necessitates a bunch of other changes throughout. The change could be anything — a costume designer’s change, a choreographic change, a change that comes up when I'm talking to the actors, and we realize, “Oh, it's smarter for the scene to go in this direction instead of this direction.” Any of those kinds of things in an ordinary movie wouldn't have as many ramifications.

At the same time, I didn't want to be straightjacketed. I didn't want any of the actors to feel straightjacketed. I didn't want any department to feel like they had to compromise their vision because everyone had to stay in their place. I wanted people to be able to suggest revisions if it seems like we should. So it was a necessity to how I wanted the process to run, but it was very challenging. It did feel like this contradiction, trying to keep things loose and open and spontaneous-feeling, while making sure they would be super technically precise, and every “t” would be crossed and “i” would be dotted before we shot.

So many moments in this film feel like specific references to other musicals. I feel like this is a project like Westworld, something cinephiles are going to want to take apart one shot at a time, looking for Easter eggs and arguing about your homages. Do you support that way of looking at a film? Or that way of looking at this film?

I mean, yeah, why not? Part of the fun thing about making this movie is, I’ve been a movie lover my whole life, but some movies give you permission to indulge in that love and celebrate it, and other movies don't. This is, in many ways, a movie about movies, and a movie about the arts. So as a movie fan, as a music fan, as a fan of Los Angeles, a fan of so many of these things, I felt permission to explicitly celebrate these things, to fill the screen to the brim with things I personally love. I guess that's what made the movie feel really personal to me, even private. Sometimes it was like I was raiding my private stash of favorite LPs. That feels very personal. But at the same time, I was trying to find a way to combine those things in new ways, to update or synthesize them, or subvert them, to do something with them where they feel like they're speaking a new language. Where they feel like they're saying something new. But yeah, there are definitely Easter eggs throughout the movie, and putting them in there was part of the fun of making it.

The characters live in a world where a Rebel Without A Cause exists, and they’re aware when they’re quoting it. Are they aware of the Hollywood  musicals they’re referencing when they dance, or in the way they dress or behave?

Ryan and Emma and I talked a lot about, in a general sense, the tone of the movie. But we also zeroed in on the characters, the degree of playfulness and the degree of self-awareness they should have. We did decide to play a little bit, at least subtextually, with this idea of the characters knowing they're in a musical, and being playful with that fact. I wanted to make sure the explicit movie references, like the stuff baked into the dialogue, would be not so much musical-driven, would be one step removed. But ultimately, it is a movie about — one character wants to be in the movies. They are in the movie-est movie city of all, Los Angeles, and they're walking through the studio lots, surrounded by the icons of old movies. It was all baked in. So we did talk about “To what degree are the characters aware of this?”

“there is a sense of play in the characters, and throughout the movie, about being in a musical.”

I liked the idea that they are aware. We don't overly underline it, but there is a sense of play in the characters, and throughout the movie, about being in a musical, and playing with the tropes of being in a musical. By extension, when things start to go south with the characters, an idea the actors came up with and played with was this idea that they stop hearing the music at a certain point. They can't really hear the music anymore, and by extension, they've stopped being in a musical. So trying to find those notes, how in love they are and what kind of movie they sense they're in, that was something we talked about as we got into the shoot.

Do you think of this film more as reacting to current Hollywood and what it's like to fight for a career there right now? Or is it more a love letter to the past? Or something else entirely?

It’s funny, because writing it definitely never felt like any grand statement. It was definitely writing, in many cases, experiences that were very close to my own: having moved to LA, trying to make movies, in a more general sense trying to be an artist, and the ups and downs of that. Sometimes the loneliness that can come with that, and the ways you have to balance love and art, or dreams and reality. What was important to me was to capture some truth about that experience, or those emotions.

But at the same time, it's part of the paradox of Hollywood now. Living in LA, you live in a city that is full of movie history. Everywhere you turn, there's an echo of this glorified movie past. In many ways, there’s also an industry that seems determined to erase that past, or ignore it, and push forward. I have in my head a version of the debate that John Legend and Ryan Gosling have in the movie about jazz. If you apply that to movies, there’s the same idea — do you try to preserve what you love about the past of an art form at the risk of marginalizing it? Or do you try to push it toward the future, at the risk of bastardizing it? Where does that balance lie? I think that applies to any art form, but right now, movies especially seem to be going through a little bit of an identity crisis, caught between past ideas of what movies were supposed to be, and the new frontier, where movies are watched, for the most part, not in movie theaters. What does that do to our sense of the art form? This is a big, rambling non-answer. But these are the ideas that flooded my head, so I tried to put them on the page in some sense in La La Land.