The LRM Interview with La La Land Director Damien Chazelle

– by Edward Douglas

Ever since his 2014 movie Whiplash first won the top awards at the Sundance Film Festival, filmmaker Damien Chazelle has been making waves, but when the movie got a Best Picture Oscar nomination the next year, later winning J.K. Simmons an Oscar for his supporting role, the world started paying attention, since it was clear Chazelle was going to be a director to keep an eye on.

He now returns with La La Land, a full-scale musical set in modern-day Los Angeles, in which Emma Stone plays aspiring actress Mia and Ryan Gosling plays jazz pianist Sebastian. Both of them are trying to make it in L.A., and a couple chance encounters lead to them inevitably dating, while still trying to balance the relationship with their careers.

The movie premiered in September at some of the early Fall film festivals, including opening the Venice Film Festival, and playing inToronto, where it received the coveted People’s Choice Award. Months later, it’s finally going to get a slow release over the course of December as it continues to accrue awards nominations, like the 11 it recently received from the Critics Choice, and it likely will be scoring Golden Globes as well on its way to Oscar night. (At this point, La La Land, Chazelle and Emma Stone are thought to be frontrunners for the Oscars.)

Check out the trailer below:

LRM got on the phone with Chazelle this past weekend for the following interview. 

LRM: When we spoke about “Whiplash” a couple years ago, “La La Land” was something you already had written. I’m not sure if you figured out casting yet, but I also remember that you had a movie called “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench,” which I guess was your student film project that got nominated for a Gotham Award for “Not Coming To a Theater Near Year.” When I watched “La La Land,” it seemed very familiar and similar to that movie in some ways.

Damien Chazelle: Funny, so funny. Yeah, the simple answer is just that after “Madeline” my composer and I, we still obviously love the genre, and we're thinking of ideas of could we continue with something in the vein of what we were doing? But obviously do it on a sort of bigger scale and paying more specific homage to some of the later Hollywood musicals of the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s, the Technicolor musicals- some of the earlier 30s ones, which Guy and Madeline was drawing on more. And so, I think out of some of those conversations, and then out of me getting to meet these two young producers in L.A. and all of us kind of adapting to L.A., being East-Coast transplants to L.A., I think out of all that is basically where La La Land started. But yeah, it definitely created Whiplash, and it was just kind of this pie in the sky project for a while that we were all tinkering on without any real sense of whether it would ever really get made.

LRM: Where did your love of classical musicals come from? I assumed one or both your parents were musicians, but I read they were both academics or professors.

Chazelle: Yeah, professionally, they're both academics, but I did grow up with music as a huge part of the household. My dad was just an avid Jazz listener and Blues listener, guitar player and so I think very early on I started playing music. So a big part of my childhood was really spent playing, in my case, drums but you know, just spent playing music. Especially Jazz. So I think a lot of the music love, the Jazz love, comes from that sort of, almost sort of biographical experience. But I didn't fall in love with the classic musicals, per se, until a little bit later until I was sort of starting in college, you know, 18, 19.

LRM: I have a musical background myself and playing Jazz is particularly tough. First, you got Miles learning how to play jazz drums and then you have Ryan playing piano. The stuff he plays in the movie is just amazing. Unless you figured out some CG way to trick us, it's really amazing, what he did.

Chazelle: Well,  there was actually no real trickery, it's just him being a beast. Ryan just took it upon himself to actually learn all the pieces that he would have to play in full, even though he wasn't... he dabbled on the piano a little bit before, but he was by no means a pianist and certainly not a Jazz pianist. But he learned them so thoroughly that I actually wound up being able to shoot them even more freely with even longer takes than I had initially even planned. So there's no piano double on set at all, not even close. It's his hands,  all Ryan.

LRM: That's really impressive. Emma has done some musical-type stuff before like “Easy A” and she was in “Cabaret” on Broadway. I'm assuming there's a lot of singing on set in this, or did you record a lot of it beforehand? How did you deal with the singing?

Chazelle: I actually met her first about this project right when she was in the middle of Cabaret, so she was in that kind of musical head space, which was great. And she kind of used that sort of funnel into La La Land as soon as she finished Cabaret and started rehearsals on La La Land. But both she and Ryan, they had some musical background, but obviously had never done a musical on-screen. But as with the piano, when it came to the singing and the dancing for both of them, they just really wanted to roll up their sleeves and they were asking us for more rehearsal time. So we really built out a very, kind of extensive, prepped rehearsal period for them. You know, about three to four months of just on-site intensive training, which went right into the movie.

LRM: Did you work with Justin in a pretty similar way as you have the last two movies? When you're writing a script, is it kind of like putting ideas for places you need songs, kind of working that out?

Chazelle: Yeah, I think this was definitely the most prolonged, intensive up-and-down process we'd ever been through in terms of working on this movie: having it seem like it was going to happen, having it seem like it wasn't going to happen you know, the kind of up, down, up, down of trying to get a movie like this made. And trying to spend as much time as possible during that time just focusing on making the script better and the music better and the songs better and just continually trying to improve every month and every year. We never wanted to feel like we were just sitting, waiting for the phone to ring. We wanted to feel like we were at least spending the free time we had while the movie wasn't getting made -- you know, spending that time well.

LRM: Was there stuff you couldn’t do in “Guy and Madeline,” either due to financial or logistical reasons, that you ended up doing in “La La Land”?

Chazelle: Yeah, I don't know. Not so much specific themes or ideas, but I just think at a certain point Justin and I wondered or dreamed of if Guy and Madeline would break into color or go into widescreen or something, sort of like Spike Lee's movie She’s Gotta Have It. It has a sort of color sequence baked into it in an otherwise black and white 16 mm movie. He kind of liked that idea a lot. That sort of Wizard of Oz idea but didn't wind up really going for it, but I really was itching to make a musical in color and really kind of use the color palette as a musical instrument itself.

LRM: What were some of the limitations of making a musical, shooting at all of those L.A. landmarks? I've read about the highway and how you did had that section and how you did that, but you have a lot of really well-known L.A. landmarks, so did you rebuild some of them on a set?

Chazelle: We rebuilt just the actual planetarium part of Griffith, so Brian and Emma could float on wires, and we could do all that sort of visual FX work. And David Wasco, our production designer, rebuilt it to the style of the sort of Rebel Without a Cause era, the more deliberately art deco ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s sort of style with an old-fashioned projector built into it. Then obviously the big epilogue, the sort of dream ballet at the end, was done on a soundstage with sets and all painted backdrops the way they did the dream ballets in Singing in the Rain or An American in Paris. But everything else was real locations, and it was really fun to get to learn or relearn L.A.-- even though I've lived there for a while by the time we started shooting -- through scouting and through discovering places to set scenes in.

LRM: David and Justin and the entire crew did an amazing job pulling this off, especially that montage, which is just amazing since you’re revisiting a lot of prior locations from earlier in the movie, so did you build a set that included all those locations?

Chazelle: Well, no, I mean, some of this stuff, especially at the beginning part of that montage, we actually would just shoot as a tag-on to when we were shooting the real scene, because we wanted some of that stuff to really match up almost shot-for-shot with just these specific differences in it. It was kind of funny. Often, during the course of the shoot, doing the "real version" of the scene and then switching to the "fantasy" version of it for a beat. So all that stuff was done, kind of peppered throughout the shoot as we were shooting the main body of the movie, and then we wound up ending the shoot, more or less, with the soundstage work and just assembling all the dancers on the sets that David and his team had painted.

LRM: Going back to Ryan and Emma, they obviously had done a couple movies together, so was that just an added bonus? If you think about all those old Hollywood movies, there were many actor-actress teams that would do multiple movies together, but it’s something we lost in more recent years where it seems like we don't necessarily want to keep seeing the same people together. But people do actually like seeing people together so was that kind of like an extra bonus when you decided on the two of them?

Chazelle: Yeah, I love that old Hollywood idea of a returning pair, if that makes sense. You know, Bogie and Bacall, Tracy and Hepburn, obviously Fred and Ginger, that idea that you can build up a persona for that pair through the movies that they've done. It feels like a very old Hollywood idea, for me, that you don't see much anymore, so it was fun to play off that. I think that was part of what Ryan and Emma were excited about, too.

LRM: I hear you're making a new Neil Armstrong movie with Ryan.

Chazelle: Yeah!

LRM: Are you going to try and cast Emma in that, as well? Is there a role that works for her?

Chazelle: Not sure, not sure yet, but that'll be a very different movie. But we'll see.

LRM: Even though the movie hasn’t opened yet, people have really gravitated to the movie, mainly because 2016 has been such a bad year. It's really nice to see something bright and poppy. Do you think this movie would have had the same effect if you made it two or three years ago when you first started? Or do you feel like the time that it's taken to get it made actually helped for when it's being released? 

Chazelle: I don't know, it's that weird thing, where it's like you never know. Again, we started writing this in 2010, 2011, and things were different. So you never really know what kind of world you're going to release the movie into or you're going to make the movie in. But yeah, now it is true that where we are now, it does make me think that a little bit of what the role of art is and hopefully, art can…  I think of it less as providing an escape, but more for just actually allowing you to see the world with a different set of glasses for a moment. And whether that's trying to produce empathy or trying to deliver some kind of hope. I don't see that as escapism, even with musicals, I think of it as ideally something deeper than that. You think of the Fred and Ginger movies in the ‘30s and things like that. I think those movies almost reflect their time, even if it's in a very indirect, counterpoint kind of way.

LRM: True, but then a lot of people like going back to those older movies with the feeling that movies from a bygone era are better than what’s being made these days.  It’s this strange thing that people still have that sort of , this energy on musicals and stuff.

Chazelle: I feel like also those movies are very… like I don't think of them as old-fashioned, I think of them as actually really timeless. There's something about them that doesn't age as much as certain other movies, and I think it's that idea of how grounded they are in authentic human emotion. So that even what I really wanted to do was try to do or capture was what I loved most in those musicals. The idea that no matter how glitzy or glittery the visuals or surface can be, there is the sort of authentic heart at its core.

LRM: I don’t want to spoil it too much, but people have been reacting differently to the ending I've noticed. I personally feel like the ending is a really nice capper, kind of bittersweet and sums up all the emotions. Some people think it's a downer. Have you had a lot of conversations about that with the audiences yet?

Chazelle: Some.  I never thought of it as a downer, I guess is the thing. I always thought of it kind of like life, where some things work out and some things don't, and these two characters, I think, ultimately wind up becoming the people that they are meant to become and that's only because they had each other. I guess that I thought that it’s almost bigger than the idea of just whether they wind up together or not.

LRM: It’s one of those great endings that’s left open for interpretation. One of my favorite movies of all time is “Brazil,” and the ending to that is always going to be discussed, probably for the rest of time. That Neil Armstrong movies… after you're done with all the promotion for this movie is that what you’re going to go right into?

Chazelle:  I'm working with another writer. Josh Singer (Spotlight) wrote the script, so I'm very involved in the work. He's the one doing the writing so it's actually kind of great getting to collaborate with him as I'm also getting this movie out there, but we won't be shooting that for a little bit.

LRM: Do you have a lot of other ideas from the last six or seven years that you might kind of readdress as this movie comes out?

Chazelle: Yeah, there's stuff that I'm taking from this other script, ideas from something I'm trying to write right now on my own. But I'm not sure, I guess I hope it's just to try to stay as active as possible and try to make movies as long as people will let me make them.

LRM: Fair enough. I think with this you kind of hit the pinnacle for musicals, and you probably have to take a little break from musicals for a while…  

Chazelle: Well, yeah I do. I do, either way. I definitely would want to take a little break from music movies in general. That, I'm sure of.

LRM: Great. Listen, Damien, it's great talking to you again. It's a wonderful movie, it's going to be my number 1 again for the year, just like “Whiplash” was.

Chazelle: Oh wow, thank you.

LRM: So your last two movies have been my #1 for their respective year, and I gave them both a 10 out of 10.

Chazelle: Wow, well I really appreciate that.

LRM: So no pressure on you for your fourth movie…

Chazelle: Yeah, right! Right. Thank you.

LRM: Hopefully, next time we talk it'll be in person in New York. Also, I'm not a huge fan of L.A. either, so the fact that I loved this movie despite not liking L.A., that's pretty important.

Chazelle: Ah, that's great to know. That, I like.

LRM: It made me love L.A. in some ways.

Chazelle: I want to win over the skeptics: the L.A. skeptics, the musical skeptics, the jazz skeptics, etc.

LRM: That's a quote! "It made me like L.A." How's that?

Chazelle: I love it. That, to me is the best. That's the best.

LRM: I'll give it to Lionsgate as a pull quote. 

Chazelle: Yes! That should be the entire campaign.

La La Land will be released in select cities on Friday, December 9, with a nationwide release planned before Christmas Day.

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