Winner of six Academy Awards, La La Land is a modern-day musical steeped in the genre traditions of Hollywood’s golden age and the French New Wave. Writer-director Damien Chazelle talks about the challenges in reviving an old-fashioned genre for a contemporary audience.
What initially inspired you to make this movie?
I love old Hollywood musicals and also the musicals of Jacques Demy, like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964). I just felt like there hadn’t been a movie like that in a really long time. Even though there are musicals today, there aren’t musicals in that kind of tradition where the music comes out of the emotion of the characters and the romanticism of the story. Where love is expressed through dance and through a certain kind of whimsy. I wanted to do something in that tradition, but also use that genre to tell a contemporary story about everyday life; about relatable people struggling to make it in today’s world. The idea was to combine the spectacle of the old movies with a nuanced look at reality.
What can you tell us about the story?
In a nutshell, it’s the story of two artists whose dreams bring them together and then threaten to pull them apart. Ryan Gosling plays a jazz musician. Emma Stone plays an aspiring actress. And they meet in this city that’s notorious for dreams writ large and broken dreams writ large. It charts their time together and specifically the challenge of balancing love and art, real life and dreams – the balance that, to me, musicals are all about.
What’s the history of the project?
I originally wrote this before Whiplash. But it was hard to get it off the ground. It is a very personal story to me, just the same way Whiplash was. It’s about people in LA, artists trying to pursue their dreams, not always with success. That’s the position I was in when I was writing it. So I was writing myself into this full-blown musical. No one wanted to touch it because… Well, A, it was a musical and, B, who the hell was I? It just was not the kind of movie that Hollywood makes anymore.
So Whiplash made La La Land possible?
Yes. No one wanted to make La La Land. And so I wrote Whiplash out of frustration, almost. I poured all my rage into Whiplash (laughs)… So you can see where that came from (laughs)… Whiplash was a smaller project, so I was actually able to get that off the ground pretty quickly. After making Whiplash, in typical Hollywood fashion, suddenly the musical nobody wanted now seemed more appealing. That said, even after Whiplash, it was still hard to get it off the ground.
Why do you think contemporary audiences are ready for a musical?
Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Jacques Demy; 1964) was a huge success when it came out. But the problem was that as you got into the 60s and 70s the trend in cinema worldwide was gearing towards verisimilitude and realism. There was no place for that kind of pure expression of fantasy. I think today things are actually a little different. I think that in many ways the musical in certain hybrid forms is as strong as ever today. From Broadway to TV to the big screen, there’s a lot of what you would consider musicals out there and people seem very eager and willing to embrace that kind of language. What there isn’t, though, is any musical that, to me, is in the tradition of those earlier movies. Yes, they have the big spectacle. But if you look back at a lot of those old MGM movies or the Jacques Demy movies, they’re actually pretty intimate stories about relatable people. Even the singing styles, the numbers, feel more quotidian. Something like Meet Me in St. Louis (Vincente Minnelli, 1944) or Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly; 1952), or the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movies… To me, I watch them and I really feel like, “Ah, there’s magic in the everyday.”
Above: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)
What do you love most about them?
If you watch a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie, they’ll be talking and bickering. And then that will very organically, gradually and seamlessly, segue into singing or dancing. And the acting never stops. If you look at Ginger Rogers face, I find it incredible. Just looking at her face during something like “Cheek to Cheek” in Top Hat (Mark Sandrich, 1935) – it’s one of the greatest pieces of screen acting I’ve ever seen. Obviously we look at their feet and their incredible dance moves, but when you look at her face, there’s a whole range of emotion still going on about how she feels about this guy who’s pursuing her… The Jacques Demy musicals are also explicitly about real, ordinary people and things not always working out well, a kind of bittersweet sense of reality. Of course, when you say the word ‘musical’ to a lot of people today, they immediately think of everything being at ‘eleven’, with loud costumes and loud makeup… But I think there’s a different way of doing it.
What kind of music can we expect in the film?
There’s a little bit of a range. But for the most part the music is steeped in the style of those 50s, and 60s movies that I really love. It’s very much influenced by Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Bernstein, Michel Legrand, Nino Rota. My composer, Justin Hurwitz, and I went to college together. We were in a band our first year at school – that’s how we met. So while we were in college, we just started talking about old movies, and old musicals specifically, and decided it would be awesome to do one together. He was writing these songs and the score as I was writing the script.
Tell us about the casting of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone…
They combine the two things that I really needed to make this gambit work, which is old school charisma – they feel like old school movie stars – and yet at the same time they’re also very real and relatable. They have a way of performing that can be very subtle, very nuanced. Ryan can say so much with just a single look, and Emma is so expressive – the camera trains on her eyes and you just want to go where she’s going. They have this immediate connection with the audience that great movie stars have, but they also happen to be really good actors, which is not always the same thing. And they were also willing to take the plunge. It was a big challenge for both of them to do this.
What was it like shooting the film?
It was so much fun. It was hard (laughs)… But it was so much fun. During preproduction all the departments – costume, dance, camera, myself and the actors – we were all together in this ‘encampment’ that we sort of set up in the [San Fernando] Valley. It really felt like what you grew up dreaming movie-making would be, everyone collaborating and there was just so much joy creating and experimenting together. I think the old MGM musicals really speak to that as well; movies that bring together a lot of different craftsmen from different kinds of arts – painting, music, dance, writing… They all come together in the musical. It was just really fun to have those different disciplines speak to each other.
Logistically? Yeah, pulling off a musical, mostly in real locations in Los Angeles was very challenging. We had to shut down a freeway ramp to do one number there. We did another at the Griffith Park Observatory (a key location in the 1955 James Dean classic, Rebel Without a Cause). It was hard. But it was so cool to walk through the city that I live in and try to transform it into what an old studio soundstage would feel like.
What were the rehearsals like?
It was a very organic dialogue between the choreographer (Mandy Moore), Ryan, Emma and myself. And the camera department as well. You know it’s one thing to develop a really nice dance number, choreograph it, rehearse it, set up six cameras and shoot it, and then find it in the cutting room. But to me that actually destroys the idea of dance on film. There’s a correct place for every moment in the number where the camera should be. I really believe that. And so the camera had to be as choreographed as well as the dance.
How did you know if your two leads would be able to pull it off?
You never know. I didn’t know if Miles [Teller] would be able to do the drumming in Whiplash either. You never know for sure. You just set a challenge for people and you hope they rise to the occasion. Still, in a way, it’s a self-selecting process. Ryan and Emma came onboard knowing that there was going to be a huge workload. And I was open to them right at the beginning about how we were going to shoot it. I told them: “We’re not going to be doing lots of cuts. We’re going to be letting these things unfold. We’re going to be doing everything for real. There’s no CG-trickery.” Ryan also had to learn to play the piano… And even with the piano playing, there’s not a single shot, even close-ups of the hands, that’s a double. He did everything. To me it was part of them embracing their characters. It was all as much of their preparation as learning their lines.
What about the songs?
Some of the singing was done live on set, which helps in terms of the seamlessness of blending from talking to singing. Some of it was also done to playback, so it’s a little bit of a mix in the movie. It’s all Ryan and Emma. And also, John Legend, who is also in the movie. Obviously he had no trouble in that department (laughs)… Still, there’s so much training and rehearsing and prep that goes into a musical, more so than most other movies, so by the time we were on set it felt like we had all been a family for a really long time… I wouldn’t say it was easy, but it just kind of flowed. Prep was the real crucible where things got hashed out; where numbers would get developed, cut, and then resurrected
J.K. Simmons (who won an Oscar for his performance in Whiplash) is in the film as well?
It’s a fun cameo. I love the guy so much, it’s hard to envision doing a movie without him popping up somewhere. Otherwise, how is it a movie?
Is it a gentler role than the one he played in Whiplash?
Well… Actually, it’s hard to not be gentler than Whiplash. So yes (laughs).
You said before you weren’t able to realise this film years ago, when you were first starting out as a filmmaker. What was it about this project that made you stick with it?
It’s a good question… There were many moments with this movie where I thought it would never get made. Or where we’d get close and suddenly, in typical Hollywood fashion, things change and suddenly it’s shelved…. But then you look back and you realize, maybe it wasn’t meant to be made at that point, because it wouldn’t be the film that it now is. What I’m really happy about with this movie, what’s so exciting to me about it is I really feel that I was able to make the movie that I envisioned, the movie that I dreamed of. There is something about finally getting to do it… You’re very cognisant of: ‘I’m not going to waste this opportunity… If I never get to make another movie again, at least I’ll put everything into this one.’ That was the hope.