When Damien Chazelle wrote and directed “La La Land” following his Oscar-winning “Whiplash,” he wanted to tell a deeply personal story about two people who are driven by giant dreams that bring them together but also tear them apart. Through song and dance storytelling, he explores the balance between life and art, reality and dreams, and how your relationship to your art transforms your relationships with other people. In this visual love letter to the City of Angels, Chazelle channels the magic and energy of the most poignantly romantic musicals of filmmaking’s Golden Age into something luminous and modern starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone.
At the film’s recent press day in Los Angeles, MoviesOnline sat down at a roundtable interview with Chazelle who discussed how he looked for ways to bring a contemporary language that was musical, visual and emotional to a genre that runs the risk of nostalgia. He talked about the timeless Old Hollywood persona that Gosling and Stone brought to their roles, his creative partnership with composer Justin Hurwitz and Broadway lyricists Benj Pasek & Justin Paul, the brilliant dance sequences choreographed by Mandy Moore, his collaboration with Swedish cinematographer Linus Sandgren who captured an iconic L.A. in a fresh new light, and what it means to pursue your grandest artistic dreams.
Here is what he had to tell us:
QUESTION: Was “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench” sort of a training ground for you to do a musical?
DAMIEN CHAZELLE: Yes, it pretty much was. I was working with the same composer, Justin Hurwitz. We were college roommates and so we made “Guy and Madeline” together, and we were finishing it right as we were moving out to L.A. Pretty early on, we were talking abstractly about doing another more full-fledged musical together. I didn’t start writing this one until a few years later, until 2010, 2011. We definitely put what we had learned into this.
As you were writing and developing it, how did you determine what real-life locations you would want to use around L.A.?
CHAZELLE: Some stuff was very much there at the outset in the script. I knew I wanted Griffith Observatory to be a big part of the story. I knew that I wanted to use a studio lot. To me, I think of the old studio lots as some of the great monuments of L.A. history. It was just the kind of movie history that you get from those stretches. So, I wanted to do a sequence in there. There were certain things that I knew I wanted to touch on. Something like Angels Flight was probably in the script early on. Then, there were other things that we just discovered as we scouted. We did a long period – months and months – of scouting through Los Angeles and seeing what looked interesting and what seemed right for our movie and hadn’t been over-filmed recently, often trying to find stuff off the beaten path, even locations that weren’t necessarily that beautiful at first, that conventionally beautiful at first glance, but that we could make beautiful through how we shot them.
What would be an example of that?
CHAZELLE: Well, certain stretches in the Valley near where Ryan’s character lives, such as Panorama City and places around there, and certain stretches of roads that I do find really beautiful but aren’t pretty, I guess, in the sense that it’s all kind of old buildings and nice little kept-up gardens or whatever. It’s where you see the telephone wires going to infinity or the gas stations and things like that and the wide roads – stuff like that, that I think if you shoot it a certain way, and certainly we shot everything on film, and anamorphic just gives it a kind of scope and texture that I think can almost make anything beautiful. L.A. just has a certain kind of majesty. Even the stretches of the city that we don’t think of as conventionally picturesque can be incredibly compelling on screen.
I loved how you opened the film with a dance sequence in the middle of morning gridlock on a freeway overpass. Can you talk a little bit about your collaboration with Mandy Moore and her choreography?
CHAZELLE: She’s incredible. She came on board really early, well before we got into prep. Early on, we were just talking very conceptually about the different numbers. The settings and the basic thrust of the ideas were baked into the script, but she had to figure out a way to actually concretely turn those into dance and deal with the limitations of the environment. Almost all the numbers were done in real locations. It’s either a curved freeway ramp that’s like this at all times with people atop cars during a heat wave. Or it’s where Ryan and Emma do their duet dance atop the hill. That hill is also super slanted and filled with potholes. It’s all these kinds of things that normally would impede your choreography. She has this brilliant way of using those limitations to her advantage, which to me is really in the tradition of what Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire did in their movies, even though most of those were shot on studio back stages or studio lots using the kind of fabric of everyday life, using objects or bric-a-brac or whatever to be the seeds of a dance number, or using everyday emotions to be the seeds of a dance number. Mandy is brilliant at doing that while making stuff feel modern and never allowing it to drift too far into museum box territory.
Did you shut down the freeway for the opening number, “Traffic”?
CHAZELLE: We shut down that ramp. It’s an easy pass ramp so we were able to shut it down for a weekend, and then Mandy came in with a hundred of her dancers, just packed it and did her thing. It was fun.
I enjoyed one of the Easter Eggs in the movie where The Messengers, the band, play words on Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.
CHAZELLE: I’m a drummer myself so Art Blakey was a hero of mine and still is. But it also seemed like the kind of name that they would try to do, starting off as jazz, and then basically lopping off the jazz.
The music in this is incredible. Can you talk a little bit about how you collaborated with Justin Hurwitz and Benj Pasek & Justin Paul to write these songs?
CHAZELLE: I’ve known Justin since college, and he also did the music on “Whiplash.” We just have a shorthand. As soon as I was starting to write the script, he was writing the melodies by my side basically, and we would send stuff back and forth. He’d send me piano demos and I’d send him scenes. We just had this kind of dialogue going for a few years. Then, once we had the songs more or less in place with placeholder lyrics, then we were lucky enough to meet Benj Pasek and Justin Paul who are New York based and more in the theater world. They provided the lyrics to these songs, even though they actually normally do both music and lyrics. Here, they slipped into the role of lyricists, but of course were able to collaborate wonderfully with Justin as musicians themselves. Again, there was this very open dialogue between all of us and stuff evolved a lot – from many songs that wound up not involved in the movie or wound up going through total overhauls.
Was there a specific segment that went through the biggest overhaul?
CHAZELLE: I know, for example, the lyrics for the duet dance that Ryan and Emma do, we still didn’t have locked in lyrics on that until about a week before shooting that. Even deep into the shoot, we were still working on those lyrics. Whereas some of the other songs like Emma’s “Audition” number, that was actually one of the quickest ones to write. Justin wrote the music very quickly, and then Pasek & Paul contributed the lyrics very quickly, and that didn’t go through a lot of revisions. There were some where it just felt right, right away, and then others where it was more dependent on the ups and downs of the script and how the script was evolving, especially when we were in prep, me and Ryan and Emma and then the music team. Every time a script change would happen, it would inform the songs and vice versa. The same with choreography. It’s part of the challenge of doing a musical. You feel like you’re doing three movies at once and each one has to be responsive to the other. But again, it was possible because they’re so good and nimble in terms of they were able to respond very quickly to every little change that was happening.
The city is not only like a character in this film, but also the entire movie is a love letter to it. As someone not from here, can you describe what your relationship was to L.A. prior and then through the discovery of it through the filming?
CHAZELLE: I grew up on the East Coast mainly, thinking of L.A. as what we’re told on the East Coast that L.A. is – this cultureless vacuum of concrete wasteland. Then, I moved here about nine years ago and it was a very different city than I had been told it was. I remember just being taken aback by the city when I first moved here. There really is no other city like L.A. It’s really its own thing. A lot of things that people criticize L.A. for are the things that make it entirely unique. I learned to love L.A. more and more by accepting that it wasn’t Paris, it’s not New York, it’s really its own thing. That’s what I tried to celebrate in this movie. Even starting with some of the stuff that we like to make fun of about L.A. – the traffic, the obnoxious parties – and trying to start with some of those negative clichés of L.A. and build even from there to a love letter for this city. Again, it’s all about how you look at things. Some people say, “Oh L.A., it’s all these people with their heads in the clouds moving there and everyone is trying to be in showbiz or write this or do this and it’s just a whole bunch of… it’s not real.” But, you look at it on the other side and you can say, “Well, that’s actually kind of beautiful. It’s a community of dreamers and people who are pursuing what they want to pursue, and then it still has this dream factory allure that it had a hundred years ago. It still throbs like a center for that.” Every city has its problems, but I wanted to try to subvert some of the criticisms of L.A. and try to at least present the poetry of the place.
There was an absence of an establishing shot of the skyline in the film, and for a film that touched on everything that is great in L.A., I think we have a fantastic skyline. But you chose never to incorporate that in your film. Was that a conscious choice or did it just not fit into what you were doing?
CHAZELLE: To me, in terms of the skyline of L.A., what makes L.A. unique is the flat carpet of lights. So, other than the one kind of moment, the glimpse we get at the top of the freeway ramp at the end of that number, the one thing I was very adamant about was that we shouldn’t see Downtown. It’s not that I don’t like Downtown. I love Downtown. But, to me, every city has its downtown and its high rises and it just wasn’t unique to L.A. I didn’t want to see that. So, anytime you see long vantage points, you’re either seeing mountains, or when they’re on top of the hill, you’re seeing just the flat carpet of lights. I guess that was the conscious choice. Then again, we did wind up shooting lots of characterless establishing shots of the city that we peppered in a little bit throughout the movie, but not nearly as much as I initially thought we would. Initially, I had the second unit photographers shoot a ton of stuff thinking that it would be peppered throughout the entire movie. We wound up only using them for little isolated sequences and some of the montages because it didn’t really fit with the sort of language of the movie, I think, to kind of get those wider views except in certain kind of moments.
That’s why it was so powerful to see so much of Griffith Observatory but to never show the view.
CHAZELLE: It was really nice to also shoot in there. It was this wonderful thing, because they’re closed on Mondays, so there we had to shoot everything on a Monday, and you’re not allowed to touch anything basically. You’re barely allowed to light it. But again, just talk about the gift of a location, in the sense that it’s one of my favorite buildings in the world. That was one of my favorite moments in the shoot, getting in to actually shoot Griffith for Griffith.
Did you always intend to cast Ryan and Emma? And how did you play with their obviously established chemistry?
CHAZELLE: Casting of the movie went through lots of permutations. I had thought of Ryan and Emma way back when I was first writing it, but it never really seemed realistic that I would get them. So, it was a little bit of the irony or kismet or whatever that it wound up in their laps years after initially writing the script. They happened to be available and they happened to both want to do it. What I loved about them and the idea of them in the movie, both when I was first writing it and later at that point, was just this kind of Old Hollywood persona that they have, both individually and as a pair. They reminded me of some of those recurring pairs in old studio movies, like Bogie & Bacall, Katherine Hepburn & Spencer Tracy, Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers. There used to be more of the idea of a recurring couple in movies, and they would kind of bring the baggage from each movie to the next, and I liked that. Yet, at the same time, Ryan and Emma, just as much as any actors today, are very contemporary actors. They’re very post-Method kind of actors in their style and in their relatability to a modern audience. They’re very accessible and they have a kind of spontaneity to them. I knew those would be things that would be helpful for especially selling a traditional musical to an audience now. I didn’t want people who we associated with musicals. I wanted people who felt real and human and in the moment, people we felt we knew a little bit, people whose hands we’d be willing to take, and then be ushered by them into this more heightened world.
The cinematography in this is incredible as well. The color saturation is so powerful. Can you talk about working with your cinematographer Linus Sandgren to get these homages but also do your own thing?
CHAZELLE: He’s a genius. Again, as with a lot of these people, I feel very lucky that we snared him. Linus Sandgren is a Swedish DP but he’s been living in L.A. for a while. He had this quality of talking about L.A. and looking at L.A. when I first met him that I really responded to. That comes a little bit from him both loving the city and having lived here for a while, but also being an outsider and seeing it from a different places point of view. He just had an insight into certain things in the city that I loved. Also, we shared a reverence for the same influences and the same kinds of photography. He’s a very emotionally intuitive cinematographer. He really has a sense of how light and color and those basic materials of photography can be emotionally expressive and not just there. We talked a lot about old technicolor movies and movies back when color felt like a choice and not the default, and trying to make sure that every color in this movie would be saying something, and that like my favorite musicals, hopefully at the end of the day the whole thing would feel like just one sustained statement. Ideally, in a musical, when it works, all of those things –the photography, the music, the production design, and the costumes– just feel like one piece of music. He was amazingly able to both do that and collaborate with our production designer and our costume designer and with Mandy (Moore) in terms of figuring out how the camera would move, what colors it would highlight, and how he would light things so as to bring out the colors instead of either counteracting or masking them. He was just a wonderful DP. I can’t say enough good things about him.
“La La Land” opens in L.A. and N.Y. on December 9th and nationwide on December 16th.