Creating a City of Stars: “La La Land”

Photo Credit: Damien Chazelle| Summit Entertainment

Damien Chazelle’s take on his ambitious musical romance film and how it came to be

Arturo Hilario

El Observador

American film director and screenwriter Damien Chazelle is known for his breakout 2014 “drummer with a death wish” drama “Whiplash”, and now will get notice for another musical based film. Chazelle wrote and directed his new musical film “La La Land”, which has released to a lot of buzz, from critics and audiences alike.

Yes, a mainstream movie musical in 2016. Let me add my first hand account that it turns out the film is full of ambition, soul and grounded in reality. And of course, people singing.

Unlike the musicals on Broadway that are constricted to the stage and surrounding area to tell the tale, or the studio sets the old “studio system” Hollywood musicals “La La Land” is fashioned around used, this film allows grounded emotions and uses the city of Los Angeles (and its actual congested freeway overpasses) as a character to create distinct magical moments on screen.

The story of Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone), two people trying to make their deepest dreams come true in present day Los Angeles seems like a tricky thing when the reality of LA and the dreamy escape that is old Hollywood ideals intersect. Yet throughout the film the transitions from “oh god, 80’s cover bands, Prius’ and cell phones” to dizzying spectacle and song are almost seamless, and according to Chazelle it’s because of the adventurous efforts of the cast and crew to make a musical that hits emotions in the cinema. The following is a recent conversation with him.

Damien, to start off, how did the concept of “La La Land” start off? Where did it come from.

First and foremost I think that there was something about the old Hollywood musicals that I just loved and wanted to try to recapture, I was also interested in kind of modernizing the genre and trying to both reach back and push it forward at the same time and tell a contemporary, modern and hopefully realistic story about LA, but through the prism of those older movies. I started writing it about 6 years ago and I was working on it with Fred Berger and Jordan Horowitz and I had already worked with my composer Justin Hurwitz, we’d gone to school together. So the four of us just started working on it, started trying to pound this out. This was back in late 2010-2011.

This couldn’t have happened elsewhere in the world but in “la la land”, or “tinseltown”.

No I don’t think so. I think that LA is one of the major characters, it has that idea that as much as the physical city is the idea, part of it (is) that it’s the city that is born and built by the movie people coming from all over the world to work.

What was it like filming and preparing you and your actors for this film? This is your and many others, (including Gosling and Stone’s) first musical film.

It was this sort of big gamble for all of us but that was probably what was fun about it I think. Especially with them I wanted people in the movie who didn’t all associate with musicals. I wanted it to be something of a surprise when they break in song. At the same time we need actors that were good enough to ground those things and to ease an audience, especially an audience today who’s watched very strict musicals, into that world. Ryan and Emma just have those special, magical capabilities individually and together and they just apply that bridge. They just kind of jumped into rehearsals for three months. It was a very intensive prep to get ready for shooting.

What were your reference films and works when you wrote the screenplay for “La La Land”?

Certainly all the great MGM musicals from the 40’s 50’s and I think I was also so smitten by the French New Wave musicals in the 60’s, movies that took the MGM style but sort of put it in the real world so to speak. I hadn’t seen anything like that in a really long time so I wanted to kind of do something in that vein. Those movies were incredibly inspiring.

Was there any intimidation or uneasiness in going from a smaller, quieter (but sound-wise very loud) film like “Whiplash” to this extravagant musical film?

Yeah I think there’s a certain amount of fear in all of our parts and taking a risk and jumping into the deep end a little bit but what was really kind of wonderful about the whole process was it ended up being this group of people who I was able to make the movie with. People who were up for challenge and were excited by it. You get anxiety from that but you get this tremendous excitement from it and I just remember shooting and it’s this adventure where we set these challenges and we weren’t sure if we would meet, and then just continually try to meet them. And there’s this certain kind of energy and athleticism and exhilaration to the set that I have just never felt before.

Based on how you are feeling now that it’s premiering and you hear the feedback and you see it on the screen in finality, was it what you imagined in your wildest dreams your musical film could be?

It’s crazy, and the short answer is yes. For a movie that was just basically a dream movie for 6 years and that it would probably never get made or never get made the way I wanted it to get made. Again, the group of people that came on board to make it just didn’t meet my hopes and expectations they exceeded them.I think in every step of the way they and pushed me to make this film even better, and pushed me to make myself a better filmmaker and I think we all pushed each other in this wonderful collaborative endeavor so I guess I’m mainly just proud of their accomplishments of the movies, each member of the team whether it’s cast or camera or production design or costumes or sound or music. What every team, and every person brought to the movie. They all just did extraordinary work.

What do you hope that people come out with after they leave “La La Land”?

I hope they come out with some amount of hope I’d say, that it takes them on an emotional ride, maybe something they’re not expecting. I think a musical can be such a profoundly emotional experience and sometimes they don’t get credit for that. So I’m hoping that that it will change people’s minds to the genre and it reminds them why these sort of movies can be so moving.

“La La Land” is out December 16th.