The director of the award-winning musical La La Land on why we need old-style Hollywood romanticism more than ever
“Here’s to the fools who dream/ Crazy as they may seem,” sings Emma Stone, at first tremulously then with rousing conviction in La La Land. The movie of the moment is a joyous musical that stars Stone as a downtrodden barista and wannabe movie actor and Ryan Gosling as a lounge pianist, both of whom long for artistic success and love. Yet the real dream belongs to the film’s writer-director, Damien Chazelle, who was foolish enough to struggle for six years to bring this unlikely project to the screen.
His nostalgic — and ironic — valentine to Hollywood has just won an unprecedented seven Golden Globes, been nominated for 11 Baftas and is set to ride a tsunami of adulation to the Oscars next month, where it is odds-on with the bookies to be named best picture.
My life was a lot like the movie — big dreams that were unrealistic and didn’t pay bills
At 31 years old, Chazelle, who broke through in 2014 with Whiplash, is something of an all-singing, all-dancing wunderkind. In La La Land he has managed to distil Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’s glory of yore, add a touch of French style with a nod to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and contrast the musical highs with comic lows to add shadow to his light confection.
“You have your heart out on a sleeve with a musical, especially an original musical, these days,” says Chazelle, sitting in a hotel suite in central London. A polite man, modestly dressed in black jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt, he is still clearly gobsmacked by his project’s success. “I wanted to dust away the idea of musicals as a performance for judges where it’s all about executing a series of steps and get back to the idea of walking seguing into dancing into singing, all of it stemming from characters and emotion. What was really missing today was that full-fledged high romanticism Hollywood used to churn out, and now we are too cynical, too realistic-minded. Movies have gotten very literal; even the big special effects movies today are all about verisimilitude.”
Chazelle grew up in New Jersey, the son of Bernard Chazelle, a French-born professor of computer science at Princeton, and Celia Martin, an American-Canadian writer and professor of history. He imagined La La Land in collaboration with the composer Justin Hurwitz, whom he met at Harvard, where Chazelle was studying film-making. The pair were in a “gentlemen’s rock” band called Chester French, with Chazelle on drums and Hurwitz on keyboards. They made Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, a jazz musical with added grit, as their graduation-thesis-turned-movie. Then they headed for Hollywood, where Orson Welles had made Citizen Kane aged 26, and pitched La La Land. No one cared.
“We were young and naive, and it took about six years to convince anyone to give us the money. None of us had that much in the way of calling cards,” says Chazelle, who also worked with the lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Rather like Mia and Sebastian, the heroes in La La Land, he lived in grotty apartments in Los Angeles, at one point rooming with Hurwitz, and tutored schoolkids and fixed scripts to make money. Hurwitz had nothing but a piano in his bare living room; when Chazelle suggested that Gosling’s character do the same, Gosling refused, saying: “No, that is just too sad.”
Chazelle laughs. “It was never too nasty, but more just mundane schlepping through the days in LA when time seems to fly because you don’t know if it’s winter or summer; always kind of the same.” La La Land carefully labels its Identikit sunny seasons throughout. “A year goes by and you realise you haven’t progressed anywhere. It was a lot like the movie; big dreams that were unrealistic and didn’t correspond to day-to-day life — or pay bills. But we had faith that eventually, as long as we were persistent . . .” Chazelle gestures at the La La Land film posters on the wall of the hotel room. “In the interim I made Whiplash and that was just enough to get us a foot in the door.”
That’s a typically modest statement. Whiplash, which starred Miles Teller as a student drummer (a more dedicated one than Chazelle) and JK Simmons as his psychotic music teacher, was nominated for five Oscars in 2015, including best picture. It won three: best supporting actor for Simmons, sound mixing and film editing.
Originally La La Land was pitched with Emma Watson and Teller in the lead roles, but I reckon you’d have to hose them hourly with Chanel No 5 to make them a romantic combo. Fortunately “scheduling issues” intervened. “I started talking to Emma Stone, kept talking, and then met Ryan independently,” says Chazelle. Stone and Gosling had already proved themselves to be an electric — and funny — pairing in the 2011 rom-com Crazy, Stupid, Love.
Chazelle goes into a paean for Stone, his eyes lighting up: “I wanted to work with her for a long time,” he says. “When I was writing the script I thought of her and then it was a pipe dream to get into her and Ryan’s orbit. When I finally met her she was in the middle of Cabaret on Broadway, and there’s something old Hollywood about her, especially her red hair and her green eyes; something very Technicolor about her, something very Ginger Rogers or Carole Lombard or Irene Dunn, something about the comic energy she has. She was ideal for a role which on the page looked very vulnerable and fragile, somebody at the end of their rope, a struggling artist exposing herself day in and day out in a most emotionally revealing way to constant rejection.”
Phew. While we’re talking about suffering for art, has Chazelle, like his protagonists, sacrificed love for success? “It suffers if you’re not careful,” he says, a little edgy. “With this and Whiplash the question was, how do you find that balance between life and career? Making art can be a kind of monastic enterprise even if it’s collaborative. If you’re a musician, most of your time you’re practising alone.”
He was married to Jasmine McGlade, whom he credited as an executive-producer on La La Land. Since 2015 his partner has been Olivia Hamilton, a Princeton-educated entrepreneur, who has a tiny role in the movie as Bree, the gluten free girl. The couple live in Venice Beach with their rescue dog, Colin. “Writing, storyboarding, thinking necessitates solitude, but in order to be an artist you have to love life, otherwise you don’t have anything to write about,” Chazelle says, grinning.
Making La La Land sounds like huge fun. The cast settled into a warehouse in Los Angeles to rehearse for three months, or as Gosling said in his acceptance speech at the Globes, “singing and dancing and playing piano and having one of the best experiences I’ve ever had on a film”.
When Chazelle and Gosling met at a bar in Hollywood “we started bonding over Gene Kelly”, says the director. “Ryan’s a huge fan and latched on to the idea and to being reunited with Emma. He wanted it all to feel grounded and human, so he did the same dance training as Emma, although in his case he was learning to be a jazz pianist so he started learning four months beforehand and kept a keyboard in his trailer.”
Some of the piano soundtrack is played by the musician Randy Kerber, but “Ryan had the piano coach by his side every day on set and there’s not a single shot that is not Ryan, even close-ups of his hands. His hand double was wasted, so on day one I let him go.”
While Chazelle seems unassuming, it’s clear he has balls of steel when it comes to taking risks on untrained pianists and impossible-to-shoot sequences. The film’s pièce de résistance comes at the beginning, shot on a freeway ramp over the roaring traffic of LA, as gridlocked drivers jump out of their cars and sing and dance to Hurwitz’s Another Day of Sun. It looks like a single five-minute take, but there are two sneaky cuts, says Chazelle. “We could only afford to shut the freeway for two days and we had a crane moving down one lane of traffic, so the camera could glide over cars. I had no idea whether we’d get anything useable, but I thought, ‘What the hell, go for it.’ ”
His bravado has paid off. His next project may be equally testing: it’s about Neil Armstrong and the Moon landing. Sadly, it won’t be one small tap-dance step for man, but a straightforward movie.
Now, however, Chazelle has to get his tuxedo dry-cleaned for a full-on awards season running up to the Oscars. The musical is gorgeous escapism for tricky times. I mention to him that American cinema receipts went up by 50 per cent the weekend after Donald Trump was elected. He snorts: “I engineered the whole thing!”
We talk about the musicals that came out of the Depression. “They are a counterpoint, but even the most fantastical musicals are saying something about where humanity was at that time. What La La Land says is that it doesn’t matter if your dreams come true or not, but the act of chasing them is beautiful. I certainly couldn’t have conceived the world would be as shitty as it is now when I wrote it.”
There may be worse to come. Presidents like to invite Oscar winners to show their movies in the cinema at the White House. Chazelle squirms in horror. “I wouldn’t feel comfortable showing the movie. Ewww. God. Just thinking now about Trump in the White House. I can’t believe what’s happened to us and to you guys with Brexit. Still, maybe I’ll move to London.” London Land, the musical, anyone?
La La Land is released today
So can they dance?
By Debra Craine, chief dance critic
La La Land is hailed as a throwback to the golden age of the Hollywood musical, so at some point you can expect the film’s stars to step up and trip the light fantastic. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling may not be Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, but they do enjoy a romantic tryst dancing a sentimental duet under a starry Los Angeles sky — and our hearts duly melt.
There isn’t much dance in the two-hour film, yet everyone seems to remember it. Perhaps that’s because the opening sequence — a spontaneous danceathon in rush-hour traffic — kicks the action off with the wow factor. Shooting in CinemaScope and using a huge cast of dancers letting rip amid a sea of gridlocked vehicles heightens the effect, while the choreographer Mandy Moore gives her moves the ring of authenticity, despite the unlikely setting.
Stone is not a great mover — unlike Gosling, who has a certain easy grace — but her gawkiness feels all the more real, while Moore’s choreography serves both actors well, despite lacking the outstanding style of Bob Fosse, say, or Busby Berkeley. And how else but in dance could you get away with that amazing scene in the Griffith Observatory in which our young lovers literally float for joy?
There’s a nifty scene at the end of Damien Chazelle’s film that references Gene Kelly’s spectacular American in Paris ballet — a golden age moment if ever there was one — but all it did was make me wish that La La Land had dared to dance even more.