Interview: 'La La Land' Director Damien Chazelle on Making a Musical
"I wanted the movie to be a love letter to not just dreams, but to the kinds of dreams that society often mocks." He's only 31 years old, but has already made two of my favorite movies. Damien Chazelle is the writer/director of Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, Whiplash (from 2014) and this year's La La Land, an exuberant and exciting musical that is my #1 movie of the year. La La Land premiered to rave reviews at the Venice, Telluride, and Toronto Film Festivals this fall and is now playing in theaters nationwide. I was lucky enough to catch up with Chazelle at the Telluride Film Festival and sit down to talk about making La La Land. I was still on a high from the movie, and was very excited to chat with him about everything - from Ryan Gosling's piano playing, to capturing Los Angeles, to making sure this success doesn't go to his head.
I originally flipped for Whiplash when I first saw it at the Sundance Film Festival in 2014. It ended up on my Top 10 of 2014, and instantly made me a fan of Damien Chazelle. La La Land turned out even better than I hoped, and it's unquestionably my #1 movie of 2016. I totally adore this film, I love it so much; I listen to the soundtrack daily, and I can't wait to watch it again and again once it's out on Blu-ray. It was an honor to meet Damien and chat with him, and also fascinating because he's the same age as me, just a fairly young guy making the movies he wants to make. Telling stories about dreaming big and actually achieving those dreams. As with most great filmmakers, I could've talked with Damien for hours, geeking out about great movies and the challenges of filmmaking. I wish him all the best and can't wait to see what he makes next.
My first question - how did you pull this off? How did you get here? You were working on this long before Whiplash, right? But the success of that film helped this one get made, correct?
Damien Chazelle: Yeah, it did to a certain extent, definitely. Hollywood became more interested in this script after Whiplash, for sure. But it was still — it's funny, because we got together with Lionsgate, who wound up making the movie, shortly after the Sundance where we premiered Whiplash. So it was still a ways before the actual release of Whiplash. And from that moment until shooting it was still this up and down thing with the movie where — there were budget changes, casting changes, all sorts of things. So, you know, if you had asked me on any given day during that whole process whether this movie was actually going to get made, I would have said it's anybody's guess.
Damien: I remember that we — me and Justin Hurwitz, the composer who I'd gone to college with — we'd been talking about doing this movie forever. And the two producers I developed it with, I remember the day before shooting we got together for drinks, just end of prep kind of drinks. It basically became a celebration of "wow, we've made it this far. I don't think they can pull the plug now, because we literally start shooting tomorrow." So that was literally the victory of just making it in front of cameras. Because that alone had seemed so out of reach for so long.
Why I'm asking is that from my standpoint, it seems so "easy" — which is probably the worst thing to say to you for all that you went through, but from what we see on this end…
Damien: No, that's a great thing.
You seem so confident in what you're doing, what you're shooting, what you're creating.
Damien: That's awesome to hear. To me actually, that's what I loved about those old musicals — clearly what they're doing is very hard. But those movies are all about effortlessness and they're about a certain kind of spontaneous emotion that doesn't feel over-rehearsed… I think it's something that older musicals especially really had that we've lost a little bit, that sense that it still feels human, you know. That even though you can have these massive painted backdrops and crazy tap dance moves and etc., etc., those movies to me still feel so human and grounded.
With the success of Whiplash and all the praise that La La Land is getting, how do you not let that success get to your head? It's almost that this film could have fallen apart, but it didn't. And you were able to pull this off and make such an uplifting, optimistic film in the end…
Damien: Yeah. I mean, I feel like the one thing I think that I'm good at is not getting confident.
Damien: I feel like it's the one ace up my sleeve… My mind is just not wired to let success get to its head. I'm such a neurotic, self-doubter and such a, "oh my God, what if this happens? And then this happens," like, the worst case scenario… I'm a little bit of a mental case in that way, like a lot of us in the film business, I'm sure. So I know I'm not alone. But I feel like I'm always going to be doubting and worrying with every movie I make. I do have to work hard, especially now, to try not to get too preoccupied with this sort of stuff.
It's about trying to be grateful for opportunities that allow me to make the movies I want to make. And that any time I can… [for example] remembering those pre-shoot drinks before La La Land is informative for me, because in a way — that should be the attitude. To be thankful to make something that you want to make. And anytime I'm given the chance to make a movie that I want to make or dreamed of making, that's a victory, and to try to keep…
You gotta keep that mindset as you continue on.
Damien: To keep that mindset. So that it's not so results oriented, but God knows my mind is… it can be hard for me to space in.
Are you a perfectionist, too?
Damien: Yeah, for sure. For sure.
Is that hard to achieve with something like La La Land?
How many takes did it take to get some of these scenes perfect?
Damien: I think average take number was in the 40s, usually.
For a full dance number or for particular dialogue scenes?
Damien: That would be for… So we're talking five minute takes and you do about 40 of those. So by the end you're spending most of the day on just [one dance number].
Damien: Then again, something like the scene where they're at dinner together, we shot that much more conventionally. That was shot with two cameras. It's probably the only thing in the movie, other than the John Legend concert, that we shot with two cameras. And so that was shot standard: "shot, reverse shot", but we still did lots and lots of takes of that and tried lots of different things. I have the philosophy that — especially with this movie, we tried so hard to get this movie made for so long that once we're on set, I'll be damned if I'm going to move on to the next scene unless I feel 100% confident that not only do we have it in the can, we have it twice in the can. Because otherwise there is always that sense of not wanting to regret missed opportunities. You get one opportunity to make a movie like this, don't fuck it up.
And a lot of that comes down to, as you said, making sure everything's right on set at the time. Does that include the singing too?
Damien: Yeah. It's, well I guess it depends, cause some of the singing was pre-recorded..
Damien: Like the dance numbers, we would be doing them to playback. But then more intimate solo singing moments like Emma's audition number and stuff like that were done live. It was that funny thing where obviously I'd be trying to pay attention to everything during a take, but I physically can't pay attention to every single thing. So — we'd have Mandy [Moore], my choreographer, would be there, watching out for every single step; and Justin [Hurwitz], our composer, and his producer Marius [De Vries] would be on headphones listening to every single note. And Ryan's piano coach, Liz [Kinnon], would be watching anytime he's playing piano to make sure that he was playing correctly and that the notes were perfect. Even if you don't want to be a collaborative filmmaker, when you're doing a musical you have to be. It is the most — by necessity — collaborative genre, I think.
I saw a documentary about John Coltrane recently (called Chasing Trane) and it made me think of how you have these great shots of Ryan playing the piano in La La Land. The camera focuses on his hands and then pulls back out, and it's cool to see. How did you end up making these kind of cinematography choices?
Damien: Ryan made my life a lot easier by the fact that he was really diligent, just militant on himself, about not using a piano double, which is something that I'd been prepared to do. Myself and the music team came this close to hiring a piano double — before Ryan even started, because that's what you do. And Ryan was just so militant about knowing every single piece and — to make a long story short, he became so good at piano that we realized we didn't need a double.
Damien: And we realized that the camerawork could be even freer than I thought it could be. One example is: initially, his first piano piece as a performer in the restaurant when we first push in on him with the light cue and then pull back, that whole part of the movie used to be structured a little differently in terms of him and Emma meeting. And it used to be intercut a little more and it used to be that as we pushed in on Ryan, we'd be intercutting with Emma looking at him. I remember telling Ryan at the outset like, "don't worry, it's not a single take. You just have to know these pieces of this… And once it gets really crazy I'll just cut to Emma, don't worry." You know, or "I'll just be on your hands, but because we're cutting I can sub in a piano double for the close-up." And there again, he learned the whole fucking thing. I think when we were close to actually shooting the thing on set we realized that actually this thing not only could play, but should play as a "oner". And that's only because Ryan was able to learn it all. That could not have happened if he hadn't worked his ass off to learn.
I'm fascinated that you say that this was something you decided while on set. How often or how many other of the long takes did that happen? Or were more of those conceived early?
Damien: That's the only one that was kind of rejiggered on set. Everything else was…
Obviously some other scenes seem to be extensively planned.
Damien: Yeah, everything was very extensively planned. The hope was within — especially with the actors, they could breathe life into it. And [cinematographer] Linus [Sandgren] and I would definitely adjust to them a lot. But the visual schematics in the movie were like very much planned to a T way before shooting.
It works in a really impressive way when watching these scenes on the big screen. I always wonder — how thought out are they? How much is planned even during the scripting stage?
Damien: I remember when we were rehearsing the traffic number, we only had two days on the freeway to shoot it. We had half of a day a few weeks before to do a dress rehearsal on the freeway. So those were our only days literally to be on the freeway itself. So the challenge of rehearsing a number like that is you basically have to do most of your rehearsal not on the location. So we were rehearsing most of it in a parking lot. Which is much smaller, not as many cars. And I'd be shooting the rehearsals literally with my iPhone and just running around, trying to show what the camera would be doing. And then we'd look at it and put it to the music and see what we liked and what we didn't like. But we got it pretty good, eventually, with the iPhone in the parking lot. And I remember I was feeling really good about myself. I said, "this number's going to be awesome. Look how good it looks with just an iPhone in a parking lot! Imagine once it's on 35…"
And then we get to the freeway for the dress rehearsal and there's this rude awakening of — suddenly it's not just the freedom of an iPhone, suddenly you have to be on a crane because you're floating over car tops, and suddenly you're actually on a freeway ramp that is slanted like this, so you have to adjust to that and once all the elements come into play, there's a lot more room for screw-ups. And so that first dress rehearsal we were all scratching our hair out going like "oh my God, we're gonna have something that doesn't look as good as the iPhone in the parking lot. This is so awful."
But we learned from that and got our shit together and the crew was amazing. Our camera operator adapted the crane that we were using so we could move a little faster and Mandy adapted some of the choreography. We made some changes and we went and shot the real thing a few weeks later. And we were lucky that it worked out. But it's that kind of thing where you rehearse a lot in order to learn what's not going to work.
That makes sense. La La Land is, among many "love letters to", a lover letter to the city of Los Angeles itself. How did you get to know these locations, how did you choose them? You have to be familiar with the city…
Damien: I mean, at this point I've been in L.A. for about nine years. When I was first writing the script, it was very much written from the point of view of a recent L.A. transplant. In other words, someone who was still discovering the city, still reconciling whether I even really liked it here or not.
So I wanted to work a lot of that into the script, that kind of love-hate relationship and how beautiful the city can be, but also how lonely it can be. And how it can go from these horrible traffic jams to really romantic vistas. And that the city contains both. And then it was great because during the process of writing the movie and then definitely during the process of scouting it and shooting it, I was learning about my home, my new home more and more… It felt like it made it seem even more personal.
It reminded me of the documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself - have you seen it?
Damien: Yeah, I love that doc. It was a big reference throughout [working on this] of trying to get L.A. right and trying to show it in a way that maybe we hadn't seen before, or at least hadn't seen in a while.
There has been much discussion about the old films (and musicals) you're referencing and borrowing from, but what I want to know is: where do you want to leave your personal mark? What do you want people to take away from this movie from you?
Damien: For me, the thing that first got me, the basic germ of the idea was: can you take the highs of the old musicals — can you go as far with the fantasy and the spectacle and the sugar of the old musicals, and yet marry it to something that feels as intimate and even raw at times, as a realist portrait of a relationship? Or a portrait of an artist, or rather two artists, you know? And can those two things coexist? And, also, can they coexist today? Like in a day and age where: a lot of people think they don't like musicals. In a day and age when if you're going to make a movie about dreams, you have to acknowledge that reality often doesn't live up to those dreams.
I think we live in a more… Not that people were innocent in the '50s, but we're definitely not innocent now. And so I wanted to make a musical that acknowledged that and so… I guess that was the hope that would be the thing that we hadn't seen before. That obviously we'd seen elements of this stuff in other movies, but we hadn't seen it wedded together in this way. And in a contemporary setting. At least that was the hope.
As a final question: what do you really want other people to learn from your experience as a filmmaker? If someone wants to follow in Damien Chazelle's footsteps, what should they do: challenge themselves, try to do something that isn't done anymore?
Damien: Yeah, I guess, but maybe it's broader than that. This will sound like a clichéd answer, but it would be… to dream big and to be free to dream big. In a way, I wanted the movie to be somewhat of a love letter to not just dreams, but to the kinds of dreams that society often mocks. It's why we called the movie "La La Land". It's not just a city, it's a state of mind that we usually think of as a derogatory, you know, "La La Land" is usually a derogatory expression. But that kind of unrealisticness, of certain people who are going to act no matter what. Or this person is going to put on a show even though nothing in reality seems to suggest they can. Or this person is going to run for political office, or this person is going to build their own house in this crazy location, or this person is going to find the most idealized kind of love and we all snicker and go yeah, okay, good luck with that.
We all have these dreams that at certain points in our lives have seemed unrealistic or that people around us have told us, "you know, okay, but when are you gonna wake up?" And I wanted this movie to be a bit of a reminder that sometimes it's okay to not wake up. Sometimes you gotta just keep dreaming. And that's why I think that last song that Emma sings is… I definitely thought of it as somewhat — if there is going to be one thesis statement in the movie, it is going to be her character who will say it, and through song. So yeah, to me that's what it boils down to.
A big thank you to Damien Chazelle for his time, and to Lionsgate for arranging the interview. I also recommend my interview with Emma Stone discussing making La La Land - read here.
Damien Chazelle's La La Land first premiered at the Venice, Toronto and Telluride Film Festivals earlier in the fall (read my glowing review). The film opens in theaters starting December 9th, with a wide release the following weeks. Go see La La Land! One of the best films this year. See a behind-the-scenes featurette.