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‘La La Land’ Director Damien Chazelle On Making a Realistic Musical

“We all walk around with our own soundtrack in our head.”


Most musicals wait a while to get to their show-stopping numbers. But Damien Chazelle’s La La Land isn’t like most musicals. Chazelle’s dreamy, old-school-meets-post-modern song and dance saga opens with a stunning, prolonged number set on a traffic-congested L.A. freeway. It’s staged so precisely and clearly that one might think Chazelle shot the big scene on a studio backlot and digitally painted in the background. But the filmmaker shot it all on location, which only adds to the magic. 

“It was a challenge,” Mr. Chazelle told me when I spoke with him during the Philadelphia Film Festival in October. “[The opening scene] was designed to look like one shot, but it’s actually three shots. There’s two hidden cuts you know built into some of the whip-pans. It was a freeway easy pass ramp heading to the 110 downtown in L.A. So we we were able to block just that ramp off for for two days for the Saturday and Sunday, and fill it with tons of cars and dancers.”

When you see the opener, you’ll be surprised Chazelle was able to get it all in just two days. The secret was in the planning. “It was just a matter of of of just having to be really, really planned out,” the filmmaker says. “Then trying to just get it in the time.”

There are a lot of musical numbers like that in La La Land — numbers set out in the wide-open, shot against the seemingly always glistening backdrop of Los Angeles. “Each [musical number] had its own challenges,” Chazelle says. La La Land is all about dreams — following them, and realizing that even if you follow them they might not always come true. Ryan Gosling plays a jazz pianist with dreams of opening his own jazz club. Emma Stone plays a barista with dreams of becoming an actress. The pair fall for each other, a romance blossoms — and so does song and dance. Most modern or postmodern musicals struggle to find a reason for that singing in dancing — think of Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark, where the musical numbers are actual daydreams of the lead character. That’s not the case with La La Land, which is unapologetic in its old school approach to being a musical.

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“I think what I really loved about the older musicals was that there was no explanation [for the singing] — that, to me, is what defined the genre,” Chazelle says. “It’s a genre where if [your] emotions justify it, you break into song. And either [the audience is] going to buy it, or not. So, it was very unapologetic — to announce right up front that [this] was a musical in the biggest way possible. Then to go from there, and tell a story that would hopefully feel intimate, and feel real, and feel grounded — even though there’s this obviously ridiculous concept of breaking into song.”

La La Land isn’t Chazelle’s first musical-oriented outing. His previous film Whiplash, about the troubled relationship between a jazz drummer and his volatile teacher, was a quasi-musical that used jazz rhythms to punctuate the tension up on the screen. Chazelle, who is a musician himself, has seemingly always been drawn to music. “In college I met Justin Hurwitz  [who did the music for both Whiplash and La La Land], and we just kind of hit it off, talking about ways to put music on film. And I thought there was stuff to be done in the [musical] genre that wasn’t being done right now — a way to make a grounded musical, or realistic musical, but in a way that still had the scope, and the sweep, and the spectacle of classic [films].

“[La La Land] was informed by movies I love,” the filmmaker continues. “And moments in movies I love. The obvious — Singin’ in the Rain, Fred [Astaire] & Ginger [Rogers] movies, The Band Wagon, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg — any of those classical musicals. But, at the same time I was also looking at silent movies, like Chaplin, or more recent depictions of L.A., like Boogie Nights, or Pulp Fiction, or documentaries like Los Angeles Plays Itself. [I was] trying to take those those inspirations that moved me so much, and trying to make them feel new and urgent again.”

La La Land has touches of comedy, and like most musicals there is a true sense of joy, and whimsy, and wonder. But there’s a darkness to the film as well; a bitter-sweetness; a touch of melancholy.

“I feel like musicals can be so emotional, and honestly they’re most readily associated with the emotion of joy,” Chazelle explains. “And they’re wonderful at capturing that — I didn’t want to stint on that. But musicals, like music, can also be the best means to express what it feels like to have your heart broken, or to be disappointed, or have life not take the turn you want it to take. So I wanted the movie to not be completely joyful, but not be completely tragic either. Again, [this is] getting back to the idea of a realistic musical. Where certain dreams work out and certain ones don’t. Where we have these kind of fantasies in their head that are often informed by our favorite movies, or our favorite songs. We all kind of walk around with our own soundtrack in our head, or a movie playlist in our head. But then real life never quite lives up to that, and probably doesn’t have to. That makes life more complex, and more beautiful, actually.”

 This interview has been edited and condensed.

La La Land opens in NYC/LA this week, and Philadelphia Dec 16

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Chris Evangelista is the Executive Editor of Cut Print Film & co-host of the Cut Print Film Podcast. He also contributes to /Film, The Film Stage, Birth.Movies.Death, The Playlist, Paste Magazine, Little White Lies and O-Scope Musings. 'The House on Creep Street' and 'Beware the Monstrous Manther!', two horror books for young readers Chris co-authored with J. Tonzelli, are available wherever books are sold. You can follow him on Twitter @cevangelista413 and view his portfolio at chrisevangelista.net

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