From writer/director Damien Chazelle, the musical La La Land is a beautiful love letter to Los Angeles about a jazz pianist (Ryan Gosling) who falls in love with a hopeful actress (Emma Stone). Over the course of their life-changing love affair, the two go on a song-and-dance journey that is both an ode to the glamour of classic cinema and a modern desire to fulfill one’s dreams.
During a roundtable at the film’s Los Angeles press day, filmmaker Damien Chazelle talked about how many years it took to get La La Land off the ground, when and how he fell in love with Los Angeles, the process of picking the film’s locations, the old school techniques he used during filming, shooting on a freeway ramp, the qualities that Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone brought to these characters, and how his background in music inspires his films.
Question: So, did it really take you six years to get this film made?
DAMIEN CHAZELLE: Yeah, from the moment that I wrote it, just to get it off the ground and get the money for it. It wasn’t an obvious sell to Hollywood. It was a step by step process. Ultimately, making Whiplash, my earlier movie, helped open some doors that we were able to pounce through, before they closed again. That’s how we got it off the ground.
You clearly love music and you love film. When did you fall in love with Los Angeles?
CHAZELLE: That took a little longer. I grew up on the east coast. L.A., to me, was the action movies I was watching, as a kid in the ‘90s. It was Speed, Terminator and Volcano. It was this concrete jungle that seemed entirely unliveable, compounded with the east coast snobbery about L.A. So, I moved here very hesitantly. I really just moved here because of movies and feeling like, “I’ve gotta at least try it out and see.” I was uneasy here at first, and I felt a little isolated, and then I fell deeper and deeper in love with the city. It was a late-blooming love affair with the city, as I discovered that it’s so much more than what I thought it was. Part of what I love about it and wanted to capture here is the way it reveals itself slowly to you. It’s not the best city for visitors because it doesn’t give you everything on a silver platter, the way that New York or certain European cities do. You have to search a little bit more in L.A. That can be frustrating, but it can also be really rewarding.
How did you pick the L.A. locations that you used?
CHAZELLE: Some of the stuff was written into the script, at an early stage, because they were just things I, personally, loved in L.A. And then, a lot of the stuff came through once we started scouting. We had a great production designer, David Wasco, who’s lived in L.A. all of his life, but he’s also designed some of the iconic L.A. movies of recent years. He did Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, and he did Collateral. He has a certain view on the city, and he knew these spots and little nooks and crannies that he would take us to, that I loved discovering. Scouting was this wonderful process of not just figuring out where we would be shooting stuff, but also learning more about my own city, which I really loved. So, there were certain things that, at the outset, I was very certain that I wanted to celebrate, like Griffith Observatory and iconic sites like that. There were also iconic sites that I wanted to steer away from, like the Hollywood sign, that I have no problem with, but I felt like we’d seen enough in movies recently. And then, it was this process of discovery. Whenever we would find a location, sometimes we’d have to do little touches, like add a street lamp, or shoot it at a certain time of day, or paint a wall, just to give it a little extra magic. We wanted to have that combination of the grittier, real location with the little bit of pixie dust that we could add.
What old school techniques did you use, in making this?
CHAZELLE: I don’t know if you’d call it old school, but we shot on film and we shot on the native 2.55 ratio, which is the old Cinemascope ratio. And then, I wanted to indulge in my favorite old devices, like iris fade-outs, multiple exposures, and stuff like that. The thing that we tried to do the most was to do stuff in camera and do it practically, and not really rely on a ton of CG or post-production work. If the sky was a certain color at night, we wanted to capture that color. Even if it meant we had to shoot a number within a half-hour window, then that’s just what we had to do. With the opening freeway ramp, we wanted to make sure we did that on an actual freeway ramp and not in a studio where we could then CG green screen. So, we tried to limit the amount of CG visual effects, as much as we could. And towards the end, we used painted backdrops. That was another thing that I was really excited to do. In old Hollywood, there was more of an acceptance of stuff being obviously fake, and reveling in that, as opposed to trying to fool the eye. I loved that.
Since it is something brought up in this film, how do you stay true to your integrity while also moving with the times? Where is the line between artistry and commercialism?
CHAZELLE: I love the old musicals, I love jazz, and I love all these things that the modern world tells us are marginalized now or outdated. What do you do, as a lover of older forms? Do you try to push them to modernity at the risk of bastardizing them, or do you try to preserve what you feel is their essence at the risk of making them even more marginalized? It can apply to almost any art form, even movies, in general. We talk today about, what’s happening to movies? Movies are dying. I obviously don’t believe that. But, it is a universal question, among any art form. I don’t necessarily have an answer. I just thought it was interesting to enact that debate.
People say that pursuing your dream is a luxury for people in their 20s and 30s because, as you grow older, you have more responsibilities. How do you feel about that? Is pursuing your dream something only for the young?