Damien Chazelle on La La Land
Damien Chazelle discusses writing two movies in one, the underlying sadness of musicals, and challenging yourself to make it personal.
It has garnered 12 Critics’ Choice Awards nominations, a record-breaking number of Golden Globe wins, and a historic 14 Oscar nominations, among countless other accolades. It’s struck a nostalgic chord with moviegoers everywhere, harking back back to the glory days of old Hollywood, and the classic musicals that shaped our love of cinema. And it appeals to everyone’s love of a bittersweet love story.
La La Land was also initially turned down by financiers when it was pitched by an unknown screenwriter named Damien Chazelle and his composer, Justin Hurwitz.
This year’s biggest cinematic success story was actually written some years ago. And it wasn’t until the success of Damien’s film Whiplash in 2014 that investors felt confident in handing them the reigns to what was very difficult project.
And it was still a gamble. It’s one thing to write a movie. Quite another to write a musical, and yet another to write an original musical. With jazz, no less.
But it was gamble that paid off. Because as Chazelle proved with Whiplash, he writes what he knows. He writes what’s personal, and his emotion makes it first onto the page and then to the screen. And everyone can feel it.
Creative Screenwriting spoke with Chazelle about the success of La La Land, his love of the musical genre, and how creatively rewarding it has been for him to write those often difficult scenes.
We last spoke to you for Whiplash, when you discussed the autobiographical nature of the story. Was La La Land also autobiographical in some ways?
I’d say it was less literally autobiographical than Whiplash, where in many cases I was just writing almost word for word sequences or scenes that had happened to me.
But here it was still very much close to home, and I would say it was emotionally and indirectly autobiographical. The idea of being in LA, trying to make movies, trying to make your dream come true…it was very much what I was going through.
And what I’m still going through, I guess! But it was very much where I was at when I was writing the script. I’d just moved to LA a few years earlier, and certainly didn’t have anything to show for it at that point. So I think I felt very much in the skin of Mia and Sebastian – especially Mia, I’d say.
How did you find the process of writing a musical?
I had done a musical in college, where I worked with Justin Hurwitz, the composer of this as well. Since then, I’d written a bunch of musical scripts that for various reasons – either I didn’t like it or no one liked it – just wound up in drawers.
So I guess that by the time I actually started writing La La Land, in the beginning of 2011, I certainly was very familiar with the genre and what it took to write a musical on the page.
I had a very close working relationship with Justin, so as soon as I was writing scenes, he was writing melodies and sending me piano demos. I’d then play them on a loop while writing scenes. So we were sending material back and forth, and it was already this very collaborative dialogue. It felt very natural.
Did you find the musical numbers helped the writing process by conveying emotion where words might not have been as effective?
There were areas where the music would carry a lot of weight for us. The music itself would be telling a lot of story, that we then didn’t have to tell through other means.
But it was very important to me that this movie be one where we really built up to the musical numbers, and then luxuriated in them and let them really be pure cinema for a while, before returning to dialogue or another form of more literal narration. So it meant that they took up a lot of space.
We were sort of using an MGM musical as a model, a Funny Face or Singing in the Rain or something; which is essentially the story of how a boy gets a girl or a girl gets a boy. It’s kind of a romantic comedy model, where you’re bringing your two leads together during the course of the story and you climax with a moment of great romance between them.
But then on the flip side, we were also telling a story more along the lines of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which begins with the boy and girl together at the height of their romance, and proceeds to split them apart.
Each of those stories normally takes a full movie to tell, and we knew we needed to tell both of those stories equally. So we had to not only tell two movies in one movie, but also pepper it with songs and musical numbers.
There was a lot of trickiness in basically squeezing and being economical, and finding shorthand or elliptical ways to tell a lot of story that you would normally tell in many pages. We didn’t want this to be a three-hour movie, we wanted it to be, at most, a two-hour movie.
That was the biggest challenge, in many ways. So yes, the music helped carry a lot of baggage but it didn’t help us squeeze material in – we had to let it breathe in order for the movie to work. So we had to find other ways to be very economical.
What did you enjoy about writing those scenes that require the audience to suspend their disbelief for a moment?
It’s part of what I love about the musical as a genre in the first place. It’s not realism, but it’s also not pure fantasy. It’s a genre that allows you to truly blend the two. And it’s this kind of other world where emotion overrides everything, and if you feel a certain way, the world becomes a certain way.
That’s a very beautiful idea to me. It’s a very hopeful idea, but it also can be a very sad idea because there always is this return to reality.
I’ve always found some of the musicals that people think of as the happiest movies ever made to be somewhat heartbreaking as well. I think in the great musicals there is often this kind of sadness underneath. It’s a wish fulfillment thing. Characters are trying to make the world into something that maybe it’s not, into a more idealized vision of the world. There’s a real poetry in that struggle, and sometimes that failure.
I wanted to indulge in that kind of fantasy-making in this movie, and really push this aspect as far as I could. To literally have our characters waltz in outer space. But I also wanted to push the gritty reality as far as possible, even if that meant sitting at a dinner table with them for seven pages – seven minutes of screen time – watching them bicker in a very uncomfortable, claustrophobic sort of moment. The movie had to somehow fit both of those things.
Tell me about balancing the old Hollywood feel with a modern setting. Obviously set design, wardrobe, etc. played a role, but was there anything specific to the script?
Yes. I would write things into the script, often in a very descriptive way, like describing iris fade-ins or old school dissolves, or the architecture, things like that. So I think the script itself had that feeling.
And again it was about trying to find a way to make sure that it never felt like an affectation or a decoration, but that it felt like it came from the character’s point of view. It was always my hope to show that these were characters who were dreamers, who lived in their heads, who lived in dreams – in every definition of that word. So it made sense that they would see LA a certain way.
I find that it’s a city that has this incredible past but yet doesn’t seem to really showcase it ,or even care about it. It’s a history that’s really tucked away at times, and you have to excavate to find it. That almost makes it a more fascinating city to explore.
So it had to be this push and pull between that past, and the much less romantic, more mundane, grittier kind of reality of what LA or any city is today. And about what it means to be a young, struggling artist, where you have to find a way to pay bills, a way to compromise, and find a way to actually exist in the real world.
So did you have to do a lot of research into old LA?
It was sort of a two-part thing.
I did a little bit of research during the writing, but most of the time I was just writing about places I already knew in the city, and places I already loved.
Then, years later when we started scouting the movie, working with David and Sandy Wasco, our production designers. That’s when we started adding to the script, sometimes changing locations or just finding new material. I would stumble upon things that I didn’t know about beforehand. So I learned a lot through that process.
In many ways, I think a lot of that later research was about going out into the city and trying to think “OK, practically, how do we shoot this and where do we shoot it?”
Tell me about the issues you encountered when first trying to make this film, before Whiplash.
In some ways I think the biggest problem of all was that I wanted to make it myself, and I didn’t really have anything to show that I was capable of making it. And ditto for my composer, Justin. We’d been college roommates together, but that wasn’t really enough of a recommendation for financiers to feel comfortable with him scoring the whole movie and writing every song.
So I think the issue was financiers seeing us as a pair of nobodies. Our producers at the time, Fred Berger and Jordan Horowitz, were also young and not very experienced. So we weren’t the most appetizing ticket, on top of the fact that movie itself was clearly pretty ambitious and hard to pull off. I think all of these elements added up to it seeming like a totally losing proposition for any money people.
Finally, do you have any advice for our readers?
I have found that the most successful or just creatively rewarding things I’ve done, or been a part of, have been those things that were almost uncomfortably personal to write. The stuff that felt like airing dirty laundry or skeletons in the closet.
I was a little antsy about writing Whiplash, and in some ways, about La La Land as well. When I was writing these scripts, I’d spend the other half of the day writing stuff for hire, or something to pay the bills, rewrites and material where it wasn’t personal at all. Sometimes those things would turn out really well, sometimes they wouldn’t. And I’d enjoy the process. But still I look back and I’m reminded of how important it is – or at least, how important it has been for me – that when you truly want to say something, you write from your own point of view and try to get as personal as possible.
Now, I’ve never flown into outer space dancing in the stars or whatever! It doesn’t mean it has to be literally autobiographical. But there’s a way to make anything deeply personal. I think that’s actually the challenge, the fun challenge for a writer. And I feel even more strongly than ever that it’s the important challenge.
Featured Image: Emma Stone as Mia and Ryan Gosling as Sebastian in La La Land. Photo by Dale Robinette