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'La La Land' director Damien Chazelle taps into the unglamorous side of LA

Filmmaker Damien Chazelle's new film
Filmmaker Damien Chazelle's new film "La La Land" is a musical love letter to Los Angeles.
Courtesy of Lionsgate

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The movie musical “La La Land” transforms some miserable experiences in Los Angeles into pure joy.

For instance, La La Land’s opening scene takes place on a freeway interchange, where in total gridlock, scores of dancers launch into an elaborate musical sequence.

The film was written and directed by Damien Chazelle. It follows two artists — Mia, a struggling actress played by Emma Stone, and Sebastian, an up-and-coming jazz pianist played by Ryan Gosling. The two sing and dance all around Los Angeles as they pursue their dreams and fall in love.

This isn’t the first time Chazelle has put music at the center of a film. His first feature, “Whiplash,” was about a jazz drummer and earned him an Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay.  

The Frame’s John Horn spoke with filmmaker Damien Chazelle about his love for movie musicals and how “La La Land” was influenced by the harsh realities that Los Angeles has to offer.


On the beginnings of “La La Land”

This is something that I wrote way before "Whiplash." It was based in germs of ideas that Justin Hurwitz, the composer, and I were brainstorming back in college when we were doing student movies. So we were exploring that terrain and always dreamed of doing that terrain. It started off as something that we hoped would get off the ground early as a low-budget thing, but it's very much the script that you see on the screen now. 

"La La Land" is written and directed by Damien Chazelle.
Courtesy of Lionsgate

On how Chazelle's personal relationship with Los Angeles influenced "La La Land" 

I guess like a lot of people who weren't born in Los Angeles, but had moved [here], I have a continual love-hate relationship with the city. But I say that affectionately. It definitely veers more on the love side. But at the same time, you can't deny how awful it could be to sit in gridlock on the 405 or 110 [freeway] for an hour, or to be at a party where you feel like the loneliest person in the room. Or to feel like you're on the outside looking in.

It's a city that can make people feel that way in a very profound way — even more profound than other cities where life spills out onto the streets. There's less street life in L.A. so it can be isolating, it can be lonely. So I wanted to be very honest and upfront about that and not try and paint a sugar-coated love letter to the city. 

I wanted to instead take the things that I actually found hard to deal with in L.A. and try to build from those [into] a love letter, so that you kind of go through the journey the characters go through, because they're not going through the easiest time either. 

On shooting a lot of "La La Land" during twilight 

Linus Sandgren, the director of photography, and I always talked about the skies in Los Angeles. L.A. is a very big sky city, partly because the buildings aren't that high. So there can be some spectacular skies in Los Angeles. 

We were trying to get at the way film responds to color in a way that only film can. So we were talking about a lot of the old Technicolor movies from the '40s and '50s, and the saturation levels and the kinds of blues and reds and purples that you would see in those movies. So it made sense to use what the L.A. sky had to offer as opposed to relying on post-production or various other affects. 

The whole idea of the movie was to try to do the kind of musical — in the old days, you would do entirely do in matte paintings and entirely on a back lot — in a real city on real locations, but we're still ultimately using the stuff of real life. 

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone star in the movie musical
Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone star in the movie musical "La La Land."
Dale Robinette

On why the musical genre became unpopular in film

Something happened in the '70s, and that something allowed for a lot of really amazing films to be made, but a taste for more reality entered into reality. Verisimilitude became a big thing in a way that it hadn't been as much before. So as soon as you got from the '60s to the '70s, musicals, which had grown very big — one could argue, bloated — didn't seem to have much of a place anymore. 

So I think it has taken a long time to maybe come back around from that. I'd like to think that recently there is more appetite for movies in the musical sense of the term. I say this as a jazz lover: I don't think it's a coincidence that the moment that jazz stopped being the popular music of America is the moment that musicals started to recede at the end of the '50s and '60s. 

“La La Land” opens in theaters on Dec. 9. 

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