Dancing with the Stars

Damien Chazelle on the gravity-defying effort it took to make La La Land and what the film says about artists reconciling their dreams with their need to be human.

©2016 Lionsgate
Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in La La Land.
December 16, 2016 Written by Dylan Callaghan
Dale Robinette/Lionsgate Damien Chazelle

There were just certain elements that [made me feel] like, I have to somehow find a way to do this. Maybe it’ll take a year, maybe it’ll take 50 years, but eventually I’ll be happy that I made this.

La La Land, the hotly buzzed, Oscar-short-listed musical romcom from Whiplash writer-director Damien Chazelle, started out in 2010 as a script that even the most conscience-burdened development exec would have slept well after saying no to.

For starters, it’s a musical—a totally unknown, original musical without any contemporary, pop-styled songs, centered instead on old school jazz, like its militantly vintage, piano-playing leading man, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). Then there’s the fact that, in many ways, it’s a fairy tale love story where, without saying too much, the boy and the girl don’t necessarily wind up kissing on a starlit rooftop at the end.

La La Land derives much of its considerable power from this rending pull between dreamy, luxuriant imagination and stark, irrefutable reality. In one key moment, the young lovers literally ascend heavenward to dance among the stars, while in another, maybe imagined or maybe real, flash forward, they see each other across a crowded nightclub and nod awkwardly, as people do in tiny, monumental moments of real life, when nothing can be said. Throughout the film, Chazelle toys with time and runs out various scenarios, exploring the twilight place where fantasy and real life coexist.

Emma Stone, Gosling’s frequent onscreen partner, plays Mia, a struggling actress and Sebastian’s love interest. When Mia loses faith in her own talent and abandons her dream, Sebastian won’t let her quit, driving her to the audition that makes her a star. Chazelle’s own journey trying to make this passion project is mirrored in both Sebastian and Mia. He began trying to sell his script six years ago as an unknown 25-year-old. When his efforts ran aground, rather than give up, he wrote Whiplash as a cheaper, more manageable movie to produce. After it won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and critical and box office success, Chazelle had his shot to do the improbable: make La La Land.

He spoke with the Writers Guild of America West website about how he never lost his love for this story, despite years of rejection and pressure to change it, how crucial it was having his college pal Justin Hurwitz write music for his script, and why, in the end, both of his films are about artists reconciling their dreams with their need to be human.

You actually wrote this script before Whiplash, which you wrote as a film to get more easily made…But you never quit on this thing. You’re either stubborn or insanely inspired. What kept your hand on the plow?

The real secret sauce [is that] I had two producers, these two young guys, Fred Berger and Jordan Horowitz, who I essentially developed this thing with, starting back in 2010, early 2011—they actually wound up bringing the project to Focus. Then after we were at Focus for about a year, Focus put it into turnaround. But that was the moment where a lot of producers would have gone, “Well, okay. We tried. Let’s go on to the next thing.” But they were less shaken or bummed then I was—I feel like I handled it worse and was like, “Oh okay, it’s probably time to throw in the towel.” But they just kind of kept the energy alive. When I went on to work on Whiplash, they didn’t take a moment’s rest. They were pounding on doors throughout the whole process and trying to keep interest alive…So they had lined up enough prospective interest hinging on Whiplash being decent that as soon as Whiplash premiered at Sundance and I was back in L.A., we were able to hit the ground running with finance meetings and studio meetings, and use whatever little mileage I had at that moment to lock down the financing. That’s what we were able to do with Lionsgate within a couple months of Sundance. But then again it was all thanks to them never once giving up the torch.

But still, this is an audacious movie. It’s important that people understand you wrote this before Whiplash. It’s kind of insane to write this movie after the success of Whiplash...But you were trying to get this made prior to Whiplash.

I do sometimes wonder if I would have had the naivety to write this after Whiplash. In a way, looking back, I think myself, the composer Justin, and the producers, we all needed to be of a certain kind of youthfulness and certain kind of naivety or craziness or stupidity or whatever you call it, to devote that much time trying to make this workable. Because even the earliest drafts of this movie, even when we were trying to propose it as a pretty low budget endeavor—which is how this got set up as Focus—even those early drafts began with a huge freeway dance number. They were essentially pretty close in terms of structure and set pieces to the movie that you saw on screen. So we made a somewhat conscious decision early on to try to write and develop the pie-in-the-sky version of this movie, knowing that we might have to then make compromises and tailor stuff here and then. But maybe if we just put the pie-in-the-sky version on paper, then who knows? Maybe we will get a chance to make it. We just went ahead in that direction never once thinking about practicality or logistics, which is why it probably took six years to get off the ground.

It’s so meta. You were way out on a limb and just young enough and naïve enough, to make a movie like this, which is ultimately about the exact issue of reconciling creative dreams with reality.

Yeah, it was. The meta-ness of it never really struck me until much later in the process, especially once the movie was close to done. It was…

When you saw it all put together.

Yeah. I was like, “Whoa, that’s kind of interesting how that works out.” I guess the same could be said about Whiplash—it was definitely a case of writing what you know. I don’t know what it’s like to burst onto song on the highway or float up into the stars, but I do know intimately what it’s like to be a young wannabe artist of any kind of stripe in L.A., as you say, trying to reconcile big dreams with the reality of life in the city, trying to balance life and art and all that kind of stuff, especially when it came to the ups and downs, the rejections, and the various little heartbreaks that L.A. can easily provide.

It’s willing to provide those. Yes.

Exactly. All that stuff was really easy to write in that sense. It was kind of cathartic. It was all just writing what I had either experienced or what I knew.

From a writing standpoint, a lot of people when they sit with a script this long and they have to make changes and it goes through a couple different machinations, they can lose steam, focus, or interest. But this comes off the screen bursting and fresh. There’s a lot of love and inspiration in it. Did you ever lose heart? Did you ever lose that inspirational mojo, and if not, how did you keep it going?

There were numerous moments when I lost heart for sure. Any of those times were somewhat fleeting and temporary, and I’m not sure entirely why, other than I felt so passionately about this particular project and doing a musical like this and doing it with Justin doing the music. There were just certain elements that [made me feel] like, I have to somehow find a way to do this. Maybe it’ll take a year, maybe it’ll take 50 years, but eventually I’ll be happy that I made this. I’m not sure I’ll be able to say that for that many projects and ideas, but my love for musicals and my particular kind of working relationship with Justin, and the way this project got developed, all those things conspired to make it a movie I couldn’t give up on, no matter how unlikely it seemed at any given moment.

How much did it help from a scripting standpoint, having a buddy that you were close to writing the music here, so that the music and the script were never really separated as much as they would have been if you were working with someone you didn’t know as well?

It helped tremendously. I can’t imagine it having been done any other way. It was just a constant back and forth. Even before I really wrote the script itself, more when I had a rough idea, he was working on main melodies for the score. Then, as I was writing the script, he was developing some of those melodies into songs. So it was just this very concurrent kind of thing…

So you were hearing music as you were writing?

Yes, which had this wonderful effect where I’d be able to use some of his music as the sound. I like to write while listening to music in any case. In this case instead of having to always have to listen to preexisting music, I was able to listen to Justin’s demos as a soundtrack to my writing. It made it all feel very much like the music and the script and the story were married in a way that was always my hope and ideal of what I felt you need for a screen musical, just for those things to feel like they're not really separable, one can’t really exist in the same way without the other. That just came out naturally from the working process.

What would you say are some of the challenges or problems of writing a script for a musical?

There were some logistical or formatting questions in the sense that I’m not really a lyricist, and neither is Justin. So for a long time we were developing these songs that were obviously tied into dialogue in the script, but with either no lyrics at all or placeholder lyrics. Usually just no lyrics at all, like, “Bop-bop-bop-bop.” So in the script, I’d sort of indicate, “Here’s a musical number.” I’d sort of italicize everything, and roughly describe the theme or what they were singing about., but I couldn’t get into any specifics. Sometimes if we were giving the script, in the package, to people, the script would refer to, “See track number two,” or to a CD or a file that we were giving in tandem that would have these demos. A lot of the stuff was placeholder stuff.

A big step was when we finally found these great lyricists—Benj Pasek and Justin Paul—who were from New York. Once we started bringing them on, they provided the lyrics and made the songs much more narratively specific. That, in turn, helped inform some of the writing around those songs, and it once again became a whole back and forth process. That’s what was difficult about this—there were so many elements. Then choreography, of course, came after that. There were so many elements that had to be waited on, and we had to treat like, “Question mark here—we know they’ll be some type of dancing here, some type of singing here.” Then, as we would fill in stuff—whether it was choreography or lyrics or a specific location or input from the actors as we’d start casting—those things would just keep on informing the script. So the script remained this ever-evolving thing, even during the course of the six years post job.

So there were more expository holes obviously than with a typical script?

Yeah. I always want any script I write, no matter how much I know it’s going to change in the future, to at least seem at a time of reading like a complete entity. So I would do a lot of covering up of those holes, if that makes sense. I’ll put a lot of descriptions and stuff to carry the weight for the moment.

So you would spackle over with some descriptors…

Exactly, but knowing in the back of my head that a lot of stuff was temporary.

When I spoke to you about Whiplash, you were kind of bemoaning your own lack of discipline as a writer. I’m curious if that’s changed at all just in terms of your discipline and writing routine.

As a writer it’s probably gotten even worse. I found it hard recently to find the time and mental space to write. That said, I’m also more thankful for the writing process than I've ever been, because it does give me a certain kind of sanity right now, to be able to focus on amid all the craziness right now. Also, for the past year and a half or so, for one of the projects I’m developing, I’ve been working with another writer. So he’s been writing while I've been sort of reading and supervising. That’s something that I like as well. But at the same time, I do have a script I’ve been toying with of my own that I want to finish sooner rather than later. It’s just a matter of finding the time and the mental space.

Don’t worry, give it a minute. You’ll be back. You just need to get through this.

That’s my hope.

Is there some mentor in your life—‘cuz you’re not just into vintage jazz, you’re into old movies. This film feels like a love letter to someone that must exist. Is there someone that mentored this?

No, I guess not. Certainly it’s a love letter to a lot of my favorite movies and jazz records and whatnot. In terms of a person, I guess there's no one person. I've certainly had a lot of mentors. I got into jazz initially because that was the music in my house growing up. Then I've had certain film teachers that have left a huge mark on me. So I guess there's a collection of mentors that I would like to tip the hat to. But maybe more importantly there's the idea of learning from the past. That’s how I've learned how to make movies, learning from great artists before my time. I just find it endlessly enriching.

You have said in interviews that this movie and Whiplash both were about artists reconciling their dreams with their need to be human. In the end, does La La Land say that those two can’t ever be reconciled?

No, La La Land is a specific case and story where not everything works out for them, but I definitely don’t believe that has to be the case or that’s a reflection of how it always is. So in that case I remain an optimist.

Good. You still have a little of that magic naivety.

I don’t want to lose it.

© 2016 Writers Guild of America West

READ ALSO: Damien Chazelle stuns at Sundance with Whiplash, the tale of a young jazz drummer’s descent into artistic obsession and sublime transcendence to greatness.