Like some gorgeously colored bird, La La Land—a full-on singing and dancing extravaganza—has swooped into the Academy Awards race, charming critics and audiences alike. It’s the long-cherished dream project of writer-director Damien Chazelle, 31, who, from as early as his Harvard days, began developing the romantic tale of a jazzbo pianist (Ryan Gosling) and a beaten-down actor (Emma Stone). With music by Justin Hurwitz and lyrics from the inspired team behind Broadway’s latest sensation, Dear Evan Hansen, La La Land is a love letter to musicals old and new. We spoke to Chazelle at the Lower East Side’s Metrograph; the next week, his film would win the top prize from the New York Film Critics Circle.
Aren’t musicals crazy? I love that about them.
Exactly. There’s a certain confidence in musicals—an audacity or defiance or whatever you want to call it—that I think is really wonderful. It’s unfortunate that, since the ’60s, we as moviegoers have gotten more and more literal-minded, needing films to be a one-to-one reflection of the world we live in, as opposed to a reflection of what the world might feel like.
And yet you’re infusing that liberation with tons of realism—especially the idea of artists making tough choices to pursue their dreams. You did that in Whiplash, too. Why is that a pet subject of yours?
I think it was that old maxim of “Write what you know.” Whiplash started from suddenly thinking in my head, Maybe that time when I was a teenager drumming and had a really tough teacher—that could be the stuff of a movie. Very autobiographical. And La La Land was just as personal: moving to L.A., wanting to be an artist, wanting to make movies. And feeling that up and down of L.A., a city that lures you and crushes you and then lures and crushes you again.
This cynical New Yorker wants to know: What is it about L.A. that you love? I’m open to persuasion.
[Laughs] I think I had a hard time adapting to it initially. What actually makes L.A. cool is that it’s not like other cities. I went through that normal thing that a lot of East Coasters do, of trying to shoehorn L.A. into my idea of what a city should be: It should be New York or Paris. And it’s stubbornly not.
Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling were born to be in musicals. How did you develop their chemistry?
The raw chemistry is just there. As soon as they were cast, we knew it. In a way, it was a sigh of relief because so much of this movie was a big fat question mark. Emma and Ryan gave us an anchor. I knew no matter how much I fucked everything else up, there would be something between them.
Do you dance?
No. God, no.
And yet here you are making a movie with lengthy dance sequences, filmed in uninterrupted shots. How did you know you could do that?
It’s so fun. It tickles the part of me that played music. Whenever cinema can approach music—whether it’s an action sequence or a dance sequence—I enjoy it.
How long was the preparation?
It was about three-plus months with the actors, on-site every day. Usually they were either dance training or Ryan was learning piano or whatnot. But then, a lot of the time, we would be sitting together talking about the script, workshopping scenes or fleshing out backstory. I wanted them to feel the freedom to do that. One of the risks with this movie was that it would be so choreographed and art-directed within an inch of its life, there would be no wiggle room for them to live and breathe in.
Musicals get away with a lot of sexiness—a lot of closeness—especially in the context of the 1930s.
It’s funny you say that. I was always saying, “The dance scenes in this movie are the sex scenes.” Emma and Ryan floating up to the stars in Griffith Observatory is a graphic sex scene! We don’t need to see anything else after that. But I definitely think that’s true in the Fred and Ginger movies: so sexy. That’s something that the movies have, to a large part, forgotten how to do: show bodies in motion. Space has become so fragmented in modern commercial American movies that bodies’ relationships to one another are almost meaningless now.
These days people are kicking around the word escapism a lot. Should we be escaping so much?
[Long pause] Part of me would never want to make something that’s purely escapist. Yet at the same time, avoiding escapism can seem like a somewhat privileged point of view. Who am I to judge that, in the ’30s, the greatest thing that the Fred and Ginger musicals offered was an escape from the Depression? Who am I to kind of throw shade on that aspect of what a movie can do?
Escapism isn’t nothing.
It’s not. So that’s why I’ve grappled a bit with it. I guess I come back to what I think musicals, at their best, can do, which is offer an escape of a certain kind. But I think of it more as: You’re not completely escaping into another world that has nothing to do with your own. It’s more like you’re putting on a different set of glasses to look at the world. Because musicals can, in some ways, reflect on the real world.
Absolutely. They’re sociopolitical, like it or not.
Yes. I wanted La La Land to feel true to contemporary Los Angeles and what it means to be a young person today trying to make art. The same way that The Umbrellas of Cherbourg winds up saying a lot about France dealing with the aftermath of the Algerian War. Or It’s Always Fair Weather says a lot about America coming of age in the ’50s and grappling with television and the end of World War II. There is a tradition within these movies—ones that normally you think of as escapist candy-colored fantasias—of actually saying a lot about who we are or who we were as a country.
That’s where some of the magic comes from.
That’s definitely where some of the emotion comes from. I don’t know how emotional pure, untrammeled escapism is. I would hope this movie is more of a temporary replacement of your glasses or something. You know? Like temporary goggles to see the world. And then you take the goggles off, but maybe they stick with you in some way or help you look at things a little differently. Maybe a little more hopefully.