“Here’s to the ones who dream, foolish as they may seem. Here’s to the hearts that ache; here’s to the mess we make.”
There’s an interconnection of career aspirations, fate, and love blended in with the sleight-of-hand quality of cinema in the wondrous “La La Land” (2016) that makes it irresistible to me. Damien Chazelle has made four films to date – the others are “Guy and Madeleine on a Park Bench” (2009), “Whiplash” (2014) and “First Man” (2018) – that explore the idea of reconciling the basic human need to follow our dreams and the compromising we have to do along the way – and that includes balancing a personal life. What’s so special about “La La Land” is that Chazelle uses the artifice of cinema as the metaphor for that struggle. “I’m letting life hit me until it gets tired. Then I’ll hit back. It’s a classic rope-a-dope,” says Sebastian – the aspiring jazz musician.
Chazelle and I have struck up a friendship — one I cherish all the more because I truly admire what he does. As I re-watched “La La Land” recently I understood why I connect so strongly with this work. Both Mia and Sebastian feel like they’re out of sync with their world around them. Mia has this passion for old movies and for acting but she doesn’t fit the mold of what modern Hollywood is looking for. Sebastian is passionate about jazz at a time where it is not appreciated. A similar dilemma is faced by the aspiring young musician in “Whiplash” and Neil Armstrong in “First Man” – they find themselves isolated pursuing quixotic goals. Mia and Sebastian literally bumped into one another and urge each other to fulfill their hopes. Yes they trigger the best out of each other yet bittersweetly, they’re not meant to be together. Chazelle formulates this melancholic tale combining influences from classic Hollywood musicals to Jacques Demy’s take on the genre (“The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” and “The Young Girls of Rochefort”).
The push and pull between reveries and concessions is conveyed in the musical numbers – where characters articulate their longings in song and dance. Many of the musical sequences in “La La Land” are done in single takes. In Sebastian and Mia’s first such scene together – “A Lovely Night” we are able to see them dancing on Mulhulland Drive from head to toe with the backdrop of Los Angeles’ city lights. The camera careens almost like a musical instrument itself – moving up and down – backward and forward and sometimes in between them. It’s happening in that magic hour and in real time. There’s no cheating. Yes, they’re singing and dancing – yet it’s real. Just like Vincente Minelli’s films in the 1950s.
When you see “La La Land” it is all about color. It’s extremely expressive. There’s lots of rich blues – in the day sky – in the first dress that Mia wears as she’s egged on by her roommates to join them on a night on the town. When you first see Sebastian at the club – he’s wearing a blue jacket. And their paths will cross. You can trace the arc of her internal journey by the colors of her dresses. Yellow. Green.
Notice how colorful her apartment is. There’s a big poster of Ingrid Bergman in her bedroom. In Sebastian’s apartment there’s no color because he lives in a sadder, less hopeful world. Emotions and romance are represented by colors. The street lights are blue green – which make it all more magical. It’s like a memory. It’s like a film you’ve seen.
The camera seems to be stimulated by what’s happening. It’s playful when they first meet. Notice how it pinballs at the jazz club when he plays and she dances. The lighting dims when Chazelle wants you to get close to the characters – so you can come along and experience their dreams. When the spotlight literally shines on them – there’s a communion between the characters and us the audience. In Chazelle’s world, there’s a lot of lyrical expression. We feel free and loose as we watch. He’s expanding the medium, and deeply moving us as we journey along.
Mia: “Maybe I’m one of those people that has always wanted to do it, but it’s like a pipe dream for me, you know? And then you… you said it, you-you changed your dreams, and then you grow up. Maybe I’m one of those people, and I’m not supposed to. And I can go back to school, and I can find something else I’m supposed to do. ‘Cause I left to do that, and it’s been six years, and I don’t wanna do it anymore.”
Mia: “Why what?”
Sebastian: “Why don’t you want to do it anymore?”
Mia: “‘Cause I think it hurts a little bit too much.”
Available to stream on HBO Max, HBO NOW, HBO (via Hulu or Prime Video) and USA Network. Available to rent on Amazon Prime, Microsoft, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, Apple TV, Redbox, FandangoNOW and AMC Theatres on Demand.
Written and Directed by Damien Chazelle
Starring Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt and J.K. Simmons
Bringing “La La Land” to the Screen
Director Damien Chazelle wrote the script for “La La Land” in 2010. His college roommate, Justin Hurwitz, began composing the music at the same time. Chazelle told Vulture that the only differences between the original script and what’s onscreen is the budget and age of the two leads. Originally, Chazelle and Hurwitz pitched it with a budget of $1 million. The film cost $30 million to make. They used Chazelle’s similarly themed 2009 movie, “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench,” to pitch the idea, they told Vulture. It took six years for anyone to say yes. With “La La Land” stalling, Chazelle turned his attention to a new project, “Whiplash.” Initially, he couldn’t get that film financed either, so he decided to make part of it into a short, Chazelle told Vulture. The short got into Sundance and won the jury award, which attracted enough attention to get the feature version of “Whiplash” financed. The independent film, budgeted at just over $3 million, follows a talented drummer (Miles Teller) who enrolls at an elite conservatory with an abusive instructor (J.K. Simmons). The movie was released to great acclaim, and it won three Oscars in 2015, including best supporting actor for Simmons. Its success gave Chazelle his pick of projects — and he chose “La La Land.”
For about three months, Chazelle and his stars used a group of warehouses to prepare in Los Angeles’ Atwater Village, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Gosling practiced piano in one area, while Stone worked with dance choreographer Mandy Moore (not the singer) in another. Gosling said he spent two hours a day, six days a week, learning to play the songs in the film. When filming started, Hurwitz said, Gosling could play every sequence without using a hand double or CGI. “The piano was something that I always wished I had time to learn. In what other job is it a part of your job to just sit in front of a piano for three months and play?” Gosling said in a Lionsgate featurette on the making of the film. “It was really one of the most fulfilling pre-production periods I’ve ever had.” Another cast member who had to learn to play an instrument was Grammy winner John Legend. Though a singer and pianist, he didn’t know how to play the guitar before filming. “Ryan and John joked that it was all part of my master plan to cast John Legend but deprive him of his normal instrument and give that one to Ryan,” Chazelle shared in the featurette. Hurwitz had the challenge of reorchestrating the music, using the film’s classic theme and Gosling and Stone’s modern voices. “It couldn’t feel like a music track turned on. It couldn’t feel glossy,” he said. “Ryan and Emma have those kinds of voices. Emma’s voice has this lovely breathiness to it, and Ryan’s has this great gravel to it,” Hurwitz said. In total, Hurwitz reworked the music for about a year before anything was shot. (abcnews.go.com)
Production Designer David Wasco and Set Decorator Sandy Reynolds-Wasco on “La La Land”
“He had film night at least once—sometimes twice—a week throughout the entire prep period,” explained production designer David Wasco…“They had a 35-millimeter projector set up at our offices. So after our work was done each day, they had pizza and soft drinks, and he would show the crew movies he wanted ‘La La Land’ to look like: ‘The Young Girls of Rochefort’ and ‘The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,’ both of which had very heavy prime colors.” “He showed us another Jacques Demy movie about Los Angeles—’Model Shop’—which he made in Los Angeles in 1969, using the city as a backdrop,” Wasco continued. “That was a big reference and influence for making a location-driven movie where we built sets, but a lot of the locations were the city itself. We picked pockets of the city, but we manipulated the streets and the buildings and the things Jacques Demy did, where he painted murals and he painted large walls different primary colors.” To get the Technicolor just right, Wasco said that La La Land’s departments communicated more than they would have normally, to choreograph the film’s big color moments. So, for example, when planning the musical number during which Stone and her character’s roommates dress up for a night out, Reynolds-Wasco outfitted each bedroom in the 1920s Spanish-garden complex to complement the girl living there.
“Once we knew the roommates would be wearing costumes in these jewel-tone colors, we decided to make each room correspond with the roommate,” explained Reynolds-Wasco. “If we had a simple, single-color dress, I tried to put it against some patterned wallpaper. Or the green-and-white stripe in one area, and then there was the yellow nouveau color in another room. It went back again to Jacques Demy in that we dressed the apartment in sort of French, thrift-shop-y items, like little metal ornate chairs.” While Reynolds-Wasco splashed bold colors throughout Mia’s apartment—via patterned rugs and pillows, striped furniture, and bold textiles—she left Seb’s Valley Village apartment dingy and white. To contrast, she used color where Seb was most unhappy—like the restaurant where he plays piano, with its twinkly Christmas lights. With the aforementioned throwback films as influences, it is no wonder that “La La Land” feels timeless even though it opens with modern-day cars in bumper-to-bumper freeway traffic—and features jokes about Prius drivers. Explained Wasco, “Damien was trying to make a contemporary movie, but to have it also have this timeless quality where you would be able to blend kind of an old-school vintage look with modern times. We’re not hiding the fact that we’re shooting a present-day movie, but he did want to eliminate certain things that easily date a movie.”…One thing that commonly dates a movie are cars,” explained Wasco. “We anguished over the car that we gave [Gosling’s character] Sebastian. I’m a car nut, and a car, for me, is as important as what type of suit you put on an actor. Ryan Gosling actually ended up picking Sebastian’s car, which was a red-leather 1982 Buick Rivera convertible.” It’s an outdated car that fits Sebastian’s throwback personality. Meanwhile, Mia drives a Prius, which, while contemporary, fits her character: a barista scrounging to get by as a struggling actor. Wasco blended in other throwback cars whenever he could, though: “The cars that appear on the backlot, in the background, are early 60s French and Italian cars.”
From the production-design perspective, there was one scene harder to bring to life than that heavily choreographed, freeway opening shot: the pool-party scene. “Damien was inspired by the painter Ed Ruscha, and a few of his paintings that show a fan of city lights at night going out into the distance,” explained Wasco. “He wanted that view—but it was very hard to find because most people who have a view like that and a pool in Los Angeles have upgraded their pools to infinity pools. But it was important to have a pool that dancers can completely surround for a dance number.” Unable to find that exact house, Wasco had to get creative. “We ended up giving up the view that looked onto Los Angeles,” said Wasco. “We found a house, but we had to build decking around the pool so that we could have dancers around it.” Although “La La Land” filmed exterior shots at the actual Griffith Park Observatory—the landmark that appears in the James Dean classic ‘Rebel Without a Cause’—Wasco actually re-created the inside of the planetarium. This was done mostly for practical reasons, but also allowed for extra period authenticity—since the planetarium had been renovated in the years since Rebel Without a Cause was filmed, and had lost some of its original details. Wasco re-created the original planetarium, in all of its Art Deco glory, based on photo references and scenes from the James Dean classic. “We were actually able to find a vintage projector for the room, strangely enough, on eBay,” said Wasco. “It was a full-sized, period projector that was about 12 feet high and from a planetarium. We put a turnstile in, and built this huge set around it that kind of heightened our Art Deco aesthetic. Sandy brought in all of the vintage chairs to match the photos.” (vanityfair.com)
The Partnership of Writer/Director Damien Chazelle and Composer Justin Hurwitz
Composer Justin Hurwitz and director Damien Chazelle already had a successful track record with their previous film, “Whiplash,” but Hurwitz says selling a traditional musical in 21st century Hollywood was not easy. “Our challenge was to make a movie that didn’t feel old-fashioned or a soundtrack, songs, or score that wouldn’t sound like they actually could have been in some of those older movies,” the composer says. “How can we make it new, make it modern?” The answer? Mixing American popular song with contemporary pop and big band jazz. Hurwitz was born in California, but his family moved to Milwaukee, Wisc., when he was in middle school and he calls himself a Milwaukee native. He began studying piano at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music right after the move. His piano teacher, Stefanie Jacob, says Hurwitz always wanted to dive into big projects. “His senior year in high school, he learned the entire Beethoven’s First [Piano] Concerto and he played it with a community orchestra,” she says. “And he played it really well.” No easy task for an 18-year-old. But, Jacob says, Hurwitz was always a strong-willed, independent student who wasn’t afraid of failing. “There are several different approaches to being lost — one would be to sort of swim with whatever tide is carrying you, and one would be to strike out and look,” she says. “I would say that Justin would fall into the latter category.” Hurwitz went on to Harvard University, where he met Damian Chazelle. They were in a pop band together, and also collaborated on a senior thesis. That project became a prototype for La La Land: the acclaimed black-and-white independent musical, “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench.” Chazelle says the only reason he wrote that movie was because Hurwitz agreed to compose its music. “If he would have said no, our roads would have been very different and there certainly wouldn’t have been a ‘La La Land,’” the director says. “The smartest decision I ever made was to latch on to him and not let go.”
When Chazelle and Hurwitz finally got the green light to make “La La Land,” they wrote and composed hand-in-hand. The first task Chazelle put to the composer was to come up with a main theme. “I spent so much time at the piano working on demo after demo, idea after idea,” Hurwitz says of what became “Mia & Sebastian’s Theme.” “As soon as I came up with that melody, it was like an “A-ha!” moment for me and Damien: ‘OK, wow, that’s the theme of the movie.'” He and Chazelle also asked their stars, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, to help create the sound of the film by singing some of the songs live on camera while Hurwitz played the keyboard backstage. “We did that because we wanted those really intimate moments to feel live and to have that live vulnerability,” Chazelle says, “and to let Emma and Ryan really act those moments and those songs in a way that probably wouldn’t have happened if they had to pre-record those songs in a studio months earlier.” That sometimes unorthodox approach that Hurwitz and Chazelle took to collaborating has paid off. But the director says their sentimental musical was never a sure bet. “The idea of embracing that, not apologizing for it, not trying to coat it in any kind of irony, and also embracing the kind of emotions that can come with that, that I feel like we downplay in movies these days,” Chazelle says. “The sort of full-fledged romanticism that movies of an earlier era were able to embrace without hesitation, and now it feels like we’re a little scared to embrace those sometimes.” (npr.org)
The Cinematography of “La La Land”
When looking for a cinematographer who could handle shooting his modern-day musical, “La La Land” director Damien Chazelle saw something in David O. Russell’s “American Hustle” that caught his attention. While Russell’s acidic worldview bears little resemblance to the candy-colored fantasy of “La La Land,” his camera is often moving, almost swirling, as it mirrors the often frenetic internal state of his characters. When Chazelle saw the film, he thought cinematographer Linus Sandgren might be someone he should meet. “The reason Damien was interested in me was from camera movement in that film,” said Sandgren. “He knew he wanted the camera telling the story in a physical and interactive way.” Sandgren and Chazelle agreed that the camera would be like a musical instrument. They wanted the camera movement to have a rhythm that would enhance the film’s songs and give the film a heightened, magical feel. “The camera would be more [noticeable] to the audience, so when it punched in on a character, we feel it emotionally telling the story,” said Sandgren. When transitioning into a musical number, Sandgren would often combine the camera moving in on a character with a spotting of the light, almost as if they were on stage. “We wanted to get a more intimate moment with character,” said Sandgren. “We move in and spot them up, which was also a metaphor for their dreams of being in the spotlight and performing.” By the time Sandgren came on the project, Chazelle was far along with his collaboration with choreographer Mandy Moore and, according to Sandgren, had a strong sense of how the camera would move in the scene. The challenge was Chazelle didn’t want to cut, but rather keep the movements long and uninterrupted. “The trick would be to hit beats,” said Sandgren. “If we were tracking and moving around a corner and it didn’t feel like we hit the beat, we had to find a way to get the camera in rhythm.”
Chazelle, Moore, and Sandgren would collaborate in rehearsals, with Chazelle and Sandgren trying out different shots using their iPhones, finding the best way to deliver on Chazelle’s vision while getting camera movement rhythmically aligned with the film’s songs and dance. “The key was to find a way to cut inside the shot,” said Sandgren. “Instead of cutting to a close up, we’d move in, but that transition would also need to work with the music. While the choreography was fairly in place before I came on, and Damien had worked with Mandy on the camera movement, that was more two dimensional for the stage. We were able to free things up and start exploring three-dimensional space in terms of camera movement.” Part of the challenge was, unlike many of the movie musicals Chazelle referenced for “La La Land,” the director wanted to use real locations rather than a sound stage. This meant Sandgren would have to find a way to adapt elaborate shots to locations that weren’t always ideal for elaborate camera movement. For the musical number “Someone in the Crowd,” in which Emma Stone’s Mia is being convinced to go a Hollywood party, the camera follows the four roommates dancing from room to room. At one point, the camera follows one roommates through the kitchen, pushing through to the yellow-painted living room to find another roommate, who’s draping a blue dress on a reluctant Mia. From there, the script calls for the four women to convene in the blue-painted hallway, where they continue to sing and dance. “When we scouted that location, we timed it out with the music and how they would move, but there was something missing,” said Sandgren. “We couldn’t motivate Emma into the hallway. There was a missing beat.” The solution was to build a wall with a double archway between the living room and the hallway. Stone would go through one archway, and the camera the other. “It was purely a rhythm thing,” said Sandgren. “What this created was a visual wipe as we moved into the corridor that rhythmically goes with the music. We simply created another beat for the camera to hit with that wipe, and it worked perfectly.”
Sandgren said a number of similar tweaks were matters of experimentation — coming to a stop here, panning left there, timing if the camera hit the swimming pool before the actors jumped in. When the camera hit the right beat, it instantly gave the shot emotional energy. “It was like improvisation with jazz,” said Sandgren. “The camera and its movement really were like an instrument working with music and actors dancing.” Sometimes locations would present larger challenges, which meant altering the shot. For the film’s elaborate opening dance number on a freeway ramp, Sandgren had to overcome multiple obstacles. “The elevation of the ramp made it much trickier than if we were on flat ground,” he said. “There was also a concrete median in the middle that made it tricky to cross over.” The DP and Chazelle initially conceived shooting the scene with a steadicam, but the location wouldn’t allow enough freedom of movement. They switched to a technocrane, but that created a new problem since there was no way to keep the crane’s shadows out of frame as it swept up, down, and side to side in the bright Los Angeles sun. “It was a technical puzzle,” said Sandgren. “We maintained the basic movement, but we were forced to end up behind the characters, instead of in front of them. To deal with the shadows, we’d split the long shot into different shots and mask the cut in a whip pan. For the audience, it still feels like one shot, which was important to Damien.” Because the one long take was actually a few shots seamlessly blended together, it created another production hurdle: Each shot would need to be shot at approximately the same time of day, and would depend on the consistency of the sun. Sandgren said this type of production demand would never have been acceptable on most movies, but the producers of “La La Land” were dedicated to Chazelle’s vision. Sandgren is grateful that the film didn’t deviate from Chazelle’s one-take philosophy and settle for coverage that would cut together. “It’s a pity to have coverage you can go to if that’s not what the scene should be,” said Sandgren. “It’s better to focus on getting it right and have everyone working on a solution rather than compromise. There’s such magic in these scenes because the camera movement in sync with everything and heightening the emotion of what is happening on screen.” (indiewire.com)
About Writer and Director Damien Chazelle
Damien Chazelle was born in Providence, Rhode Island…Chazelle is the son of university professors, and as a child he had an interest in both filmmaking and music. He attended Princeton High School in Princeton, New Jersey, and played drums in the school’s highly competitive jazz band. Chazelle then studied filmmaking in Harvard University’s Department of Visual and Environmental Studies (A.B., 2007). His debut as a filmmaker was “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench” (2009), a black-and-white expansion of a student film about a failed romance between a trumpet player and a graduate student that was filmed in New York City and Boston; it featured music written by Chazelle’s friend Justin Hurwitz (who also wrote the scores for Whiplash and La La Land) and won favourable notice at the Tribeca Film Festival. After moving to Los Angeles, Chazelle began working as a screenwriter. He produced scripts for the horror movie “The Last Exorcism Part II” (2013) and the thriller “Grand Piano” (2013) but was unable to generate interest in a script that he had written on his own. Abandoning that effort, he began writing a screenplay based on his experience with a taskmaster music instructor when he was in high school. With veteran actor J.K. Simmons as the instructor and Johnny Simmons as the drummer, Chazelle created an 18-minute short film of a scene from his “Whiplash” screenplay and submitted to the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, where it won both the short-film jury prize and enough financing to create the feature-length version. That film, also featuring Simmons but with Miles Teller as the drummer, was nominated for the Academy Award for best picture and won three Oscars (for best supporting actor [Simmons], film editing, and sound mixing). In addition, Chazelle received an Oscar nomination for his screenplay.
“La La Land”…won over critics and audiences alike and garnered numerous awards, including the BAFTA award for best film and the Golden Globe Award for best musical or comedy. It was nominated for a record-tying 14 Academy Awards and captured six. Chazelle again received a writing nomination, and he took home the prize for best director. At 32 years of age, he was the youngest-ever recipient of that award at the time of his win. Chazelle’s next film, “First Man” (2018), re-teamed him with Gosling, who played astronaut Neil Armstrong as he prepares for the legendary space mission that will send him to the Moon. Chazelle received critical acclaim for his character-driven approach to the story. He then turned to television, co-directing the Netflix miniseries “The Eddy,” a musical drama set in a Paris jazz club. (britannica.com) In August of 2020, Chazelle teamed up with Apple to create a short film completely shot in vertical, with an iPhone 11 Pro. Named “The Stunt Double,” this piece of “Vertical Cinema” takes viewers on a journey through a variety of different Hollywood genres over the ages, reinterpreted with a completely new orientation. Apple describes the nine-minute piece: “A journey through cinema history is reimagined for the vertical screen in Damien Chazelle’s “The Stunt Double,” a short film Shot on iPhone 11 Pro. (hypebeast.com)