Damien Chazelle wrote and directed the Academy Award-winning Whiplash, which landed five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay for Chazelle. The movie won a trio of Oscars in the Film Editing, Sound Mixing and Supporting Actor (J.K. Simmons) categories.
In 2013, his short film of the same name won the Short Film Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Previously, Damien wrote Grand Piano, starring Elijah Wood and John Cusack, and co-wrote the hit, horror sequel 10 Cloverfield Lane, starring John Goodman. His screenplays for Whiplash and The Claim both appeared on the Blacklist, the annual survey of the most liked motion picture screenplays not yet produced. Damien shot his first feature film, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, while still an undergrad at Harvard University.
Here, Damien discusses his latest movie, La La Land, which was nominated for a record-tying 14 Academy Awards.
Hi Damien. Congratulations!
Not that I’m at all surprised by your incredible success. After all, back when you released your first film, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, I told anybody who’d listen, “Appreciate Damien now and avoid the rush!”
I remember those lines so well. I think yours was the first Rotten Tomatoes review of it. La La Land is sort of like Guy and Madeline, but with a budget. (Chuckles)
Well, I loved it! It’s #1 on my Top 100 List for 2016. And I started my review saying, “If you only see one movie this year, you need to get out more. That being said, La La Land is the picture to catch.”
Thanks! I’m thrilled you liked it.
I’ve seen it four times already. It’s a movie you absolutely have to see on the big screen.
Yeah, part of my hope was to make a movie meant for the movie theaters, in the old-fashioned sense of a film designed for a group of people to watch on the big screen. I think that old school idea was so beautiful, kinda like those roadshow musicals from the ’50s and ’60s.
The first time I saw it was with fellow critics, and everybody applauded when the closing credits started to roll. That was the first time in ages that there was a standing ovation at a film critics’ screening I attended. We’re a jaded lot that’s pretty hard to impress.
I understand that this movie took six years to make, partly because other studios were willing to greenlight the project on the condition that you agreed to substantial revisions, like changing the ending and the music from jazz to rock.
One of the reasons we actually ended up making La La Land with Lionsgate was that it was one of the few places that was willing to let us make the movie the way we wanted to make it. Two of the key things that other studios had had issues with were the ending and the music. They wanted us to farm out the songs to a bunch of top pop songwriters or music stars, since the score was almost all going to be composed by Justin [Gurwitz], my former college roommate who no one ever knew of before this. And we wanted the soundscape to have a sort of timeless style by being played on acoustic instruments with lush, sweeping strings and a jazz rhythm section. Those were two things we really had to fight for a lot, as well as for the resources we needed to make the movie the way we wanted to make it.
I’m glad you stuck to your guns.
Once we were set up at Lionsgate, then it was a great process, because they were really supportive. I was as lucky as you can imagine, because I was given the freedom as a filmmaker to make exactly the movie I wanted to make, with zero compromise.
I know you used a wide-angled, CinemaScope lens, a technology that hasn’t been used by anybody in decades.
It’s not exactly the old CinemaScope technology. We kinda did our own version of it. We shot the entire movie in anamorphic 35mm. And Lina Sandgren, our DP [Director of Photography], had some lenses custom built to allow us to go a little wider than 2.40 [aspect ratio]. We went to 2.55, which is closer to the classic CinemaScope aspect ratio of the ’50s that doesn’t exist anymore. We liked the idea of giving the picture that extra bit of width because L.A. is really a wide-screen city, a panoramic kind of city. So, we settled on a combination of using old technologies like celluloid and that aspect ratio in combination with new technologies like new lenses that were specially built for this and a steady cam. Obviously, almost all of the movie was shot on steady cam. There was some crane work and some dolly work, as well. But the steady cam gives you a freedom of motion that you couldn’t have in those classic MGM musicals. So, it was fun to try to combine old and new in terms of how we shot it.
One thing I loved about the singing was how I found myself pulling for Emma [Stone] and Ryan [Gosling], as if I were watching community theater or a high school production. I knew they weren’t seasoned pros used to belting out show tunes. Yet, they appeared to be naturals, performing effortlessly within their capabilities.
You’re speaking to one of the things I loved about a lot of the older musicals. You didn’t see the sweat. You didn’t feel the work. Some of those movies were the hardest to make, yet the entire aim with a musical, in my mind, is to make it look easy. Ryan and Emma have this amazing ability to make everything seem effortless and natural. We always talked about how the singing, acting, dancing and piano playing could never be just about technique. They had to be about character and emotion. So, Ryan and Emma approached everything like actors, where everything was rooted in a sense of character, a sense of vulnerability, and a sense of humanity, in order to ground it all. Even though they were able to make it look effortless, I agree that there’s this tremendous hat trick that they were able to pull off.
I saw La La Land as an homage to classic Hollywood musicals, until a colleague mentioned that you were also influenced by a number of French films.
Yes, mainly the French New Wave, especially Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Also Lola, and The Young Girls of Rochefort. Movies like that. Justin, my composer, was listening to a lot of those French New Wave scores, a lot of Michel Legrand, and a lot of French music from the ’50s and ’60s. There’s a French quality about them that’s very romantic and playful while also being very grounded, a little understated, very real, and very melancholy, as well. They sort of combine emotions. They live somewhere between happy and sad. I feel that’s where a lot of French New Wave lives. And I just love that emotional fulcrum.
How many of those French films are musicals?
Well, full-fledged musicals, just those Jacques Demy movies. And I guess [Jean-Luc] Godard did a quasi musical with A Woman Is a Woman. What’s fun about them is that they are sort of the French filmmakers’ answer to the American Hollywood musicals that they loved. So, I liked the idea of doing an American answer to the French answer to the American musicals, if that makes sense.
Absolutely! Who are a few of your favorite directors?
Certainly, some of the French New Wave filmmakers like Godard and Demy. [Charlie] Chaplin is someone who is constantly inspiring me. He’s actually someone Emma and I bonded over, initially. We both adore City Lights, and we were talking about that movie when we first met. And with this movie, Vincente Minnelli, one of my favorites of all time, was a big influence as well in terms of his use of color and his sense of emotion.
When I interviewed John Legend, I was surprised to learn that he had come aboard as a producer before you decided to add him to the cast of La La Land.
Yeah, what happened was I first met John’s producing partner, Mike Jackson, on the Whiplash circuit. I met John through Mike. As soon as Ryan and Emma were cast, I want to fill the Keith role, and I loved the idea of casting John Legend in it. I knew I wanted a musician for it. I thought, “Okay, I know John’s producer now, so maybe there’s a play to be made here.” So, they were the first people I sent a script to for that role. He ended up coming aboard in several capacities. First, as an actor, doing his first, big piece of onscreen acting, which was real exciting. Second, as a songwriter. He co-wrote the song that his character plays. And third, coming aboard with Mike as an executive producer of the movie.
How did you manage to make a movie that’s so much more than the sum of its parts. La La Land is, on the one hand, often larger than life, such as how the panoramic opening dance number is splashed across the screen. And yet, the picture is also intimate and accessible in a way that affords the viewer a very personal experience. How did you achieve that? Was that part of the plan?
My hope was that it would be visually ravishing, but still very human, as you’ve suggested. That was kind of the through line [connecting theme] with everything in prep. Lina Sandgren, our DP, was just incredible. He, Mandy Moore our choreographer, David Wasco our production designer, and costume designer Mary Zophres all came on board way, way early on to sort of pre-prep the movie. Then, we had a very intensive three to four month, on-site prep with everyone almost housed together in these production offices in the valley. We were all trying to speak the same language. You have to sort of pre-design stuff really precisely and really minutely. But you hope that, once you get on set, you can still be spontaneous and have fun with it.
Are you thinking about your next project yet?
Yes, for a couple years, I’ve been developing this film about Neil Armstrong and the moon landing with Josh Singer, who wrote Spotlight. I hope to be shooting it next year with Ryan playing Neil. Knock on wood, that’ll come together. But it’s on the horizon right now.
Well, congratulations again, Damien. I can’t say I’m surprised at your success, since I recognized your phenomenal talent and predicted it way back when. But I am honored to know you and to have this opportunity to chat with you about La La Land.
Thank you for all the support back in the day. You were there before anyone gave a damn, Kam. So, thank you.
La La Land was nominated for a record-tying 14 Academy Awards. The 2017 Oscars airs Feb. 26. For more information, go to lalaland.movie and oscar.go.com.