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‘La La Land’: How Damien Chazelle Captured the Bittersweet Romance of ‘Casablanca’

Find out how the PGA winner and Oscar frontrunner reworked "Casablanca," which aptly turns 75 this year.

“La La Land”


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Of all the cinematic references evoked in PGA winner and Best Picture favorite “La La Land,” the most deeply resonant is “Casablanca,” Hollywood’s most beloved movie, which aptly celebrates its 75th anniversary this year. It’s also the subject of a delectable new book, “We’ll Always Have Casablanca,” by The New School’s Noah Isenberg (February 14, Norton), who reminds us that it embodies both Hollywood and this country at their best.

Indeed, Damien Chazelle’s Hollywood valentine is a sly reworking of the Humphrey Bogart/Ingrid Bergman classic love story, with Ryan Gosling’s pianist Sebastian winning his jazz club but losing Emma Stone’s Mia to movie stardom. Their final, bittersweet, chance encounter at his club is right out of Rick’s Cafe, and her idol worship of Bergman and the fact that she works on the Warner Bros. lot directly across from the actual “Casablanca” window set are two other significant nods. (Martin Scorsese’s showbiz musical “New York, New York” also figures in the mix.)

“It wasn’t intentional but it ended up that way [as a reworking], with the window and her fascination with Ingrid Bergman and the ending in his club,” Chazelle told IndieWire.

The deja vu is unmistakable. And you could almost hear Gosling ruefully say to himself: “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”

“La La Land”

For production designer David Wasco (nominated with his set decorating wife, Sandy Reynolds-Wasco), there were plenty of opportunities to riff on Bergman and “Casablanca,” beginning with the oversize wall poster of the star in Mia’s bedroom along with a billboard of Bergman that covers the Chateau Marmont.

“And when Mia does her little play, it was originally all about Ingrid Bergman, and we worked on that, but they decided it was too long,” the production designer told IndieWire.

But when Chazelle saw the “Casablanca” window (used during the romantic Paris flashback) at Warner Bros., he insisted they build Mia’s cafe across from it so she could show it off to Sebastian.

The fascination with Bergman also extended to Mia’s wardrobe. “I found a pink halter dress for one of the montages that’s similar to the one Ingrid Bergman wore for her Hollywood screen test,” Oscar-nominated costume designer Mary Zophres told IndieWire.

“La La Land”

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As a neo-classicist, though, Chazelle’s fascination with Hollywood lore is predicated on the notion that you can’t have it all — which also extends to the grand, sacrificial gestures in “Casablanca.”

“That was part of Damien’s experience in Hollywood, and a lot of people’s experience,” editor Tom Cross (who’s chasing his second Oscar) told IndieWire. “It’s a place to go to achieve your dreams… you gain something but you also lose something.”

But they’ll always have La La Land.

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