Even after “Whiplash” turned him into a hot filmmaker, Damien Chazelle kept his eyes on his own goals. He maintained a monk-like focus and intensity, which was shared by his composer, collaborator, and chum, fellow Harvard grad Justin Hurwitz. Film student Chazelle got school credit for his thesis movie, black-and-white jazzy Nouvelle Vague musical homage “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench” (2010, Variance Films), although music major Hurwitz did not.
“It was a musical,” Chazelle told me, “the really low-budget, student laboratory for this. It had somewhat similar ideas about the genre, and at the time I was loving old Hollywood musicals, Fred and Ginger, and Gene Kelly, but also loving documentary film and trying to think of a way to make a realistic musical: combine a modern look at a city with the old musicals.”
After college, the duo moved to Hollywood to pursue filmmaking, supporting themselves with piecemeal jobs (like horror flick rewrites) as they wrote “La La Land.” (Hurwitz still writes for TV series “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”)
“A lot of those ups and downs and frustrations went into this script,” said Chazelle. “It was a musical that combined the magic and sugar of those old Hollywood musicals, but made it feel real and grounded and modern and contemporary. My hope was that through that genre, I could actually say something about being a young artist with huge dreams that don’t feel very realistic. Musicals can actually say a great deal about dreams vs. reality, and how you try to balance the two.”
Both writer-director Chazelle and his cinematographer Linus Sandgren (“American Hustle”) are nominated for Oscars.
One of the great early song-and-dance numbers in “La La Land,” “Someone in the Crowd,” is clearly inspired by a bright-colored Jacques Demy musical like “Les Demoiselles de Rochefort.” Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren, who were always trying to get the longest shots they could for enhanced believability, shot the widescreen sequence with Emma Stone, Callie Hernandez, Sonoya Mizuno and Jessica Rothe on the streets of Los Angeles. The camera operator starts out on the street walking backwards holding a 35 mm camera and then smoothly steps onto a moving, swooping crane.
“It was like improvisation with jazz,” Sandgren told IndieWire. “The camera and its movement really were like an instrument working with music and actors dancing.”
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Chazelle would see a Demy movie and think, “Ugh, if only life could be…” The old musicals’ use of color and space “often feels very idealized,” he said. “It is the kind of a world you want to live in.”
But the filmmaker wanted “to marry that with a vision of life where things actually don’t always completely work out all the time. Marry the happy with the sad a little bit.” He explained, “That informed everything, from how Justin approached the composition to how I talked with my DP, Linus Sandgren, about how things should feel and look. We wanted it to feel like a musical, even if you turned off the music, even if you watched it silent, you could get a sense of the melodies; the camera would dance a little bit. Even the non-musical scenes would be a little choreographed. Ideally, everything would be a little bit musicalized.”