Oscar contenders can be the auteur, the veteran, the journeyman who’s elevated his craft. However, perhaps the most exciting breed is the Breakout, and that’s Damien Chazelle.
He’s not a rookie. His second feature, “Whiplash” (Sony Pictures Classics), scored a shocking five nominations including Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay (from his short), Editing, Sound Mixing, and a win for Supporting Actor J.K. Simmons.
However, following that breakout success is often a tall order for young directors, whose celebration is often followed by a morass of dealmaking and development hell.
That wasn’t Chazelle’s fate. With critically hailed fall festival hit “La La Land” (Lionsgate, December 9), Chazelle magically modernizes the colorful swirl of Jacques Demy French song-and-dance musicals “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” and “Les Desmoiselles de Rochefort” along with backstage showbiz romantic musicals such as “New York, New York” or Gene Kelly-starrer “Singin’ in the Rain.” In “La La Land,” Chazelle plants lamp posts everywhere.
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Like Tarantino, Chazelle is that rare, obsessively gifted writer-director who intuits how to merge past and present in a believable way. And in this annus horribilis, his escapist reverie is a very pleasant way to spend your time. It’s already racking up awards. In a weak year for Best Picture Oscar contenders (if not for actors), “La La Land” stands out as a beacon of vibrant color and romance against a field of grimmer, smaller-scale rivals. Like Oscar winners “The Artist,” “All That Jazz,” and “Birdman,” it’s utterly relatable to one key demo: The Academy. The question is whether the zeitgeist will inspire a different kind of statement this year.
How did Chazelle skip the post-Oscar curse? By following his own advice in “La La Land,” below.
1. Follow your bliss.
Even after “Whiplash” turned him into a hot filmmaker, 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. They’d been through this before, only from the other side: After they ditched their freshman-year rock band (jazzman Chazelle on drums, classicist Hurwitz on keyboards) to make movies, they saw their cohorts sign with Interscope.
Did they miss their one chance at the brass ring? They kept moving ahead. 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.”
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 he 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. 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.”
But when Chazelle pitched the movie, the word “musical” made the finance people recoil. “Then, to add to the damage, I would say, ‘It’s going to be great, because the music’s going to be jazz.’ Then I’d add, ‘It’s a love story and they don’t end up together at the end.’ Then the final capper would be, they would ask, ‘Who’s doing the music?’ and I’d say, ‘My college roommate. He’ll do a great job.'”
And so the duo went forward with the easier-to-sell “Whiplash” feature instead. And when Hurwitz ended up composing more of an original score when their budget didn’t allow them to license more than two jazz songs, he and Chazelle learned many valuable lessons about how to make a movie with music. They sold “Whiplash” to Sony Pictures Classics on Sundance opening night.
2. Think big.
When “Whiplash” broke out, Lionsgate stepped up to back “La La Land.” “We got to make a bigger, better version than we ever thought to do originally,” Hurwitz told me after the movie premiered at Telluride. “Smaller studios wanted to make it at $12 million-$16 million, but Lionsgate’s Erik Feig wanted to make the right version.”
Lionsgate raised overseas financing and brought on veteran musical producer Marc Platt (“Into the Woods,” “Wicked”) and producer-investor Gary Gilbert (“The Kids are All Right”) to shepherd the movie.
3. Pick the right collaborators.
After casting conversations broke down with Chazelle’s first picks, “Whiplash” star Miles Teller and Emma Watson, the budget climbed past $30 million when Chazelle “cast up” with three-time romantic leads Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, who sang in her breakout movie, “Easy A.” It was as close to the Astaire-Rogers star chemistry as he could get.
When Gosling, who played rock piano and guitar in the 2009 band Dead Man’s Bones, learned that Chazelle was finally making that musical he had been talking about, he was in.
Chazelle checked out and met with Stone during her Broadway run in “Cabaret.” After signing his stars, Chazelle marveled at the degree to which both actors were willing to prepare, almost competitively, as they learned to ballroom and tap dance with choreographer Mandy Moore (who was well-versed in classic movie dancing), and to sing their songs in a believable, conversational, naturalistic way. Gosling also had to play jazz piano well enough to sustain a long uninterrupted take (Chazelle assumed he would have to use a double). But his actor pulled it off.
4. Make hummable original music.
Hurwitz and Chazelle spent a year arranging the vocals, cutting demos, doing orchestrations and pre-recording the big choreographed production numbers. The actors had input with the lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul about the content of the songs, which had to advance their characters’ emotional narratives. “We wanted the demos to have all the detail and vibrancy of the later songs,” said Hurwitz. “We had mockups of fully orchestrated versions leading up to the shoot.”
“The moments where they needed to be vulnerable, the really intimate songs, we felt had to be live,” said Chazelle. “And we wanted the actors to really be able to ‘act’ their way through the songs, and take the space they needed, and really drive the songs. And to pick up on all of the nuance, so you can hear the smacks of the lips and the gulps, which just doesn’t quite sync up when it’s a studio vocal.”
For Stone’s solo “Audition” — along with the duet “City of Stars,” both Critics Choice Best Song nominees — they shot live on set. Stone pushed to shoot the song live, even if the prospect was terrifying. She remembers shooting nine takes and worrying about losing her voice. “That was what I was training for,” she said, “We knew that day would happen.”
Chazelle also knew that on that day “the glitz and chaos had to take a back seat, the movie has to stand still for a moment. Before that, there’s freewheeling camera movement and exuberance. We had to be simple and stop and be about Emma, one single person.”
But while the scene looks like a single fluid camera move, Stone sings through precisely timed lighting effects, a floating table, and scene changes happening around her.
“La La Land” adopts a naturalistic, low-key singing style for Stone and Gosling. “We just always liked those really naturalistic voices,” said Hurwitz, “like Audrey Hepburn in ‘Moon River.’ That kind of voice where it’s very breathy and vulnerable and not overly ‘belted.’ We tried not to direct them to be any more theatrical in how they sang.”
“I knew at a gut level we wouldn’t be able to do it, it wouldn’t hit home unless the relationship felt real,” said Stone, “and I found the connection between those two characters in a human grounded way in the midst of the chaos.”
The filmmakers also tried to record the singing so that studio sound matched location sound, “trying to still make it sound live,” said Chazelle, “trying to leave it pretty dry, not put it through the studio auto-tune polish. We’d use the same mics we would use on set, and keep the mics a little distant.”
After the two leads, John Legend was the first person cast, as Sebastian’s bandleader. Chazelle wanted a real musician, someone who could bring all that authenticity to bear. After he met Legend casually on the “Whiplash” promo circuit, he gave him the script.
Hurwitz co-wrote Legend’s commercial pop song with him. “It was great to have the perspective of somebody who’s been in the music industry and who’s seen where that line is between authenticity and selling out,” he said. “That song has to straddle that line: It can’t be a bad song, but it has to make us feel a bit uncomfortable about the fact that this is not the music Sebastian set out to play.”
5. Update and modernize old tropes — with love.
One of the themes of “La La Land” is that depressive Sebastian — as his bandleader lectures him — is too wedded to the past, to classic old jazz, unwilling to break away and make it his own. Barrista-actress Mia (Stone) helps him to grow up, find his own voice, and embrace and realize his future. He does the same for her.
Having obsessively studied and deconstructed musicals, Chazelle likes to toy with a cinema language that few filmmakers of his generation even know. (He did shoot the movie the old-fashioned way: in 35mm.) First, he knocked the audience out of any comfort zone by blasting them with a 100-dancer production number, “Another Day of Sun,” which he achieved by shutting down an elevated EZ pass ramp over the 105 freeway one weekend and filling it with cars. That sets the bar for what to expect.
And then he cut the sequence, along with the overture over the opening credits, for months. Then they put “Another Day of Sun” back.
“It’s the only number that’s not story dependent or story pushing,” said Chazelle, “that doesn’t involve our leads directly. So it was easily cuttable. But the idea behind it was to not just introduce you to the city and set the tone, but I liked letting you know, right away, what the maximalist version was, how far we could go, what we’re capable of. Then you’re allowed to escape the theater or settle in.
“What the number does is make every number that follows seem much more intimate as a result. Our hope for the movie is that it would start in the fantasy — and get a little more realistic and intimate as we go until finally, by the end, before the audition number, we go through a long stretch with no number at all and you almost forget you’re in a musical. Then we save our ammo and get back up with the whole epilogue.”
The overture stayed cut.
After that, the movie settles into a more naturalistic vein. Chazelle is willing to use classic camera cliches, like moving in on Mia’s face in close-up as she’s falling in love for the first time. “I’m a sucker for that kind of language,” he said, “like iris fade-ins and big dramatic swoosh-ins when they kiss. I wish we did more of it.”
He deploys theatrical lighting to signal coming songs — in one case, Mia is gazing into her bathroom mirror when she’s interrupted, and then resumes the song later. “It’s part of the fun of a genre that has existed for so long,” Chazelle said, “even though we don’t make musicals as much as we used to. Tropes and conventions you can use to your advantage and subvert. I’ve always loved playing with the idea of how you get in and out of a number — teasing a little bit, and not letting it fully flower, or letting it flower a little later than you think.”
For the hilltop dancing duet inspired by “Isn’t It a Lovely Day?”, a routine that Astaire and Rogers memorialized in “Top Hat,” Chazelle set himself a tall order: shooting a single six-minute camera crane move at sunset on steep Mulholland Drive — with a jarring cellphone ring. The actors rehearsed for 2 1/2 months, lip synching and live dancing to their pre-recorded song. They then rehearsed on the location and shot about five takes at magic hour over two nights.
“We’d just cram in a lot of takes in a very short amount of time,” Chazelle said. “You stretch it to 40 minutes, knowing that your first take and your last take aren’t going to be ideal. We knew the middle takes would be the best, lighting-wise, and we knew when Ryan and Emma would hit their stride. Somewhere between two and three would probably be where our magic would be … We would just roll until we had no light left.”
The movie’s design veers between present-day cars and classic Hollywood signposts like The Formosa Cafe and Musso & Frank. The director had production designer David Wasco and costume designer Mary Zophres aim not to “be too 2016 and never be too retro,” said Chazelle. “It had to exist in this weird middle ground where we’d try to constantly thread that needle … so you could never exactly situate what era the movie was in. Certain things I felt were too modern for the movie. On the other hand, I really liked the idea of using a cell phone or a Prius.”
In the movie, romantic leads Sebastian and Mia have old-fashioned tastes. “They love musicals, they love jazz, but they have to reconcile that with living in a modern city,” said Chazelle. So his designers “had to reflect that tension of wanting to create that bubble, but know that we do live in the real world, and that’s not such a bad thing.”
The production was based out of small offices in L.A.’s Atwater Village. What did that bigger budget bring? “The budget is really all about time,” said Chazelle. “You pay for every day. ‘Whiplash,’ we only had 20 days to shoot; this, we had 40. We knew L.A. without tax credits is an expensive city to shoot in. We knew we were shooting in 60 to 70 locations in 40 days. It’s that weird thing where ‘Whiplash’ was $3 million, and at $30 million I go, ‘Oh, my God, this is ‘Whiplash’ times 10.’ Yet it felt, in the making of it — for better or worse — almost as small and run-and-gun, but you get a certain kind of energy I actually really like.”
6. Be smart about authentic branding.
Lionsgate and its awards campaigners have played their hand well with “La La Land,” launching it at Venice, Telluride, and Toronto and then holding back screenings to create want-to-see. The official Academy screening is still to come.
They wouldn’t give screening prints to anyone in Hollywood, which forced Barbra Streisand to attend the film’s first Academy party at the London Hotel, protected in a room guarded by host Eddie Redmayne and producer Marc Platt, who waved me in to hear Streisand tell me how much she loved the movie. That’s high cred from a tough lady.
Their awards swag is a gorgeous Taschen coffee table book, “Los Angeles,” with an added “La La Land” sheer cover.
Next up, the “La La Land” crew are off to Paris to show the movie to Michel Legrand, who wrote all the Jacques Demy music. They got a kick out of meeting “Mary Poppins” songwriter Richard M. Sherman. That sequence of the couple dancing above the clouds against the starry sky? It’s right out of “Mary Poppins.”