Writer-director Damien Chazelle hasn’t made a bad movie yet. Let me rephrase that: Chazelle has only made really great movies so far, and his latest, LA LA LAND, also happens to be one of the finest films of 2016. It’s a musical-romantic-drama centering on two crazy creative types living in Los Angeles, trying to make their dreams come true. Ryan Gosling plays jazz piano player Sebastian, and Emma Stone plays struggling actress Mia, who can’t seem to progress past the audition process. And as they both are attempting to get their careers off the ground, they are also working hard on falling in love, a process punctuated and underscored by some love original music.
Chazelle’s love of working music into his films is well documented. His debut feature GUY AND MADELINE ON A PARK BENCH is about a jazz trumpeter, while his award-winning WHIPLASH featured a jazz drummer at its center. But this is his first full-on musical, which combines old-school Hollywood fantasy moments with more modern, somber tunes to capture the mood of a love affair on the upswing and the downbeat. And in between making his own film, Chazelle has taken a crack at some recent screenplays, with writing or co-writing credits on such films as GRAND PIANO and 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE.
I had the chance to sit down with Chazelle in Chicago a couple of months ago, as LA LA LAND was in the midst of its festival run, and we were joined by one of the film’s supporting players Rosemarie DeWitt (RACHEL GETTING MARRIED, “Mad Men,” YOUR SISTER’S SISTER), who plays Sebastian’s protective sister. We had a terrific conversation about one of my absolute favorite films of the year; I can’t wait to see what Chazelle has for us next. Enjoy my talk with Damien Chazelle and Rosemaire DeWitt…
Capone: Well, congratulations on this. When I was watching it a couple of weeks ago, I was loving it, and then we hit that final fantasy sequence, and it just sent the entire experience into the stratosphere for me. And I do want to talk about that sequence later. Before that, this is one of the most positive tributes to compromise and patience in an artist’s life that I’ve ever seen. These people have these dreams, but they also at some point realize if they are just a little more patient, they might eventually get where they want to go. They also discover that there is often sacrifice in getting there. Is that a fair assessment?
Damien Chazelle: Yeah, for sure. I love how you put it. It’s funny, because when I was hearing what you were saying, it made me think—and I’ve said variations of this before—that certainly the overall look at the artist’s journey or the artist’s life, to me in a way, I was trying to say the same thing with my previous film, WHIPLASH, even though it’s from a totally different angle, which is just to try to counteract this idea of, as you say, the genius waking up in the morning, rolling out of bed, writing a symphony, it’s brilliant, and the world loves it.
And then “Oh, the tolls of being a genius. I’m going to drink a lot” or something like that. This thing where the hardship of the artist’s life comes after or outside the art, but making the art is actually pretty easy. I wanted to try and counteract that, just trying to show that, no, the process of actually making the art or becoming the artist is a hard, torturous, zig-zaggy journey and to really like look at that. So here, even though obviously as you said it’s a positive movie, it’s a movie full of love and happiness—much more so than WHIPLASH ever was—I still wanted it to be of an unstinting portrayal of the hard road that’s full of compromise and pain that you take on that road.
Rosemarie DeWitt: It really reminds me, living a creative life and witnessing it, of birth. Sometimes I look back on it…I was talking to Damien’s girlfriend about this.
DC: It reminds me of when I give birth too [laughs].
Capone: Although the gestation period is much longer.
RD: That’s what I was going to say. I was talking to Damien’s girlfriend last night who’s a young actress, when I think back on my years as a “young actress,” it all felt like this incubation period, this gestation period. I think a lot of creative people will relate, in particular, to Emma’s journey where you don’t realize it’s all going into your actor bank, your creative bank. Every experience, every rejection, every time you sit down with your material until three in the morning and learn your lines.
It’s all part of it, and it can be really painful and it really is hard to sustain something else epic at the same time. It’s hard to love your art that much and fight for it, and love a person that much and fight for the relationship, and sometimes they time out. Sometimes you come back around, but the love, and you've so captured it in the movie, how much they love each other and how much they love jazz or film. But it’s hard to have all that in your body at one time.
Capone: I wrote in my notes, “It’s almost impossible to love two things that passionately at the same time. One of them wins.” And it’s wonderful how it plays out here. I was actually going to ask you about the positive role of rejection. As much a people hate being rejected, it also fortifies you…until it crushes you. Tell me about the role of rejection in your lives.
DC: I guess it’s something that was something both of us and also Ryan and Emma could all share while making this movie. Ryan and Emma were telling me their worst audition stories. Some of those are auditions that wound up in the movie. On my end, I feel like some parts of my memory are very hazy, but I have like a photographic memory of every rejection letter I’ve ever gotten from a festival or anything. But I agree with you, that those things do make you stronger in some ways.
RD: It’s funny you say you have a photographic memory of it, because I worked in theater for a long time, and I don't remember any good reviews. I think I was lucky enough to get a couple, but I do remember [New York theater critic] John Simon calling me an “unfortunate ingénue.” It drives you. They just don’t leave your head, but they’re good for you. They get you out of bed in the morning, and they get you to take another crack at it, because ultimately when you love something as much as you do, you get to a place where you’re like “I don’t care if anybody wants to see me do this. I don't care if anybody ever gives me a job. I’m doing it because I love to do it.” And then once you get over that, then you’re like “Reject me. I don’t care.” It still hurts, but you know you have a purpose that’s bigger than the letter.
DC: Certainly, this is a movie about artists who are still either physically young, or in terms of career and creativity, still finding themselves. I think that’s a period in your life where every rejection takes on even more weight, because you don’t have the context of being able to say, “Well, I weathered these things before, so now that means I can weather this.” I think someone like Emma’s character, she puts on her one-woman show, and I think it does feel to her like the entire world and her entire life is wrapped up in this one thing, and you don’t have the context. In a way, art demands that you do that. It demands that you feel like you’re completely wrapped up in it, and it’s your entire world.
RD: All in.
DC: Completely all in. We were saying this before, where you have to be thin skinned in order to be a good artist, certainly even more so a good actor, to be really emotionally available, present, and exposed. Yet you have to be incredibly thick skinned. Somehow you have to be unrealistic and a dreamer, yet incredibly pragmatic and able to look at the failures and go well, “It’s okay because it’s on the road to success.” It requires two opposite brains, and that to me makes for good drama. It’s interesting to me.
RD: It is. It’s both. It’s like this ethereal, beautiful thing where you do need this thin skin, then sometimes it’s like being a bricklayer. The opening dance sequence—we have to close down the street, we’ve got to get a megaphone, we’ve gotta give them instruction.
DC: Certainly in a musical, there’s a lot of brick laying.
RD: Yeah. It’s both. It’s a really pull-up-your-boots and go-to-work job.
Capone: I remember some early reviews talking about how this film captures old Hollywood musicals. When I finally saw it, I was like “Well yes, but there’s also a crashing back down to the real world at the end of those song-and-dance numbers, which separates this from the old way of making musicals. It’s a much more modern version of that.
DC: That was the hope, for sure.
Capone: I don’t think it’s bad to say they both succeed to a certain degree; we get a taste of that, and it’s bittersweet. Were you afraid of bumming people out too much? I know you’ve probably talked about getting the tone right, but you have a couple of different tones working here, and it’s more about making the transitions smooth and not jarring. It’s a lot like life—we get lost in the good stuff, and then we wake up the next day with a hangover.
RD: [laughs] That’s true.
DC: Exactly. That’s a great way to put it. It’s funny that you talk about a hangover, because it was like definitely wanting certain parts of the movie to feel drunk on the possibilities of cinema and love and music—really a trip of a movie at certain parts. Then there is this meeting with reality. One thing I always kept thinking about was certainly one of my favorite Fred and Ginger numbers. Maybe my favorite number of all time is “Cheek to Cheek” from TOP HAT, and I always remember watching Ginger Rogers—because it’s all about her, I think. Ginger Rogers is very uneasy. She thinks Fred is basically a ladies man, womanizer, using her and cheating on his wife.
Anyway, she has this whole story of him that’s not actually who he is. But he’s trying to woo her, and she’s very uneasy, and she lets her guard down and lets herself get swept up in this number, and they have this moment when it seems like they’re suspended in air, and it seems like they’re completely in love and in sync for this perfect three-minute moment, then the song ends, and you look at her face and her face literally just within one shot goes from the perfection of the number back down to reality, and her expression changes subtly, the music ends, you hear the diegetic music from the party that they’ve left happening in the background.
It all happens really suddenly, but you get that feeling of “back to reality.” Now of course, it’s still back to a Fred and Ginger reality, which is never really reality. But I remember always being so moved by that moment and trying to think like, if you can take that moment, and really make a movie about that moment and push that moment further, really take the same height of spectacle, but bring it down in the same way but to modern reality and even a more bruising reality. Will something interesting arise from that? That was at the core of the whole endeavor, trying to have that be about the moment when the music ends.
Capone: I’ve got to ask you about that last sequence. Tell me what your mission was with that sequence.
DC: At the outset of this, I was like “I want to do this kind of a musical.” For that moment, it was like “I want to do this kind of a dream ballet.” I just loved the idea of dream ballets in the ’50s. I was like “why don’t they do those anymore?” Just stopping the on-screen narrative for like 10-plus minutes and telling a whole kind of alternate storyline with nothing but music and images. What a way to just do what only movies can do, but you just don’t see anymore. And I knew the emotion that I wanted to be tracking in at that point in the movie, which was this bittersweet emotion. So it all stemmed from that.
And I liked the idea that that entire life saga could happen in the space of a single song that he’s playing on piano that they could just be sitting there and share this incredible journey with each other, and no one else in the bar is aware. It’s that kind of thing. I think that’s one of the great thing about musicals and musical numbers, you always talk about the problem with movies as opposed to the novel is that in the novel you can have interiority. In movies, you can’t. Movies are all about the external, physical part of being. Musical numbers allow you to actually have interiority. To me, this was a novelist’s trick, to have a whole dialogue happen between these two people during the space of a song that no one else is hearing, that no one else is participating in, and that’s what we see on screen.
RD: Also so much of this film is about your dreams, and so much of our daydreams are the what-if dream. You know what I mean? What if I’d gone that way? What if I stayed with that person or did this thing. I think there’s something so honest about that sequence, so human that we do that, and I think that’s why it has such an emotional impact.
Capone: Best of luck with this, seriously.
DC: Thank you so much. That’s so nice of you. Take care.