'La La Land' Director Calls Ryan Gosling's Character 'Kind of a Fool'

BB5
Austin Hargrave
Clockwise from right: Damien Chazelle, Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul photographed Feb. 6 at The Beverly Hilton in Los Angeles. 

“Everything about La La Land was uncommercial,” says writer-director Damien Chazelle, 32, still bewildered at how his debut studio musical has taken him here, to an endless run of pre-Oscars interviews. 

Back when Chazelle started shopping his MGM inspired film about a struggling actress and thwarted pianist in 2011, his dreams looked about as likely to materialize as those of his protagonists. 

“There’s jazz in the movie, which is box-office poison, and it’s a love story where they don’t wind up together,” says Chazelle of all the studios that either balked at the proposed cost ($10 million) or pushed for significant changes. “The only way it could have been harder was if we were shooting in black and white.”

Six years later, the Technicolor film is enjoying critical and commercial success to the tune of 14 Academy Award nominations including two for best original song and more than $126 million domestically at the box office. Audiences haven’t cared that La La Land’s blockbuster inducing stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are tackling their first musical, purchasing 163,000 copies of the soundtrack, according to Nielsen Music, and driving it to a No. 2 peak on the Billboard 200. None of that, though, would have been possible without Chazelle’s Whiplash, the Oscar-winning 2014 indie film about a punishingly driven jazz drummer that inspired 

Lionsgate to take a chance on the director’s real passion project. In fact, La La Land’s concept dates back to Chazelle and Whiplash composer Justin Hurwitz’s Harvard days when, as roommates, they developed a shared admiration for MGM classics like Singin’ in the Rain as well as ’60s French musicals like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Their first project together, a musical called Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (surprise: it’s also about a jazz musician), was intended as a senior thesis and wound up at the Tribeca Film Festival. 

Chazelle refined the idea and, by 2010, La La Land existed in his mind practically shot for shot as a film that resurrected old-school panache while still allowing for melancholic realism. “When I first sat down at the piano, I was searching for that theme,” recalls Hurwitz, 32, who during the next few years whittled down an astonishing 1,900 piano demos into approximately 14 original songs. “I wanted it to be timeless in the sense that it wouldn’t sound old-fashioned and it wouldn’t sound contemporary.” The result was the plaintive instrumental lullaby that drifts out of a restaurant to seduce the passing Mia (Stone) and reel her toward Sebastian (Gosling). “Mia and Sebastian’s Theme (Late for a Date)” became the romantic leitmotif that bookends the entire score.

Sometime in 2014, songwriting duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who also met in college at the University of Michigan (and whose critically acclaimed musical Dear Evan Hansen is on Broadway), heard that a couple of guys around their own age were looking to do a movie musical. They wanted the job so badly that, after only a phone call, they flew from New York to Los Angeles for dinner with Chazelle and Hurwitz -- on the plane, they wrote the lyrics to “City of Stars,” the film’s brooding, Oscar-nominated centerpiece.

Afterward, the two teams exchanged ideas across coasts for at least a year before preproduction began. “We were workshopping their lyrics, throwing demos out and just doing stuff in the spirit of experimentation without a ticking clock,” says Chazelle. Pasek and Paul found the director’s dual role as screenwriter enormously helpful in terms of both his visual language they always knew what would be happening during each number and his specificity. “Oftentimes we would be in the middle of a song that we thought should sound old-fashioned and Damien would say, ‘I want it to feel more like a Beatles lyric or a Bob Dylan lyric,’ ” recalls Paul, 32, with a laugh. “We didn’t always know what that meant, but we figured it out.”

In the end, La La Land took two-and-a-half years to finish. The leads were initially rumored to go to Whiplash’s Miles Teller and Emma Watson, but after Lionsgate bumped up the financing, Gosling and Stone came aboard and adjustments were made to suit their strengths and chemistry. “The duets were tricky, because Ryan sounds best in one key and Emma sounds best in another,” explains Hurwitz. Musically, the only star power came courtesy of John Legend, who also plays a supporting role in the film.

Once shooting wrapped, La La Land spent eight months in postproduction and the song’s deceptively ebullient opener, “Another Day of Sun,” almost didn’t make the cut. This, after the highly choreographed shot required shutting down a Los Angeles freeway for two days during a heat wave. “It seemed at first like an outlier,” says Chazelle. The fix? Letting “Another Day of Sun” serve as an overture, and zooming in on Mia and Sebastian after the title card. “I feel somewhat dumb recounting the story because it seems so obvious in retrospect,” he says with a laugh. Jimmy Fallon opened the 2017 Golden Globes with a red-carpet-centric version of the scene before the movie scooped up a record-breaking seven statues.

Though La La Land has been met with newsworthy accolades, there have been objections to what some see as its antiquated notions about jazz and the problematic positioning of a white character who wants to open a nightclub as the genre’s savior. “I always thought of Sebastian as kind of a fool,” says Chazelle of the critiques. “He’s like a million archivist leaning jazz obsessives I like to make fun of because they think that something like [A Flock of Seagulls’] ‘I Ran’ is a crime against humanity. You can’t exclusively worship jazz greats from the past, when they themselves were criticized by traditionalists.”

While La La Land might be closing in on the trophy for best picture, it remains to be seen whether its success along with that of Hamilton and network live productions of hits like Grease will increase the appetite for movie musicals. Chazelle’s next project, a story about Neil Armstrong due later this year, marks a departure from the genre (though Hurwitz will be doing the score). Still, he hopes that La La Land is not an aberration. “Hollywood needs to get over this hump of thinking that people don’t want to see people breaking into song and dance,” says Chazelle. “I think it’s a fallacy. It’s just not true.” 

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 25 issue of Billboard. 

2017 Academy Awards