Photo: Gabriel Olsen/Getty Images

The Los Angeles of La La Land is the kind of place where a traffic jam leads to a brightly colored CinemaScope song-and-dance number and a trip to the Griffith Observatory can make two lovers literally float among the stars. But to director Damien Chazelle, the city isn’t some kind of fantasyland. “I find that, every time I describe what I love about L.A., it’s kind of the same things I would use to describe what I don’t like about it,” he told The A.V. Club in a phone interview recently. “I think it’s part of why this city is so fascinating. It’s so stubbornly its own thing. And the more you try to kind of want it to be a more classical city, quote-unquote, like a New York or a Paris or a London, the more it’s going to disappoint you. To love L.A., you kind of have to let it just be L.A.”

Chazelle’s Emma Stone-Ryan Gosling musical is a throwback to the Hollywood of yore that stays rooted in the realities of the present. The two stars play aspiring actress Mia and struggling jazz musician Sebastian, who fall in love as they seek personal artistic fulfillment. These are the type of people that want to imagine their world is filled with movies like Rebel Without A Cause but know that there’s probably a Michael Bay movie shooting just around the corner. La La Land itself, however, is proof that old-fashioned dreams really can come true. Chazelle, who broke out with Whiplash, was able to bring his passion project to life. He spoke with us about making it.

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The A.V. Club: What were the challenges of doing something that has such a conscious element of nostalgia and is an homage to a certain period in film history, but setting it in a modern world?

Damien Chazelle: The hope all along was to try to have our cake and eat it too. But it does present a tonal challenge. It just became about trying to make sure we were never tipping too far into quotation marks while at the same time preserving some of the magic of some of these older movies we were referencing. But at the end of the day, though it was a movie that was informed very much by movies that I loved, we always just wanted it to ultimately be its own thing.

I think one thing that really helped was just the city of L.A. Shooting in real locations that weren’t dressed up the way you might normally dress them up for a musical. We would add little magic touches, courtesy of our production designer, but we would make sure to leave certain things, whether it’s stains in the road, or potholes, or gridlocked traffic, or creaky telephone wires, or drive-ins, or gas stations. Whatever kind of things you might not think of as magical, trying to actually use those things and make them magical. Trying to actually use the real city and the real texture of the people in the city and have the fantasy emerge organically from that.

AVC: The motif of the studio lot is so strong throughout the film. What attracted you to that specifically?

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DC: I’ve been a sort of movie junkie my whole life, and I moved to L.A. to make movies. I’ve been there for about nine years now. On the one hand, [L.A. is] this city that doesn’t have much history. It’s a very young city still. And in many ways it’s a city that’s still figuring itself out, I think. But, to me, a lot of the history L.A. does have is inextricably linked to the movies and to the idea of the dream factory. So I really do think of the studio lots in L.A. or some of those old movie—either sites or iconic structures—as L.A.’s equivalent of the Eiffel Tower or the Roman Forum or Big Ben. Those are the closest to monuments that the city of L.A. has to offer.

But at the same time, they are in many cases these shiny monuments to a path that doesn’t necessarily exist anymore, if it ever really existed at all. The whole idea of Old Hollywood is a little bit of a myth, anyway. I don’t think things were ever quite as rosy. It’s not like there was ever a time where people were just turning out nothing but masterpieces every day. I wanted to try to showcase the nostalgic capabilities of L.A. but also question them. The studio lots are really good vehicles for that because, on the one hand, you have these still-living and breathing relics of classic movies in those lots, but you also go there and they’re overrun by—many times—movies that maybe you don’t like so much. Whatever the latest release is. L.A.’s not a city that is that concerned with preserving its history in a really neat package. It’s this living, breathing city where stuff gets razed and stuff gets neglected.

AVC: Why did you want to do a dream ballet, and what were you hoping to draw on?

DC: I wouldn’t have been able to sleep at night if I looked back and was like, “Oh, I somehow convinced Hollywood to let me make a full-blown original musical, and I didn’t put a dream ballet in it.” It would have been just leaving so much on the table. I would never have been able to recover. It was kind of a necessity at the outset because I love them so much and because I think they really speak in a very fundamental way to what musicals can be and what musicals were in that era, which is just these incredible, audacious, experimental movies dressed up as mainstream crowd-pleasing entertainment. It’s somehow that Holy Grail marriage that all filmmakers kind of dream of—of wild, artistic risk-taking combined with real, mass audience. That’s what those dream ballets to me represented. The ones specifically that I was looking at were the ending of An American In Paris, or “Broadway Melody” in Singin’ In The Rain, or the kind of Mickey Spillane dream ballet in The Band Wagon. Within the confines of a mainstream studio movie and also using the resources that only mainstream Hollywood could give at that time, you see filmmakers being as audacious as avant-garde, as expressionist as any kind of Maya Deren or a Michael Snow avant-garde movie. That’s an incredible moment in film history that I wanted to do my spin on if possible.

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AVC: Songs like “City Of Stars” and “Audition” have this sort of minor-key melancholy to them. Why was that important to you?

DC: I’m not sure if it’s because I just have this sort of pessimistic streak in me or that [composer] Justin [Hurwitz] does as well, but I think every melody we really fall in love with has at least some strain of melancholy on it, whether it’s actually a minor melody or a major melody. One of the first things we bonded over was a love of French music. Not just French classical music, but French movie scores from the ’60s—Michel Legrand, Georges Delerue, Jean Constantin. People like that, where the scores are as playful and as jubilant and full of whimsy as you can imagine and yet always kind of aching with a sort of deep sadness that is so haunting it just sticks with you.

If you think of the main score of The 400 Blows or The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg, there’s nothing like those film scores in film or music history. So that’s my favorite movie music of all time and Justin’s as well. But I think it’s because they’re kind of able to be sad without being heavy-handed about it and able to be happy without being cheesy about it. We wanted this whole movie—not just the music—to kind of exist in this middle zone a little bit, where we’re embracing the joyfulness that ideally musicals can bring but not ignoring the pain or the sadness that the characters go through. We were accused of this early on when we were first trying to pitch the movie and get financing with the piano demos—every melody isolated is a somewhat sad melody in the movie, but it’s in many cases orchestrated or lyricized or filmed in such a way that it seems like a celebration.

AVC: Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are reminiscent of iconic screen pairings of the past. How did the fact that they have this chemistry that is well-known change your conception of the film and these characters?

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DC: Yeah, I do love that kind of Old Hollywood idea that you don’t see that much anymore of that recurring pair: Hepburn-Tracy, Astaire-Rogers, Myrna Loy-Powell. It’s kind of like working within a genre again. You go into it with a certain set of preconceptions and certain kind of baggage, and it’s up to you to either embrace that, subvert that, use that to mislead, use it to set certain things up. It gives you a kind of a whole set of materials to play with that are already there. So I liked that idea, beyond the fact that Ryan and Emma are just individually two of my favorite actors right now. The idea of reuniting them together in this movie did feel like very much in the spirit of the movie.

But I think the most important thing of all was just that—whether they’re a pair or isolated—they feel like totally accessible human beings on screen, and that this not be a musical where you’re just kind of waiting for a number to start because you normally associate these people with musical numbers. That this actually be a musical filled mostly with people we haven’t seen in musicals before. Obviously that applies not just to Ryan and Emma, but to Rosemarie DeWitt and J.K. Simmons and even John Legend, who we obviously associate with music but not with musicals. It was kind of trying to maintain that freshness and trying to maintain that mixture of familiarity in terms of some of the faces we were seeing but unfamiliarity in terms of what we’re seeing those faces do, was the key.

Photo: Lionsgate

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AVC: People have said Glee primed younger viewers to watch musicals, but there still remains a fear of the genre. The new trailer for Beauty And The Beast didn’t include any singing, and that’s a greatly loved musical that many people know. Did you have any thoughts about audience fear of people breaking into song and why that might exist in this day and age?

DC: Yeah, I think about it all the time. I’ve been in movie theaters [during] certain musicals where you hear the number beginning, you hear the characters break the diegesis, and suddenly you feel this shift in temperature in the theater and it’s not good. As someone who loves musicals with a passion, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why that might be. Ultimately, I think there are lots of diagnoses you can do, lots of reasons, but I think the fundamental solution was to really try not to ignore the people who, for whatever reason, have a problem with musicals. I think it’s a very understandable problem, so it was really important that this movie works for those people. Sometimes you’d think, “Okay, well, in order to get the skeptics, I’m going to do everything with a wink, or I’m going to sort of quotation-mark everything, or I’m going to find some way to explain or apologize for the fact that people are singing and dancing.”

Our solution—what we hoped would be our solution here—was to not do any of that. In fact, to be completely open and earnest and straight-faced about the fact that this was a musical and these people are really breaking into songs and there’s no apologizing for it. But to try to make sure that they always remain people, first and foremost. Ultimately, a lot of the problem people have with musicals is they don’t feel like life. They don’t feel like how you and I live. And that might be literally true, but it’s not emotionally true.

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When normal human beings fall in love, you can feel like you’re in a musical. You can feel like you’re floating into the stars. You can feel like you’re dancing on air. If you get your heart broken again, you play a piece of sad music and try to wallow in that sadness. We use music to score our lives, we use these kind of tropes to funnel our emotions into, so there’s no reason that the musical as a genre shouldn’t be the most emotionally authentic, truthful, and acceptable genre in the world. There’s no reason for that. I wanted to try to break down a little bit of those barriers and have this be just about human beings expressing their emotions through song and nothing more than that at its core.

AVC: Was the magnitude of filming this and putting this together intimidating? How did you tackle it?

DC: It did feel like something I’d been preparing for for a long time. But there were moments in prep where it was like, “Oh, my God, what the fuck have I gotten myself into?” The sheer scale and scope of trying to pull this off with what wasn’t a huge budget. There was no safety net. These are not songs that people had any familiarity with. This was not a world that people already knew. All of us realized, making this movie, we were stepping way out onto a ledge. But that gave a certain kind of energy to every aspect of making it. So it wound up being this group of people that were just energized by the challenge and just itching to make the best possible thing they can make. Sometimes it can be hard to maintain that kind of energy during a difficult film shoot, but here it was, like, every day we were doing something that either seemed impossible to do, or was something none of us had ever tried to do, and we kept trying to kind of one-up the challenges. There was a certain athleticism to the making of it that felt like we were trying—in the attempt to meet the challenges, we were exceeding our own expectations and making ourselves better.

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