How Damien Chazelle Made 'La la Land' for Just $30M

By Mueller, Matt | Screen International, December 14, 2016 | Go to article overview

How Damien Chazelle Made 'La la Land' for Just $30M


Mueller, Matt, Screen International


Labelling writer-director Damien Chazelle's bittersweet, candy-coloured awards contender La La Land a homage to classic Hollywood musicals feels like a double-edged sword. "It's true," agrees Chazelle, "and the hope was to never stop there. The movie is a love letter to a lot of things, in that way, but through that prism it hopefully tells a story that's of the moment, grounded and realistic."

La La Land spins the romantic journey of Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone), a defiantly retro jazz pianist and aspiring actress respectively who cast a spell on each other in a moody and noirish Los Angeles.

"I wanted to see what would happen if I pasted these MGM musicals onto a modern landscape with modern characters going through a life where the dreams don't always match up to the old movies," says Chazelle.

A giddy delight that was anointed one of this year's prime awards-season contenders as soon as it made its debut as Venice's opening film, La La Land is rife with song-and-dance numbers performed by Stone, Gosling and a game cast that also includes Whiplash Oscar winner JK Simmons. Combined with his previous film Whiplash, La La Land confirms Chazelle as a film-maker who is going to be an industry force for many years to come.

The 32 year old first fell "head over heels in love" with musicals in his late teens, right as he headed offto Harvard University. Specifically, Golden Age musicals like Singin' In The Rain and Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg became his most formative influences. Cherbourg, which Chazelle describes as "the most perfect film ever made", was a big touchstone for La La Land. It was a film he nearly tore out of the VCR when he first watched it, before sticking with it - and finding himself addicted by the end. "I've never been the same since," he says. "I've never had a movie take me on that kind of a journey, on both an emotional and intellectual level. I found it incredible that a film and a genre could do that."

Right on cue

It is that motivation that inspired Chazelle and composer Justin Hurwitz, college roommates from Harvard who have now collaborated on three features, to write the script and the score for La La Land, before they wrote Whiplash. But it was Whiplash that became the first post-Harvard feature Chazelle was able to get financed, and its success (which included three Oscar and Bafta wins apiece) gave Chazelle options. Rather than be tempted by fresh script offers, however, he knew how he wanted to use his newfound industry clout. "I made Whiplash in order to make La La Land, so as soon as the doors opened even an inch, we were charging right in with this script," says Chazelle.

Rewinding a few years, Fred Berger and Jordan Horowitz, a pair of producers who rose up in New York's independent film community (Berger got his start working with Sofia Coppola while Horowitz produced The Kids Are Alright), were introduced to Chazelle after he'd made his feature debut, 2009 musical drama Guy And Madeline On A Park Bench, as his Harvard senior thesis. At an LA coffee shop in 2010, Chazelle pitched the duo La La Land. "We were like, 'Original musical, romantic, love letter to LA, old-fashioned, about an actor and a jazz musician: those are all things that are not going to work. Let's do it,'" says Berger. "We just started developing it incredibly ambitiously, purely and in a little bit of a vacuum."

What Berger and Horowitz found thrilling about Chazelle was his level of ambition and unswervable determination to try and mount a film that was, as Berger puts it, "essentially impossible in the mould of Hollywood financing. The prospect of making it was so far-fetched that at no moment were we ever tethered to reality in terms of reverse engineering it to get it made. That's where I think Whiplash had to get made first in order to give rise to the movie that exists today".

Long before Whiplash stormed Sundance in 2014, sparking a heated revival in La La Land's fortunes, the latter project had been set up at Focus Features, which optioned the script in 2011. …

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