‘Whiplash’ director comes up with another winner, ‘La La Land’ | Inquirer Entertainment
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‘Whiplash’ director comes up with another winner, ‘La La Land’

By: - Columnist
/ 12:24 AM September 25, 2016

DAMIEN Chazelle     photo by Ruben V. Nepales

DAMIEN Chazelle photo by Ruben V. Nepales

LOS ANGELES—Damien Chazelle proves in “La La Land,” the musical being touted as a best picture contender in the coming awards season, that his earlier film, “Whiplash,” was not a fluke. He pulls off this fun, audacious love letter to Los Angeles, which already netted Emma Stone a best actress trophy at the Venice International Film Festival.

Interestingly, Damien wrote “La La Land” (which also stars an equally appealing Ryan Gosling) before “Whiplash,” his acclaimed second feature film, which won three Oscar awards, including a best supporting actor victory for JK Simmons. He told me about his plan to make “La La Land” when I interviewed him for “Whiplash” in the Toronto fest.


“I wrote ‘Whiplash’ almost in frustration, because I wasn’t getting this one (‘La La Land’) off the ground,” he said in our recent chat.


At 31, the curly-haired filmmaker can pass for a college student. “So I thought, I better write something that takes place in a couple of rooms that someone will actually let me film. I made ‘Whiplash’ in order  to make ‘La La Land.’”

The Harvard graduate has created the best musical since “Chicago.” It’s a Technicolor song-and-dance paean to the City of Angels that’s a rom-com at heart, modern yet pays tribute to Hollywood’s Golden Age of musicals.

He cast winning leads in Ryan, who plays Sebastian, a struggling musician, and Emma, an aspiring actress named Mia, who serves lattes between auditions.

At Harvard, Damien started making a short, “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench,” which he developed into his first feature film. He also met his former wife, director-producer Jasmine McGlade, at the university.

Very intense

Damien said that while he comes from a family with no movie business connections, they supported his filmmaking ambition. “Both my parents are professors. My dad is a mathematician and my mom is a medieval historian, which was a weird combo,” he shared with a laugh. “There were very intense dinner table conversations.”


“I never wanted to do anything but make movies. I can’t remember ever wanting to do anything else. I was a very mono-focused child. My parents had to encourage me to go out and do stuff with other people, instead of just drawing and writing all the time. I was an indoor kid (laughs).

“I owe my parents a lot in terms of being able to follow my dreams. I was making home movies as a kid and writing bad scripts, just getting a lot of stuff out of my system. So, by the time I got to college, I was still learning a lot. I met Justin (Hurwitz, who wrote ‘La La Land’s’ music), this composer.

“It was just the right time. Justin and I had been nursing this passion individually, but we needed someone to share it with. It’s that wonderful moment in your life when you meet someone who can make you immediately realize, ah, I have to make stuff with this person.”

RYAN Gosling and Emma Stone in “La La Land”

RYAN Gosling and Emma Stone in “La La Land”

Memorable songs

Justin’s songs, mostly cowritten with Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, make “La La Land” extra memorable.

Damien, who grew up in the East Coast, explained why LA is close to his heart. “I moved to LA about nine years ago,” he began. “Part of what is wonderful about LA is that it doesn’t reveal itself to you right away. Maybe you have had a similar experience, especially in a place like downtown, which is going through different kinds of changes.

“As a movie lover, the history of LA is important to me, because it was a town that was born by the movies in many ways. So, I find it really romantic.

“But at the same time, it’s a very lonely city, depending on who you are and where you are. It can be an isolating city. So especially with this movie, I wanted to explore the way a city can both inspire us to dream and dissuade us from dreaming and can bring people together, pull them apart and that their ups and downs are part of what makes the city alive, complex and beautiful.”

Damien is aware of the title’s original negative connotation about LA, but he offered an explanation. “What’s funny about the term ‘La La Land’ is that it’s usually a somewhat derogatory term to refer to LA or to people who have their heads in the sky.


“What was interesting about trying to reclaim the term was that to me, the movie is a celebration of those people, or that state of mind, the idea that even if your dreams are quote-realistic-unquote, or even if society tells you to get your head out of the clouds or stop daydreaming, that there’s something beautiful about those dreams, even if they don’t get realized.

On casting Ryan and Emma in musical roles, Damien cited, “The good thing about Ryan and Emma was, she had done ‘Cabaret’ on Broadway. He has had music in his past. So they weren’t completely new to this form, but for most audiences, Ryan and Emma seem completely new to the genre.

“The numbers have to be not this preexisting thing, but something that comes out of their emotions.  Even when they’re tap dancing or singing, you still see Mia and Sebastian, the two characters.

Original musical

“We were all scared out of our minds. A musical is always hard, but in this case, it’s an original musical. We all had to agree to jump off the cliff together. If we went down, we would go down together. We like to joke that it’s a musical, the genre where, if you screw it up, you really screw it up!

“But it’s the risk of failure, that risk of embarrassing yourself that drove us to do something out of our comfort zone.”

The opening musical sequence, set in a freeway junction that seems to float over LA, is an apt introduction of the city teeming with aspiring performers. This flyover is one of my favorite places to drive on, because it is close to the Los Angeles International Airport and, therefore, I associate it with travel and our journeys in life.

“That opening scene was shot on the ramp connecting the 105 and the 110 (freeways),” said Damien, who cowrote the John Goodman horror-drama, “10 Cloverfield Lane.” “The city allowed us to shut it down for two days back to back, Saturday and Sunday. We just packed it with a lot of cars (laughs). And a lot of dancers.

Hottest day

“The thing you don’t realize when you are watching it is that it was the hottest day of the year when we were shooting it. The second day, we show up and there are thick storm clouds for the first part of the day.

“We still had a bunch of the number to do, and they are singing about another day of sun. I thought, this is not good.  This is going to be like ‘Singing in the Rain’ without the rain. It’s going to be a complete disaster!

“So, we had to wait for the clouds to finally part. Then, as soon as they did, there was another problem. There is a moment in the number where a guy opens a truck door, and there is a band inside. The truck door stopped working, so he couldn’t open it anymore.

“So, it’s all those things. I look back and I am like, oh, it seems like every little thing went wrong. But in a way, that’s the thrill of doing something on location.”

He is grateful that his friendship with Justin has resulted in a joyous, magical musical. It’s been a while since we had a successful musical like “Chicago.”

“Justin played piano, and I played drums. We quickly realized that we weren’t going to be rock stars,” he admitted with a laugh.

“We shared a love of movies. Justin wanted to score films, and I have wanted to make movies since I was a little kid. So, we bonded over different ways of combining music and film. That combination was exciting to both of us. So that got us going on the great musicals of the past, especially the movies of Jacques Demy and Michel Legrand. How inspiring those movies were to us, especially ‘The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,’ ‘The Young Girls of Rochefort’ and ‘Lola.’

“So even when we were in college, we were talking about doing a musical together. We did some student films. Justin did the music for ‘Whiplash’ and all the music on this.”

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E-mail [email protected]. Follow him at https://twitter.com/nepalesruben.

TAGS: “Whiplash”, Damien Chazelle, La La Land, Los Angeles, movie, Ryan Gosling

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