"I've always been interested in that basic binary of dreams versus reality: How do you hold on to the dream when reality's telling you not to?" That's what Damien Chazelle tells us about his musical La La Land, but it's as good a line as any to define the director's burgeoning career thus far. La La Land was initially met with resistance from studios—a throwback to the Technicolour musicals of the '50s and '60s?—which insisted on total compromise, from the opening number to the melancholy ending.
But Chazelle dug in his heels and kept developing his project for four years, until Summit Entertainment came around to his vision after the success of his 2014 Best Picture nominee Whiplash (and sweetened the deal with a $30 million budget). La La Land is deeply imbued with Chazelle's passion for jazz. The actors resemble improvisers in an ensemble, their energies bouncing off one another's, and scene after scene is propelled by the brisk rhythm of a hi-hat. La La Land is a love letter to art, Los Angeles, and love itself, yet anyone who interprets it as a shot of pure optimism is underestimating its auteur. Like Whiplash, it reveals something dark about the tension between love and practicality, art and ambition.
The Oscar-nominated Chazelle spoke with Esquire about compromising his own artistic ideals, his wide variety of cinematic influences, and how a cheery movie like La La Land can exist during our dark reality.
The biggest triumph of La La Land was getting it made at all.
Once cameras started rolling, I remember there was a kind of giddiness of just being able to even finally make this. Because for a while, it seemed like a far-fetched proposition and so we always wondered if it would always remain a thing in our heads. When it all came together the way that it did and we were able to actually start shooting it—you know, in L.A., with the cast that we got—I think all of us felt like we'd already got this insane victory that none of us saw coming. I think that kind of joy permeated through the whole shoot. It was a wonderful and almost kind of cathartic experience, just finally putting these images onscreen that had been in our heads for so long.
Chazelle was influenced by everything from Bollywood to French New Wave.
The musical is a genre that allows you to be playful with certain things and go to 11 in a way that most other genres don't. I know the Hollywood musical traditions inside and out. I've lived and breathed that for so long. I'm comparatively very ignorant about Bollywood. But from the little that do I know about the Bollywood tradition, I think this idea of that sort of devil-may-care defiance of certain rules and the idea of just sheer energy and a kind of joyfulness on screen was an inspiration.
There's a kind of unbridled-ness in Bollywood that I wanted to capture here and try to see if I could marry that to the Jacques Demy tradition, which is a little more introverted and melancholy and romantic in a bittersweet way. So it was kind of trying to find that fine line between really out-there energy and big bursting-with-colors canvas, but where the emotional through line would still feel sort of subtle and grounded and modern.
But he also took cues from the more obvious Hollywood classics.
There's a lot of the obvious stuff from the golden age of Hollywood musicals. So like the "Freed Unit" stuff, Gene Kelley, Singin' in the Rain, It's Always Fair Weather, the Fred and Ginger pictures, On the Town. There was also something specific to some of the Vincente Minnelli musicals like Meet Me in St. Louis and An American in Paris. In a way, some of those movies feel like dreams or memories. And obviously there's the incredible kind of dream ballet sequence in An American in Paris, which we liberally borrowed from.
But it was always really important to us that [La La Land] was very intentionally not a movie set in the era of those musicals. We [wanted to] see what happens if you take some of those Vincente Minnelli-style things but put them on a modern L.A. street corner and see if some kind of tension would arise from that.
La La Land is, in a way, a companion piece to Whiplash.
It's sort of like the flip side to the coin with Whiplash, [which is about] the pain of making art. [La La Land] is about the joy. The joy I get is just inherent to the musical as a genre, and so actually, in a weird way, I was even more conscious throughout the making of this or the writing of this to make sure you did feel the cost and to actually kind of dwell on some of the pain and some of the sort of sacrifices that come with creativity. So it was about trying to tell a story that embraced the hopefulness that, to me, is kind of part and parcel of the musical. It was just this personal piece of writing for me.
But Chazelle actually wrote La La Land before he made Whiplash.
In a way, it was a vehicle for me to talk about my own experiences of moving to L.A. and trying to make stuff in L.A. and feeling isolated in the city, and all those kind of things sort of wound up on the page. It's a weird meta thing. So much of my time in L.A. was trying to make this movie, specifically. In a way, I even made Whiplash in order to make this movie. I wrote this initially before Whiplash, and so, so much of my experience in Los Angeles has felt like the road to finally get this on the screen. So, it does kind of become about itself, in a way, when it's about people trying to make stuff.
It was important that his characters didn't have trust funds.
In a way such a crucial part of the struggle to be an artist is that whole idea of Be realistic, be pragmatic. But in order to be a good artist in many ways, you have to be the opposite of realistic and pragmatic. In a way, it's just a more interesting situation when reality is really knocking on your door in the form of bills or having to actually keep a roof over your head. You can't just on a whim snap your fingers and put on a one-woman show. It actually requires raising money and saving and it actually requires shouldering a significant burden. I guess it's more interesting and a more emotional journey to me when people are not just putting their egos on the line.
"How do you hold onto the dream when reality's telling you not to?"
They also have to make actual sacrifices in their life, pragmatically speaking. I didn't want to over-underline that. I didn't want to wallow in that sort of struggle, necessarily. I wanted to try, in a somewhat subtle way, to deal with how—especially when the two people in this movie come together—there's that blissful honeymoon period, but then slowly real life creeps in. Those little demands creep in. And I think it just happens in a different for people who don't come from a trust fund, you know? I've always been sort of interested in that basic binary of dreams vs. reality. How do you hold onto the dream when reality's telling you not to?
His favorite musical moments are when the song ends.
There's always that sort of wonderful or really sad moment when the number ends. Like, I think often of when Fred and Ginger dance to "Cheek-to-Cheek" in Top Hat. You're so swept up in the magic of that number, and then the dancing subsides and the song ends and suddenly you're hearing diegetic background noise and the look on Ginger Rogers face changes. And suddenly the mood changes and you're suddenly yanked backed to, not reality reality—because those movies are never really reality in those movies—but into a slightly more frustrating situation where these lovers can't be together in the case of that movie at that moment.
Moments like that—only musicals can really tell that story. That's something that's unique to the genre. Because the genre allows you to break out of reality in this simple way that's motivated by music. It presents this wonderful opportunity when you go back into reality, as you have to at the end of the song. It gives you this bit of vocabulary to express emotion that no other genre can. That tension between dreams and reality and sliding from one to the other… The musical is the perfect genre to express that.
It was never his intention to release a lighthearted film during dark times.
It's funny because I remember starting to get asked that kind of question when we first started screening the movie at the festivals. Obviously the time was different when I started writing. It's a weird thing where you never really know what the world's going to be like when you finally send out your movie into it. So, there's certainly no intent. Now I sit back, and I'm done with the movie finally and I can look at the state of the world that the movie's going into. It's a world that leaves a lot to be desired in many ways. It would be kind of a mad genius thing if I had engineered that entire thing just for the reception to my movie! I can't take credit for that.
But he also couldn't help but be influenced by the times he lives in.
Certainly this was a movie that consciously I wanted the struggle of the movie to be about artists struggling to make art. So it's not a movie that is in direct dialogue with current events in the way that The Umbrellas of Cherbourg dealt with [the French-Algerian War]. But I like to think that the indirect dialogue is always as interesting. Part of what I love most about the old Hollywood movies is that, whether it's Fred or Ginger dancing in penthouses during the height of the Depression or the film noir of the '40s, where you get that post-World War II feeling, it's just a wonderful thing when you feel like the real world is creeping in there in a way. I'm always interested in that. Can you do something that's really a movie-movie in that sense of the term, but still feels like it's even subtextually engaged with the moment and real life?