Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in La La Land (2016)

To the Sound of Music: Interview With ‘La La Land’s Damien Chazelle and Justin Hurwitz

In the thick of Awards season, director Damien Chazelle and composer Justin Hurwitz talk about their dazzling film, La La Land.

After exploring the darker, nastier side of jazz culture (and cementing J.K. Simmons as one of the scariest monsters in modern movies) in the Oscar-nominated Whiplash (2014), the duo of director Damien Chazelle and composer Justin Hurwitz take a look at the bright(er) side of jazz with their dazzling musical, La La Land.

Familiar onscreen couple Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling star as a struggling actress and jazz pianist, respectively, who find love in each other’s arms on their journey to stardom. An ode to the candy-colored musicals of Jacques Demy, Fred Astaire and the like, the film is bursting with the sweeping cinematic stylings of Chazelle and some timeless melodies and arrangements by the classically trained Hurwitz.

While visiting San Francisco back in October for the Mill Valley Film Festival, Chazelle and Hurwitz sat down with PopMatters to talk about their musical influences, how modern movies take color for granted, and why plot is nothing more than a means to an end.


Why do you think the musical genre has been so difficult for Hollywood to revive? What was your biggest obstacle in getting this movie made?

Damien: It was a couple of things, but one was people’s reaction when they heard we wanted to do a musical. The only thing that has made musicals palatable for this past stretch of years has been if they’re based on pre-existing hits. Justin and I were working on this before we even did Whiplash. We wanted to do a musical, which was already a turn-off [for studio people]. Justin was going to write all of the music, I was going to direct it, and neither of us had done anything [in the industry], so that was another turn-off, you know? It was risk upon risk upon risk that made the project not that appealing for a while until we did Whiplash and got our foot in the door enough to convince people to make the movie.

Justin: We love musicals. In college, Damien turned me onto a lot of musicals I didn’t know about. It’s that adage, “Make what you want to watch.” We were just making something that spoke to us and was a movie we’d want to see. People seem to be responding to the characters and the story. At the end of the day, even if musicals have “gone out of style” for a certain period of time, it comes down to the story. Like any other movie, if people connect to it, people will want to watch it.

Why did you incorporate the styles and tropes of mid-century musicals to tell a story about today?

Damien: In a way, that was part of the idea. Not as period-specific as that, but you look at this genre that, for whatever reason, went out of style after the ‘60s. They’re these movies that Justin and I love, and we asked ourselves what these movies could teach us about today. What is it about them that could apply to today? I think because the genre had a hard time after the ‘60s, it’s thought of as this old-fashioned genre, but it’s really not. There’s a defiance, a willingness to break rules, that’s sort of inherent to the genre. It’s this idea that emotions can justify breaking into song and dance that, to me, feels modern.

It’s just about how you approach it. I think what has made the musical feel old-fashioned in recent decades has been everything getting heavy and laden with affectation. We thought that if you could cut through that and just get to the simplicity of two people dancing because they’re in love, there could be a simple emotional throughline. You cast people an audience can go on a ride with, you shoot at real locations in a real city, you don’t try to chase fads and make the music ape what you hear on the radio today, it would feel current. It would feel like it was made for today. That was the hope.

Justin: One of my biggest challenges with the music was making sure that I was inspired by older musicals, but at the same time making sure the songs don’t feel like they were actually written in the ‘50s or ‘60s or ‘40s. We take certain approaches that were taken back then. All of the music is orchestral, and there’s nothing electronic outside of the one pop song in the movie. It’s an old approach that brings a warmth to the songs, I think. From a compositional standpoint, it was our goal not to sound like an old-fashioned musical and make music that sounds like its own thing.

There are some magical melodies in many of the numbers in the film. They’re pure and timeless, and as a musician myself I know that simple songs like that often find you rather than you finding them. You don’t engineer them so much as let them reveal themselves. Was that your experience in writing these songs?

Justin: Damien and I spent a lot of time working on finding the melodies and themes of the movie, and this is a process we’ve done in the past and will continue to do whether it’s a musical or not. We believe that movies should have themes that really stick with you, and it’s not easy to find those melodies for me. I sent him many piano demos, and we go through a lot of things until one just strikes him as one that he believes will stick with people. Damien says no to a lot of my melodies, but when one finally sticks, I’m glad that it took 25 tries to get there.

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Other melodies came faster, like the “Audition” melody. That was my first try at that. I do think that melody is not really something you can teach. It’s just kind of an instinct for the way notes follow each other and the way music can unfold in a narrative way. In that sense, like you say, it is kind of inside you. But our process is actually a very long process.

Tell us about the logistics of the opening song-and-dance number on the highway.

Damien: It was this sequence that hung like a cloud over everyone involved in making it. It wasn’t going to be easy to pull off. Part of the fun and challenge of it was that it was a sequence we had to do in the spirit of some of the older musicals we’d been talking about, but those movies had been shot on backlots and had painted sets. This was going to be a real freeway with real traffic going underneath it. The gambit was, “Let’s see if this can actually work in a real environment.”

That’s what I liked, the wider angles you get at the end of that number. You’re seeing very staged choreography and cars that are very designed and staged, but below the ramp, you’re seeing three or four lanes of real traffic that is a documentary, basically. One part of the frame is a documentary, the other is as far from a documentary as you can get. That was exhilarating to me.

It created a lot of headaches for our line producer and all of the people in charge of the logistics. It was an EZ Pass ramp we had convinced the city of LA to shut down on a weekend. Before dawn, all of the cars were put into place, and right at dawn we’d start rehearsals. When the daylight was good, we’d start shooting. We did that for two consecutive days until the light ran out.

All of the things that happen in a real environment that threaten to fuck you up, happened. On the second day, it was cloudy until mid-day, and the song is called “Another Day of Sun”, so we were bummed out about that. [laughs] There’s a climactic moment when a truck door has to open at a certain time, and after working fine in rehearsal, the door decided not to work anymore. We had to have people holding a pulley behind the truck, cueing it to open when this guy looks like he’s opening it onscreen. It was a nerve-racking experience, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

There’s a pretty extensive use of bright colors in this film. What inspired your visual approach?

Damien: Me and all of the department heads were inspired by old technicolor movies. I think it’s specifically because they’re from a time when color in movies was fresh. It was early stuff like The Adventures of Robin Hood and Gone With the Wind and into the ‘40s and ‘50s color musicals. There was that feeling that filmmakers were given this new tool they wanted to play with and be expressive with.

When black and white was the default, a color movie had to justify itself being in color. Now, color is taken for granted; you have to justify your movie being in black and white. That’s the radical thing to do. Back then, it was color. You felt like color was a part of the story and the emotional landscape. In the same way music would score emotions, color would score emotions. We wanted to make the colors feel as saturated as they did in those old movies, putting blues in the blacks so that even shadows had a blue tint to them. Even scenes that seem monochromatic have color in the corners or simmering underneath.

Colors would mean something, too. Emma wears green during the planetarium dance, and that would be her color. Her keepsakes at the beginning of the movie are green, and later on, green becomes the color of what doesn’t exist in her relationship anymore. It was just fun to have conversations about using color to say emotional things that the music and dialogue are not.

A big theme in all of your films is the power of jazz. What fascinates you about this music?

Damien: It’s probably just that we all draw from what we’ve been through personally, and a big part of my growing up was hearing jazz in the household and playing jazz myself in high school with a crazy conductor. [laughs] It was a very formative time in my life, so jazz isn’t just music to me. It’s my childhood, it’s emotion, it’s memories.

When Justin and I started playing music together in college, I came more from a jazz background and he came from a classical background, and we met in the middle, in a way. That’s where some of our favorite musicals lived, as well. They’re fundamentally jazz movies; they swing and they’re syncopated, which allows you to dance in a certain way. But they’re orchestrated, too.

When I talked to you last time, about Whiplash, I told you about how the ending overwhelmed me, emotionally. It was so cinematic and intense and personal. The opening and closing numbers in La La Land have the same effect on me. You told me then that plot is often over-valued and that those purely cinematic moments are what’s really important to you as a filmmaker.

Damien: Plot has to be a means to an end. As soon as plot becomes the end, you should just read that. There’s no reason to see it on a screen. Ideally, the best pieces of cinema, story and plot allows a space needed in order to provide the emotional substance and pretext for everything and open up into something that you can’t describe in words. Maybe that’s why I love dealing with music, working with Justin and putting music onscreen. It’s ironic for me as a writer, but getting to a place where emotions are communicated wordlessly is always the end goal. You need to use words on your road to get there, but when you’re not using words is where I really get my juices flowing.

Justin: It’s a dream for a composer to create music that can help resolve a story in as fundamental a way as it does in this movie. Being able to compose for narrative and emotional reasons is the most fulfilling type of composition. The type of score that would be less interesting is music that is just a pad underneath everything. This score pops up at times when you really need to find emotional counterpoint to what’s going on in the movie. In the case of the closing number, it’s guiding us through the last stages of the story in conjunction with the production design and everything else that’s going on in that sequence. It was a dream for me to compose and orchestrate this sequence that could do so much, emotionally.