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The A-List: La La Land’s Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle

By Iain Blair

Writer/director Damien Chazelle may only have three feature films on his short resume, but the 32-year-old is already viewed by Hollywood as an acclaimed auteur and major talent. His latest film, the retro-glamorous musical La La Land, is a follow-up to his 2014 release Whiplash. That film received five Oscar nominations — including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay for Chazelle — and three wins, including Best Supporting Actor for J.K. Simmons.

Now officially crowned as this year’s Oscar frontrunner, Lionsgate’s La La Land just scored a stunning total of 14 nominations (including Best Director), matching the record held by All About Eve and Titanic. It also recently scooped up seven Golden Globes, a record for a single movie, as well as a ton of other awards and nominations.

Damien Chazelle

Set in the present, but paying homage to the great Hollywood musicals of the ’40s and ’50s, La La Land tells the story of jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), who meets aspiring actress, playwright and fan of old movies Mia (Emma Stone). They initially ignore each other, they talk, they fight — but mainly they break out of the conventions of everyday life as they break into song and dance at the drop of a hat and take us on an exuberant journey through their love affair in a movie that’s also an ode to the glamour and emotion of cinema classics. It’s also a love letter to the Los Angeles of Technicolor dreams.

To bring La La Land to life, Chazelle collaborated with a creative team that included director of photography Linus Sandgren (known for his work with David O. Russell on American Hustle and Joy), choreographer Mandy Moore, composer Justin Hurwitz, lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and editor Tom Cross who cut Whiplash for him.

I recently talked to Chazelle about making the film and his workflow.

To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports that the musical is dead have been greatly exaggerated. You obviously love them.
I do, and I also don’t think they’re just escapist fantasies. They usually tell you something about their era, and the idea was to match the tropes of those great old movies — the Fred and Ginger musicals — with modern life and all its demands. I’m a huge fan of all those old musicals, and I drew my inspiration from a wide mix of all the MGM musicals, the Technicolor and CinemaScope ones especially, and then all the films of Jacques Demy. He’s the French New Wave director who made The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, The Young Girls of Rochefort and A Room in Town. But I was also inspired by ‘90s films about LA that really captured the grandeur of the city, like Robert Altman’s Short Cuts or Pulp Fiction.

It’s interesting that all your films are so music-driven.
I used to be a jazz drummer — or a wannabe — so a lot of it comes from that. Probably frustrated ambition (laughs).

Is it true that you never used a hand double for Ryan Gosling when he was playing piano?
Completely true. He could play a little bit of basic piano stuff, and he’s definitely musical, but he was adamant right from the start that he would learn all the pieces and play them himself — and he did. He practiced intensely for four months before the shoot, and by the time we shot he could play. There’s no cheating. They’re his hands, even on the close-ups. That’s how committed he was.

The dancing must have been equally demanding for both Ryan and Emma?
It was. They both had a little dance experience — him more than her, I think, but fairly minimal and in different styles than this. So they had to do a lot of rehearsal and training, and Mandy Moore is a great dance instructor as well as a choreographer, so she did both at the same time — training them and building the choreography out of that and what suited each actor and each character. It was all very organic and tailored specifically for them.

The big opening dance sequence with all the cars is such a tour-de-force. Just how tough was that to pull off?
It was very tough. I had an amazing crew, and once we’d found this overpass ramp we had to figure out exactly how to shoot it for real with all these cars of different colors and eras, so there was a ton of insane logistics to deal with. That was going on while Mandy was working on all the choreography, either in the studio or in parking lots, since we couldn’t rehearse that much on location. The last thing to add was the crane. I’d storyboarded the whole sequence and shot a lot of the rehearsals on my iPhone so we could study them and see how we wanted to move the camera with the crane.

There’s been a lot of talk about it being one long uncut sequence. Is it?
No. We designed it to look like one shot but it’s actually three, stitched together invisibly, and we shot it over a weekend.

Talk about working with Linus Sandgren, who used anamorphic lenses and 35mm film to get that glamour look.
We had a great relationship, as every time I had an idea he’d one-up it, and vice-versa. So he really embraced all the challenges and set the tone with his enthusiasm. There was a lot of back and forth before and during the shoot. We wanted the camera to feel like a dancer, to become part of the choreography, to be very energetic, and we had this great Steadicam guy, Ari Robbins. He did amazing work executing these very difficult, fluid shots. I wanted the film to be very anamorphic, and today, scope films are usually shot in 2.40 to 1, but Linus thought it would be interesting to shoot it in 2.52 to 1 to give it the extra scope of those classic films. We talked to Panavision about it, and they actually custom-fit some lenses for us.

Do you like post?
I love it, especially the editing. It’s my favorite part of the whole process.

Tell us about working with editor Tom Cross. Was he on the set?
He visited a couple of times, but I think it’s better when editors are not there so they are more objective when they first see the coverage. He starts cutting while I shoot, and then we start. I like to be in the editing room every day, and the big challenge on this was finding the right tone.

While Whiplash was all about punctuated editing so it reflected the tempos and rhythms of the drumming, La La Land is the polar opposite. It’s all about lush curves, and Whiplash is a movie about hard right angles. So on this, it was all about calibrating a lot of details. We had a mass of footage — a lot ended up on the cutting room floor — and while some is heightened fantasy, some is like a realist drama. So we had to find a way for both to coexist, and that involved everything from minute tweaks to total overhauls. We actually cut the whole opening number at one point, then later put it back and dropped other scenes around it. There’s probably no number we didn’t cut at some point, so we tried all possibilities, and it took a while to get the tone and pacing right.

Where did you do the post?
At EPS-Cineworks in Burbank; then on the Fox lot. Justin, the composer, was also there working on score cues next door, and we had our sound team with us for a bit, way before the mix, doing sound design, so it was very collaborative. It was like a mini-factory. Crafty Apes did all the VFX, such as the planetarium sequence and flying through space sequence, as well as the more invisible stuff throughout the film.

Obviously, all the music and sound was crucial?
Yes, and it helped that we had a lot of the score done before we shot. Justin was with us for the edit, and we’d do temp stuff for screenings and then tweak things. I had a great sound team led by Andy Nelson, who were phenomenal. Just like with the VFX, it had to somehow be small and intimate while also being huge and epic. It couldn’t be too glossy, so all the music was recorded acoustically and the vocals are all dry with very little reverb or compression, and we mixed in Atmos at Fox.

Where did you do the DI?
On the Fox lot with colorist Natasha Leonnet from EFilm. She did Whiplash for me and she’s very experienced. The DP and her set the template for the look and color palette even before the shoot, and then Linus and I’d go in for the DI and alternate on sessions. Our final session was literally 48 hours long non-stop — no sleep, no trips outdoors — as we were so under the wire to finish. But it all turned out great, and I’m very pleased with the look and the final film. It’s the film I wanted to make.

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