Spring 2016

Finding His Rhythm

With Whiplash and the upcoming throwback musical La La Land, film-savvy director Damien Chazelle is exploring the intersection of real life and cinematic life.


New Tune: After the thrashing jazz beat of Whiplash, Chazelle was in a more melodic mood for La La Land. (Photo: Brian Davis)

"I like that old Hollywood idea of using genre to be personal, telling your own life story," says director Damien Chazelle, who considers his much-lauded 2014 indie breakout Whiplash almost like a sports movie. At the same time, “it was much more autobiographical than anything else I’ve done."

Chazelle’s emerging body of work—his throwback musical La La Land is coming out later this year—is not so much about art imitating life as it is art plundering the story of a youth who knew at the age of 3 that he wanted to make movies. At Princeton High School, his other great passion was drumming, and he found a spot in the best school jazz band in the nation. However, by graduation in 2003, he began having the nightmares about his hard-driving mentor that became the impetus for J.K. Simmons’ caustic portrayal of the bandleader who torments Miles Teller’s drummer in Whiplash.

As a film student at Harvard, Chazelle put the same avidity that haunted his drumming into crafting what became his senior thesis, the jazz-drenched Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009). Smoothly melding a tale of a couple falling in and out of love with scenes of jazzbos breaking into music, the film was influenced equally by John Cassavetes and Chazelle’s enchantment with the French New Wave.

Real life intruded into Chazelle’s cinematic imagination when he moved to Los Angeles and struggled as a screenwriter. But he managed to shoot the explosive opening scene from his Whiplash script as an 18-minute short, made in three days for $23,000. It won the Short Film Jury Award at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, and with financing in place, he moved on to shoot the feature for $3.3 million.

What happened next was "a dream." Whiplash won both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, won acclaim at Cannes, Toronto, and Deauville on the festival circuit, then got an attendance boost with five Oscar nominations (including one for best picture). The attention led to Lionsgate funding La La Land, the story of a romance between an aspiring piano man (Ryan Gosling) and a struggling actress (Emma Stone) told as a Technicolor vision of contemporary Los Angeles.

If Whiplash jumped into production with virtually no rehearsal and with only the basic instruction to Simmons to go "animal," La La Land required cultivating a mood. "The idea of LA as dream factory definitely worked its way into the script; we tried to capture the surrealness of it," says Chazelle.

"It’s very much in the tradition of the MGM musicals—there’s a lightness and a whimsy," he adds. "But it’s not a comedy. We’ve tried to embrace the full spectrum of the widescreen Hollywood musical at its most spectacular, in the sense of big ensemble numbers, bright saturated colors and a lush score and big emotions. I love that stuff—but I love the idea that you can marry that with real life."

Such musical extravaganzas as Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain (1952) lent inspiration, as did Jacques Demy’s dazzling 1964 The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which was filmed using practical cityscapes.

"A lot of La La Land was chasing sunsets, chasing magic hour, or certain cloud covers," explains Chazelle. "At the right time of day, LA can just be magical, but that might literally be a window of 40 minutes, so certain dance numbers we’d rehearse for the entire day, then have that window to shoot a minute-long shot."

While Chazelle had conceived of Whiplash as a multi-camera movie in order to capture tiny details and build those details into a kind of symphony, La La Land was a different animal. "La La Land was about the wide view, so that dictated a very different kind of camera style," he says. "Whiplash was all right angles, La La Land is all curves; Whiplash is short, kinetic punctuation, and percussive; La La Land is long takes, fluid. In the shooting, I think it comes down to the difference between drumming and dancing."

Moondance: Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling light up the night in La La Land, Chazelle’s meditation on modern romance and Hollywood musicals. (Photo: Courtesy Lionsgate)

Another difference: Whiplash was shot digitally, La La Land on film. "For Whiplash, digital made sense to me," Chazelle says. "I wanted to have that sort of clean, right-edge precision to it, but for this movie, as with Guy and Madeline, I wasn’t going to do it if it wasn’t on film."

Chazelle was going for a specific cinematic look. "It’s very saturated, deep blues and reds trying to get that look you get in the ’50s and ’60s, but there’s also a lot of Demy in it, pastels and pinks and purples. Most of the night skies in this movie are not true black but that deep Disney blue. You can do a lot in post, but it’s hard to compete with what that color sky looks like in real life shot on 35 mm."

Consequently, much of the film was shot on real locations that were adapted to the film’s palette. "It’s very much a movie about old movies, and that’s partly why it’s set in LA, where you can see all those old films still haunting the streets and the alleyways," Chazelle says. "The idea was to do an old-fashioned MGM-style musical but about real people having real lives in LA today."

Allowed to dream big on a larger budget, Chazelle says the work was both pressurized and blissful. There was no interference from the studio, and yet given the scale and ambition of the film, "I’ve never been so close to a nervous breakdown as I was in prep."

Renting a sprawling facility in the San Fernando Valley proved an ideal starting point. "We were all in a compound where I’d be running from a costume fitting to right next door where Mandy [Moore], our choreographer, was rehearsing with Ryan and Emma. Then I’d sit with them and discuss character, then storyboard with my DP. We’d rehearse big ensemble numbers in the parking lot. We built the movie up all together, so on set we were a family and we could play around, improvise, experiment."

Chazelle storyboarded the complex shots, which called for the use of cranes and a Steadicam. The idea was to have the camera constantly moving in a way that was alive but not frenetic.

"There’s one concert scene that we shot and edited Whiplash style—multiple angles, a Steadicam and a crane and a locked-off camera. But everything else was carefully pre-choreographed, single takes that we would rehearse for most of the day and then shoot in a window of a few hours."

And given Chazelle’s stylistic forebears, if the results were not letter perfect, no problem. In fact, he exploited the imperfections: "We’re not doing a ton of post work to smooth out moves or eliminate hitches. Sometimes there’ll be a hint of a bump or sway, but to me that’s beautiful. If you look at the old dream ballets of Singin’ in the Rain or An American in Paris, they’re filled with that stuff and it gives a sense of humanity which really helps when you’re doing giant, spectacular sets."

As for the singing, Chazelle determined early in prep which performances would work best live, and which would be better lip-synced to prerecorded tracks, MGM-style. Similarly, it was important to film the dance in the old-fashioned way, head to toe in a wide shot without cutting. "That puts strain on the performers, as Ryan and Emma were more exposed than normal, but it adds a sense of urgency," Chazelle says.

If Chazelle can pull off this intriguing marriage of backlot magic with location-rich naturalism, he could show that old genres are not dead, just dormant. And in his ebullient way, he makes it all sound easy: "The musical numbers arise from the characters, there’s a balance of big and small numbers, spectacle and intimate stuff. I try to run the gamut so you really feel you’ve been on a ride. But at its heart it’s a love story, a duet for these two people—and when their emotions compel them to sing, they sing."

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