Four creative talents flouting the conventions of formula go back and forth with director Jon Favreau (a onetime wunderkind himself) on success, struggling and staying sane: "The bullshit meter is very attuned right now."
For raw and unfiltered insight into the creative process, who better to hear from than four of the most heralded breakout talents of 2016? So THR gathered Damien Chazelle, 31, whose La La Land has reinvented the original musical for a modern audience; Donald Glover, 33, who balances a music career (as Childish Gambino) with his acclaimed FX series, Atlanta; Lin-Manuel Miranda, 36, who brought rapping Founding Fathers to Broadway in the Tony-winning Hamilton and wrote music for Disney's Moana; and Issa Rae, 31, whose HBO series Insecure showcases a fresh comedic voice. And to interview them all, THR recruited Jon Favreau, 50, who experienced breakout success with Swingers 20 years ago and since then has forged one of the most interesting résumés in Hollywood (from Iron Man to Elf to this year's hit awards contender, The Jungle Book). Says Favreau, "To experience the moment that each of them is having, through their eyes, offers such a unique perspective on the creative journey."
JON FAVREAU We've got Issa, Damien, Lin-Manuel and Donald, aka Childish Gambino. Is that your name for this venue?
DONALD GLOVER We can talk about it, sure. It's not a secret.
FAVREAU No, I know it's not a secret. And you got the name from the Wu-Tang website?
GLOVER The name generator, yeah.
LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA Really?
GLOVER You didn't hear that story? Lots of people do it.
FAVREAU But you came out with a good one.
GLOVER Yeah, mine was the coolest one at the party.
FAVREAU Mine was Hungry Clemenza. I didn't go with it.
FAVREAU No. By the way, full disclosure: I see your face every day when I wake up my 15-year-old son because on his door is a portrait of you.
GLOVER It's probably the Because the Internet cover, which is of my face.
FAVREAU It's just you looking very handsome, staring at me as I'm waking my son up. He knows you through your music. I came up in the improv community, so I know you more through that. And we're both a little bit nerdy and into comics and stuff.
GLOVER I don't think of you as nerdy at all.
FAVREAU That's a common theme here, that we're all a little bit nerdy or geeky.
GLOVER Nerdy is just liking stuff that takes work to like.
FAVREAU To me, nerdy is a sense of your identity, of something you're going to put out there. You're fair game. That's a common thread, from what I know about all your stories and the work that I've seen. That's part of the bravery that comes with doing improv. If you're trying to look cool doing that type of comedy —
MIRANDA Then you're dead.
FAVREAU You're dead.
DAMIEN CHAZELLE There's nothing I'm more in awe of than improv. I've found ways to remove myself from being too exposed as an artist. I used to play drums, but the performance stuff just gave me too much stage fright. Even when I was hidden behind a kit, I couldn't deal with that. So then I'd hide behind the camera, the computer, the typewriter, whatever.
CHAZELLE On the next level are performers who literally are performing without a net, like improv.
FAVREAU And jazz, which is a through line in both of [Chazelle's] films.
GLOVER It's a muscle that people don't have to use as much. Editing is a skill people use a lot, even in everyday life.
FAVREAU You mean self-editing your own conversations?
GLOVER Even on Vine or just curating of yourself.
MIRANDA Creating the best version of yourself.
GLOVER The way we live now is mostly editing and knowing your brand. I know a lot of jazz musicians, and it's cool when you can hear them mess up and hear them turn it into something cool.
ISSA RAE It's also very generous, too. The art of improv is to help someone else and to deliver for them. It's like an alley-oop, in a sense. I really love that element because you have to help the other person be better.
FAVREAU For me, what brought me into writing was improvisation. And when you write well, you're kind of improvising alone.
RAE Yeah, completely.
GLOVER I want to ask you guys: Making musicals, do you find it hard now because people's suspension of disbelief is different than it used to be? Does that make sense?
MIRANDA Well, I'd be curious to hear [Damien's] feeling on La La Land because it seems to me that you're making a return to the old style. Stanley Donen would just say, "OK, there's Cyd Charisse and there's Fred Astaire, look at them go" — really just capturing it as opposed to trying to edit around or make it look cool. It's a return to that, which is really exciting. Talk about that.
CHAZELLE It's funny. I would ask you if on the stage it feels different. For me, on the screen, there is this big gap right now that you have to cross to do a musical. At least an earnest musical, where you're not immediately putting quotation marks on it. It's part of the reason why we decided to, like a lot of stage shows, begin this movie with a big ensemble number right off the bat. Mainly, it's a warning sign to people in the audience. If people are not going to be comfortable with it, they'll leave right away.
FAVREAU That's right.
CHAZELLE Do you feel like you have to convert skeptics as much [on stage]?
MIRANDA Not so much convert the skeptics, but it is certainly true that when you've got a camera and the subject is this close, there's a bigger threshold you have to cross to break into song.
CHAZELLE Yeah. It's because people assume the camera is telling you the truth.
MIRANDA I had an interesting thing with Hamilton. We start with heightened language — this heightened hip-hop speech. And there was a version of Act 1 of Hamilton where we'd have songs and then we would break into scenes and there'd be like, "Hey, I'll see you at the dinner" dialogue. We realized it didn't work with Hamilton because when you have an opening number that is this intense, heightened speech, to go back to, "Oh, I'm going to have some water," you can't drop the ball.
FAVREAU But what was so cool about that is, when I saw Hamilton with my daughter, I was like, "This is like Shakespeare." We look at Shakespeare now like it's classic and it's old-fashioned, but at the time, the iambic pentameter, blank verse, all that was very current, and I would say the equivalent of the poetry of your show. And they were telling stories about characters that were hundreds of years old then.
FAVREAU So there's a way to bring the audience in. Whether you knew the stories or not, you were going to get entertained. I thought it was a really good idiom for our time, whether it was conscious or otherwise. [Hamilton] draws you in, there's always a beat going, and there's an engine driving through the whole piece. And I went in there being a little skeptical, as you always are when somebody says how awesome something is.
GLOVER Everything now is like, "This is the best thing!"
RAE It's a rush to be able to say, "This is the best thing I've ever seen, and if you don't agree, you're an idiot and everybody get on board." And there's such a pressure to live up to that. I don't ever want that for my own work. No matter what it is, I don't want everyone to be on board or everyone to exclaim that it's the best thing they've ever seen. The goal is to make people feel and to make people talk about it. But there's such a hype culture right now.
GLOVER You can only be like, "This is the worst" or "This is [the best]" because there's no room for discussion.
FAVREAU Issa, you emerged from that culture, though, from posting your own stuff online and then people reacting to it and then eventually, now, mainstream with HBO.
RAE But that hype element was taken away because it was so small scale and it had time to just grow and build an audience.
FAVREAU You had to earn your way up.
RAE I feel like I did earn my way up, and this is just the new medium.
FAVREAU It's like a band touring and getting famous. And how long had you been doing it?
RAE For about four or five years.
RAE Yeah, like, by the time I did the web series that really catapulted my career, that was, like, my third attempt.
FAVREAU How does it build? How do you know you're doing well?
RAE I guess when people are talking about it. When people are sharing it. I like making people relate to people of color and black people specifically. Especially in these times, that's a cool trait: "I'm from this specific background, and I identify with what you're going through." That's such a powerful tool, to bring people into your world and to bring a sense of understanding. With this show, I wanted to just make black people relatable.
GLOVER My sister told me about Issa's show a while ago. I think it was because she had never seen anything like that on TV.
RAE Well, you came from [the web] too, right?
GLOVER Yeah, but it was different at the time. It's weird being millennials; there's so many blueprints you're aiming for. And by the time you get there, you're like, "This doesn't exist anymore."
MIRANDA Yeah, my Friendster series got canceled. (Laughs.)
FAVREAU Donald, I didn't know about the online component to your career. So is this previous to writing for 30 Rock and previous to Community?
GLOVER Yeah. I was in a sketch group called Derrick Comedy, and we put videos online.
RAE Pre-"Lazy Sunday."
GLOVER So much so, when we put up our first video, people in the comments said, "This isn't real."
CHAZELLE That's hilarious.
GLOVER "Somebody wrote this?" Like, they didn't get it.
FAVREAU Like it was the moon landing, trying to pull one over on us. That's so funny.
GLOVER We were like, "Maybe this will get us on television," not knowing that is television now.
FAVREAU Back when [Upright Citizens Brigade] was starting, I was in Chicago. I knew all those guys. And they would do shows like you're talking about and go on the street and tape it. But it would just be shown in one venue. Nowadays, anything that you put up has a chance to catch on.
MIRANDA There's such value in exactly what he described. The sense of discovery, of, "Have you seen this?" That's so important, because so much is sold to us all the time. That sense of discovery is increasingly rare.
FAVREAU All of that relates to this value that we're placing now on authenticity, whether it's in the material you're putting out there — if it's authentic to your experience — or the way it's being recommended and not marketed to you. There is a sense of crowdsourcing, whether something is of value and the word gets out. Do you all see that as a positive?
GLOVER How you get to the product is almost more important than the product, nowadays. Because it changes the lens a little bit. If 30 percent of people are like, "This is amazing," there's going to be 20 percent that are like, "Well, I have to agree with my friends a little bit." We release a lot of our stuff on Sundays because I know bloggers are asleep and people don't want to talk. People have to think about it for themselves, which doesn't happen a lot.
CHAZELLE I hear stuff like this and it makes me very nostalgic for an era of movies that was actually before my time, when your local two-screen theater would run a movie for months. Say, Eraserhead or something opens and no one knows about it. And then it plays and plays and it gains this following. Now, theaters don't allow that. What's replaced that is the internet, and I guess TV to some extent. But that idea of allowing a piece of art to slowly find its way into the culture is really something that Hollywood is incapable of doing, unless it has a ton of money, and then it's all about trying to seed that opening weekend.
MIRANDA You think of Breaking Bad, that was not a show that opened strong, but then it was on Netflix when streaming on Netflix was a new thing, and people caught up with it. And then by the time the third season rolls out, it's like, "All right, what's going to happen?"
RAE I find myself wanting to be immersed in a world now. I used to go to the movies every other week. And now I find myself wanting to be in 12 hours of a television show. If I see a movie on Netflix, for example, I'm like, "An hour and a half? Nobody has time for an hour and a half to watch a movie."
MIRANDA I only have 12 hours. (Laughs.)
RAE I want to be in a world and I want to feel like my time means something. It makes me sad because movies are being pushed out so fast; after opening weekend, it's the next one.
FAVREAU But people say that about theater — then Hamilton comes out.
FAVREAU Or La La Land, honestly, could not be more classic in its construction and its attention to form. And what you start to realize is, there's just a lot of competition, and the stuff that I would have watched, you switch off of because there's so much great stuff out there, because it's democratized content creation.
CHAZELLE We [read] a lot of doom and gloom about the movies are dying and TV's to blame or the internet's to blame or whatever. There's a lot of woe-is-me think pieces, as opposed to just welcoming that there's good content that's raising the bar. And that OK, maybe that just means we have to try harder to get people. That led to some interesting things in the '50s when TV first came around. It's always those shifts that have ultimately pushed things forward.
FAVREAU All of you did something you were passionate about that caught fire and then propelled you, and now all of a sudden, everybody's staring at you. What was that experience like? Because it's not something that a lot of people understand or go through.
RAE There's an initial rush, like, "Wow, people really like this. This is crazy. This is great." And then, "Oh shit, now I have to live up to this."
CHAZELLE Then you get scared.
RAE You get really scared and then you feel like the light is on you. And then, when you get your first piece of criticism, that's kind of a big deal. But for me, it's actually only helped me creatively, because it makes me uncomfortable, and that's where I thrive and that's where I live in the first place.
FAVREAU Do you find people assume your show is exactly your life?
RAE One hundred percent.
FAVREAU I went through it with Swingers, where I thought I was making a fictitious character and did change the name, but it's my neighborhood — the same neighborhood you filmed La La Land — and everybody's like, "Oh, you made a documentary."
RAE We had a big storyline where a character cheats. Now, I could put up a picture of my grandma and [people online will say], "You f—ing cheater!"
FAVREAU But I remember Phife from A Tribe Called Quest [saying], "How does everybody know I'm diabetic?" I was like, "Well, that's one of your lyrics."
MIRANDA Yeah. The funky diabetic.
FAVREAU Like a poker player, those are all tells. Everything you're doing, every subject matter you choose, you're revealing a lot about you.
MIRANDA And it does get strange. There is a moment where someone will call something back to me. My dad is a worse Twitter addict than me, and people will be like, "How was the garage sale?" I was like, "What do you mean?" Because my dad tweeted his address and invited everyone to a garage sale at his house.
FAVREAU He made a lot of money at the garage sale. (Laughs.)
MIRANDA And then I'm getting tweets: "Hey, we got your Isaac Asimov novels."
MIRANDA That's a whole other level.
GLOVER I just did a concert and there were no phones allowed, and people enjoy it differently.
MIRANDA Theater is one of the last bastions of that.
CHAZELLE Yeah, it's true.
MIRANDA I work in the art form where you're in the room with the people who are performing, and that's something you can't replace. Especially talking about online stuff, I think we curate our reality so much. We block that friend on Facebook who is talking about politics constantly or putting up videos you're not ready to see at 9 in the morning. But in the theater, you're all watching the same thing.
FAVREAU And going from obscurity to being drilled down by the limelight, how did that affect things?
MIRANDA It happened in stages. First, YouTube weirdly is tied into Hamilton too because I performed at the White House.
FAVREAU For Obama, yeah.
MIRANDA 2009. I had only written the opening song.
RAE That's crazy.
MIRANDA And so that went online. And then this is where good luck comes into it because it didn't look like a C-SPAN event. HBO filmed the night because they were filming their poets who had performed. So the footage of it looks like a movie. It took me six years to write the show, but I had a bunch of social studies teachers who were ready. They were like, "I've been showing this one clip to my kids for six years." Like, "There's a whole show coming?" So I knew we'd get school groups. It's the rest of it that was really overwhelming. And doing the show is what kept me sane. We're more like chefs when we're actors onstage. We've got to make it from scratch that night.
FAVREAU The night I went, that was a particularly good night, you said.
MIRANDA That was a really great crowd. You went the night Bernie Sanders was there. And it was at the peak of his campaign.
FAVREAU I'm glad I can't look back at a copy of that. Whereas when you look at something that's filmed, you could always go back to that movie.
MIRANDA We ran six months off-Broadway and everyone is experiencing the thing in real time and they don't know what they're coming in for. And when the cast album [came out], you get the whole show. It's the entire plot of the show.
FAVREAU And everybody knew it.
MIRANDA We shifted from, "I'm experiencing this" to, "This is Rocky Horror, I know all the words and I want to sing along in the front row."
FAVREAU Now you're doing Moana and also Mary Poppins and working on Star Wars. For our era, that's like being welcomed to the grown-ups table. So what's it like now, facing the next chapter? Damien, you just went through it. It's astounding that you can come off the success of [Whiplash] and then the next at-bat, you can hit another one.
CHAZELLE Well, I was lucky, just in the sense that I wrote La La Land before Whiplash and the best thing that happened to me was everyone saying no to La La Land.
CHAZELLE It was like, years of trying to get La La Land made in Hollywood, everyone saying not just no, but, like, "Please go away. We don't want to hear about original musicals." I did Whiplash out of necessity a little bit. Whiplash was a much smaller movie that I was able to actually put the money together for. But the whole time I was making Whiplash, I was hoping if this doesn't entirely suck, it will give me some kind of calling card to make La La Land.
FAVREAU Lin, what's this been like, this next chapter, coming off of that crazy run?
MIRANDA It's the same as before. The way I think about what I do is, you toe this line between the things that are in you that you're burning to make, the idea that won't leave you alone in the shower or when you're walking your dog, and the opportunities that come along that I would do anything to be a part of and I'd kick myself if I didn't do it. We all struggle with that balance. Robert Rodriguez was my big hero when I was in high school. That was my dude. I read [his book] Rebel Without A Crew …
CHAZELLE Me too, man.
FAVREAU That's the book I gave to the director of Swingers when we started.
MIRANDA What he says about the thing after your calling card is, "Don't let anyone know what your sophomore project is." Like, I'll go make this piece of Four Rooms . I'll go make this Cinemax movie and make so much random stuff that no one can be like, "Oh, is this your next thing?" So, that's the advice I took after In the Heights.
CHAZELLE But you must have had to bury yourself for a while just to create Hamilton. Did you feel like the outside world was going, "What the hell are you doing?"
MIRANDA Everyone goes through this, whether you're even in the arts or not. What are the things you do to support your family and keep going while you're doubling down on the passion project? I was on a TV show [Do No Harm] that made the record of the lowest-rated debut in the history of NBC.
RAE Oh yeah.
MIRANDA But I took that job because they told me they were going to kill me off at the end of the first season, and it shot in Philly, not L.A., so I could stay home. I was No. 5 on the call sheet. It was a lot of great theater actors, like Phylicia Rashad and Steve Pasquale and Mike Esper.
CHAZELLE I've got to watch this now.
MIRANDA It was notorious because it had one of the worst advertising [campaigns], it was like a Jekyll-and-Hyde doctor plot. And it was a guy who had his hands and there was a face on his hands.
GLOVER Oh yeah. I remember those posters.
MIRANDA Paul F. Tompkins used to call him Dr. Facehands because the sign was up all over L.A. But to me, that was my Hamilton residency. I was making a living, I was only working two days a week, and I was going to historical Philly where I would go do research on Hamilton. I wrote "Satisfied" in my trailer. So everyone, you balance those things out.
GLOVER Do you guys ever feel pressure [in picking what's next] because you have a connection with your audience so much [you want to] just give them more of the same thing?
RAE I don't want to be placed in the box that you want. Because then you're just delivering, you're just supply-demand. There is nothing fulfilling about that.
MIRANDA And your audience grows up.
FAVREAU I've experienced this a little bit with Iron Man with comic book fans, and more so with Jungle Book, but now getting ready to do Lion King and [Miranda] with Mary Poppins, [Glover] with playing Lando Calrissian, now it's not just your own work that you're being judged against. That stuff, those movies belong to people, and they grew up with it. And now you're going to be adding another experience to that thing that's part of them. How does that feel?
MIRANDA I've already had a really interesting cautionary tale experience in terms of playing with a classic. One of my first gigs after the success of Heights was writing Spanish-language lyrics for a new revival of West Side Story. It was like, well, everyone knows West Side Story. So if Maria breaks into Spanish for "I Feel Pretty," we all know the lyrics to "I Feel Pretty." Like, they'll go with us. They did not go with us.
RAE What happened with that?
MIRANDA There was a huge backlash. And it was surprising to me because In the Heights has tons of Spanish in it and we go back and forth between Spanish and English. But it's in the original DNA of how it was created and constructed. As opposed to this beloved 50-year-old show. So I watched with dismay as the producers and director peeled back everything I wrote until it was just a revival of West Side Story.
MIRANDA So I carry that with me. I'm involved with the live-action Little Mermaid. I don't know in what capacity yet. I just have my hat on as the No. 1 fan of that movie. I'm the head of the don't f— it up committee.
FAVREAU Quality control.
GLOVER When it's something that's been out already, people know what they want from it. I was asked to do a live stage reading for Princess Bride. And I was doing the "inconceivable" guy. But I didn't use the lisp. And people were like, "What the f— are you doing?" People were so upset. I'm like, "Let me try something different," and people were like, "No, you're going to f—ing say 'inconceivable' exactly like that guy."
FAVREAU At that point, you're in a tribute band. How do you feel about Lando?
GLOVER It was the first action figure I ever had. I remember my dad giving it to me. I had a Darth Vader one and this one that I lost the cape and bit off the —
MIRANDA The lightsaber came out of the arm.
GLOVER Yeah, the lightsaber came out of the arm, and I ripped that out. I remember Lando really well. He was like the only black guy in space. And he was the cool one. I just realized, he still has to be cool. And cool is an interesting thing. It changes —
FAVREAU Yes, of course.
GLOVER I was watching Black Mirror, and there's an episode where they go through time and in the '50s, there's a nerd, and by the time he gets to the 2000s, he's just a hipster. He's not a nerd anymore. Cool changes depending on the perspective. Also, it's fun because [the Han Solo movie is set] before [Empire Strikes Back], so he's still figuring it out a little bit, which is fun.
FAVREAU What I really appreciate about all of your work is it feels oddly relatable and personal, even though it could not be more different from the experience I had coming up — even with La La Land, set 20 years after I had explored similar subject matter with Swingers in the same area.
CHAZELLE When you're looking at the pantheon of L.A. movies, which I wanted to do before I was going to shoot here, it's weirdly a city where more movies have been shot than any other city in the world. But given that statistic, it's very seldom actually seen in movies. There are those few like Swingers.
FAVREAU You're surprised how little you know about [L.A.] having seen it filmed so much.
CHAZELLE Well, you'd be surprised we had to convince people that we actually wanted to shoot in L.A. for a movie called La La Land.
RAE Oh my God, that happened to me with my show.
RAE My show is set in a very specific part of L.A. where I grew up.
CHAZELLE So where'd they try to convince you to shoot?
RAE In the Valley. It's South L.A., and in South Central, there's specific parts. There's Leimert Park, there's Inglewood, all the places I know. And I grew up in an area called Windsor Hills, Baldwin Hills, they call it the black Beverly Hills, and it's very specific to people I knew. And people just didn't understand that I wanted to be there.
FAVREAU People demand authenticity now.
CHAZELLE Yeah, the bullshit meter is very attuned right now.
GLOVER Even in Atlanta, I'm like, if we don't shoot this, we're going to miss the dude who is heroined out holding an orange. And that is important because it's something that I couldn't think of, but I always know is there.
This story first appeared in the Jan. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.