Nearly 18 months after the epic flub at the Academy Awards, the ‘La La Land' filmmaker returns with a Neil Armstrong drama and invites The Hollywood Reporter into the editing room to talk launching Ryan Gosling into space ("You're shocked by how much can go wrong"), managing his social anxiety (and a secret marriage) and that night the Oscars veered waaaay off course ("All of us are still processing it").
Damien Chazelle stands at the back of a windowless room, a place not much larger than a space capsule and a lot less glamorous, bone-tired. Paper plates stained with the traces of pizza litter the floor; a dog bowl is tossed next to a bag of kibble and a munched-up puppy toy at the foot of a battered couch. There's a constant bustle of people popping in and out through two separate doors, pinging questions at the 33-year-old filmmaker with the speed and force of a howitzer.
A year and a half since Chazelle won the Academy Award as best director for his effervescent song-and-dance romance La La Land — and a year and a half since he became an unwitting participant in the most mind-boggling screw-up in Oscar history — that all seems light-years away as he's barricaded in a tiny editing bay on the Universal lot, staring at a TV screen hooked to the wall, watching Ryan Gosling tumble through the cosmos in a tin can. Chazelle's skin is pallid, his 5-foot-11 frame wafer-thin, and when he sits, his hunched body seems to disappear under the weight of his thoughts as he races to get his Neil Armstrong biopic, First Man, ready for its Aug. 29 premiere at the Venice Film Festival.
"I used to think, 'Oh, you know, if one day I'm lucky enough to get an award for this or a good review for that, then all the fear will go away,'" he says, with a wry smile. " 'I'll have the affirmation I need and I'll get to be completely confident, and won't that be great?' Man, it's a rude awakening to realize that's not the case."
After breaking out with his 2014 drummer-boy drama Whiplash (a $3.3 million indie that grossed $49 million worldwide and won an Oscar for J.K. Simmons), then vaulting into movieland ether with 2016's La La Land (the $30 million musical that earned $446 million), Chazelle could have returned to the tried-and-true of an intimate drama, even another musical, if he wished. Instead, he bet his future on a $70 million period-piece space drama, his biggest budget so far, that could easily crash on the launchpad.
The hubbub calms down just long enough for Chazelle to watch a full sequence of his movie unspool. A nervous camera flits back and forth, cutting impressionistically inside the cockpit of the Gemini 8 spacecraft as it's about to take off — from the hatch clinking closed to the drab metal switches flickering into life to the fly that briefly buzzes on the dashboard and then is seen no more. Off-screen, a countdown begins — 15, 10, 9, 8 — and the capsule begins to shiver and shake, flames blister the porthole and everything's trembling. This isn't space, the final frontier, as seen in Star Trek or a raft of teenage fantasies; it's a clattering, clanging voyage of life and death, a metaphor for human existence, not to mention an A-list helmer's precarious position in Hollywood hyperspace.
"We don't think about how dangerous that first era of space travel really was," says Chazelle, who started developing the material in 2014, when producers Marty Bowen and Wyck Godfrey, along with executive producer Isaac Klausner, brought him James R. Hansen's book of the same name, which they'd optioned for Universal. "We might know about some of the disasters, but we think largely in a triumphalist way. We hear trumpets blaring and see the flag waving and it all looks noble and dignified in a way that makes it seem easy, like a fait accompli. I wanted to unwind all of that and make it as scary and uncertain as it really was."
Chazelle knows something about scary and uncertain. Witness the night of the 89th Academy Awards, when La La Land was named best picture and held that title for all of two minutes and 23 seconds, before Moonlight snatched it away.
"I'd been bedridden with a 104-degree fever that whole week," Chazelle recalls. "I was on a mixture of IV fluid and steroids, so that morning was pretty brutal. I was shacked up in a hotel room and slept in as late as I could, then I put on the suit and headed over."
Sitting in the Dolby Theatre as his picture collected six Oscars (including best actress for Emma Stone), he remembers "the fever broke during the ceremony. So, I wasn't feeling gravely ill, but I wasn't in tip-top shape. I was slightly delirious, but happy to see my colleagues win." He heard Faye Dunaway name La La Land best picture, reading from a card that had been handed to her by Warren Beatty, and then joined his cast and producers onstage. But he could tell something was wrong. "I was confused because I couldn't actually hear anything," he says. "You're surprised how little you hear onstage, even if you're right behind someone who's speaking at the microphone. I couldn't hear a single thing. I could just see some commotion happening and I thought, 'Oh, OK, there must be some — whatever.'"
Only when a second envelope appeared did the truth sink in. "Then it became clear that there was some sort of mistake," he says. "The whole thing was very odd. A bunch of the folks from Moonlight started coming up, and a lot of them were people I had gotten to know through the season or friends from years ago. In a way, through the surreal-ness of it, there was also something nice, that kind of overlap." He's stayed in touch with Moonlight director Barry Jenkins via email, though they haven't seen each other since a post-Oscars photo shoot. "All of us are still processing it," he admits.
That wasn't quite the way anyone might imagine getting an Oscar, not even a man who'd dreamed about filmmaking from the age of 5. Born in Providence, Rhode Island, to a French father and American mother, Chazelle found his early life divided between their different countries and cultures as the couple moved back and forth, gifting the boy with dual nationality but also a duality of identity, a constant "feeling of being displaced." Eventually, they settled in Princeton, New Jersey, where Chazelle's father now teaches computer science, specializing in what he calls "organic algorithms" and "finding order in chaos" (an endeavor not entirely unrelated to filmmaking), while Chazelle's mother, a medieval history scholar, is on the faculty of the College of New Jersey. Both instilled a sense of social justice in the young Damien, particularly when his mother, Celia, began teaching prisoners, some locked up in a maximum security penitentiary. "She could be incredibly warm and affectionate," Chazelle says of her, "but you did not want to fuck around."
Tolerant as these parents were (Catholic by faith, they sent him to a Jewish school in the belief he'd get a better education there), they could sometimes be remote, so preoccupied with their work that their too-sensitive son fled into his own mind. "I had an overactive imagination," he says. "And I was very nervous. I remember when we were living in Paris, in the morning [my mother] would wake me up and I'd go down to catch the bus for school; and every time I left, I had horrible fears that that would be the last time I was going to see her."
This anxiety still simmers inside him, Chazelle acknowledges, even as he masks it with an imperturbable surface calm. "I just have that social anxiety built into my DNA," he says. "I'm a stresser. I get nervous. I'm that type of person, and a neurotic and a workaholic, too."
His earliest movie memory came when his mother took him to see Peter Pan at age 5; he marveled at the size of the screen and a "close-up of Captain Hook's face with a big nose." He soon became obsessed with film and watched videos endlessly when he wasn't pursuing his other hobby, drumming, or playing with his sister Anna, two and a half years his junior. "It was amazing for my parents," he says, "because otherwise I was such a terrible, screaming, running-around, destroying-everything child. I was really, really unruly."
Entering Harvard at age 18, he majored in visual arts and pushed himself with a relentlessness that worried his parents, venturing into new territory even at the risk of failure. "He did a small documentary in Spanish, and he didn't even speak Spanish," recalls a former professor, Jan Schuette. "I'd say, 'Damien, this is complicated.' And he'd say, 'Yeah, but I want to try anyway.'" Looking back, Chazelle has mixed feelings about his alma mater. "It's a very hierarchical place," he says. "It was the first time I'd ever been in a place where the social pecking order was determined by money, and not how much people earned but how much their families earned."
It was at Harvard that he befriended a student composer, Justin Hurwitz, who wrote the score for Chazelle's 2009 thesis film, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, and went on to compose the music for his subsequent movies. "I met Damien in the context of being a drummer, because I was looking for people to start a band with," says Hurwitz. "I heard he was really good, so I reached out to him, and we played with a few of our other classmates. I didn't know about his filmmaking passion. Of course, the next year, when we were roommates, he was doing film all the time — studying film, writing screenplays. He's always known every film and every shot from every film."
Chazelle moved to Los Angeles in 2007, where he completed Guy and Madeline while struggling to earn a living. He was an unlikely contender for Tinseltown success, the scion of intellectuals, who loved all things French and whose greatest influences were Truffaut and Hitchcock.
"Those first years in L.A., I couldn't figure out how to pay the rent," he says. "I was living in small apartments and often rooming with a bunch of people, first in Santa Monica and then Venice. I tried to do everything to have flexible work hours that would allow me to write." He found a job writing Classic Notes study guides to books like J.D. Salinger's Nine Stories at a modest $500 a pop. "It was a good excuse to either read or re-read a great piece of literature, but it was a shitload of work," he says. He also tutored "really wealthy kids, but I didn't have my own car, so I would take the bus. And buses in L.A. are no fun."
Frustrated that his filmmaking career was going nowhere, he shifted gears. "I resolved to try to write stuff that would sell — not something I would want to direct, just something I could sell," he says. After a few false starts, he sold a thriller, The Claim, which led to work on low-budget projects, "horror, thriller, sci-fi, stuff like that," including one that became the sequel 10 Cloverfield Lane.
In 2012, as Cloverfield Lane was moving toward production, Chazelle decided to shoot a short version of Whiplash in the hope of moving that project forward. When Cloverfield producers Bad Robot and Paramount saw the 18-minute film at Sundance, they offered him the chance to direct Cloverfield, too. Suddenly, the young man who'd been riding on buses was at a crossroads. "If that had happened just a year earlier, I would have jumped," he reflects. "But it happened right when it seemed Whiplash could get made and I needed to hit that iron while it was even remotely hot."
With financing from Bold Films and the support of such established filmmakers as Jason Reitman and Jason Blum, Chazelle shot the feature version of Whiplash in 19 days, interrupted when he was hospitalized as the result of a bad fender-bender. The picture drew raves at Sundance and won three Oscars after its release in October 2014.
Despite that success, Chazelle had trouble cobbling together the pieces of his long-cherished La La Land (or So Long Jupiter, as it was originally called). Actors fell in and out (Miles Teller and Emma Watson were once attached), as did money (Focus Features put it in turnaround); and so he returned to First Man, and in 2014 met with Gosling to discuss his playing Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon on July 20, 1969. "I met Ryan to pitch him," Chazelle notes. "But the conversation quickly got sidelined. He'd heard rumblings that I was doing a musical. He was interested in Neil Armstrong, but he was really interested in Gene Kelly." Gosling signed for the lead in La La Land, and a year and a half later Chazelle won his Oscar.
A week after our editing-room meeting, the director is in a control room at Sony's Barbra Streisand Scoring Stage. He's in his element here, even if his eyes are dark pools and two stress pimples have broken out on his forehead. On the other side of a glass wall, 80 or 90 musicians are tuning up, about to record the music for some of the more dramatic moments of First Man. Hurwitz is conducting, and he and Chazelle exchange brief verbal shorthand over an intercom.
"There's that long crescendo …" Chazelle starts.
"We're still giving the second half of the note a dive," Hurwitz cuts in. Then, to his musicians: "Everybody who has a 16th note, touch that downbeat before letting go. It can be almost a niente."
The music soars as, onscreen, a car sweeps across the city at night and Gosling (as Armstrong) stares out the window at the passing landscape, knowing he's leaving his wife for what might be the last time.
Chazelle knew next to nothing about Armstrong when the producers approached him. But the more he read, the more intrigued he became by this seemingly unemotional figure who, he discovered, had endured multiple tragedies, including the loss of his home in a fire and the death of his daughter Karen at age 3. He began to read everything he could about Apollo 11 and its predecessors. "I wanted to wrap my mind around it: What's it like, not just the launch but in that tiny capsule?" he explains. "I wanted to know it beat by beat, all the nitty-gritty."
Soon Spotlight screenwriter Josh Singer joined the Universal project. "What Damien initially pitched was to show how hard [space flight] was," he says. "There's a lot of mythology around NASA, a lot of sugarcoating, and you start pulling back that myth and trying to put [the audience] in the cockpit to feel what these guys must have felt."
He and Chazelle visited NASA, met some of the surviving astronauts (Armstrong died in 2012), including Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, and even spent time with Armstrong's wife, Janet (played by Claire Foy), who died in June before she could see the finished film. Their goal was to reach beyond the impervious front of these men who had risked their lives, knowing several of their colleagues had died in test flight along the way. Says Chazelle: "I remember thinking, if I could somehow get this movie to capture that combination of the utterly mundane and the utterly terrifying and the awe-inspiring [it would be wonderful]. But that's a difficult combo."
Instead of turning to similarly themed films — even ones he admired, such as Apollo 13 and 2001: A Space Odyssey — he drew inspiration from documentaries like For All Mankind and Moonwalk One, where hard facts and precise details were "baked into the archival," much as they were in the texts his mother had studied about the likes of the Venerable Bede. For gritty realism, he thought of other features. "We watched movies like Battle of Algiers and The French Connection," says editor Tom Cross. "A lot of our conversations had to do with the Maysles and D.A. Pennebaker and Frederick Wiseman [all celebrated documentarians], and those cinema verite documentaries of the 1960s — how they were put together and the ways you could join shots in such a way that it felt emotionally continuous, but actually wasn't."
Chazelle began to create a database of images, eventually compiling a 300-page dossier that the crew referred to as "The Notebook" (an homage to the Gosling film of that name). "We could go, 'OK, page 273, this is the Gemini spin,'" he explains. "And it would have every image that I liked and diagrams of how the capsule worked. That part of the process was much closer to doing history than I'd ever done before."
Two weeks before principal photography began, in mid-October 2017, Foy, Gosling and their screen children gathered in Atlanta, where they spent days hanging around their characters' house, encouraged to improvise in costume as director of photography Linus Sandgren filmed them; some of that material is in the finished film.
"Let's forget about all the rules of classical cinema," Chazelle told Sandgren, "and imagine we're a fly on the wall, carrying a camera, running and gunning with these astronauts."
The 58-day shoot extended to Houston and Edwards Air Force Base in Kern County, California. Later, some 726 effects shots were added in post, though many of the most striking effects were done in-camera. Ironically, says Chazelle: "It was the really controlled stuff that was the hardest, because it was important for us to capture that documentary quality, and for as much as possible to be 'in camera,' which meant the actors were going to see what the audience was going to see. If the actors saw the Earth out the window, it was on an LED screen. There was no bluescreen or greenscreen in any shot."
Coordinating the logistics of LED screens, a real fire gushing behind a porthole and period details could prove infuriating. "There was a lot of pressure to get the moon scenes right [in particular]," says Gosling. "Linus had worked with a light craftsman to [make] the most powerful movie light ever built, to simulate the sun. Of course, it caught fire a half-hour into shooting." Then, after the crew had gone to great lengths "creating craters and the impression of an untouched lunar sand surface, [snow fell] right before filming. I know these things were stressful for Damien" — though perhaps not as stressful, he quips, as the endless on-set jokes: "We can put a man on the moon but we can't …"
In his ceaseless quest for realism, Chazelle had Gosling and the astronauts wear real helmets and visors, with breathing and cooling systems rigged up to them that didn't always work. "Suddenly," the director says, "the visors are getting fogged up because there's too much air coming in and then the cooling system has stopped working and the actors are starting to overheat, and then you get the air going the right way and you can't pick up any sound. It's a nightmare. After hours and hours [of preparation], you're shocked by how much can go wrong. 'My God,' you'd say take after every take, 'Is there anything usable here?'"
Six months after wrapping his shoot, Chazelle slips into a screening room on Aug. 9, days after recording the score and less than three weeks before the movie's premiere. He's down to the minute details of color-timing, and studies an image of the Apollo taking off against a darkening landscape. It's exquisite: the rocket launching, the fire swishing out from underneath it, the blue sea and the midnight sky. But it's not perfect enough for him. "Can we go back to the original?" he asks, as he and Sandgren deepen one part of the sky and lighten another.
"I genuinely think he may have X-ray vision," says Foy, "because he's able to see things on the screen that nobody else can."
With time running out, Chazelle is too busy to exercise (he favors boxing), to eat properly (he likes Mexican Coke, pizza and burgers), to tweet (his few past posts include anti-Trump messages, and his experience with a space movie has only added to his contempt for Trump's Space Force, which he calls "ridiculous"). He's too busy even to sleep. "He's not an insomniac, but he's capable of pulling 3 a.m. nights with 7 a.m. starts for weeks," says his wife, Olivia Hamilton, 30. Soon, he'll move into the Universal Sheraton just to squeeze an extra hour or two of work into each day.
Only after the movie debuts will he take a brief break, long enough for a proper wedding to Hamilton, a former McKinsey & Co. executive turned actress. (Chazelle was also married for four years to his Harvard girlfriend, Jasmine McGlade, an executive producer on La La Land.) He and Hamilton snuck off late last year and tied the knot in New York, "just spur of the moment," says the filmmaker, laughing. "We initially got engaged and told ourselves, 'Let's do a ceremony in September,' and it was impetuous impatience that propelled us to go to City Hall." The couple are planning a more traditional ceremony for later this year.
After that, Chazelle will start preparing for his next jobs: a Netflix series, The Eddy, a jazz-soaked musical drama set in Paris, whose first two episodes he'll direct; and a rather amorphous project for Apple, which could be a miniseries or a series but so far doesn't even have a title. All these are projects that matter to him personally, regardless of their box-office potential. "You want to try to make stuff as personal as possible," he says. "That's almost more important than whether it's good or bad."
Work is everything and always has been; Hamilton says Chazelle lived in Los Angeles for seven years "and he'd never been to the Pacific Ocean."
His life is different now from when he arrived in L.A., but not substantially. True, he owns his first house, in Venice, and has his pick of plum projects, but he still has the same angst, the same neuroses — mixed in, say his friends, with an innate kindness. He admits to feeling somehow more grown-up, "though maybe that's something you never feel entirely — that you have it all figured out."
He's a multimillion-dollar director, opening the Venice Film Festival with his second movie in a row, repped by a fleet of top agents at WME, with more material thrown at him than he can possibly keep up with. He could be directing nonstop for the rest of his 30s, if he wished.
Instead, he's ready to return to silence.
"I never thought I would say this, because when I was spending all my time writing I thought it was torture," he reflects. "I mean, writing was a means to an end. I was writing in order to have something to direct. So I'm surprised that now I find myself really craving to just sit in a room all day writing. I'm longing for the things that I used to long to get away from. I really miss living in the world of ideas."
This story first appeared in the Aug. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.