'La La Land': Emma Stone, Director Damien Chazelle Talk Bringing Back Hope in Films

La La Land - still 3 -VFF- H 2016
Courtesy of Venice Film Festival

The actress, who appears opposite Ryan Gosling in the musical, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival, said the point of the film is to “let go of cynicism.”

Damien Chazelle’s new film La La Land is a welcome respite for moviegoers lamenting the dark and dreary plots hovering over the general state of studio films. The young Oscar-nominated director (best adapted screenplay for Whiplash) has delivered a tour de force that pays tribute to European musicals of the ‘60s and ‘70s in his third feature film.

Emma Stone stars as Mia, a barista working on a studio lot in Los Angeles trying to make her way as an actress through humiliating audition after humiliating audition. She meets Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a down-and-out pianist who can’t find anyone who appreciates his love for jazz and its musical history. Over the seasons and sights of the city they falls in love, while breaking into classical numbers, struggling to keep their relationship together over career difficulties and successes.

Even the most cynical audience member will have a hard time not smiling at the opening number, which turns a traffic standstill into a multi-car song-and-dance number on an extended city off-ramp. Indeed, both early morning press screenings at the ongoing Venice Film Festival caused journalists to burst into applause 10 minutes into the film. Early reviews and warm praise are already generating Oscar buzz. 

At the festival press conference for La La Land, Chazelle, who arrived a week early to travel around, proclaimed his love for Italy and said before taking any questions, “I heard last week about the earthquake that hit and I want to say that on behalf of the film, our thoughts and prayers go out to anyone affected by it.”

Earlier in the day, Venice festival director Alberto Barbera and jury president Sam Mendes kicked off the press activities, where it was announced that the Biennale was setting up a fund for the earthquake victims and La La Land studio Lionsgate would be the first to donate. It was announced last week that the opening-night gala for the film would be canceled out of respect for the victims and that proceeds from the Architecture Biennale tickets for select dates would be donated to relief efforts. The central Italy earthquake claimed almost 300 lives.

Chazelle, whose first feature Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench was a musical, explained why he loves the genre so much. “Now more than ever we need hope and romance on the screen, and I think there’s something about musicals that just get at something that only movies can do,” he said. “That idea of movies as a dreamland, movies as the language of our dreams and movies as a way of expressing a world in which you break into song, that emotions can violate the rules of reality.”

The filmmaker also found that hope in the city of Los Angeles. "There is something very poetic about the city I think, about a city that is built by people with these unrealistic dreams and people who kind of just put it all on the line for that," he said.

Chazelle admitted that it was a challenge to place a musical in today’s world, but he was able to fall back on the timelessness of classic musicals to find his way. “I think there’s a way that the older musicals are timeless and it has a way to do with their simplicity,” he said.

“How do you justify a musical today? The way to justify it today is actually going back to a lot of those traditions," asserted Chazelle. "No one breaks into song unless it’s emotionally justified in some way. But once you allow yourself that possibility, then you have a responsibility to go all the way.”

Stone, who has always loved musicals, was grateful to the director for the part. “I went and saw Les Mis when I was 8 on stage. So bursting into song has always been a real dream of mine,” she said.

The actress also was very much drawn into the film by its pointed hopefulness. Stone referenced Conan O’Brien urging audiences to “let go of cynicism,” she paraphrased. “I think something about Damien and what Damien created, and the hopefulness and the joy and the beauty of this medium, is that this story is in no way cynical.

“It’s about dreaming and hoping and working towards something to achieve something,” she continued. “And I think young people have fallen into a lot of cynicism and making fun of things and pointing out the flaws in everything. And this movie is anything but that, and it’s a huge joy to be a apart of it.”

Stone said it also was a pleasure to work with her friend Gosling again. “Once you’ve learned to ballroom dance with someone, you’ve learned everything you need to know,” she said. “He’s very good at leading.”  

But that was nothing compared to her praise for Chazelle, whom Stone compared to her character Mia as “being a young person that’s putting yourself out there, creating something from scratch with all your heart.” And instead of the fame going to his head, she said he is easily the most collaborative writer-director she has ever worked with, while staying true to his vision.

“That's just rare of anyone of any age who has made a jillion movies,” the actress said of the 31-year old director. “He’s truly extraordinary.”

Chazelle also explained his idea of romance in the film. “A lot of things can happen after ‘happily ever after.’ But when you have two people who share a memory, there is something very pure and nothing can taint that memory,” he said. “The idea was to take the old musical but ground it in real life where things don’t always exactly work out.“