'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Damien Chazelle ('La La Land')

Damien Chazelle - La La Land - Getty - H - 2016
Gabriel Olsen/Getty Images for AFI

"People want something that's different than everything else that's out there," says Damien Chazelle, the writer and director of the massively acclaimed original musical La La Land, as we sit down at The Hollywood Reporter to record an episode of the 'Awards Chatter' podcast and try to get to the root of the phenomenal success of the film. Indeed, Chazelle's bold third feature is beloved by critics (it has a 93% favorable rating on RottenTomatoes.com), audiences (it has grossed more than $340 million worldwide) and Academy members (it has been nominated for a record-tying 14 Oscars). The 32-year-old himself is Oscar-nominated for best director and best original screenplay, and if he wins the former, as is widely expected, he will break an 85-year-old record and become the category's youngest winner ever.

"It was very much a projection of confidence," Chazelle says of how he pitched his dream movie project to financiers, studios and movie stars like Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone over the seven years he spent trying to get it made. "I was not exactly feeling confident inside at any given moment. I think what I would always fall back on, when in doubt, was, 'Well, this is the movie I want to see,' because that's all I can really know and that's all that really should matter because I can't guess what anyone else is gonna want to see. I just have to make what I want to see, be true to that and then hope that I'm not alone in the world."

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Born to a French father and an American mother in Providence, R.I., but raised mainly in Princeton, N.J., where his parents work as professors, Chazelle fell in love with movies and music at an early age. By the time he was in middle school, he spent his summers consuming four or five movies a day, and once in high school, he was an accomplished drummer in his school's jazz program. As a freshman at Harvard, he declared his major in film, while also joining a band through which he met and became the closest of friends with Justin Hurwitz, who aspired to become a film composer. "Pretty early on we realized we shared this love of movies," Chazelle says.

By sophomore year, Chazelle and Hurwitz were roommates, and by junior year they had decided to collaborate on a film (they've never made one apart): Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, a black-and-white 16mm musical-drama that evolved from Chazelle's senior thesis into his 2009 feature directorial debut. "Before I even started writing the script, I asked Justin if he would do the music for it," Chazelle recalls. "If he had said no, I probably wouldn't have done it and I probably wouldn't have made any musicals ever. That was the beginning of going down that road." Indeed, that $60,000 film-fest darling planted the seeds for La La Land, another musical-drama about a romantic relationship between artists. (All three of Chazelle's features involve a male jazz musician.)

After Guy and Madeline, Chazelle and Hurwitz were contacted by Focus Features exec Matthew Plouffe, who invited them to participate in a program the distribution company had started to groom young talent. He connected them with producers Fred Berger and Jordan Horowitz in Los Angeles — where Chazelle and Hurwitz had moved after Guy and Madeline — and pitched them on the idea of an original musical that hypothetically would star Gosling and Stone, whose romantic pairing in 2011's Crazy, Stupid, Love had impressed Chazelle. Plouffe urged him to make his first draft "more personal," so he set it in Los Angeles, which he romantically regarded as a city of dreamers. But, in 2012, Focus put the film in turnaround and, Chazelle recalls, "I went off and did Whiplash not that long after."

Whiplash was the feature-length script Chazelle had written about his experiences in his high school's jazz program, where he studied under a brutally demanding instructor. But "everyone in Hollywood passed on Whiplash," he says, so he decided to take 15 pages of the script and turn it into a short so that he would have a "proof of concept" to show financiers on his next attempt to find backing. It worked. In 2013, this first incarnation of Whiplash won the best short prize at the Sundance Film Festival, to which Chazelle returned a year later with his feature-length version, which, in turn, won both the grand jury and audience awards en route to considerable critical praise and five Oscar nominations (including best picture and best adapted screenplay for Chazelle) and three wins.

As Chazelle sees it, the greatest legacy of Whiplash is that it enabled him to finally make La La Land. Lionsgate signed on to make it, initially for $20 million with Miles Teller and Emma Watson in the leads. But eventually they fell out and Gosling and Stone stepped in, as did veteran producer Marc Platt (Broadway's Wicked), all resulting in a budget increase to $30 million, as well as a commitment to give Chazelle three months of rehearsal and 42 days to shoot the film. Working closely with choreographer Mandy Moore, Chazelle mounted the movie's spectacular opening showstopper "Another Day of Sun" on an L.A. freeway ramp, and Gosling and Stone became proficient enough dancers to perform, among other things, an uninterrupted seven-minute number, "A Lovely Night," with their bodies fully in frame and without any cuts.

For Chazelle, all of the acclaim that he has received for his work on the movie — he also won best director and best screenplay Golden Globe and Critics' Choice awards and best director Directors Guild and BAFTA awards and was nominated for the best original screenplay Writers Guild and BAFTA awards — has been greatly appreciated but unnecessary icing on the cake. "I was just so elated that I'd gotten to make the movie at all and that I'd gotten to make it with zero creative compromises," he says. "The thing that made this movie hard to finance — the thing that gave us all doubt, I think — is the same thing that ultimately sort of helped it succeed: There wasn't really anything analogous to it on movie screens right now. That's why I desperately wanted to make it. That's why I had this burning desire to make it. It was in my head, you know, and I could envision it on a movie screen, but I knew it would be this whole upstream battle to actually get that image in my head onto an actual movie screen. So that was the journey."