Oscar Nominations: 'La La Land' Writer/Director on Film's "Surreal" Record-Tying Showing

THR's awards columnist Scott Feinberg spoke with Damien Chazelle shortly after the 32-year-old filmmaker — who is poised to become the youngest best director Oscar winner in history — learned about his original musical's 14 nominations.
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Damien Chazelle

Damien Chazelle, the 32-year-old wunderkind who wrote and directed the original musical La La Land, was in Beijing this morning — or this evening, local time — when he learned that his film had tied the all-time record for most Oscar nominations for a single film with 14: best picture, best director (Chazelle), best actor (Ryan Gosling), best actress (Emma Stone), best original screenplay (Chazelle), best cinematography, best costume design, best film editing, best original score, best original song (both "Audition" and "City of Stars"), best production design, best sound editing and best sound mixing.

I spoke to him by telephone moments afterward...

Where does today place among the most special days of your life?

It's really unbelievable. Just after it was announced, my girlfriend got a text message and told me how many nominations we'd gotten, and I really thought she was just kind of saying what she hoped would happen or was, like, bullshitting me. It took me so long to believe it — I had to ask her literally three times before I actually believed her. We're all at this hotel in Beijing to promote the movie, so we quickly ran down the hall to Ryan's room and barged in. He had Emma on Facetime on his phone, so we just kind of screamed in each other's faces for a few minutes.

You're a great student of film history. When you hear that no film in history ever has received more nominations than yours did, and only All About Eve and Titanic ever received as many, what do you make of that?

(Laughs) It's surreal and it's hard to put into words. I'm a little speechless. I love both of those films so much, so it's obviously an honor. But the biggest honor of all is that so many people that I got to make this movie with — that made this movie come to life — have gotten recognized for it. That really just means the world to me. I'm just beaming with pride for them because I was able to witness firsthand what an extraordinary group of people this really was, these artists who came together, in every department, to make this movie a reality. I was so lucky to be surrounded by them and they really brought so much to this project, so I'm extra delighted that they're getting this kind of spotlight.

You go back a long way with one of them, Justin Hurwitz, who's now a three-time Oscar nominee, having been recognized today for best original score and, along with Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, twice for best original song. That must feel pretty special for both of you.

When you put it that way, I'm a little worried — I'm not sure he's gonna take my calls anymore! He might be on a different echelon now! (Laughs) But no, I'm so proud of him. As you know, he's someone who I've known since we were both 18 playing in a band together, so to get to see him take his music this far — it's so incredible.

There are 33 days until the Oscars show. Where do you go from here?

I'm not sure. I guess I've always thought of awards season, at its core, as a good way to shine a spotlight on movies that can benefit from that spotlight, movies that are maybe not the most obviously commercial movies that Hollywood produces. We're still in the process of opening this movie throughout the world — that's why we're in China right now — and we're expanding into more theaters in America in the coming weeks. So I think, in some ways, that's still top of mind. My hope is just that any kind of recognition maybe inspires more people to take a chance on a musical, even if they thought they would never be caught dead seeing a musical. (Laughs)

Last, you are now poised to put an end to an 85-year-old record. You and I are probably among a very small number of people alive today who have actually seen a 1931 movie called Skippy, really the first comic-book movie adaptation, which was directed by—

Norman Taurog.

Exactly. He was 32 years and 260 days old when he was awarded the best director Oscar for that film. On Oscar night, you will be 32 years and 39 days old. Can you wrap your head around the fact that, on top of everything else, you might well become the youngest best director Oscar winner in history?

(Long pause) Well, I guess the answer to that question is no, I can't really wrap my head around that. I'm trying not to think too much about that. I mean, I never expected any of this for this movie, which any nominee can probably say sincerely. I'm just honored to be in the conversation this year, which was such a good year for film — from my point of view, there's really been an amazing crop of American movies this year. But yeah, I'm just trying not think past today too much. No matter what happens, I'm just honored to be in the same room as those other nominees.