Director Damien Chazelle © Vera Anderson/WireImage
We couldn’t be significantly additional from California. It is a chilly autumn day in London, the only singing emanates from the odd off-crucial busker and Damien Chazelle has the sniffles. How as opposed to the opening of La La Land, his Los Angeles-set musical about chasing dreams, and its toe-tapping first number “Another Day of Sun” in which gridlocked Angelinos climb atop their vehicles to sing and dance, and lovebirds Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone 1st lock eyes.
The outlook for Chazelle looks no much less sunny. At 31, the American writer-director already has one particular huge hit to his name — 2014’s Whiplash — and the new film seems set to surpass it. Ahead of our meeting, camera crews lie in wait for him and a publicist asks me to make myself scarce while he autographs posters. La La Land is expected to safe a raft of Oscar nominations this month, and is the bookies’ favourite to win leading gongs, including Ideal Picture and Greatest Director.
If any of this is going to Chazelle’s head, it does not show. He arrives wearing jeans, an olive green jumper and the faintest goatee, hunting somewhere among Ivy League grad (which he is), geek and hipster. His grin is frequent and infectious, his sense of humour appealingly goofy.
One particular gets the feeling that all the adulation hasn’t however fairly sunk in. Did the achievement of Whiplash take him by surprise? “A small bit,” he says. “I didn’t consider it would ever be a crowd-pleaser, I genuinely thought it would be a depressing movie that pummels you into pulp . . . But then I realised: of course, it’s a sports movie in a lot of techniques, and it follows that template.”
Whiplash, which followed the trials of an ambitious young drummer at the hands of a brutish conservatory teacher, provoked powerful audience reactions. After the screening I attended, a lot of folks emerged visibly shaken — it was more like the aftermath of a horror film, I inform him. “No 1 knew how terrifying jazz drumming could be,” Chazelle chuckles. “It was terrifying to me when I was a jazz drummer, so I was glad to attempt to impart some of that knowledge, perhaps somewhat sadistically.”
The cast of his new Oscar contender ‘La La Land’ © Dale Robinette
Music came before the films. Born in Rhode Island, Chazelle pursued drumming at school prior to studying film-making at Harvard, exactly where he met composer Justin Hurwitz, who has offered the scores for all his films so far. Whiplash, only Chazelle’s second film, took the leading prizes at the Sundance Film Festival and went on to scoop 3 Oscars — for sound mixing, editing, and for JK Simmons as Greatest Supporting Actor.
But Chazelle knew complete properly that numerous ascendant film-makers have seasoned whiplash of yet another type: seeing their careers take off only to be quickly rear-ended by the rapidly-moving and fickle movie enterprise. “Right right after Sundance, my producers and I in LA had been frantically setting up meetings for La La Land since you’re worried that the window is going to close any minute,” he recalls.
It helped that Chazelle already had the script for La La Land in his pocket. In truth, while numerous assumed Whiplash to be his debut, he had already produced a single jazz-flavoured musical, his 2009 student film Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench.
That, nevertheless, had not been the easiest ride: “One time, I stepped into a theatre where you just sense the complete theatre, it’s about 300 folks, are just buzzing with vitriol, due to the fact they had been so angry with the film. You’d think I’d made torture porn or anything — it was a jazz musical.”
But it clearly wasn’t sufficient to put him off revisiting the genre, and La La Land is super-confident film-generating on a grand scale, with big, showstopping musical numbers, daring shifts in tone, sweeping camera moves and a dizzying final crescendo-montage.
Taking on a cherished genre such as the musical, especially 1 that self-consciously references MGM classics and Jacques Demy, brings with it inherent risks. Even in paying homage, Chazelle set himself up for comparisons. Was he ever nervous about that?
“Yes, but I’m convinced that the genre has so considerably to tell us now,” he says. “That this is not an outdated genre. That performing a musical of this ilk is not just an homage, that you can genuinely make a case for these tropes current right now, and in fact commenting on right now. That, to me, was what was thrilling about it.”
Miles Teller and JK Simmons in Chazelle’s ‘Whiplash’ (2014)
One of La La Land’s strengths is that, for all its old-fashioned flourishes, it inhabits an LA that is recognisably contemporary and at least partly grounded in reality. Chazelle himself lived the outsider knowledge of both Gosling and Stone’s characters: the struggling musician and the greenhorn with film-globe aspirations. “I moved to LA . . . played some drums and got fired from the band I was playing in. At the very same time, I was trying to turn out scripts, and none of them were going anyplace,” he recalls.
As a result the film captures the allure of LA but is not blind to its dead ends. “You create this partnership to the city at the time, and it was a tense relationship . . . an alternately inspiring and crushing experience.”
The identical could be stated of La La Land, which, though undeniably romantic, proves to be more of an emotional rollercoaster than some reviews might have you think. “Every time I make a film and I believe it’s a bummer, men and women say it’s happy,” Chazelle observes.
I tell him that I worried halfway via that it may collapse into sentimental mush and was pleased that it took some unexpected turns. “The aliens attacking!” he exclaims. “I adore the surprise of that.” I didn’t see that coming, I admit. “I didn’t feel you would.” Nor the chainsaw massacre. “Well, the chainsaw, I was worried that that was predictable, but I think throwing in the aliens with the chainsaw and the zombie apocalypse — how can you anticipate that to occur in a musical?” How does he come up with this stuff, I ask. “I’m really creative, extremely forward-thinking,” he deadpans.
We may have to wait for the DVD for these out-requires, but even the theatrical version leads the public on a merry dance. “If you are trained to be smiling and laughing for the very first chunk of the movie . . . you don’t see the knife coming,” says Chazelle. But he insists that his true intention was to reflect the vicissitudes of life. “I felt like there was a way that the joy and the heartbreak could coexist.”
Right here, as well, Chazelle may have drawn on private encounter. He married his Harvard sweetheart Jasmine McGlade in 2010 but the couple divorced in 2014. In Whiplash the main protagonist breaks off a partnership that threatens to get in the way of his drumming, and in La La Land a single of the crucial dramatic moments entails a choice among pursuing expert or romantic dreams. Does he feel there has to be a trade-off?
“I’ve only recently been lucky enough to really feel like they don’t have to be mutually exclusive,” he says. “But I was, for a large part of my life, that kind of hermit, a little bit like Ryan’s character at the starting of the film: ‘Fuck the world, I’m going to stay in my space and write the next fantastic American screenplay’.”
Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in a scene from the film © Dale Robinette
Surely he now seems to be living the Hollywood dream, working with the likes of Stone, Gosling and musician John Legend. Does he still get star-struck? “Yes, I do. I’m star-struck right now,” he says, referring to his audience with the FT. In that case, I say, he truly does have a low threshold. “I nevertheless get it very easily . . . I was talking with Ryan about another project just earlier nowadays, and in my head I pinched myself. I get to make movies with this guy? What?”
His intention was to reflect the vicissitudes of life, ‘a way that the joy and the heartbreak could coexist’
It’s refreshing to meet a director who nonetheless appears genuinely unjaded, even giddy, about getting able to explore his fantasies in the massive sandbox of Hollywood. But I wonder if his youth ever works against him.
“There are situations where I wasn’t taken seriously,” he says. But, offered Hollywood’s “obsession with the new and the young”, he reckons the impact is “net neutral”.
1 point that may assist, I recommend, would be possessing a Ideal Director or Greatest Picture Oscar under his belt. “To beat individuals with it physically?” he laughs. “It’s too heavy to do that with.” I’ve never ever held one particular, I inform him, but he might quickly. For a moment he appears unusually reticent. With La La Land the large Oscar favourite, surely he cannot avoid talking about it. “I attempt not to,” he says. Does he dare even believe about it? A pause. “Yes.”
‘La La Land’ is out in the US now and is released in the UK on January 13
Photographs: Vera Anderson/WireImage Dale Robinette