It made history by winning the most Golden Globe Awards ever, taking all seven of the categories it was nominated for, and now Damien Chazelle‘s LA LA LAND, starring Ryan Gosling & Emma Stone, has equalled the record for most Oscar nominations. We take a look behind the movie that is taking the world by storm.
Boy meets girl meets the up-ending aspirations of the city of stars – and they all break out of the conventions of everyday life as LA LA LAND takes off on an exuberant song-and-dance journey through a life-changing love affair between a jazz pianist and a hopeful actress. At once an ode to the glamour and emotion of cinema classics, a love letter to the Los Angeles of unabated dreams, and a distinctly modern romance, the film reunites Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, bringing them together with rising writer/director Damien Chazelle (the Oscar®-winning Whiplash.)
The film begins as everything begins in L.A.: on the freeway. This is where Sebastian (Gosling) meets Mia (Stone), with a disdainful honk in a traffic jam that mirrors all too well the gridlock they’re each navigating in their lives. Both are focused on the kind of near-impossible hopes that are the lifeblood of the city: Sebastian trying to get people to care about traditional jazz in the 21st Century, Mia aiming to nail just one uninterrupted audition. But neither expects that their fateful encounter will lead them to take leaps they never could alone.
The leaps they both make, towards each other and, conflictingly, into their grandest artistic dreams, creates its own quintessentially cinematic world of rapture in LA LA LAND – one that with light, colour, sound, music and words takes a trip directly into the ecstasies of the happiness we chase… and the heartache of the passions we never get over.
Says Chazelle: “To me, it was important to make a movie about dreamers, about two people who have these giant dreams that drive them, that bring them together, but also tear them apart.”
LA LA LAND itself began with a crazy dream. Chazelle wanted to see if he could make a film that channels the magic and energy of the most poignantly romantic French and American musicals of filmmaking’s Golden Age … into our more complicated and jaded age.
Says Chazelle: “With La La Land, I wanted to do a love story and I also wanted to create a musical like the musicals that entranced me as a kid, but updated into something very modern. I wanted to explore how you use color, sets, costumes and all these very expressionistic elements of Old School movie making to tell a story that takes place in our times.”
Chazelle was also uniquely inspired by the films of Jacques Demy, the French New Wave director who broke the hyper-serious 1960s mold with intoxicating, candy-coloured musicals such as The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, The Young Girls of Rochefort and A Room In Town. “Demy’s probably the single biggest influence not just on this movie but on everything I’ve done or wanted to do. There’s no more formative movie for me than Umbrellas Of Cherbourg. That’s a profound love that I’ve had,” Chazelle says.
Chazelle became struck by the idea of fusing some of his favorite elements from musicals of the 40s, 50s and 60s – the continuous musical score, the eye-popping colours, the mood-driven energy – with his favorite city: Los Angeles, which becomes as much a romantic character in LA LA LAND as the film’s two lovers. Los Angeles has been many things on films – a searing noir backdrop, a lush bikini paradise, a city high on the fumes of ambition. But Chazelle set out to explore Los Angeles as Muse, a constantly in-motion canvas of fateful encounters, endless traffic, but also endless striving as everyone chases their own private, unrealized dreams, at times futilely, sometimes transformationally.
“LA LA LAND is about a city that is very epic and unto itself – it’s a wide-screen city,” observes Chazelle. So I thought it would be great to shoot it in wide-screen, to make it as a big and spectacular to me as a classic Hollywood musical.”
Chazelle’s Los Angeles is also a city of unseen yearning – an LA of hole-in-the-wall jazz clubs, heart-numbing audition waiting rooms, way-stop apartments, and studio coffee shops where the famous and aspirational collide; as well as an LA where parties, planetariums and even parking spots can bust out of the mundane and expected to become a kinetic dreamscape rife with musical mirth.
“LA LA LAND is absolutely a love letter to the city,” says producer Marc Platt. “The way the film mixes two people leading very hip, modern lives with all these iconic Hollywood locales is unique. You get a feeling both of the romantic fantasy of the city and its grounding in real lives.”
Ryan Gosling/Seb’s Story
The jazz pianist Sebastian has a near-miss with the greatest love of his life. A defiantly retro jazz diehard who doesn’t believe in compromising his convictions for anyone or anything, at first he brushes off Mia as just another person who will never comprehend him or the gravity of his dreams – but that does not go as planned.
Taking the role is Academy Award® nominee Ryan Gosling in perhaps his most unexpected departure to date. Ever since his breakout in Half Nelson and through such films as Lars and The Real Girl, The Ides of March, Blue Valentine, Drive and The Big Short, Gosling has been known for a range of volatile emotions. But could he combine that with the soft-shoe charms of a musical’s leading man?
The filmmakers were convinced. Platt had previously worked with Gosling on Drive and knew he was capable of more than audiences have seen. “There’s something about Ryan,” he muses. “First and foremost, he’s a marvelous actor and I think he can do anything in terms of a role, be it drama, comedy, violence, sweetness, charm, singing, piano playing or dancing. But there’s a quality to Ryan that is timeless – and that befits this movie and character. The role also demanded an actor with the initiative to devote himself to intensive preparation, and I knew Ryan is that guy.”
As it turned out, Gosling had his own long-held affection for movie musicals that came into play the minute he came aboard. Says Gosling: “I was really intrigued by the fact that Damien wanted to make a film in the style of that Fred and Ginger and Gene Kelly eras, because those are the musicals that move me. The fact that he wanted this film to have that kind of aesthetic and spirit of playfulness was fantastic because it was also a secret wish of mine to make a film like that.”
An equal magnet for Gosling was the intrigue of playing a man who worships with his very being an artform that seems to be dying on the vine of a ruthlessly fast-changing pop culture.
“Sebastian has dedicated his life to being a great jazz pianist, but in his mind the world around him is saying those days are over. His heroes were born 70 years ago, and in this day and age, a great piano player playing real jazz is destined to work in bars where people don’t even stop their conversations to listen to you,” Gosling notes. “So how much do you compromise to be the artist you want to be?”
The line between principled dedication and making yourself irrelevant is a fuzzy one, Gosling acknowledges. “I think Sebastian is struggling with the difference between being a purist and being a snob,” he remarks. “Ultimately, he faces a question lots of creative people are faced with at some point in life: do I keep pursuing this work that actually nourishes me or to do I have to accept that this is just a job and I have to pay my bills?”
That equation gets flipped in new ways when Sebastian meets Mia. Almost instantly, he sees her fate as more promising – and he wants to support her dreams. “I think it’s easier for him to get on board with Mia’s dream than it is with his own,” Gosling observes. “He just thinks Mia needs to create her own opportunities and stop waiting for people to give her permission to do what she loves to do.”
Much as Gosling could relate to the character, his work was seriously cut out for him as he prepared to take on the role of a consummate jazz pianist — body and soul. He dove into months and months of jazz piano lessons, not to mention learning to dance with a modern sense of suave.
Gosling took on the task with the energy of a man possessed – in part because it was a kind of dream-fulfillment in its own right. “Piano is something I always wished I had the time to learn so here I had this great opportunity to sit in front of a piano for three months and just play – and I took advantage of it. It was really one of the most fulfilling preproduction periods I’ve ever had,” he says.
Emma Stone, who previously paired with Gosling on the hit comedy Crazy, Stupid, Love and appeared with him in Gangster Squad, had no trouble responding organically to the funny, charismatic and torn man Gosling found within Sebastian. Stone summarizes: “Ryan brought so much to this role: he learned to play the piano stunningly well and he’s been a great dance partner. But the thing that I was most surprised by is how funny he is in this role. I mean I’ve always known that Ryan is funny but he’s really, really funny in this movie. He’s kind of got it all going on as Sebastian.”
Emma Stone/Mia’s Aim
The aspiring actress Mia seems to be caught in an endless loop from her barista job to dead-end auditions when she finds herself repeatedly bumping into the same ill-mannered pianist in a convertible – who breaks the spell.
Playing Mia is Academy Award® nominee Emma Stone, whose roles have ranged from Superbad and Easy A to The Help and Birdman. Stone faced a one-of-a-kind challenge with the role – playing a character who has to be at once anchored in very real goals and feelings, while also able to erupt into musical fantasia at a moment’s notice, combining the two seamlessly. It helped that Stone has not only explored the depths of dramatic roles, but also has the skills of a Broadway veteran who recently starred as Sally Bowles in the revival of Cabaret.
Mia’s yearning for something beyond the ordinary hit home with the actress. “Mia is driven by something that maybe she doesn’t completely understand,” says Stone. “She wants to be an artist in a city of so many people who seem to be just like her. She feels that there’s something special inside her but she doesn’t quite know what it is. I could relate to her being an actress and going on auditions but even more so, there was something so exciting about taking her into this musical world where you can suddenly spin down the street or burst into song. That was a wonderful challenge.”
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