Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
“Part of the challenge of doing a musical is you kinda feel like you’re doing three movies at once.”
In a very short time, at least by Hollywood standards, writer-director Damien Chazelle has established himself as a fresh new voice in the industry. Not only is he a true talent, he’s a genuinely nice guy with a passion for storytelling and incomparable intelligence.
His latest film is an incandescent musical, LA LA LAND (our review), which tells the star-crossed love story of jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and hope-filled actress Mia (Emma Stone), a pair of artists, who both find themselves at career crossroads. Told against the beautiful backdrop of Los Angeles, this is a gorgeous, exuberant work of cinema.
While it was WHIPLASH that garnered lots of awards buzz, his very first feature, GUY AND MADELINE ON A PARK BENCH, provided a training ground for the auteur to experiment with the genre. At the film’s recent la la land-based press day, Chazelle said,
I was working with the same composer, Justin Hurwitz. We were finishing it right as we were moving out to LA. Pretty early on, we were talking abstractly about doing another, more full-fledged musical together. But I didn’t start writing this until 2010/ 2011. We definitely put what we learned into this.
Hurwitz collaborated on those incredibly catchy tunes you will be humming post-screening with Tony and Emmy-nominated songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Chazelle elaborated,
Justin and I have a shorthand. As soon as I started writing the script, he was writing the melodies by my side. We’d send each other stuff back and forth. He’d send me piano demos. I’d send him scenes. We had this dialogue going for a few years. Once we had the songs in there, more or less, with placeholder lyrics, then we were lucky enough to meet Ben Paseck and Justin Paul, who are New York-based and in the theater world. They provided the lyrics to these songs. That actually normally do both music and lyrics. Here, they slipped into the role of lyricists. They were able to collaborate wonderfully as musicians themselves, so there was this very open dialogue between all of us.
And stuff evolved a lot. From mini-songs not in the movie, or songs going through total overhauls. For example, the lyrics for the duet dance Ryan and Emma do, we still didn’t have locked in lyrics until a week before shooting. Whereas something like Emma’s audition number, that was one of the quickest ones to write. That didn’t go through a lot of revisions. There were some that felt right, right away and other where it was more dependent on the ups and downs of the script and how the script was evolving. Especially when we were in prep. Every time a script change would happen, it would inform the song and vice versa. Same with choreography. Part of the challenge of doing a musical is you kinda feel like you’re doing three movies at once. Each one has to be responsive to each other. Again, it was possible because they are so good and nimble, responding to every little change.
Locations provide the backdrop that, at times, work in concert with the main characters, augmenting romantic atmospheric tone. While most of those locations (like Griffith Observatory, Angel’s Flight and the Warner Brothers backlot) were in the script, there were a few that were discoveries – like the unconventional beauty of Panorama City.
We did a long period – months and months – of scouting through Los Angeles, seeing what looked interesting, what seemed right for our movie and what hadn’t been over-filmed recently. Often trying to find stuff off the beaten path – locations that we could make beautiful the way we shot them. Certain stretches of road that I find beautiful but aren’t pretty in the sense that it’s old buildings and kept up gardens. It’s stuff where you see the telephone wires going to infinity, or the gas stations and wide roads. If you shoot it a certain way, we shot everything on film, anamorphic, it just kinda gives it a scope and texture that can almost make anything beautiful. LA has a certain kind of majesty where even the stretches of the city that we don’t think are conventionally picturesque can be incredibly compelling onscreen.
World-famous choreographer Mandy Moore (DANCING WITH THE STARS, SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE) provided the blueprint for the actors to express themselves through their dances, incorporating everyday life in the movements.
She came on board very early before we got into prep. Early on, we were talking very conceptually about the different numbers. The settings and thrust of the ideas had been baked into the script, but she had to figure out a way to concretely turn those into dance ad deal with the limitations of the environment. Almost all the numbers were done in real locations. So it’s either a curved freeway ramp with people atop cars during a heatwave, or it’s where Ryan and Emma do their dance atop the hill – that hill is super slanted and filled with potholes. Things that would impede your choreography, but she has this brilliant way of using those limitations to her advantage. To me, that’s really in the tradition of what Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire did in their movies – using the fabric of everyday life, bric-a-brac, to be the seeds of a dance numbers.
Casting went through different variations throughout the years – at one time being a reunion for Chazelle’s WHIPLASH lead, Miles Teller.
I thought of Ryan and Emma when writing it, but it never really seemed realistic that I would get them. It was a little kismet that it wound up in their laps years after writing the script. What I loved about them – the idea of them in the movie – was this old Hollywood persona that they have both individually and as a pair. They reminded me of those reoccurring pairs in studio movies – like Bogie and Bacall, Hepburn and Tracy, Fred and Ginger. Yet at the same time, Ryan and Emma are very contemporary, post-method actors in their style and relatability to their modern audience. They are very accessible and have a spontaneity to them. People whose hands we’d be willing to take and be ushered by them into this more heightened world. I knew those things would be helpful especially in selling a traditional musical to an audience now.
LA LA LAND’s aesthetic is dripping in homage to classic musicals, but also retains its own, very modern and healthy identity. Part of how Chazelle was able to do this was to enlist the help of Swedish cinematographer Linus Sandgren.
When I first met him, he had this way of talking about LA, looking at LA, that comes from him both loving the city and having lived here for a while and also being an outsider, coming from seeing a different point of view. He had a certain insight into things in the city that I really responded to. We shared a reverence for the same kind of influences and photography. He’s a very emotionally intuitive cinematographer. He has a sense of how light and color, those basic materials of photography, can be emotionally expressive.
We talked about old Technicolor movies – movies back when color felt like a choice and not the default. Trying to make sure every color in this movie would be saying something. At the end of the day, and like my favorite musicals, the whole thing would feel like one sustained statement; the photography, the music, the production design, the costumes. Ideally, when a musical works, all those things feel like one piece of music.
He was amazingly able to collaborate with our costume designer, production designer, with Mandy, in terms of figuring out how the camera would move, what colors it would highlight, and how to bring out the colors instead of counteracting them or masking them.
LA LA LAND begins a limited run on December 9. It opens wide on December 16.