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'La La Land' Director Aimed To Make A Film Even Musical Skeptics Would Love

Director Damien Chazelle talks about his movie La La Land, a love story set in the present day, but the influence of old Hollywood and musicals of the past is all around.




This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Damien Chazelle wrote and directed the new movie musical "La La Land," which is firmly set in the present but pays loving tribute to movie musicals of the past. The New York Film Critics Circle named it the Best Picture of 2016 and so did our film critic, David Edelstein. "La La Land" has received seven Golden Globe nominations - that's more than any other film - including Best Musical or Comedy, Best Director, Actor, Actress, Song and Score. Chazelle also wrote and directed the 2014 film "Whiplash" about a jazz student and his sadistically demanding teacher.

"La La Land" stars Emma Stone as an aspiring actress who keeps going to auditions and getting rejected. Ryan Gosling plays a jazz pianist who wants to open his own club in order to do his part to keep jazz alive, but he's usually stuck playing awful gigs at restaurants and parties. They have two brief unfortunate encounters with each other and then meet again at a party in which he's playing synthesizer in a cover band. They leave at the same time. She can't find her car, and he helps her look for it. They obviously like each other, but neither is willing to admit it, which leads them to sing "What A Waste Of A Lovely Night."


RYAN GOSLING: (As Sebastian, singing) The sun is nearly gone. The lights are turning on. A silver shine that's stretches to the sea. We've stumbled on a view that's tailor-made for two. What a shame those two are you and me. Some other girl and guy would love this swirling sky, but there's only you and I. And we've got no shot. This could never be. You're not the type for me.

EMMA STONE: (As Mia) Really?

GOSLING: (As Sebastian, singing) And there's not a spark in sight. What a waste of a lovely night.

STONE: (As Mia, singing) You say there's nothing here. Well, let's make something clear, I think I'll be the one to make that call.

GOSLING: (As Sebastian) But you'll call?

STONE: (As Mia, singing) And though know you look so cute in your polyester suit...

GOSLING: (As Sebastian) It's wool.

STONE: ...(As Mia, singing) You're right. I'd never fall for you at all. And maybe this appeals to someone not in heels or to any girl who feels there's some chance for romance. But, I'm frankly feeling nothing.

GOSLING: (As Sebastian, singing) Is that so?

STONE: (As Mia, singing) Or it could be less than nothing.

GOSLING: (As Sebastian, singing) Good to know. So you agree?

STONE: (As Mia, singing) That's right.

EMMA STONE AND RYAN GOSLING: (As Mia and Sebastian, singing) What a waste of a lovely night.

GROSS: Well, you know, after hearing that song, those two are going to get together.

Damien Chazelle, welcome to FRESH AIR. I love the film. I'm so glad you made it.

DAMIEN CHAZELLE: Oh, thanks for having me.

GROSS: So I know you love musicals so do I. A lot of people think of musicals as out of date, and that there's something inherently false about breaking into song in the middle of a movie. So what do you love about musicals, and why did you want to make one?

CHAZELLE: You know, I think that in a way the sort of defiance of reality that breaking into a song in the middle of a movie represents, I think, was what really initially keyed me in. I wasn't necessarily a giant fan of musicals as a kid. I was a giant fan of movies. There were certain musicals that really spoke to me - "Wizard Of Oz" and "West Side Story" and a few others. But it wasn't until I actually started making kind of experimental films and ironically, documentaries in college that I think my eyes got kind of reawakened - or awakened to especially old-classic Hollywood musicals.

And there was something about them that felt like, oh, my God, OK, here is - here is an experimental movie in mainstream packaging. There's something so kind of brash and defiant and almost avant-garde about the idea of just breaking the normal rules of, you know, normal reality. Movies have kind of been engineered, over the century, to somewhat reflect reality usually. Even if it's a fantasy or something, there's some kind of an assumption that things are going to follow a certain order. And musicals just break that, and they break it in the name of emotion. And that, I think, was a really powerful beautiful idea to me - that if you feel enough, you break in the song.

GROSS: And I think in "La La Land" there's a sense that the songs - or the heightened emotion that people are feeling it break - it literally breaks from reality. The colors become more vivid. You know, things just kind of change, and then they go back to normal after the song ends. And it's as if you're saying, this is what they're thinking, this is the heightened reality that they're imagining or wishing for. Yes?

CHAZELLE: Yeah. I mean, you know, movies are kind of limited by what you see in front of the camera, which means that, you know, it's a sort of physical medium. You can't really reflect interiority the way a novel can. And that's always the gripe about movies - that you can't get as deep in the characters' feelings as you can in literature. And I think musicals find this wonderful way around that because the songs are - I think, in a good musical - are an expression of inner feelings that can't be articulated in any other way.

GROSS: There's a scene early on where the Emma Stone character goes to a Hollywood pool party that she doesn't really want to go to. And she feels kind of like the outsider there. She's not enjoying herself - totally alienated. And she's imagining everybody else having, like, a much better time than she is. And suddenly, like, the music starts. Two men in suits jump into the swimming pool. And it's this whole big number. And it's just this perfect expression of her alienation from what she considers to be this kind of joyous party scene that she is on the outside of.

CHAZELLE: Yeah, I mean, I think that was one...

GROSS: And that can't - that's not going to happen in real life, that the two men in suits jump into the pool (laughter)...


GROSS: ...And there's a musical number.

CHAZELLE: (Laughter) Exactly, at least not at any parties that I've been to. One thing that I think that was interesting there was, you know - or that interested me was what's a character's relationship to the musical number, you know? Once you decide that a musical number is some kind of reflection of emotion, then - you know, inner emotion - then you can play with whether the character feels inside that number or outside that number. And, again, that can say a lot about the interior feelings of a character - loneliness, you know, lonely in the middle of a crowd, et cetera, et cetera.

GROSS: The opening of the film is really amazing. It's a bumper-to-bumper traffic jam in LA on the freeway. I'm not familiar with the freeway, so I don't know exactly where it is.

CHAZELLE: It's the 105 and the 110. So when you're sightseeing in LA, next time, you can (laughter)...

GROSS: Yeah, I can hope to be trapped on the freeway there.

CHAZELLE: ...You can hope to be trapped on that one.

GROSS: I'll look forward to that.

CHAZELLE: (Laughter).

GROSS: So everybody's bumper to bumper. And you have this, like, slow pan where we're hearing what each car radio or, you know - is playing or whatever - whatever device they're listening to is playing. Then slowly, people start getting out of their cars and singing and dancing. And the choreography is amazing. I'm going to ask you to describe what's going on,

CHAZELLE: Well, we're on this - this kind of elevated freeway ramp that's in utter gridlock. And as you say, one by one, characters start to kind of join in this collective number. And the idea was to sort of go from individual car radio, car radio, and all of these individual sounds build in and sort of layer into this one kind of collective song that eventually explodes into just full-out joyful, you know, unison singing and dancing before all the drivers returned to their, you know - return to their cars.

But it was - the idea was to sort of introduce the world and I think, even more importantly, begin the musical with as musical-esque a scene as we could possibly imagine. We, like, really tried to announce our intentions right off the bat with a bang.

GROSS: And announce that these scenes are not necessarily real, the musical scenes. They're breaking from reality. They're a wishful reality because everybody is not really going to get out of the car and sing and dance. (Laughter).

CHAZELLE: Yeah, alas.

GROSS: Yes, and the choreography is amazing. Like, people are, like, dancing on and jumping onto the roofs of cars. And there's - a skateboard skates over the cars and a bicyclist. And it's just - it's like choreographed, beautiful mayhem.

And I was thinking how hard it must have been to shoot that and to choreograph everything so everybody's in the right part of the frame at the right moment. How did you manage to do it? Like, what are - what were some of the, like, logistical hurdles you had in shooting that scene?

CHAZELLE: Well, one thing that I think that, you know, has kind of been lost a little bit is the idea of choreographing dance for the camera. That, to me, was the beautiful thing about old Hollywood musicals from Fred and Ginger, through the Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen pictures to something like "Seven Brides For Seven Brothers," which was, you know, there's a wonderful barn dance set piece in the middle of that movie, which was a kind of big reference for this, with a lot of the same sort of athletic kind of dancing.

But it's all about how the dance looks in relation to a single camera, not let's do the dance like a live event and just film it with 15 cameras and then we'll find it in the editing room. So - so sort of long-take aesthetic was there right from the beginning. And my choreographer, Mandy Moore, had to choreograph with that in mind. And the DP, Linus Sandgren, had to, you know - had to kind of be involved in that choreography.

So it was really the three of us and this troupe of dancers that Mandy kind of, you know - Mandy and I sort of brought together rehearsing, rehearsing, rehearsing for months and often very theoretically because the other problem with shooting on a freeway ramp is that you can't really rehearse on-site very easily. And so we were able to, you know, find this elevated ramp that the city would let us shut down for a Saturday and a Sunday to shoot. And we were able to squeeze out a few hours a couple of weeks before to do a dress rehearsal. That was our only chance to actually be on location and see how this really would work outside of, you know, a dance studio or parking lots where we had rehearsed most of it before.

And, yeah, the first dress rehearsal was kind of a...

GROSS: Fiasco?

CHAZELLE: Yeah, I think that's a kind way of putting it.

GROSS: (Laughter).

CHAZELLE: You know, the camera couldn't move fast enough. The winds up there were buffeting the crane. The, you know, dancing that looked really good when I would run around shooting stuff on my iPhone didn't look good in, you know, the sort of full-engineered setup. And moves weren't being captured the right way, etc., etc.

So we, you know, made adjustments. You know, I'd say it was it was less kind of big overhaul adjustments and more just a lot of small tinkering, you know, adjustments. And then we went back, when we actually had to shoot it, with an idea of what was going to be troublesome, what was going to be easier to do. And - and we shot it. It's three shots sort of stitched together to look like one continuous shot.

GROSS: So let's hear the song that's being sung in this opening dance number on the freeway. It's called "Another Day Of Sun," and you'll hear the concept of one person gets out of the car and starts singing, then another person, then a lot of people. You'll hear that build in this recording. So this is from the soundtrack of "La La Land."


UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (Vocalizing, singing) I think about that day I left him at a Greyhound station west of Santa Fe. We were 17, but he was sweet and it was true. Still I did what I had to do 'cause I just knew. Summer Sunday nights, we'd sink into our seats right as they dimmer out all the lights, a Technicolor world made out of music and machine. It called me to be on that screen and live inside each scene.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS AND UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (Singing) Without a nickel to my name, hopped a bus, here I came. Could be brave or just insane. We'll have to see.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (Singing) 'Cause maybe in that sleepy town, he'll sit one day, the lights are down. He'll see my face and think of he...

CHOIR: (Singing) Used to know me. Climb these hills. I'm reaching for the heights and chasing all the lights that shine. And when they let you down, you'll get up off the ground 'cause morning rolls around. And it's another day of sun.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (Singing) I hear them every day, the rhythms in the canyons that'll never fade away, the ballads in the bar rooms...

GROSS: So that's "Another Day Of Sun" from the soundtrack of the new film "La La Land." And my guest, Damien Chazelle, wrote and directed this new musical.

So I read that you almost took out this opening number, this, like, glorious opening scene that sets the tone for the whole movie and that was this, like, huge triumph of filmmaking. Why were you considering taking it out?

CHAZELLE: Well, it was - it wasn't my happiest - the happiest few months of my life. We felt like we, you know, had gotten this scene the way we wanted it to. But we put the movie together, and it just didn't - the entree into the world just wasn't working. And it wasn't because of the scene, as it turned out. It was because of everything that was around it. We used to have a big opening credits overture before the scene. We used to also see Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone's, you know, main characters before the number began and then kind of re-found them after. There was all this engineering around the number that seemed to make sense on the page, but didn't really make sense in the movie.

So initially, we tried lopping the number out. I mean, it's the only number in the movie that doesn't directly progress the story. So it's, in some ways, a number that you can cut out without too much collateral damage, except that obviously, yeah, I think we found pretty quickly that the movie needed it. And that led us to figure out solutions around the number and make the number itself - I think the way the number works now is as an overture. And that was the issue before is that we kind of had three overtures before the story really started. And that was a problem.

GROSS: Right. Do you love overtures?

CHAZELLE: Well, it's funny. If you had told me back when we were shooting that, oh, you're going to cut out the opening credits, you know, overture, I would have said you were crazy. I would have said that's the whole point of making the movie because I just have this deep-seated love for full-length, painted, opening credits overtures, you know, of the kind that used to be par for the course in Hollywood and especially for old musicals.

And, yeah, Justin Hurwitz, my composer, wrote a beautiful three-minute piece of orchestral music for this overture. And - and we had an idea of how the painting, you know - a certain set of paintings that would kind of morph behind the opening credits as it unspooled. And we had a sort of temp mock-up version of it, and I loved it. And, yeah, it's - it's on the cutting room floor.

GROSS: It must be hard to let go of part of your dream.


GROSS: But you have to do it.

CHAZELLE: Yeah. It's - I guess it's part of the process. The other - you know, the funny thing is...

GROSS: It's the whole kill-your-darlings thing.

CHAZELLE: Well, yeah. And you want to do that to a certain extent. I mean, one thing I'm happy about now with the movie, especially the musical numbers, is that - and the opening traffic number is an example of this. There's not a number in the movie that we didn't try cutting out at some point, which, you know, again might have been painful in the moment. But at least I know that every number, at least to my mind, earned its keep - that no number was in there just because we felt - well, that was too difficult to shoot - we can't possibly cut that out.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Damien Chazelle. He wrote and directed the new musical "La La Land." And he also wrote and directed the film "Whiplash." We're going to take a short break and be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest Damien Chazelle. He wrote and directed the new movie musical "La La Land." He also wrote and directed the film "Whiplash." I know one of your favorite movies is the Jacques Demy musical "Umbrellas of Cherbourg," which is sung through.


GROSS: There's no dialogue in it. Everything is sung. You made the choice not to do a musical that way but to actually have songs within the film. Did you ever think about the possibility of having, like, a sung-through musical?

CHAZELLE: I didn't. "Umbrellas of Cherbourg" is sort of its own kind of perfect anomaly, I think, you know, when I think of it in the history of musicals. And one thing that it doesn't do, which I really wanted to do in this movie, was use dance as a big part of the language as well and also explore how you get into and out of a number. That was, you know - so there were a few of these things that are kind of baked into the old musicals that I felt like were ripe for a redo and ripe for reinvestigation.

GROSS: OK. You mentioned how to get in and out of a number. That's always the difficult part...


GROSS: ...In a musical. And I think the verse of a song is supposed to be the transition - at least in, like, Broadway musicals - between realistic dialogue and then a kind of half-spoken, half-sung verse of the song into the full song. So what was your approach to making the transition in and out of songs?

CHAZELLE: It was to try to make it as gradual and seamless as possible. And the analogy I always thought of was - you hear a lot when you're - especially when you're making a musical today - how much distaste for musicals exists in the world...


CHAZELLE: ...And how many skeptics there are. And so you want to think about - OK. How do I - you know, it was important to me to reach out to the skeptics, to have this movie not just play for a little coterie of musical die-hards of which I would include myself.

And so there is that kind of needle scratch sometimes - you can even feel it in a theater - when a song begins and it hasn't been quite properly, you know, set up. And so I always thought of the analogy of the frog in boiling water, you know, and the sort of idea that if you just drop the frog right away in boiling water, you know, it feels it and jumps out. But if you put a frog in room temperature water and then slowly boil it over the course of however long, it won't realize that it's boiling, and it'll just sit there and die.

And (laughter) - so I kind of wanted to put the audience through - this will sound morbid - but through the same sort of process where they kind of don't even necessarily realize as it's happening that they're being sort of sucked into a musical. So, like, the number we were talking about at the beginning, "What A Waste Of A Lovely Night," was sort of the key example of that, where you just have, without any cutting, Ryan and Emma, you know, our two leads, talking like any normal movie and then score starts to kind of dip in as support for the dialogue. We still feel like we're in normal movie territory.

And the lights and the colors get a little more vivid. Ryan's dialogue gives way to singing, but it's very conversational singing. It's not far removed from how he sounds when he's talking. He's not suddenly belting out, you know, a big kind of stage-ready lyric. And there's little kind of spoken interjections in between the lyrics. And then, you know, eventually, movements start to get slightly choreographed and we build into dance and kind of, you know, swell it up and up and up until we're fully into a song-and-dance number in the classical tradition.

But all of that has to happen, again, without any cutting, without any sort of obvious stop-and-start, without any obvious division so that it feels seamless and so that you don't really have a moment where you're aware of a concrete gear-shift. And that, I think, was sort of the basic approach all around, not that we began every number that way, but just to ease the audience into it and to really try to blur the border between reality and musical number as much as possible.

GROSS: My guest is Damien Chazelle, the writer and director of the new movie musical "La La Land." After a break, we'll talk more about "La La Land," he'll tell us how his experiences studying jazz drumming led to his movie "Whiplash," and he'll describe the nightmare he has every month. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


CALLIE HERNANDEZ: (As Tracy, singing) You got the invitation.

JESSICA ROTHENBERG: (As Alexis, singing) You got the right address.

HERNANDEZ: (As Tracy, singing) You need some medication?

SONOYA MIZUNO: (As Caitlin, singing) The answer's always yes.

HERNANDEZ: (As Tracy, singing) A little chance encounter could be the one you've waited for.

HERNANDEZ, MIZUNO AND ROTHENBERG: (As characters, singing) Just squeeze a bit more.

ROTHENBERG: (As Alexis, singing) Tonight we're on a mission. Tonight's the casting call.

MIZUNO: (As Caitlin, singing) If this is the real audition...

STONE: (As Mia) Oh, God, help us all.

HERNANDEZ: (As Tracy, singing) You make the right impression, then everybody knows your name...


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Damien Chazelle, the writer and director of the new movie musical "La La Land," which is nominated for seven Golden Globes and was voted best picture of the year by the New York Film Critics Circle. Chazelle also wrote and directed the 2014 film "Whiplash" about a student jazz drummer and his overly demanding teacher. "La La Land" stars Emma Stone as an aspiring actress who keeps getting rejected at auditions. Ryan Gosling is a jazz pianist who wants to open his own club and keep jazz alive but often has to take gigs playing music he doesn't like. So because the Ryan Gosling character really likes jazz and doesn't really like the commercial music that people think of as jazz, he really hates, like, the synthesizer aspect of some of the more commercial aspects of, quote, "jazz." And he's sometimes forced to play it in various contexts (laughter).

And so what does synthesizers mean to you? And I'm going to add to this that when he's playing at a party with this, like, '80s cover band, he has to do a cover of Flock of Seagulls' "I Ran." And - so, like, is that a song - and he's kind of - it's requested. And it's kind of requested as punishment by someone who guesses he'd probably hate playing that. So if you can just address the question of synthesizers and what they mean to you...

CHAZELLE: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...And why, of all the punishing songs, you gave his character to play - why "I Ran?"

CHAZELLE: I think actually, I mean, part of the the comedy to me of Ryan's character is just his melodramatic-ness (ph), like the, you know, the idea actually that - I actually think "I Ran" is a pretty great song. There's a lot of great music with synthesizers. There's even great jazz with, you know, electronic keyboards or electronic - or synthesizers. And so I definitely don't personally endorse or espouse Ryan Gosling's character's views.

I wanted to write him as someone who - in some ways he's - it's kind of like the way I was when I was, you know, maybe in college where - where my idea of art was very exclusionary. It was you're either in or you're out, you know. And if you like this thing then you're dead to me...

GROSS: (Laughter).

CHAZELLE: ...Whatever that thing is.

GROSS: Right.

CHAZELLE: And it's this very much either-or thing. So Ryan's character - I think he just defines himself by everything that he's not. He's decided that, you know, it's not good enough that he loves jazz. He has to love a specific kind of stream of jazz that, you know, kind of totally acoustic, basically, you know, straight ahead, you know, bebop/post-bop small combo jazz that basically stopped existing in any real influential way after the '50s.

And so he tells himself that that kind of jazz is dying. And that that's the kind of jazz that he loves, and that's what he plays. And anything else, whether it's modern, more electronica-influenced jazz or whether it's not jazz at all - "I Ran" or pop music of some kind of sort - is not only, you know, an inconvenience for him, it's like a crime against humanity...

GROSS: (Laughter).

CHAZELLE: ...You know. And I just find that somewhat funny because I guess I see a lot of my - myself or, you know, more charitably, my former self in that.

GROSS: So the Ryan Gosling character goes back to a gig that he really hated at a restaurant-bar, you know, playing not what he wants to but playing what he's supposed to. And it's the holiday season, so he has to be playing Christmas songs, which he really hates to do. And he's working on an original piece of his own.

So I want to play a scene where he returns to this bar-restaurant to take this gig. And J.K. Simmons plays the manager of the place. And so this is the strained interaction that they have.


GOSLING: (As Sebastian) Hey, Bill. Thanks for having me back.

J K SIMMONS: (As Bill) You're welcome.

GOSLING: (As Sebastian) I want you to know you're looking at a new man...

SIMMONS: (As Bill) Good.

GOSLING: (As Sebastian) ...A man that's happy to be here...

SIMMONS: (As Bill) Excellent.

GOSLING: (As Sebastian) ...Very easy to work with man.

SIMMONS: (As Bill) OK. And you're going to play the setlist.

GOSLING: (As Sebastian) Happy to - even though I don't think anyone cares what I play. But...

SIMMONS: (As Bill) Yeah. Well, if by anyone you mean anyone other than me, that would be correct. I care. And I don't want to hear the free jazz.

GOSLING: (As Sebastian) Right. OK, although I thought in this town that worked on a sort of one-for-you, one-for-me-type system. How about got two for you, one for me? How about all for you and none for me?

SIMMONS: (As Bill) That's perfect, yes.

GOSLING: (As Sebastian) Great.

SIMMONS: (As Bill) OK.

GOSLING: (As Sebastian) OK, mutual decision then.

SIMMONS: (As Bill) Right, made by me.

GOSLING: (As Sebastian) Right. And I sign off on it. So...

GOSLING: (As Bill) Whatever. Tell yourself what you want to know.

CLAUDINE CLAUDIO: (As Karen) Well, welcome back.

GOSLING: (As Sebastian) There's a nice way to say that, Karen.

GROSS: (Laughter) And then that's J.K. Simmons and Ryan Gosling in a scene from the new movie musical "La La Land." My guest, Damien Chazelle, wrote and directed the film.

So this is the second film that you made with J.K. Simmons because he was the teacher in "Whiplash." Did "Whiplash" help you make - like, could you have made "La La Land" without having made "Whiplash" first?

CHAZELLE: No. I tried to. I wrote "La La Land" maybe about three years or so before shooting "Whiplash." And yeah, I'd been developing it with these two young producers, Fred Berger and Jordan Horowitz, and with my composer, Justin Hurwitz. And none of us really had any traction in getting it off the ground.

And "Whiplash" finally, you know, once that got made and once that played at Sundance, where it premiered, then there was a moment where we had a little bit of mileage. And suddenly, this project that no one in Hollywood had any interest in suddenly had a little bit of heat that we were able to kind of squeeze, you know, squeeze into.

GROSS: So the film that you made before "La La Land," "Whiplash," was about - starred Miles Teller as a college music student who's a drummer and really wants to make it as a jazz drummer. His teacher, played by J.K. Simmons, is kind of like a drill-sergeant teacher. I mean, he's kind of sadistic, really, in how he insults the students and with the drummer, just makes him go, like, faster and faster and faster and, you know - not that faster is necessarily good in music. And, you know, watching that film, I think we all wondered - so were you ever like really serious about playing music before you became a filmmaker? Was that your first dream?

CHAZELLE: It wasn't my first dream. Movies really did come first. And I can never remember a time where I didn't want to make movies. But music did become more than a hobby. There was a sort of, I guess, phase in my life, you know - it was mainly high school into college - where music and specifically jazz drumming, you know, as you see in "Whiplash," was everything for me. And you know, it had a lot to do with a very intensive jazz program at my high school that I was a part of and a very demanding teacher. And certain emotions I felt as a young player, where the kind of enjoyment and appreciation of the art of music was inextricably wrapped up in fear and dread and anxiety about, you know, getting something wrong, anxiety about not living up to a certain impossible standard and then the drive that came out of that fear, the drive to practice and to just make myself, you know, turn myself into something that, you know, maybe I was never capable of becoming - turn myself into a great musician just through work.

And I think, you know, a lot of - I mean, "Whiplash," in some ways, was the most kind of autobiographical thing that, you know, I had written up to that point. You know, at the point that I wrote "Whiplash," I'd been paying the bills in LA mainly by writing genre pictures and sort of doing rewrites and horror movies and sequels and, you know, stuff that was very not personal to me. But, you know, I was just trying to make a living.

And "Whiplash" was, you know - I sort of thought, OK. Well, maybe there actually is something in experiences that I had as a drummer that I never thought would be right for a film. Maybe I could kind of write those experiences as though it were a genre film, as though it were a thriller or a kind of war movie or a sports film, you know, something where where you expect to see a lot of physical violence and try to sublimate that violence into emotional violence, into the music and into the style.

GROSS: What did your teacher do that made you most anxious and that put the most pressure on you to perform?

CHAZELLE: Well, I think I've always had a little bit of a problem with stage fright. I think that's just something I'm prone to. And what happened at that time in my life was that all my stage fright kind of got channeled into this one person - into this teacher. And so there was just, you know, there would be these little things actually that would come to mean the world to me, whether it was a positive thing like, you know, the rare occasion that I would hear, you know, that I'd done well or that I'd done a good job and how that would sort of carry me out as though I were floating on a cloud for months, you know, or the sort of daily, you know, whether it was just a look or whether it was, you know, hearing this kind of constant refrain - not my tempo, not my tempo - or the occasional sort of much more, you know, kind of out there explosion of anger. Those things really sort of marked me a lot.

And the - you know, the J.K. Simmons character in "Whiplash," I should make clear, is not a literal (laughter) reproduction of my - like, my teacher, never was at that level. But I guess what I was trying to do with that character was get back into the mindset that I had - my mind as a, you know, very impressionable, I guess, you know, 15-through-18-year-old kid. Somehow, I got into a state of mind where screwing up the tempo, you know, in a jazz song as part of a high school, you know, ensemble was akin to, you know, friendly fire in warfare or was akin to, you know, literally a life-or-death mistake.

And I - you know, I think years after, I looked back and I wondered - why? Why - how did I manage to sort of blow these things up to such a proportion in my own head? So I think it was more an investigation, I think, of how I felt and thought at the time and trying to figure out what the psychology was in my own, you know, being, than it was a reflection of, you know, the actual program or the actual teacher.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Damien Chazelle. He wrote and directed the new movie musical "La La Land." He also wrote and directed "Whiplash." We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Damien Chazelle. He wrote and directed the new movie musical "La La Land" and also wrote and directed the film "Whiplash." So you've devoted your life to two forms of art that have become minority tastes, jazz (laughter) and musicals. And you've managed not only to devote your life to those two things but to even combine them (laughter). So you've told us how you became interested in musicals. How did you first hear and fall in love with jazz?

CHAZELLE: I think - the very beginning it was just records my dad would play in the house or...

GROSS: Which ones?

CHAZELLE: ...Or in the car.

CHAZELLE: I mean, everything really. But I think, you know, the first ones I sort of clued into were a lot of Count Basie, you know, sort of vintage I guess, you know, '30s, '40s Count Basie recordings, a lot of Charlie Parker. And then I would kind of ask - you know, who is this Charlie Parker guy? And my dad would tell me these stories about Charlie Parker. And I became really fascinated with just the life of Charlie Parker and the - the romanticism of it, the tragedy of it, the mythology of it, the larger-than-life kind of aspect of it. And that led me to getting interested in bebop in general and the whole scene and the people Charlie Parker played with.

And then. I started playing drums. And as a drummer, as soon as I, you know, started dabbling in jazz drumming, then I became really interested in - OK, who are the great jazz drummers? Who do I need to listen to to figure out how to do this?

And so I started listening to Max Roach. And that led me to maybe what's become my, you know - if I had to pick one - just the jazz record that is the closest to my heart and remains the closest, which is, I mean, it's just their names, "Max Roach & Clifford Brown," (ph) who did this series of recordings together and - including this one track "Delilah" that is the, you know, top track of the record, first track of the record that just - any time I hear that, you know, I - it just immediately sends me back to a certain part of my life. I guess I would have been about 13 or so, where I was just first discovering jazz for myself, you know, not just listening to what my dad was playing and kind of passively taking it in but really taking a record off the shelf and trying to explore it myself. And that track, for some reason, just sums up that whole period in my life for me - and then trying to figure out what Max Roach was doing on the drums and trying to do it myself and realizing that I couldn't (laughter).

GROSS: Well, OK. So in "La La Land," in your new movie musical, the Ryan Gosling character's a pianist. And he plays along with a record and is always trying to like reproduce what he's hearing. And in the car, he's listening to a cassette (laughter)...


GROSS: ...And rewinding it to a spot over and over so he can hear exactly what's being played so he can get it.

Did you have records that you played along with when you were drumming?

CHAZELLE: A hundred percent, yeah. I mean, Max Roach I tried to play along to a lot. I tried to learn his solo at the end of that track, "Delilah," which he does entirely on mallets in the drum kit and just has this incredibly warm sound and this series of rhythms that you're listening to them it sounds easy, and you try to do it and it's impossible. And then there would be flashier solo stuff like Buddy Rich footage that I would, you know, find from old - I would just try to buy whatever kind of old cassettes of - you know, VHS tapes of, you know, famous drum solos kind of stitched together, jazz drum solos. And so you'd see stuff like Buddy Rich or Gene Krupa doing their stuff, and it looked so theatrical and wild and flamboyant and fun. And I would try to look like that. You know, I'd try to figure out how they held their sticks and how they arranged their drum kits, and I would try to reproduce that and, again, find that I was lacking.

It was this constant - you know, this constant process of listening, watching, trying to reproduce and not quite matching up, always being, you know, just not quite - you know, good but not quite good enough. That was my - that was my experience as a drummer. And - you know, which in some ways actually is a good thing. You know, it's - I think you wind up finding your own voice through that sort of process, I think.

GROSS: When you were really into drumming and you wanted - you were considering being a musician, even though filmmaking was your number one, were you afraid that you'd never be good enough at either? You know, that you'd have these passions and really want to do something really badly and really work hard at it and still not be good enough? Not at jazz drumming and not at filmmaking either?

CHAZELLE: Yeah. I think I probably still have that fear. It's, you know, the idea that just wanting something isn't enough or wasn't enough...

GROSS: And neither is working hard.

CHAZELLE: ...And just working hard, exactly, it wasn't enough. And that idea of where does talent come from? Where does that extra level of brilliance in - whether it's the drummers or the filmmakers that I was idolizing, where does that little seed come from? And you don't know for sure whether you actually, you know, quote unquote, "have what it takes." And also, you don't know if that whole idea of having what it takes - is that actually its own kind of nonsense, you know?

Is talent even really a thing? Is it actually just that the best musicians are the musicians who worked the hardest or the musicians who listened the most or the musicians who were lucky enough to be at a certain place at a certain time, and that what we think of as a meritocracy is actually not, is actually luck of - you know, sort of luck of the Irish? I think all those questions were swirling around my head and are still, I think, to a certain extent.

GROSS: Have you had recurring nightmares about either music or movies?

CHAZELLE: I still, to this day, have nightmares of being a drummer in high school and being either at rehearsal or onstage and realizing I don't know the chart. I don't know the song we're going to play. Or I start playing and I'm just - it's like trying to drive a car in a dream. I'm just - I have no control over my limbs and I'm just going in eight different directions, and it's terrible. And the conductor, my high school conductor, is looking at me and ready to tear my head off. I have that dream probably once a month.

GROSS: Still?


GROSS: That's interesting that you'd still have it after having made a couple of successful films.

CHAZELLE: No, I have that dream more often than I have whatever equivalent for filmmaking would be. I don't often have the, you know - I don't know what the equivalent would be. Sort of being on set and - of a film and not knowing what I'm doing or being at a screening that's - of a film of mine that's going badly. I've had those occasionally, but I don't have those regularly. My regular anxiety dream that I can kind of count on coming every once in a while like clockwork is a drumming dream.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Damien Chazelle. He wrote and directed the new musical "La La Land." We're going to take a short break and be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Damien Chazelle. He wrote and directed the new movie musical "La La Land." He also wrote and directed the film "Whiplash."

So you know how when you were studying jazz drums when you were playing in school and you'd play along to records and do that over and over, like the Ryan Gosling character does with pianists in the film? Is there an equivalent of that in filmmaking?

CHAZELLE: Yeah. I mean, it starts with just watching. I mean, I think that I've learned most of what I've learned as a filmmaker from a lifetime of watching movies and rewatching them.

GROSS: Are there specific movies or specific scenes that you've watched over and over and over just to see how did they do it?

CHAZELLE: I think - I mean, there's - yeah. There's certain, you know - over that lifetime of watching, there's certain directors that you kind of - you decide, OK, I really want to kind of get into the thick of it with them and figure out how certain things were done. I think Hitchcock was probably the first - well, no. Actually, I'd say Walt Disney and everything the Walt Disney Studio made, especially the sort of early classics of animation there.

GROSS: Is that because you were young when you started doing this?

CHAZELLE: Yeah. I think that was, you know - that was when I was really young, and I was - and my kind of - the closest I could get to filmmaking was drawing - sort of drawing out scenes and trying to, you know, kind of do either flip-books or picture books or whatever. So I became a good drawer. That was sort of my thing. That was what - you know, before I could kind of figure out how to work a camera, that was sort of the closest I could get to films, and each phase of my life, I guess, had a different sort of, you know, as though it were a different playlist - had a different sort of movie era or director or set of directors that was speaking to me. I think the French New Wave became really important to me in my adolescence. And then musicals themselves, I think, sort of became my biggest movie obsession for a while - in some ways still are.

And - but in every case, I think there would just be, you know, a handful of either directors or sequences or even just tiny moments that I would just want to study over and over again and read about and re-watch and try to sort of, you know, not try to mimic with a camera, but just try to see what sort of answer to them I could do with a camera and try to sort of play with that style and see did that style fit me? OK, no. That one doesn't really fit me. Let me try this other one. That's part of, I think, the experimentation in that age, and the fun of it is the search - is not really knowing for sure. I mean, I knew what my own tastes were, but I wasn't really sure, you know, what my identity was yet.

GROSS: Did your parents encourage your playing around with animation and flip-books and making movies with your father's camcorder or did they see that as a distraction from the more, like, school-oriented stuff you were supposed to be doing?

CHAZELLE: Well, they were very clever because they - pretty early on, I think they realized, OK, he wants to go into movies. And that's - this isn't a phase. This is probably just going to stick. And so they convinced me that the only way to get into such a competitive field was to be a very good student and to get lots of A's and get into a good college, and I bought into this.

And so I actually - I was a pretty decent student. You know, I made sure to do my homework and to, you know - I thought that that was my best way to - I mean, it was always just motivated by how am I going to set myself up for being a filmmaker? It was always - that was the only motivation behind schoolwork, behind anything. And then any moment I had of spare time, I would spend writing scripts or making home movies.

GROSS: So during the period before you made "Whiplash" when you were writing or rewriting screenplays for other people, doing work to pay your bills, what did you learn from that? What did you learn from rewriting screenplays and working in movie genres like horror film, thrillers?

CHAZELLE: I learned how to convince someone to turn the page which is really all it comes down to, you know - knowing that every page is an opportunity for someone to close the script and just, you know, stop reading it. And the impulse is always going to be to stop reading. In Hollywood, you become very quickly aware of just how many scripts there are floating around there and how many scripts every average agent or exec or producer or what have you has to read on a given night or a weekend. And so you have to use every trick up your sleeve to make it impossible for them to put your script down. Once they open it, there has to be some kind of cliffhanger at the end of every page that just makes it a requirement to keep turning. And the longer they turn, the more they get into it and the better shot you have of them finishing the script.

So thats the goal is to have a reader get to the end of your script without putting it down. And so I just learned certain kind of tricks in terms of formatting, in terms of the visual presentation on the page, in terms of the kinds of language to use, in terms of, you know, how thick or thin to keep paragraphs, how long to have dialogue go without interjections of action or description. And then story structure - you know, kind of how to give that sense of momentum so you felt like, wow, this story is moving fast and yet everything feels properly seated, properly motivated. It's not moving fast in an incoherent way.

GROSS: Damien Chazelle, thank you so much for talking with us. Thank you for making "La La Land."

CHAZELLE: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

GROSS: Damien Chazelle wrote and directed the new movie musical "La La Land."


LA LA LAND CAST: (Singing) They say you got to want it more so I bang on every door. And even when the answer's no or when my money's running low, the dusty mic and neon glow are all I need. And someday as I sing my song, a small kid will come along that'll be the thing to push him on and go, go, go. Climb these hills I'm reaching for the heights and chasing all the lights that shine. And when they let you down, you'll get up off the ground 'cause morning rolls around. And it's another day of sun.

GROSS: If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed like this week's interview with Lin-Manuel Miranda, check out our podcast where you'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Robert Shorrock, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden and Mooj Zadie. John Sheehan directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.


LA LA LAND CAST: (Singing) And when they let you down, morning rolls around. It's another day of sun. It's another day of sun. It's another day of sun. It's another day of sun, just another day of sun. It's another day of sun. Another day has just begun. It's another day of sun.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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