DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. On Fridays this month, we'll be listening back to some of our conversations with directors, actors and writers who have just been nominated for this year's Academy Awards, including Jeff Bridges, Kenneth Lonergan, who directed "Manchester By The Sea," and Barry Jenkins, who directed "Moonlight."
Today, we'll revisit Terry's conversations with Meryl Streep, nominated as outstanding actress for her leading role in "Florence Foster Jenkins," and start off with Damien Chazelle, the writer and director of one of this year's most critically acclaimed movies, "La La Land." Chazelle also wrote and directed the 2014 film "Whiplash," about a jazz student and his sadistically demanding teacher.
"La La Land" is firmly set in the present but pays loving tribute to movie musicals of the past. It's been nominated for 14 Oscars, tying the record set by "All About Eve" and "Titanic." It 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 run into each other in Los Angeles more than once. But, at first, they don't really connect. Terry Gross spoke with Damien Chazelle last month. Let's start with a song from "La La Land," with Emma Stone and company singing "Someone In The Crowd."
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LA LA LAND")
CALLIE HERNANDEZ: (As Tracy, singing) You got the invitation.
JESSICA ROTHE: (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.
CALLIE HERNANDEZ, JESSICA ROTHE AND SONOYA MIZUNO: (As characters, singing) Just squeeze a bit more.
ROTHE: (As Alexis, singing) Tonight, we're on a mission. Tonight's the casting call.
MIZUNO: (As Caitlin, singing) If this is the real audition...
EMMA STONE: (As Mia, singing) Oh, God, help us all.
HERNANDEZ: (As Tracy, singing) You make the right impression. Then everybody knows your name.
JESSICA ROTHE AND SONOYA MIZUNO: (As characters, singing) We're in the fast lane.
ROTHE: (As Alexis) Someone in the crowd could be the one you need to know, the one to finally lift you off the ground.
HERNANDEZ: (As Tracy, singing) Someone in the crowd could take you where you want to go if you're the someone ready to be found.
ROTHE: (As Alexis, singing) The someone ready to be found.
CALLIE HERNANDEZ AND SONOYA MIZUNO: (As characters, singing) Do what you need to do until they discover you...
HERNANDEZ, ROTHE AND MIZUNO: (As characters, singing) ...And make you more than who you're seeing now. So with the stars aligned...
STONE: (As Mia, singing) I think I'll stay behind.
HERNANDEZ, ROTHE AND MIZUNO: (As characters, singing) You've got to go and find...
MIZUNO: (As Caitlin, singing) ...That someone in the crowd.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: 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, unless it's "Hamilton," 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 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 into song.
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.
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 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 return 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 - but 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 that 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 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...
CHAZELLE: I think that's a kind way of putting it. 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, et cetera, et cetera.
So we, you know, made adjustments. You know, I'd say 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 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."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANOTHER DAY OF SUN")
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 dimmed 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 #1: (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 how he...
UNIDENTIFIED 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 #2: (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. 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 part of the - 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've 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 - that we just can't possibly cut that out.
BIANCULLI: Damien Chazelle, writer and director of "La La Land," speaking to Terry Gross in January 2017. We'll continue their conversation after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JUSTIN HURWITZ'S , "HOLY HELL")
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview with Damien Chazelle, the writer and director of "La La Land," which is up for a record-tying 14 Oscars. Emma Stone plays 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, such as holiday gigs playing Christmas songs.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
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.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LA LA LAND")
RYAN 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 it worked on a sort of one-for-you, one-for-me-type system. How about 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...
SIMMONS: (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 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 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 as serious - 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 kind of 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 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, you know, 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.
BIANCULLI: Damien Chazelle, writer and director of "La La Land," speaking to Terry Gross last month. After a break, we'll continue their conversation. And we'll also hear from another nominee in this year's Academy Awards contest, actress Meryl Streep. She's up for outstanding actress for her role as an opera singer in the movie "Florence Foster Jenkins." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JUSTIN HURWITZ'S , "EPILOGUE")
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. Let's get back to Terry's interview last month with Damien Chazelle, writer and director of "La La Land." He's received two of the film's record-tying 14 nominations. "La La Land" is a musical about an actress and a jazz musician. His previous film, "Whiplash," was about a jazz drummer.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: 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 - very beginning - it was just records my dad would play in the house or...
GROSS: Which ones?
CHAZELLE: ...Or in the car. 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've 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 on 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. 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, wasn't enough. And that idea of - where does talent come from? Where does that certain 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: 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: 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 that's 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.
BIANCULLI: Damien Chazelle, the Oscar-nominated writer and director of "La La Land," speaking to Terry Gross last month. Coming up, another Oscar nominee for this year, actress Meryl Streep, star of "Florence Foster Jenkins." This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
This is FRESH AIR. Meryl Streep sings really badly in her new film, "Florence Foster Jenkins." So badly, she's earned a record 20th Oscar nomination. Terry Gross spoke with her last August. The role Meryl Streep is playing is based on the life of an heiress and socialite who devoted her life to music as a philanthropist and performer. Florence Foster Jenkins' singing was wildly off-key, squeaky and screechy. But she mostly sang in front of audiences of sympathetic friends. When she ventured outside of that, she developed a cult following for being unintentionally hilarious. Here's a recording of the real Florence Foster Jenkins.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "QUEEN OF THE NIGHT'S ARIA")
FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS: (Singing, unintelligible).
BIANCULLI: So I think you get the idea. The movie "Florence Foster Jenkins" is set in New York in the mid-1940s. Hugh Grant plays Foster's common-law husband, a failed actor who has made a profession out of protecting her from her critics and from reality. He loves her but not in a husbandly way. Simon Helberg plays the musician who wins the audition to accompany her on piano and who is shocked when he first hears her sing. The movie was directed by Stephen Frears. Here's Meryl Streep, accompanied by Simon Helberg, in a scene from the film in which they're performing for a small audience.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS")
MERYL STREEP: (Singing) Oh, noble sir. How far you err. You're really not discreet. Therefore, my advice is that you look twice when judging those you meet. My little white hands, so fine. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. My foot, with its contour divine. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. My speech so disarming, my waistline so slim and charming. No lady's meant to be full of so much grace, you see. No lady's meant to be full of so much grace, you see.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Meryl Streep, welcome back to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on the new film. You know, I first heard Florence Foster Jenkins years ago. And I always wondered, like, how is it possible that she actually thought she sang well? That's a question I assume you had to answer for yourself because you're living in her delusion that she's a wonderful singer. So how did you answer that for yourself?
STREEP: Well, I think we all think we sound really good in the shower, where there's that nice reverb...
GROSS: And the water is drowning you out (laughter).
STREEP: And the water is drowning you out and...
STREEP: ...There is some liberation in the freedom of being totally alone and really going for it. But who knows? Who knows what she heard? I do know that we have delusions about ourselves in what we sound like (laughter).
GROSS: But other people played along with it. Do you think that that's because she had money, that these were her friends and people who were the beneficiaries of her philanthropy so they were very ingratiating?
STREEP: Oh, certainly, there were people who cultivated friendships with her for the checks that they might receive. She had - she was extremely generous to arts organizations in the city, and she did underwrite Toscanini's many concerts in Carnegie Hall and other organizations for indigent musicians. She gave instruments to children. I mean, she - through many different charitable organizations.
On the other hand, there was something else, I think, compelling about the way that she attacked (laughter) the arias that she attempted. And she really had a big ambition. She tried the very most difficult pieces there are in the coloratura canon. So I think there had to be some other reason, and certainly in our film we take that position that there was something about the joy and the pure desire to give this thing that she so loved, this music, to people and for them to receive it. And that was something that drew people to her not just to laugh...
STREEP: ...To be in...
GROSS: She fully committed.
STREEP: ...The whole thing. Yeah.
GROSS: One thing I don't need advice about is how to sing badly. Nevertheless...
GROSS: ...I'm really interested in learning how you did it. First of all, I'd like to know, did you have to learn the songs for real before you could learn how to kind of butcher them?
STREEP: Oh, sure. Exactly. That's exactly it. And I was freaking out. I was making a rock 'n' roll movie and sort of grinding my voice into oblivion singing Tom Petty and everything and...
GROSS: This is while you were making "Ricki And The Flash?"
STREEP: While, yeah, making "Ricki And The Flash." So I was in that film with Audra McDonald, whom - you know, who I know a little bit. And she - I was whining about having to learn nine very difficult arias. She said, you have to go to Arthur Levy, Arthur Levy. First of all, he's my coach. He's divine. He understands bel canto singing and, two, he has a sense of humor (laughter). And it was great. He was - he taught me these arias straight.
You know, we - I learned to sing them as well as I possibly could. And then I screwed around with them. And that was - that really only started when Simon and I got together because even though we had been assured that we would record all the music first, which is what you normally do in a musical. You record first, and we went into Abbey Road Studios.
We recorded all nine of these songs in their entirety. And - because it makes it easier to edit if you have a consistent version that you sing to on set. And then we got to work the first day and Stephen said, let's do it live. Let's just go for it (laughter) and so we did.
GROSS: So you learned to sing the songs as well as you could before learning how to do them...
STREEP: Yes, yes.
GROSS: ...Really badly. Since you studied with a great teacher for this film and you took singing lessons when you were young - in your early teens, I think, you studied opera - so did all those lessons help you diagnose what Florence Foster Jenkins was doing wrong, enable you to hear what she was doing wrong well enough so that you could make those same things go wrong with your voice?
STREEP: You know, what pulled me to her was not so much where she went wrong as how much of it she got right. I mean, she came so close in moments that - and I think that's sort of what held the audience rapt attention was that she almost got there until the moment when it went wildly off the rails, do you know what I mean?
And so I could hear in the recordings of her voice her excitement (laughter) do you know what I mean? It was her breathlessness and her breathing in the absolute wrong places to achieve the note that she was so hopeful that she'd get at the end of a phrase. It was the specificity of where she went wrong married to the desire that you could hear in it and the will and the innocence. There's something just gorgeous in it that made it more of an acting thing than a technical thing, do you know what I mean? I mean, I actually didn't approach it to replicate exactly what she did. We operated in the spirit of where she gobbled.
STREEP: Yeah, that's the word.
BIANCULLI: Meryl Streep speaking to Terry Gross last August. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF BRANFORD MARSALIS QUARTET'S "CAROLINA SHOUT")
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's return to Terry's conversation from last August with Meryl Streep. She's just received a record 20th Academy Award nomination for her role as famously untalented opera singer Florence Foster Jenkins in the 2016 movie of the same name.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: OK, so I want to play some of you singing the "Queen Of The Night Aria" from Mozart's "Magic Flute." But before we hear that, tell us why this aria is so important in...
STREEP: Tell children to leave the room.
STREEP: Oh, it's important because this was the end of a particularly harrowing part of her debut at Carnegie, at - which was also her farewell performance at Carnegie Hall. It comes after a particularly harrowing beginning, which she gets through. And there's something triumphant about how she lives and feels through this aria, the queen railing at heaven.
GROSS: So here is Meryl Streep as Florence Foster Jenkins from the soundtrack of the new film "Florence Foster Jenkins." Here you go.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS")
STREEP: (As Florence Foster Jenkins, singing, unintelligible).
STREEP: That's enough, really.
GROSS: How does it feel when you listen back to it?
STREEP: Oh, it's - I mean, it's - I'm not really objective. By the end of the movie, I thought I sounded really good.
GROSS: Living in that delusion (laughter).
STREEP: I did. Yeah.
GROSS: Well, you sounded really good as her.
GROSS: So the coloratura part - you sound like a squeak toy on some of that.
GROSS: And I can't help but wonder - like, how did you protect your voice, singing improperly like that?
STREEP: I know. It's really - we had a screening in New York which Renee Fleming so kindly...
GROSS: I'd like to have seen that. Yeah.
STREEP: (Laughter). And she said to me afterwards - she said, oh, my God. How many times did you have to sing "The Queen?" She said, nobody asks anyone to sing that more than twice a week. It's just absolutely impossible. I said, I sang it eight times on Monday. And then we turned around and sang it (laughter) eight times again on Tuesday because we only had the Hammersmith Apollo for two days to shoot this whole sequence. Oh. It was really fun, though. The most fun part was that I had convinced Stephen...
GROSS: Stephen Frears, the director.
STREEP: Stephen Frears, the director - because he was being very protective of my voice. And I said, yeah, but let's shoot the audience first because they don't know what they're going to hear. You know, they're all sort of 500 unsuspecting Londoners - came in all dressed up - the extras.
And they didn't know what they were going to hear. So we just sort of - Simon and I just gave them a concert. And they had five cameras on them. And all those reactions in the audience were just gold. They're just (laughter) exactly what you want.
GROSS: You know, I really enjoyed the film, and I think it's very funny, and it's so well-made, and the actors are so good. And I kept thinking, at the same time, there's a very dark story within this comedy. And I could see, like, the tragic version of the same story, where somebody is really deluded and does really believe that they're a great singer. And they're not, and people are kind of, like, laughing behind her back or just kind of appeasing her. Did you think about that, too?
STREEP: Well, I couldn't not think about it because I think it descends on her in that moment in Carnegie Hall where - and again, at the end where she reads the reviews that Bayfield has tossed in the bin. And I think being confronted with what you think might be there is, you know, it's like feeling a lump and you think, oh, that's just la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la. I'm not going to pay attention to that. But then it wants a moment you have to pay attention. Then it turns out to be something real.
But I think, you know, we can - I don't know. I'm in show business. I believe in illusion and delusions and (laughter) in holding aloft the bubble of a dream of some sort because, really, there are lots of reasons to look at the chasm. But art and music, these ineffables, they're just - they're the consolations of what human beings can create and make, and delight is accessible, you know, should you care to find it.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us today. Congratulations on your new film.
STREEP: Thank you.
GROSS: It's just a pleasure to have you back on the show.
STREEP: Thank you, Terry.
BIANCULLI: Meryl Streep speaking to Terry Gross last August. She's been nominated for an Oscar this year for her starring performance as an untalented opera singer in the movie "Florence Foster Jenkins."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BIANCULLI: On Monday's show, the demise of an all-American factory town. Brian Alexander takes us to Lancaster, Ohio, where Wall Street investors bought the plants and workers' lives changed.
BRIAN ALEXANDER: This is not the way they were told this system worked. And so it left them incredibly disillusioned.
BIANCULLI: Alexander tells us what happened and why many there supported Donald Trump. His book is called "Glass House." Hope you can join us. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
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