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