'I wanted a love story, a musical - Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling create an on-screen romance which is magical'
La La Land is already tipped to clean up this awards season and looks set to be a hit with audiences this month. Writer and director Damien Chazelle talks to Susan Griffin about bringing the old-school musical back to the fore.
The musical La La Land isn't released until mid-January, but it's already garnering huge awards buzz, with people intrigued by the idea of a musical for modern times.
For all the hype that's circulating now, however, Damien Chazelle, the film's remarkably young writer and director, insists "it was not an easy movie to make".
"It took about six years to convince anyone to make it, so to have it actually be playing now, and have people connecting to it, to have this sort of response, it's crazy," says the softly-spoken 31-year-old, who came to prominence with 2014's Whiplash, about a young jazz drummer and his ruthless teacher.
Hailing from Rhode Island, Chazelle had aspirations of becoming a musician before focusing on film-making. His debut movie was a black and white musical called Guy And Madeline On A Park Bench (2009).
"But it only scratched the surface of what I wanted to do with the genre," he says today. "I wanted to do a love story and I also wanted to create a musical like the musicals that entranced me as a kid, but updated into something very modern.
"I wanted to explore how you use colour, sets, costumes and all these very expressionistic elements of old-school movie-making to tell a story that takes place in our times."
He first began working on La La Land with composer Justin Hurwitz, whom he'd met at Harvard University. "Before I even wrote any dialogue, Justin was working out the musical theme of the film," he reveals. But while the pair had ambition, the film still needed financing. ("Anything original is hard to get made in Hollywood for more than five dollars right now, and an original musical is even harder," notes Chazelle.)
Eventually, Lionsgate decided to take a gamble on the project - one that's paying off big time, as La La Land already has seven Golden Globe nominations, with the Baftas and Oscars yet to be announced.
The movie begins on an LA freeway, with a big song and dance number. It's an unexpected, but fitting backdrop for the film's opening.
"In LA, you mostly have cars with one or two people in them. It's part of what makes the city feel a bit lonely, but it also reflects how LA is a crazy haven for dreamers, because when you're in your car, you're playing music, or you dream," Chazelle observes.
It's here that Sebastian and Mia, played by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, first meet, via a honk of the horn as they attempt to manoeuvre out of the gridlock.
Both are focused on fulfilling their artistic dreams: Sebastian to inspire interest in traditional jazz by opening up his own bar, and Mia, a fledgling actress hoping to survive at least one audition without being interrupted, and ultimately make it as a movie star.
"To me, it was important to make a movie about dreamers, about two people who have these giant dreams that drive them, that bring them together but also tear them apart," explains Chazelle. "La La Land's a very different movie from Whiplash in many ways. But they both deal with something that's really personal to me; how you balance life and art, how you balance reality and dreams and, also, specifically, how you balance your relationship to your art with your relationships with other people."
There's much excitement about Stone (28) and Gosling (36) reuniting, following their successful collaborations on 2011's Crazy, Stupid, Love and 2013's Gangster Squad.
"They do have this magic between them. I think they answer each other really well," remarks Chazelle.
"They somehow are able to present a vision of love on screen that's incredibly natural and organic and feels very human and relatable, and yet, of course, there is an idealised quality to it. They're movie stars in the old-fashioned sense, so you can enjoy that when they're on screen."
And he enjoyed capturing the magic on camera.
"There was something wonderful about being able to film them, especially a movie like this with the Technicolor palette, and the cinemaScope frame and Los Angeles as a setting. We really were able to embrace the old Hollywood-ness of the whole thing."
He recalls first talking to Stone about the project, and then Gosling, who he'd met before, but "completely independently" from anything to do with La La Land.
"It didn't start as them together coming as a unit. It was really these two parallel conversations that dovetailed in a wonderful way. I just got very lucky," he says.
Although both his leads have a background in song and dance - Stone in musical theatre and Gosling as part of The Mickey Mouse Club alongside Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake - La La Land required "stepping outside their comfort zones".
"I think that was actually part of what was great about working with them. On the one hand, they're these big movie stars, but you get them in moments where they are naturally going to be more vulnerable when they're doing stuff that's less familiar to them," says Chazelle.
"As a director, that was really interesting to me, to push them to those places and see what happened. But you can only do it with actors who are willing to go there, and they were just so, so willing and excited to take on the challenge."
The entire cast and crew had the luxury of "a long and very intensive" period of preparation, months before the cameras started rolling.
"There were certainly logistical challenges throughout the whole movie," notes the director. "Trying to put a big musical like this together requires many different departments and disciplines to be in sync and in dialogue with one another, but we sort of figured out a lot of that, we were able to surmount a lot of those obstacles in prep."
He recalls how everyone was "more or less living together" in a series of production offices and warehouses they'd rented in the Valley. "In a way, we built the movie from the ground up there. So by the time we were shooting, we were a family, and we kind of knew each other and had a short-hand and were able to execute [everything]."
Given the sense of upheaval in 2016, it seems a fitting time for something as fantastical as La La Land to hit screens.
"I certainly didn't know what sort of world we would be releasing the movie into, especially writing it six years ago; you never know...
"Now, I definitely see a world that maybe does need a little bit of hope, a little bit of magic, but I guess the world can always use that," Chazelle adds.
"I think musicals can always provide something that other genres can't provide as easily. It's part of why I felt that the musical never really died, or had to die.
"It's a very resilient genre that can speak to any era in any generation. It just depends on how you get people into it."
La La Land is released in cinemas on Thursday, January 12