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Emma Stone and Damien Chazelle on the Magic and Alchemy of ‘La La Land’

TELLURIDE, Colo. — Director Damien Chazelle and actress Emma Stone are fresh off a trip to the Venice Film Festival, where “La La Land” opened the 73rd annual event last week. Oxygen containers in hand (the altitude can be a killer here), they’re soaking up the Telluride mountain air promoting the film as it continues to dazzle audiences here.

The two sat down with Variety to discuss the tricky tone of the film, the logistics of pulling it off and the alchemy of finding the right pair of actors to sell the experience.

***

Damien, it seems like only a few filmmakers each year are brave enough to travel from Venice to Telluride to Toronto during this stretch. I heard you were very excited about having that experience, though.

Damien Chazelle: Yeah, and it’s also that selfish thing of, “Well, I’ve never been to the Venice Film Festival or the Telluride Film Festival.” And I loved Toronto with the one movie I had there. So it was like, yeah, I want to do all three. Now I’m suddenly realizing why they warned me I’d be exhausted, but I’m really happy. It’s a dream.

Speaking of dreams, one of the things I love about the movie is that it’s very much about shrugging off pragmatism and stability and realizing it’s OK, even vital, to keep chasing your passion.

Emma Stone: What he wrote is so inspiring, and then by the time I got to the end, it was just — I really wish you could watch the ending with the screen directions he wrote, because it’s so transporting.

What’s an example?

Stone: What was it? “It’s a love more beautiful than real love can ever be?”

Chazelle: God, that makes me sound like a pretentious nihilist.

Stone: No, it’s beautiful. No it doesn’t! Pretentious nihilist, wow!

Chazelle: [Laughs.]

Stone: But yeah, it was transporting.

I’ve heard a few people throwing around comparisons to things like “New York, New York,” but I think this is very much it’s own thing. And obviously you had your inspirations, but was there anything you were really interested in doing within the genre that was new and wanted to explore?

Chazelle: The big thing to me that had been toyed with a bit but I felt hadn’t been really done-done — in a way it’s trying to have your cake and eat it, too. It’s trying to have high moments of fantasy, as the genre allows you to do, like float up to the stars, and at the same time have as raw and intimate stuff between actors as you could. And to not try to curb one, but to basically go to both extremes and see if they can possibly coexist in a movie and how. And fully knowing that they might not be able to. It could just be an experiment that goes awry. But that’s where it kind of comes on the shoulders of Emma and Ryan [Gosling] and everyone, J.K. [Simmons] and John Legend and Finn Wittrock and Rosemarie DeWitt, the entire cast finding this tone that is going to bridge these total extreme poles.

Stone: Which was our constant question to you.

Chazelle: It was the question, so I totally get it. It was the most discussed thing through prep and all the way through shooting and even when editing. It’s what Tom [Cross] and I were grappling with the most, was just the balance, and it’s a very precarious balance.

Emma, was that something you tried to nail down ahead of time and then go in with a game plan, or were you just trying different things?

Stone: I think both. Beforehand I was Damien’s — worst nightmare? Was I your worst nightmare or your second worst nightmare?

Chazelle: No, no, worst, worst. Don’t sell yourself short.

Stone: [Laughs.] I was trying to, I think, nail it down beforehand and understand how it all would tie together. Like, “Is all of this in Cinemascope? Are just the musical numbers this wide and colorful and then we move back?” I was just trying to understand and nail it down. But once we started shooting, I gave that up a bit. Because actually being in the process of it is so different than the three months you spend in rehearsal analyzing it and learning to do all the technical things that you’re doing, like learning to tap dance or ballroom dance for the first time or sing notes that I’ve never sung before. So yeah, I think both happened and it just gave way to trusting the process eventually.

This feels like a cliche question but I’m going to ask it anyway. Was it easy to see something of yourself in the role of a struggling actress chasing your dreams?

Stone: I definitely understood the feeling of moving to Los Angeles and having a dream to be an actor in films and to get to be a part of things that I loved and inspire people in some way. It’s pretty insane that we’re talking about this movie and it’s something that I’m so proud and excited to be a part of, when that is the goal of the character, is to be a part of something like this.

Quite meta.

Stone: It’s a little meta in that way, yeah. And I felt differences with Mia, too. Like, I’m not a writer. I haven’t written anything. But I think a big part of her and what I love about the way that Mia is eventually discovered is she puts it all on the line and she writes something that is about her life, which is more Damien, and really puts it out there. And when the casting director calls her, it’s because of who Mia was and that’s what earns her that success.

Damien, how about the alchemy of finding the right pair? From the perspective of casting, looking for the right ingredients in your prospective Mia and Sebastian and how they would feed off of each other, tell me about that.

Chazelle: Ryan was a total discovery. Had you heard about him before this movie? He’d done some summer stock theater.

He’s finally going to finally break out in this one, I think!

Chazelle: [Laughs.] You know, even just getting the movie off the ground at all took many, many years, so through that, casting took a very circuitous route. Emma laughs when I say this because she thinks I’m lying, but I do remember thinking of them even back when I was writing the script in 2010. I think it’s because, you know, we were talking about this bridge between the two poles, and I think they individually can live in both worlds in a way that few actors can. They can be timeless, old-school movie stars, and yet still very, like — I mean look at her now. What is that face you’re making?

Stone: [Laughs, mouth full with Caesar salad.] I’m just, like, shoveling food in my mouth.

Chazelle: You’re making my point. Exactly. She can be a pig at the table, too. She can be both.

Stone: Totally!

Chazelle: Obviously the chemistry between the two was important. But also, I like that we had seen them before [in “Gangster Squad”] in a way that kind of made them feel like an old Hollywood pairing where William Powell and Myrna Loy would do those movies together; Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, obviously; Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy — there would be these pairs that you would expect to see in cinema and you kind of felt that you knew them. I liked that because it gave us a starting point to begin to unravel it a little bit and maybe show new sides to it.

I understand the movie originally opened with an overture rather than the musical number.

Chazelle: Yeah, originally. Three minutes. It opened with the overture and then went into the freeway. So it was basically realizing in editing, “Oh, we did two overtures.” We weren’t smart enough to realize that until we were in the cut. If you can believe it there was a world for about three months where we cut out the traffic number.

Oh God, no.

Stone: That was the first version I saw.

Tell me about the logistics of that. It looked to me like — well, now I’m going to sound like the “Californians” sketch on “Saturday Night Live.”

Chazelle: Which I love so much!

Stone: [“The Californians” accent.] It was the 105 to the 110.

Chazelle: It’s the E-Z Pass lane. Which I learned about because I once got a ticket because Waze told me to take it.

Stone: Waze is supposed to be honest with you.

You could probably sue Waze.

Chazelle: You think I’ve got a case?

You could own Waze at the end of the day. “Damien Chazelle’s Waze.”

Stone: [Laughs.]

Chazelle: We chose that because it was shut-downable, in a way other parts of L.A. weren’t, but we basically had one weekend to shoot it. And everything was conspiring, in a way, to go wrong, I remember. It was a heat wave, the hottest two days of the year. The car tops are boiling, that the people have to dance on. The truck door that the guy opens decides to stop opening before we do that take, so we have our producer and three crew members with a makeshift pulley system behind it to open it because it wouldn’t open on its own. And then half of one of the days, there decided to be giant, thunderous cloud over L.A. when we’re singing about how it’s just another day of sun. So we had to wait for the clouds to break. All those things happen, but in a way that’s part of the exhilaration of it, to do the kind of thing that in the old days you’d do on a studio backlot, but to do it on a real location, so that when you’re on that wide shot seeing all the dancers, you see three lanes of traffic underneath. And that’s a documentary. That’s just real traffic flowing.

Finally, I wonder how you perceive this relationship on the screen. For me — SLIGHT SPOILERS — I didn’t see it as a grand love story as much as a key relationship in two people’s lives, and that they represented for each other the drive and passion of chasing their dreams. They enter each other’s lives at that key moment, help each other grab that next rung, and take their exit from one another’s paths. So I’m not necessarily sad at the end of the movie.

Stone: It resonates in that way for me, too, except the ending does break my heart, because of what different choices might have led to. But I agree with you. In a sense it can be about someone who inspired you to do what you need to do, and you inspired them to follow what they needed to do. But I think there’s something amazing about that ending, that everyone can relate to that in some way. I just think it’s beautiful that people are having different versions of that.

Chazelle: They can take ownership of it, which is what you hope.

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