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Playback: Damien Chazelle on ‘La La Land,’ ‘First Man’ and Daring to Dream

Welcome to “Playback,” a Variety podcast bringing you exclusive conversations with the talents behind many of today’s hottest films.

On this week’s episode, Jenelle Riley and I welcome back Variety Senior VP and Features Awards Editor Tim Gray to bat around some final predictions thoughts with Oscar nominations right around the corner next week. How will the actress race pan out? Was “Silence” seen by enough voters to have a presence? There are a lot of questions remaining as we head into the final phase one weekend.

Later on (27:50) I’m talking to the man of the hour, “La La Land” director Damien Chazelle. His film is fresh off a record-breaking sweep of the Golden Globes and sits poised to net the most Oscar nominations next week.

Listen to this week’s episode of “Playback” below. New episodes air every Thursday.

NOTE: We had a few audio issues on this episode. Apologies in advance.

Click here for more episodes of “Playback.”

We start by digging into Chazelle’s past a little bit. How did his family life shape him as an artist. What was the odd-job racket like for him in college? When did the moviemaking bug first hit him?

“It started with Disney animated movies, so I guess I wanted to be Walt Disney,” Chazelle says. “And I was passionately into music for a while but that was still a side thing. I knew what I wanted but I just didn’t know how to get there.”

Regarding music, Chazelle immersed himself as a drummer, practicing six hours a day, etc. A lot of that, of course, made it into his last film, “Whiplash.” But he soon enough discovered he just didn’t have whatever it is you have to have in your bones that makes you a musician.

“It was a period in my life that left me with a lot of experiences and emotions and stuff to draw from, but it never quite translated into that vocational calling the way that music just always naturally seemed to me,” he says. “But it was the closest I ever came to not doing movies.”

His latest film, “La La Land,” has been touted as a love letter to Los Angeles, but it evolved to that place, not unlike his own affection for the city. “I was late to love L.A.,” he admits. “It was an acquired taste to me, and once I fell in love I really fell in love. The things that felt the most present about L.A. to me when I first started writing ‘La La Land’ were just the months and years rolling by, no seasons, so time just seemed to slip through my fingers and I’d wake up and realize a year had passed and nothing had happened and I wasn’t any closer to realizing my dream.”

And finally, Chazelle is charging ahead with his next project, “First Man,” the story of Neil Armstrong and the mission the Apollo 11 mission to land on the moon. “La La Land” star Ryan Gosling has already been tapped for the role of Armstrong, and Chazelle is just starting to crack how he’s going to lift it off the page, but in many ways — like every film he’s made so far — it’s going to be a film about dreaming.

“The hook was to think of it less as a biopic but as a mission movie, and to think of landing on the moon as this insane, once-in-history mission that I think we have a hard time even fathoming as a society now,” Chazelle says. “In other words, we take it for granted, I think. At least kids of my generation, you grow up, you know that Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, you see the picture, it’s all very gleaming and you see the American flag and you feel proud and that’s kind of it. You accept that it happened. But the challenge or the hope with this would be to try to play a little bit of a rewind and put you in a mindset where it hasn’t happened yet, and it’s the most insane thing that a group has ever come together to do.”

Hear about all of that and a whole lot more in the streaming link above.

Subscribe to “Playback” at iTunes.

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