Dale Robinette
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August 30, 2016 at 07:01 PM EDT

After the success of Whiplash, which included near-unanimous critical praise and three Oscars, director Damien Chazelle could have done almost anything he wanted. But instead of a comic book spectacle or a sci-fi fantasy, he applied his propulsive style to the riskiest of genres: an original contemporary musical.

While Whiplash was about the torment and sadomasochism of music expression, La La Land focuses on the woozy romance inherent in carrying a tune — at least based on the two teaser trailers (see below) that have been released for the film. “Tonally the two movies couldn’t be more different,” Chazelle told EW earlier this year, “but they’re both about the struggle of being an artist and reconciling your dreams with the need to be human. La La Land is just much less angry about it.”

Starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling as the story’s daydreaming lovebirds (she’s an aspiring actress, he’s a piano player), the movie premieres Wednesday as the opening night gala selection of the Venice Film Festival. It opens in theaters Dec. 2.

Chazelle spoke to EW in anticipation of the film’s gala opening and talked about the butterflies and nerves one feels while falling in love — and while premiering one’s crazily anticipated new movie. (This interview was conducted before the earthquake in Italy, which compelled Venice Film Festival organizers to cancel the opening night gala, though the film will still premiere as scheduled.)

 
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ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Congratulations on the Venice Film Festival opening night slot.

DAMIEN CHAZELLE: Thank you. I’m really excited. I’ve never been to the festival.

Originally, La La Land was going to open in July. It would have been in theaters by now. What was your reaction to the date change to December?

The film was on track to be finished in time for July. But pretty early on into the post-production process, it started to not feel like exactly the right place or context for the movie. And then once the date change became official, we made use of the extra time. It seemed to make a little more sense to have a slower rollout for the movie. Kind of do the path we’re doing now, start at festivals and stuff like that.

After the success of Whiplash, do you feel the added pressure on you?

I feel it more now that we literally just finished finished the movie a couple weeks ago, in terms of every little tweak and technical detail. It’s really just in these weeks since that I felt it more. You don’t want to pay attention to outside stuff but I feel the pressure more. When Venice rolls around, I’ll probably be a nervous wreck. But, then again, I remember feeling terrified before going to Sundance with Whiplash.

Oh, really, even then?

Yeah, the fear thing is nothing new. I’m just a nervous type in general. That’s here and with me to stay, both for better and for worse. I feel pressure but its nice — sometimes you feel a little more room to take risks and to experiment a little bit. I feel a little less of, “Well, I’ve gotta prove to everyone I can make a movie,” and a little more leeway to try riskier, crazier things. And let things fly a little bit more than I think I had the time or the ego to do on Whiplash.

We’ve seen the trailers, which seem to show a very vibrant, robust movie. There’s a scene where Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone float into the stars. What can you say about weaving fantasy elements into a real world situation?

That’s kind of it in a nutshell. The idea is that you find magic within that real world setting. The scene in the stars that you reference, as you might have guessed, that’s the planetarium at Griffith Park.

And you wanted them to levitate in the air?

I did want it to go there, yeah. You convince a studio to let you make an original musical — then you feel a responsibility to go all the way and really try to fulfill the promise of the genre. There are very few genres that allow you to go as wild or go as fantastical or magical as the musical does. That’s the promise of the tradition. I wanted to try push in that direction. The whole story genesis for me was, essentially, can we go all the way, so to speak, with the musical but still keep it feeling grounded in a real city with real people. By real people, I mean people who are dealing with everyday things: ambitions, disappointments, relationships. These are things that wouldn’t seem so operatic on paper. But I was trying to imbue them with all the urgency and epicness of the great cinemascope of 50s/60s Hollywood musicals. It was that combination that was the whole point for me of making the movie.

Gosling and Stone have now been in three movies together. How aware were you of that built-in chemistry they have?

Certainly aware of it. It’s funny. One the one hand, they — for me — feel like the closest thing that we have right now to an old Hollywood couple, like Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn or Fred and Ginger or Myrna Loy and Dick Powell. There’s something about the recurrence of Ryan and Emma as a couple and about them individually as actors and the way they register onscreen — the timeless glamour that they’re capable of.

They’re very old Hollywood?

Yeah. And that triggers the old movie buff in me. But they’re also, both together and apart, very contemporary actors. Their style of acting is not what you would find in those old Hollywood movies. It’s more modern and behavioral and grounded. That was a great rare combination: the old star system persona aura and yet still capable of being real people who could be your guide to a thoroughly modern story. The hope was that they could do both, while also singing dancing, playing piano, and all the rest.

She’s a struggling actress in the movie. Is that a chance for you to comment on the industry?

Well, it’s great because Emma was able to borrow a lot of her own experiences coming up in the film industry. And some of those literally wound up on screen. There is one sequence on the studio lot — but not because she’s actually acting in something, but because she serves coffee in the coffee shop. It’s like being outside the window, looking in at this dream factory.

Could you relate to that feeling too?

Definitely. That feeling of being outside the window, looking in, is very palpable in L.A. There are very few cities where you can feel as lonely. And it’s rubbed in your face how outside you are. That’s exactly how L.A. felt to me as soon as I moved there from the East Coast. And, in fact, I still kid of feel it. And I think that’s something really important to capture.

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