La La Land: Director Damien Chazelle's 15 Influences on His Musical Romance
The iconic park and planetarium north of Hollywood plays a key role in La La Land. “I love Griffith on a very personal level,” director Damien Chazelle says. “It’s a monument the same way that the Arc de Triomphe or Big Ben are monuments, but those rise out of a clustered urban environment. Griffith sits atop a hill as if it’s in its own world. That speaks to the sprawl and the spirit of Los Angeles. It’s totally, authentically, ironically its own thing.”
Los Angeles is a nirvana of sunbaked swimming pools in the 1960s- and ’70s-era paintings of British artist Hockney. His work, including A Bigger Splash (above), made waves in Chazelle’s mind, especially for an early musical set piece in which a bunch of partygoers (and the camera) get wet and wild.
Los Angeles Traffic
For the movie’s virtuoso opening scene, Chazelle thought of the least romantic L.A. trait — and turned it into a spectacular song-and-dance number. “L.A. traffic freaked me out before I even visited L.A.,” he says. “But instead of the you-wanna-shoot-yourself version, I said, ‘What if the sounds of all the cars built up rhythmically and cascaded into a musical number?’ ” The joyous outcome, involving dozens of vehicles and a hundred dancers, is road-rage relief.
Pulp Fiction (1994)
Chazelle wanted La La Land to take place in the real world of Los Angeles but still feel like a not-quite-real fantasia. So he hired Quentin Tarantino’s favored production designer David Wasco. “Pulp Fiction is one of the greatest movies ever for how it uses unglamorous L.A. locations and yet somehow completely creates its own unique world,” Chazelle says. “It was an extraordinary challenge, but we tried to do the same thing from a different angle.”
Los Angeles Stories by Ry Cooder
Musician Ry Cooder’s atmospheric 2011 collection of eight short tales (the best one is titled "My Telephone Keeps Ringin'") was bedside reading for Chazelle while writing La La Land.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)
The day before filming began, Chazelle was sent this gift from producer Marc Platt: a framed French poster for Jacques Demy’s 1964 musical masterpiece starring Catherine Deneuve. Demy’s poetic, glittery style was the single biggest influence on La La Land. “I absolutely adore Demy,” Chazelle says, “and this poster really gave me the liftoff I needed to get through a pretty ambitious shooting schedule.” (He filmed at 48 locations — in 42 days.)
It’s hard to take your eyes off Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart, but the linchpin here is something else. Emma Stone’s character in La La Land works in a coffee shop on the Warner Bros. backlot — and Chazelle was giddy to learn the café was across from this “Paris window” that Ilsa and Rick longingly gazed out of in 1942. “Right away I wrote a reference to Casablanca into the script,” he says.
An Affair to Remember (1957)
Instead of ocean waves or a mountain range, the desktop background on Chazelle’s computer during postproduction was this sumptuous frame grab from the romantic 1957 tearjerker. “I’m a big believer in things as small as what your computer's screen saver is. Just look at Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr and those blues and reds and yellows,” the director gushes. “This really reminded me of what I wanted La La Land to feel like.”
Falling Down (1993)
As a child growing up in New Jersey, Chazelle was horrified by the depiction of Los Angeles in this 1993 thriller starring Michael Douglas. It was a major influence on the opening dance number, set on a traffic-clogged freeway. "That movie was one of the many reasons why I thought L.A. was a hellhole," he says. "And I never wanted to set foot in it. That movie paints such a hellish portrait of the city that I thought it would be interesting, now that I live in L.A. and have fallen deeply in love with the city, to start with literally the thing that freaked me out the most about the city and the thing that irritates more people than anything about L.A.. That kind of endless grind of traffic, where most of what you see around you is concrete and you’re surrounded by smog and exhaust fumes and burning sunlight. But instead of Michael Douglas storming out of his car, it’s a dance number."
All three of Chazelle's feature films (Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, Whiplash, La La Land) have been saturated with the sounds and history of jazz. For this movie, he turned for influence to the icons of West Coast Jazz, including Shelly Manne, Stan Gets, and Chet Baker (above). "I was also thinking about the stories of Dizzy [Gillespie] or Charie Parker passing through L.A. on their West Coast tours and where they would play." And also key to achieving authenticity for Chazelle was turning his lead actor onto the jazz's essential Los Angeles history. "Ryan became a big obsessive about learning as much as he could from that culture and that era, which was very exciting for me."
The Rialto Theatre
"The Rialto is a movie theater which used to be very functioning in Pasadena and it doesn’t play movies anymore," Chazelle says. The theater plays an important role in La La Land, in which the main characters watch the seminal James Dean drama Rebel Without a Cause. "It's been more of less shut down except for specific events. But the closed up thing is closer to the truth than when we were shooting the scenes of the Rialto actually working. I remember scouting it and you go inside this absolutely gorgeous building, on the outside and inside. And we used flashlights to walk around and there was dust everywhere and we literally felt like we were in a wrecked ship or the ruins of a monument. It was strange and beautiful."
The Dance, Henri Matisse
An artist famed for his still life paintings and portraits, Henri Matisse (1869-1954) also conveyed astonishing movement in abstract orange, blue and green. This large-scale piece of five people swaying in a circular ballet was spinning in Chazelle's head as he designed the movie's dance sequences.
Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003)
Thom Andersen's remarkable 2004 documentary is nearly three hours worth of film clips (from classic film noir like Double Indemnity to non-classics like Swordfish, above), and loomed large in Chazelle's research. "I absolutely love that documentary," he says. "Los Angeles is weirdly the most filmed city in the world because the movie industry has been there forever but its one of the least physical cities in film. It doesn’t have a specific place in film the way that New York or Paris does. Which is why everyone has their own idea of L.A., and many are not the most pleasant. But if treated the right way, L.A. is a city that can hold its own as a romantic playground the way that other great cities in the world do."
The Jacques Demy Box Set – Criterion Collection
The films of French director Jacques Demy (who died in 1990) were on DVD shuffle at Chazelle's house during the six years that he was writing and working on La La Land. This (strawberry) jam-packed Criterion Collection box set includes the director's melancholy masterworks The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort, both starring Catherine Deneuve, and is a necessary item in any film lover's (or La La Land lover's) home collection.
Gangster Squad (2012)/Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011)
Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling were not the first actors cast in the lead roles (Miles Teller and Emma Watson were at one point considered) but Chazelle benefited from the built-in charisma from these two previous movie pairings. "Certainly aware of it," he says. "It’s funny. On 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 [Astaire] and Ginger [Rogers] 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."
He adds, "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."