Movies

Damien Chazelle On ‘La La Land’ And How He Was Influenced By ‘That Thing You Do!’

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One of the many, many, nice surprises from La La Land – which premiered this week at the Toronto International Film Festival to almost universal acclaim – was the appearance of Tom Everett Scott. I couldn’t get it out of my head that this piece of casting by director Damien Chazelle couldn’t have been by accident. Here’s the director of Whiplash (a movie about drumming by a director with a background in jazz drumming) casting Shades from That Thing You Do! (a drummer who loves jazz). This was too perfect to be a coincidence.

At one of the many events that a person attends while covering a film festival, I ran into Chazelle and mentioned That Thing You Do! and his eyes lit up with excitement. Okay, I was on to something! So, of course, when I met Chazelle at his hotel in Toronto for our scheduled interview, there was no way I wasn’t going to explore whatever relationship Chazelle has with That Thing You Do! and how it affects his filmmaking today. Hey, if nothing else, we now know that Emma Stone does a great Jimmy Mattingly singing, “I quit. I quit. I quit. I quit, Mr. White.”

La La Land stars Stone and Ryan Gosling as two almost literally star-crossed lovers who sing and dance their way through the bright colors of a nostalgic, modern day Los Angeles. It’s an infectious movie that’s just about impossible not to like. Ahead, Chazelle talks about That Thing You Do! a lot (this is my fault, but I am not sorry); his next project, a movie about the Apollo 11 mission that he’s working on with Spotlight’s Oscar winning screenwriter, Josh Singer; and he responds to Miles Teller’s Esquire interview in which the Whiplash star gave his account of why he wasn’t in La La Land

I just road in an elevator with Peter Berg. He thinks you are talented.

Oh, really? Oh, that’s awesome. I’ve never met him. I remember seeing Lone Survivor when I was editing Whiplash and I told my editor to go see it, too. And you’d think it would have nothing to do with Whiplash, except that there was something about any movie that kind of can make you feel the physical pain of characters. Which he really pulls off with those fucking tumbles down the hills. I thought that stuff was like so hard to watch.

So, how close were you to bringing back Cap’n Geech & The Shrimp Shack Shooters for La La Land?

[Laughs.] This close.

They could have been in there somewhere.

I don’t know if I told you the story of when I cast Tom Everett Scott in the movie…

When I saw him show up, I couldn’t help think, “Wow, he got Shades!”

I remember it was something like his name came up and I was like, “Oh my God, you think we could get him?” But then I remember telling Emma and Ryan, not thinking that it would mean much to them. Emma asked me, “Hey, so who did you cast?” And I said, “Oh, it’s this actor Tom Everett Scott.” So and she goes, “Shades! That Thing You Do!” And she starts quoting the movie. And then she grabs Ryan and she goes, “Hey, Ryan, guess who he cast?” And Ryan’s like, “That Thing You Do!. And literally, they could recite the entire movie. I thought I was the biggest That Thing You Do! fan. They beat me.

It makes too much sense that you love it: It’s about a drummer in a pop band who loves jazz.

And I was a drummer growing up. Oh, God, it’s the best. I used to set up my drum kit like his drum kit in the beginning.

Did you wear shades?

I couldn’t quite off pull off the shades.

You’ve got to have Tom Hanks there telling you to do it.

It was just so cool to like have a movie about a rock band where the drummer was the hero. Anyway, I love that movie. I’ve seen that movie so many times. I met Tom Hanks at Telluride and it’s so funny because I’m such a giant fan of his as an actor, but also I want to talk about That Thing You Do! for about two hours. [Laughs.]

When someone tells me to do something I don’t want to do, I still quote that movie, “I quit. I quit. I quit…”

Oh my god! “I quit, Mr. White.” Literally, that’s what Emma would do all the time.

Really?

Yeah, she would pretend if I gave her a direction she didn’t like or something, she’d go, “I quit. I quit.”

I would like to see that as a Blu-ray extra.

Oh, I wish. I don’t think so. We were shooting on film-film, so we were trying to be somewhat frugal. So we don’t have endless outtakes.

Maybe you can shoot it on your never-ending six-month press tour you’re about to have.

I’ll get it on the press tour. Okay. I will make it happen, for you.

So what’s going on with this movie? This is like Whiplash times 100 the way this is hitting.

It’s crazy.

And Whiplash was a huge deal.

It definitely was more nerve-wracking leading up to this. People were asking me like, “Oh, do you feel pressure after Whiplash?” It was less so that. Whiplash is certainly autobiographical, but this was more personal. This was like just kind of everything I kind of had wanted to do in a movie for like as long as I can remember.

Pressure isn’t really the right word. But historically, if you just kind of look at the stats and break it down like baseball or something, a lot of second movies for directors don’t always go very well.

Yeah. And especially musicals.

But you said fuck it and did it anyway.

Yeah. I mean, I think the one thing that made me feel not so scared, and it’s something I definitely respect a lot in other movies, is when it’s just movies that take risks. Movies that kind of risk embarrassing themselves, you know. Even when they don’t work, I just think there’s not enough that could be said for just sheer ambition in movies. And so I always find myself rooting for that kind of ambition. So of course, yeah, you never want to make a movie that falls on its face or doesn’t work, but at least I knew that I could look back and go you know, okay, so whatever little moment Whiplash afforded me, I milked that moment and I did what I wanted to do and I didn’t give it another second guess.

So you looked at it as this might be your one shot to ever get this made.

Yeah. And it might have been the only shot in my life to get it made, and I did it. So in many ways, when we actually wrapped shooting the movie, that was like the victory in a way. Because it was just like, Jesus, we actually got this in the can. We convinced people to make this movie for a moment.

Yesterday I ran into you with Josh Singer…

We’re working on a movie. We’ve been working for a couple of years now, since even before he went off to do Spotlight, a movie about Neil Armstrong and the moon landing.

Well, the two of you together is very exciting to me.

I’m so psyched to be working with him. He’s as great a writer as Spotlight or any of his other work would suggest.

The way he tells a story in person, in an interview, is so entertaining.

I remember when Spotlight was gearing up, I was kind of like, “Josh, this seems like a really cool subject. Tom McCarthy is a great director. It seems like it’s got a great cast.” He’s like, “I know, but I don’t know, man. I don’t know. It’s probably going to not work. It’s probably going to be a failure. I don’t know. Probably terrible.” And then it starts hitting festivals and getting these reviews, and I’m like, “Josh, whoa, it seems like it’s really doing well.” And he’s like, “No, no, it’s just these festivals. It’s going to fall on its face. It’s going to be terrible.” And during the entire awards run, I’m like, “Josh, I think you’re going to win an Oscar.” “Stop saying that! No, there’s no way. I’m not going to win an Oscar. No, we’re not even going to get nominated. We’re just going to get shut out of everything.” I literally feel like he was probably still doing doom and gloom the night they fucking won.

“They’re going to take it back.”

“They’re going to wake up tomorrow and they’re going to realize that it was a miscalculation. You know, they said the name wrong, they’re going to take it back.”

Miles Teller did an interview with Esquire in which he detailed how he lost the part in La La Land. Is that really how things happened?

I probably just won’t say anything about anything he said in the interview. Except what I will say is that the casting of this movie during the six years it took to get made went through lots of permutations, and it’s true there was a moment where Emma Watson and Miles Teller were doing it. And neither of those casting things wound up lasting or working out. But it was part of the up and down of this movie: that we were about to make it, we were about to not make it, about to make it, about to not make it. But I loved working with him in Whiplash. That’s why he and I started talking about doing this one together. And I think he’s an extraordinary actor and I can’t wait to see Bleed for This.

And this is nothing against anyone you just mentioned, but now I can’t imagine anyone but Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in this movie after seeing it.

It was also kind of the thing of like, I remember there were instances even earlier with this. You know, I started writing in 2010, where it would seem like the movie was going to get made, and then it wouldn’t. And then I look back and I’m like, oh, I wasn’t ready to make it then. Or we wouldn’t have made it the right way. Or there wasn’t enough money. There would constantly be things that seemed like they were death knells to the movie that turned out to probably be blessings in disguise. And so like right now I sit at this table with a fuckload of gratitude, because it’s a reminder that getting any movie made these days is kind of a mini miracle. Getting a musical movie made is like a slightly bigger miracle. And it just requires every little piece. Like Ryan and Emma agreeing to do this and take a gamble on this and on me. It requires all these things to line up at just the right moment.

And any movie that can get a-Ha’s “Take On Me” into it…

We got That Thing You Do! and a-Ha, what more could you want?

And Flock of Seagulls and Soft Cell.

I just want to unload a bounty of goods.

Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.

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