Two years ago the writer-director Damien Chazelle, who grew up in Princeton, N.J., visited Chicago promoting his second feature film, "Whiplash."
He came alone. No publicist, no handler. We ate egg sandwiches at the Billy Goat, across the street from the Tribune, and in the back room, away from the tourists and the griddle, we talked about musicals, documentaries, jazz, a bit about his brief 2010 marriage (on the outs by then) to producer and filmmaker Jasmine McGlade, who worked with Chazelle on his first film, a Harvard University thesis project.
Shot for around $100,000, not counting postproduction musical recording costs, that inaugural effort was a melancholy 16 millimeter black-and-white musical romance titled "Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench," its characters' names borrowed from one of Chazelle's favorite musicals, the Jacques Demy classic "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg."
Now he's made his second musical, and the people who like it really, really, really like it. A lot. "La La Land" opens this week in New York and LA, and Dec. 16 in Chicago and other markets. It's terrific. From the Venice Film Festival, Daily Telegraph critic Robbie Collin tweeted: "I'm honestly crying with happiness. That film no one makes any more? Damien Chazelle just made it."
Already "La La Land" has taken top prize at the Toronto International Film Festival, and was awarded best film of 2016 by the New York Film Critics Circle. It got runner-up from the LA critics, just behind its primary Academy Awards competition, "Moonlight," which is gorgeous and heartfelt in different ways.
A few weeks ago Chazelle returned to Chicago, when "La La Land" opened the Chicago International Film Festival not long after its triumphs at Venice, Telluride and Toronto. He made his movie for around $30 million, shooting on film, in CinemaScope, using as many real LA locations as possible. The idea, though, he told me over breakfast a few blocks north of the Goat at Pierrot Gourmet, was to light the locales "to make them look as fake as possible."
Take "A Lovely Night," for example, one of six songs co-written by composer Justin Hurwitz and lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. It's a key number for Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, a push/pull tap duet with vocals, staged on a Griffith Park overlook at dusk. Chazelle shot it in long, full, complex takes over two successive evenings. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren lit it to evoke a soundstage interior, in the vein of "Just in Time" from director Vincente Minnelli's "Bells Are Ringing" or, citing one of the film's many lovely visual reference points, the Fred Astaire/Cyd Charisse "Dancing in the Dark" duet from Minnelli's "The Band Wagon."
Also: They faked a lot of lampposts. Chazelle told me he and the designers fell in love with a certain set of old-timey streetlights, so they kept dragging them along on the shoot, reusing them in different locales (a Pacific Ocean pier, various street scenes) where they didn't actually reside in life. Why not? It's a movie, and it's a musical, so you're already in the realm of magical realism.
"We had no luck getting this off the ground before 'Whiplash,'" Chazelle told me. "We had more money this time, but we had to be thrifty and resourceful. It was my first 'big' movie, but we had to treat it like a small movie. For the best, I think."
As with "Guy and Madeline," he deliberately set up a clash of styles and intentions within his movie. "When I was doing 'Guy and Madeline' I was making documentaries, and 'La La Land' is different. But we were shooting as much as possible in real locations, and trying to embrace the spectacle of the musical form but also to fight it at every instance with emotional realism. We wanted to ground it, even puncture it sometimes, so it wouldn't just float away like a balloon."
Practically speaking, he says, that led to a lengthy preproduction period full of U-turns and revisions and costly second thoughts about the validity of some sequences, ultimately scrapped prior to filming.
Once Stone and Gosling joined the project, "we had a lot of conversations about not letting the musical-ness of it infect the acting," he said." Often Gosling and Stone would improvise a scene, and Chazelle would use that improv to rewrite on the fly.
"Sometimes," he said, "it meant reconceiving the characters, or throwing out musical numbers that had already been designed and preplanned. There used to be a big number where Ryan and Emma now reprise 'City of Stars' at the piano; it was a big song and dance, with a different song. It made sense in the original draft, but we started working on the script and the characters changed, and the song ended up not making sense. But by that point locations had been scouted, music had been orchestrated. … In the thick of it, I thought: 'This is why you don't do this. This is why there are movies where everything has to be pre-designed, and these are not actor-centric movies, because they can't be.' And then there are movies where it starts with the actors and grows from there. The difficulty with 'La La Land' was balancing the two (approaches), and trying not to let it combust."
Then, as with most film musicals, Chazelle and company realized they couldn't keep everything they ended up shooting. "The number with Mia and her roommates, 'Someone in the Crowd' — that used to be twice as long," he said with a pained smile. An early edit of the picture opened with a Hurwitz overture and no traffic jam production number; now, as those who've seen "La La Land" can tell you, the movie opens with the traffic jam number, "Another Day of Sun," and it's so astonishingly, fantastically great that it's hard to believe it was ever questioned.
"But there's no number that didn't get cut at some point in the edit," Chazelle says. "Which is good. You want to make sure each one deserves to be there."
He's happy in his personal life (significant other: actress Olivia Hamilton, with whom he has been photographed on a red carpet or two, and who plays "gluten free girl" in one of Emma Stone's barista scenes in "La La Land"). Chazelle remains on good terms with his ex. Now he wants to make different kinds of movies, the way Howard Hawks, one of his protean Hollywood idols, would travel between genres without sacrificing his instincts.
Will audiences embrace "La La Land," with its terrifying lack of brand awareness (it's not based on a Broadway show) and its utter lack of cynicism? We'll see. Back in 2011 I wrote of "Guy and Madeline": "Marvelous … here is a director in love with the musical form, in love with jazz, in love with what a camera can do on the move." Now 31, Chazelle has directed his third excellent movie in a row. And that really is something.
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.
Movies on the radio: Phillips and film historian Desiree Garcia, who played Madeline in Damien Chazelle's "Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench," join "Filmspotting" host Adam Kempenaar for a "La La Land" show including their favorite musical numbers in movie history. Listen midnight Friday and Saturday on WBEZ-FM 91.5; the podcast edition is available at www.filmspotting.net.