Reflecting on the genesis of La La Land, writer and director Damien Chazelle said, "I guess you write what you know...There is something to be said for having even unrealistic dreams. Even if the dreams don’t come true—that to me is what’s beautiful about Los Angeles. It’s full of these people who have moved there to chase these dreams. A lot of those people are told by people around them that they’re crazy, or that they’re living in la la land. I wanted to make a movie that saluted them a little bit, and that kind of unrealistic state of mind.”
Chazelle wrote La La Land in 2010, after having made the jazz musical film Guy and Madeleine on a Park Bench in 2009. At that time, no studio was willing to finance the movie, since Chazelle and Harvard friend Hurwitz, who wrote the score, were basically unknown and unproven, and Chazelle could not self-finance it. Frustrated, Chazelle decided to write Whiplash, which he felt might be less of a risky investment. After Whiplash's critical and commercial success, Chazelle made a deal with Summit Entertainment to produce and distribute La La Land. It wasn't until 2015 that the movie finally got the green light.
Given the long journey to our screens, it's unsurprising that La La Land went through various stages of evolution. Rumor has it that Chazelle initially wanted Miles Teller (the star of Whiplash) and Emma Watson to star, but once Summit was on board, Chazelle approached Stone and Gosling whose chemistry had been tried and tested in Crazy, Stupid Love and Gangster Squad. “They’re sort of timeless in the sense that you can buy them as a 1940s sort of old movie, old Hollywood pairing—like a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, or a Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy,” says Chazelle of Stone and Gosling. “Yet at the same time, they feel, at least to me, completely contemporary. They have a way of grounding everything that they do in a very believable way. Once we were able to cast them in the film, it’s like the whole thing sort of woke up.”
The actors went through a three-month intensive rehearsal process before shooting. They would all be together in a huge production office with Gosling practicing piano in one room and Stone learning dance moves in another. It was crucial that they had this time, as shooting the film on seventy different locations was fast moving and grueling, and with several shots filmed in one take, it was necessary for them to be totally prepared. Chazelle was hugely influenced by classic Hollywood movies, and pays homage to them in the film. In fact, he held screenings for the whole company of the classic movies that had inspired and influenced La La Land.
At the heart of the film is a story about love—a love that, though unsustainable, is real and important and strong. Mia and Sebastian both support each others' dreams and are able to realize them because of each other. “I am very moved by the idea that you can meet someone in your life who transforms you and sets you onto a path that is going to finally enable you to be the person you always dreamed of being, but ultimately, you need to go on that path alone,” says Chazelle. “You can have a union that winds up dictating the rest of your life but doesn’t last the rest of your life. I find that incredibly beautiful and heartbreaking and wondrous. At its soul, I wanted this movie to be about that.” It is significant therefore that in the final cut of the movie, Chazelle's ex-wife Jasmine McGlade is given an Executive Producer credit. The pair were at Harvard together, married in 2010 and divorced in 2014 and the added credit must be a tribute to the support and influence of their relationship.
The ending of the film has sparked discussions about the moral of the story, some thinking that it demonstrates that you can't have it all—the dream and the romance. As with Whiplash, La La Land never instructs its viewer how to feel. Mia's life is depicted as happy at the end of the film: she lives in a lovely home with a loving husband and baby daughter and she has realized her aspirations. The film is much too complex to have a single moral; it simply celebrates the loves that have gone before and how important the people on your journey are. There's nostalgia and sadness for Mia and Sebastian when they meet that last time at the jazz club, of course, but that doesn't negate the joys they experience in their own lives now that they are apart.
“To me, it was important to make a movie about dreamers, about people who have these giant dreams that drive them, that bring them together, but also tear them apart. La La Land is a very different movie from Whiplash in many ways. But they both deal with something that's really personal to me: How do you balance life and art? How do you balance reality and dreams? And also, specifically, how do you balance your relationship to your art with your relationships with other people? With La La Land, I wanted to tell that story using music, song and dance. I think the musical as a genre is a great vehicle for expressing that balancing act between dreams and reality.” It is of course an incredibly affirming irony that a film about dreamers in LA, which wasn't produced for years due to the unproved track record of its creators (and dreamers), should do so well critically and commercially.