BPS 107: Screenwriting the Oscar-Winning La La Land with Damien Chazelle & James V. Hart

This is Part 2 in a 3-Part Limited Series of conversations I’ll be releasing between the legendary screenwriter James V. Hart, the writer of Hook, Contact, Bram Stroker’s Dracula, and Tomb Raider just to name a few, and some of the top screenwriters in the game.

Today on the show we have Damien Chazelle, the Oscar® Winning director and screenwriter of La La Land. He bursted on the scene with his debut film Whiplash. The film is about a young musician (Teller) struggles to become a top jazz drummer under the tutelage of a ruthless band conductor (Simmons).

La La Land tells the story of Mia [Emma Stone], an aspiring actress, and Sebastian [Ryan Gosling], a dedicated jazz musician, who are struggling to make ends meet in a city known for crushing hopes and breaking hearts. Set in modern day Los Angeles, this original musical about everyday life explores the joy and pain of pursuing your dreams.

James and Damien discuss how he wrote and structured La La Land and much more. Enjoy this rare conversation between James V. Hart and Damien Chazelle.

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Learn screenwriting from legendary screenwriter James V. Hart (Hook, Contact, Bram Stroker’s Dracula)



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Alex Ferrari 2:04
Well guys, today is part two of that limited series I am doing with James v. Hart. And today he is interviewing the Oscar winning Damien chazelle, the creative force behind lala land and whiplash. And in this conversation between James and Damien, they talk about the origins of lala land, how he came up with it, how he built the characters. It is a fascinating conversation sitting down and again being a fly on the wall of a great conversation between two master screenwriters. So without any further ado, please enjoy the conversation between James v Hart and Damien chazelle.

James V. Hart 4:47
Damien we're sitting in the this is where we're going to be showing your clips tomorrow. They're just slip right there. Wow. I never seen that before. What what model is that? And over here, the charts going to go And here's the whole gang, the tech crew setting up the ballroom. Oh, hey, guys, they had a man and a man.

Damien Chazelle 5:09
Oh, that room is cool. It's a big room and more of like a small classroom. That's awesome.

James V. Hart 5:15
No, that's why I want you to see that this is. There's a lot of excitement about this. And we really appreciate you authorizing me to take you apart. Yeah. So lala land. Yeah. Be Damien, the youngest director of ever winning Academy Award. And now he's old enough to grow a beard. Yeah, a little bit. But to today, today, tomorrow, we'll be spending an hour and a half going through the process with a chart of lala land. And you and I spoken about this, I just want all of you to know that Damien, approve the picks Eclipse. He picked the points in the film that he thought were the most important, and we built a chart around that. But you have some news that I think maybe we It has nothing to do with the movie business. Has nothing to do with working with Ryan again or walking on the moon. But you're about to take a big step in your life. Oh, yeah. I got engaged. Ah, yeah. I guess now two weeks ago. Okay. Yeah, a little longer. Weknew you weren't pregnant. But engaged is that's at least one or the other. Yeah.

No, no pregnancy. Retro. Congratulations.

Damien Chazelle 6:30
Thank you. Yeah, we actually met through Benj. passuk, Minar. Who wound up writing the lyrics on? Yes. So, you know,

James V. Hart 6:42
well, we also just saw the the Broadway musical, but they've also written the lyrics. Yeah. Which is staggering. So you, you've assembled quite a team? How many of the what what are the people that you'd had already known and worked with, that you bring into the production? Well,

Damien Chazelle 7:03
the only one who I knew from way back when was Justin Hurwitz, who wrote the music. And so that, you know, we had kind of played in this genre before together and right. I wanted to do a musical together. And so the next two people who, who I met to kind of make this with were the producers, Fred Berger and Jordan Horowitz. I know, you know, both of them, Jordi is pretty real. And so for the longest time, it was just the the three of them in May, me and Justin, Fred and Jordan, for a number of years, just kind of trying to beat this into shape, get it into script form, get the music out there, get demos written. Then we started to assemble other parts, the music team like Benj. passuk, and Justin Paul, who wrote all the lyrics, and Mandy Moore, choreographer, Marius devries, our music producer, and then it was kind of one step at a time trying to kind of get this fully fleshed out.

James V. Hart 8:06
I did, I did have the pleasure of meeting the executive at focus who put you into turn around. Oh, did you? He did, she said, I'm sorry. I'm the guy that son in law's movie in Jordan horror, which is my son in law that is and and so they did us

Damien Chazelle 8:26
a favor, to be honest, because first of all, they gave us the initial kind of, like, push to actually I mean, without focused features kind of getting this going initially. You know, I don't know that me, Fred and Jordan, that we enter each other's orbit that we and and then to their credit, once they decided that they weren't going to make the movie, they didn't kind of make us languish in development. Hell, they just let us go. Granted, it was a scary moment, you know, because we were, you know, felt that it feels like you're orphaned and and it was a number of years. Before we found another home for the movie took a while.

James V. Hart 9:05
I have two quick questions. And then we're gonna jump into the chart. You and I talked about what you think the ending of the movie is. And the ending has been a very stirred a lot of conversation, a lot of discussion, a lot of debate. Over the choice you made of the ending, you and I spoke about the financing, where media and said sort of have a they sort of settled, though they resolve their conflicts is after the audition, which is still my favorite song. That was my vote. The audition is staggering. And I'm sure in the Broadway show, it will be a showstopper. Wow, can you just talk about your process and everybody here is a writer, a producer, a director all three. A little bit about your process and what you why you chose it, the way to end the film you did and what your feelings were about the bench scene and what came after.

Damien Chazelle 9:59
The bench scene I guess probably came later. Because I think at the very, at the very start, I knew roughly where we were headed in terms of the final scene. I knew I wanted to tell a story about a romance that doesn't, you know, that doesn't last forever, something that winds up being a finite moment in these people's lives. And they're kind of like two ships passing in the night, they cross for a moment. And that moment is crucial for both of them. But they wind up going their separate directions. And I wanted, I knew I wanted the tone of the ending to be okay with that, you know, that I didn't really see it as a, as a tragic ending. I was certainly very inspired by the umbrellas of Cherbourg, French French musical from the 60s. And that similarly does not keep the romance going at the end. But where's the tone there, I think is a little more again, tragic. I think here, your I wanted to, I wanted there to be, I wanted there to be a real hope, to the ending. And also this idea that you know, some dreams come true, some don't, this wouldn't be an honest movie, if every dream and act came true. Wouldn't be an honest movie of every dream didn't. But it's a movie about dreamers. It's a movie about the dreams that kind of push us and guide us. So. So it was important to me that, you know, some things work out some don't that, you know, that Mia becomes the actress, she wanted to become that that in many ways, Sebastian becomes a version of themselves that he wanted to become. But sacrifices come with that. So I guess I saw it as still a positive ending, but just one that maybe would be a little, a little less predictable.

James V. Hart 11:47
Well, it's very grown up and very mature. And it pissed a lot of people off. But it also it also embraced a lot of a lot of people you gave that you gave the audience the Hollywood ending, you gave them that what if they live happily ever after? And then so the audience got that, that that rush got that emotional charge? And then you made it brought it back? And then we made it very responsible? very adult? Very?

Damien Chazelle 12:11
Yeah, well, I think sometimes it's also like, I mean, we talked a lot about me, friend and Jordan about, you know, the ways in which we wanted to really wholeheartedly embrace the musical genre, and then ways in which we wanted to, you know, try to tweak it a bit further. And, you know, sometimes I really feel life does feel like a musical, and sometimes it really does not. And so I think I wanted to make sure that we played with both ideas in this movie, the times in which life really feels like it's entering that magical movie movie round, like when you're falling in love, or that moment when a dream comes true. But then there's times where you really feel as far away from you as possible. The movie for me was about kind of this push and pull between life and fantasy, reality and fantasy, and that at the end, and in a way, you really want to put them side by side in the most direct way possible. That felt to me like what we were building up to the equation, building up to life and fantasy, side by side. And in a way, as a viewer, you can kind of choose which which you prefer,

James V. Hart 13:16
will you take us from the star dance, which is a total ultimate expression of falling in love. And you crash and burn us with the dinner fight. So you would go from that amazing peak, the beginning of that whole romance and I'm sure we've all felt that way. We're dancing and the kiss at the end of that sequence is dead center of the story. That you didn't you take it all away from us for dinner? Yeah, here's a question. We always ask him, and then I'll let you go. So we do the chart. whose story is it?

Damien Chazelle 13:51
Well, I mean, to me, I really think it's, it's just gonna sound like a cop out that it's both both Mia and Sebastian's stories. And I think, in a way, that was the challenge, because even a lot of the movies that we were inspired by, whether they were dramatic love stories, are romantic comedies or musicals, you know, ultimately kind of sided with one individual over the other. But I, I really felt strongly here that that, you know, both points of view had to be privileged. And it just depended on what you know which point of view we were, we were taken, at which point, but that we needed to kind of hop back and forth. It's also I guess, why I mean, I think in many ways, it's about it's about these two people as a couple in relation to the rest of the world. It's kind of why, after the opening number, there's no musical number outside of these two people, you know, so we use our opening traffic number as an entree into the world but then at that point, everything becomes more and more intimate, and more and more motivated by just those two people. So you don't have auxiliary characters have you know,

James V. Hart 15:03
I'm only charging two characters, I usually charge five or six. And it's a beautifully structured screenplay. And it's a beautiful structured film. On page 38 of your script is the dancing the stars, which is the dead center of your movie, which is 58 minutes into your movie. Okay, so I'm just doing this because the director to me decides what the time running time of the movie is not the page count. Right, right. Well, yeah, one minute page. And now you're working with Ryan again doing

Damien Chazelle 15:37
life after lala land? Yes, yes. The sequel? sad, lonely years of Tibet? No, yeah. I mean, we're, I mean, in many ways, it feels like a 180. We're doing a movie about the moon landing, and Ryan's playing Neil Armstrong. But you know, I guess you could say, one similarity is that again, it's a movie about very literally outsized dreams.

James V. Hart 16:05
I want to thank you, everybody here tomorrow will be applauding and cheering you and hopefully, I won't be able to live up to these expectations you've set for us, and I really appreciate it. It's great. And awesome. You'll love this festival. Writers Festival there. Yeah. This looks awesome. And congratulations on your engagement.

Damien Chazelle 16:26
Thank you. Say hi to Sam in a spacesuit for us. We'll do I'll tell them you say hi.

James V. Hart 16:32
Thank you, sir. Thanks, Alan. Elisha for doing all the Alicia for doing all the hard work for us.

See, it worked. out.

Damien Chazelle 16:42
There we go.

James V. Hart 16:42
Amazing walk on the moon.

Alex Ferrari 16:50
Thank you guys so much for listening. If you want to get links to anything that we talked about, in this episode, head over to the show notes at bulletproof screenwriting.tv forward slash 107. And we have one more in this limited series coming out in the next couple weeks with James v. Hart. And if you haven't checked out his new course, the hart chart screenwriting masterclass over at IFH Academy, you are missing out it is a game changing course. Head over to bulletproof screenwriting.tv forward slash hartchart. Thank you so much for listening. As always. Keep on writing no matter what. Stay safe out there. And I'll talk to you soon.

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BPS 105: Inside Screenwriting Get Out with Jordan Peele & James V. Hart

Jordan Peele

Get ready to have your mind blown! I’ll be releasing a 3-Part Limited Series of conversations between the legendary screenwriter James V. Hart, the writer of Hook, Contact, Bram Stroker’s Dracula, and Tomb Raider just to name a few, and some of the top screenwriters in the game.

First up is the screenwriter that took the world by storm with his Oscar-Winning screenplay Get Out, Jordan Peele. If you have been living under a rock for the past few years here is what the film is about.

In Universal Pictures’ Get Out, a speculative thriller from Blumhouse (producers of The Visit, Insidious series, and The Gift) and the mind of Jordan Peele, when a young African-American man visits his white girlfriend’s family estate, he becomes ensnared in a more sinister real reason for the invitation.

Now that Chris (Daniel Kaluuya, Sicario) and his girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams, Girls), have reached the meet-the-parents milestone of dating, she invites him for a weekend getaway upstate with Missy (Catherine Keener, Captain Phillips) and Dean (Bradley Whitford, The Cabin in the Woods).

At first, Chris reads the family’s overly accommodating behavior as nervous attempts to deal with their daughter’s interracial relationship, but as the weekend progresses, a series of increasingly disturbing discoveries lead him to a truth that he could have never imagined.

This was recorded before Jordan’s next hit film Us was released. Listening to these two masters discuss character, plot, theme, and more is a rare treat. It’s like being a fly on the wall. When you are done listening to this conversation you can read some of Jordan’s screenplay here.

Enjoy this rare conversation between James V. Hart and Jordan Peele.

Right-click here to download the MP3



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Alex Ferrari 2:08
Now guys, you are in for an amazing treat. today. I'm so excited about this. This is part one of a three part series that I am going to be releasing on the bulletproof screenwriting Podcast, where the legendary screenwriter James v. Hart, writer of Bram Stoker's Dracula, contact, August rush, and hook, just to name a few of his films, is going to be interviewing some of the top screenwriters in Hollywood. And first up is Oscar winner, Jordan Peele, the writer of get out and us in this conversation, James, and Jordan kind of break down, get out specifically, and how he came up with the story, how he worked the characters, how he developed the entire script. And James starts talking to him about charting the emotional journey of his characters using his story system, the heart chart. So without any further ado, please enjoy the conversation between James V. Hart and Jordan Peele.

James V. Hart 3:19
Thank you, Jordan for doing this. Not everybody in the audience is going to know the film, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? But Was this an urban legend? Or does this have something to do with with the, the genesis of get out, but was there were comparisons there were, it was very controversial for its time, in terms of race relations.

Jordan Peele 3:41
It did have a good deal to do with how I developed the story. I, you know, the the beginning nuggets of this screenplay, were really coming, coming from a emotional place of feeling. And the fear that I wanted to capture in this movie was this fear of being observed. And being being observed by a bunch of people who are acting like they're not observing you. And I think I quickly sort of tie that in with race and the feeling of being black in a white space. And I was writing the script, I had several, several different versions of the story going. And at some point, I realized, Oh, this is Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. So I think I was I was operating with a version of it where a girl brings her boyfriend to meet all of her high school friends and sort of inside joke and all that and at some point, I realized No, this has got to be a family thing.

James V. Hart 4:51
And it makes it more grown up and takes it out of the the kind of teen you know,

Jordan Peele 4:57
exploitation or horror film version. mood, and there's a wider, wider sort of variety of people to interact with. And there, there's also a, a certain of as you said, there's a certain adult relatability to the fear of meeting your potential in loss for the first time. And I recognize like, Look, you know, I guess I knew this was a tough one, a tough one to, to sell. Because people, I think people would assume when hearing the premise that there's no way this can be done, right. So, you know, looking back at how Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, I think one of the reasons that was able to sort of cross the the boundary of racism and become a popular movie was was that everyone knows what it feels like to meet your in laws. And that's, that's universal, even though this particular dynamic is, you know, makes it extreme.

James V. Hart 6:01
You started, I believe you started the idea. Forget it was that always the title was always the title?

Jordan Peele 6:08
No, for a while, the working title was get out of the house.

James V. Hart 6:13
Guess who's getting out of the house? Yeah, I guess there was a different president, when you I believe there was a different president, when you first started working on the script, or on the idea? Did any of the political changes and shifts from the Obama administration to the Trump administration that that had to get have any impact on the evolution of the story? Not trying to get political? I'm just wondering, how did your mood change? Did something change inside you? Or outside you?

Jordan Peele 6:41
Yes, I, you know, the Trump was was basically elected between when I shot the movie and when it came out. And so that was in the editing phase. And by the time we were in the phase of picking up some additional photography, Trump was a I don't think he had been elected yet, I'm not sure. But the climate was the surrounding race was becoming more out in the open. And there was this discussion of Black Lives Matter was happening in a way we hadn't seen. More specifically, there was attention being brought to him by people being murdered by police. And so because the Obama era was just surrounded with this post racial lie, as a, as I like to call it, all of a sudden, I was sort of showing this movie to testing it in a world that was race weary, you know, months later, but both for good and bad reasons, race weary. So but I remember specifically feeling that the the original when I showed the original ending, which was of course, as you probably know, Chris, it doesn't, it doesn't end well. Chris ends up in prison. And it's, it's meant to be a gut blow. But it's also a downer, it was an extra special downer. And because the state of the world had evolved, and that these conversations were happening. So that's when I made the decision to give us a happy ending, which I don't know if I would have in the Obama era, firmly in the Obama era where everyone was, you know, seemed to certain that race wasn't a thing.

James V. Hart 8:46
Well, it was one of the one of the struggle of the struggle that a writer, these are all writers, and they're all interested in the process. And the struggle with beginnings and endings, you know, is is what we all go, we all wake up at that nightmare, you know. So one of the principles that we'll be discussing today, instead of a happy ending, or a setting, I refer to it as a satisfying ending. Is your audience an ending that they're satisfied with? Not that they're pissed off by or feel derailed? Or cheated by? Is it satisfying? So? Did you you wrestled with this ending? Did you wrestle with it in posters? Or was it? Did you wrestle with it when you were shooting? How did you how did you find that satisfying ending?

Jordan Peele 9:26
When when I wrestled with it in the script phase, and I wrestled with it and pose. So in the script phase, as you do, I had many different ways this could go. And there were there was several different endings. Some, some nobody even knows about. But I, I in the script phase, I settled on the gut blow version, you know, hey, you know, you might only get to do this once, boom, hit them with it and rip the rip, though. Now for Monday, though, you know, you're already they've already given me their money sort of thing. Well, as we got closer, okay. Well, yeah, as we got closer to the, you know, the launch, and I really realized this is really happening, and I've done so much work to serve the audience. And I think that's just where I come from as a filmmaker. I think the other version, the badass. I don't care what you think of my film, I made my film. Thing is not really me. I come I come from comedy, you know, so I, in my soul, the one guy that's not laughing is my failure. Yeah. So I, you know, I went with the in the last hour, I felt very content with the decision that you got, we have to give him a hero. And more importantly, the moment the car comes up, the cop car come rolls up. And the audience goes, Oh, you're a guy. Yeah.

That that moment. achieves my point. Yeah, right. No matter how much farther I take it. They've done they've done the work I don't need to make I don't need to make a point. They've made the point. So it's even more subversive and more elegant to let that be and then give us our fun when as well.

James V. Hart 11:38
Well, that paranoia that paranoia is still creeps up on everybody, I don't care what your ethnic background is, when that cop car shows up. You're going fuck. No, guys, it's antler. Guys. Deer is Deer Hunter cop, you know, it's the down the road. There the So you mentioned something that I'm a big proponent of in the work that we do with structure is audience you talked about, you're an audience guy. And a lot of filmmakers, a lot of writers don't ever have the audience present in their process. And I'm kind of putting you on the spot here. But could you so they're not just hearing it from me? Could you talk about the audience a little bit in your when you're writing? And when you're thinking that you're are you? Do you bring them with you? what's what's your, what's your connection to the audience in the in this?

Jordan Peele 12:30
I mean, I you know, I've because I've been on stage a lot, and I and done a lot of comedy live live comedy, I think I do have a nice little extra voice of the audience in my head. And, you know, I'm always in with comedy, you're always thinking about the audience, because you're always trying to subvert their expectations. So that they don't get ahead of you and say, okay, you're you're dumb, or, you know, this is dumb, where this is trying to speak to somebody who's less intelligent than I am. As far as I'm concerned, the the audience that, you know, there's no movie without the audience. There's no, it doesn't exist if someone's not seeing it for the first time or whatever. So anything less than trying to get every single member of the audience is kind oflazy. Yeah. Yeah. Do you have to assume there is a way to get what you want as an artist and to give the audience what they want? I

James V. Hart 13:45
guess ultimately, they decide whether your success or not, no matter how hard you work, or don't yours, you slaved over

Jordan Peele 13:52
what the stakes are, you're going to be often your ability to do it again, do it otherwise, do. So that's pretty important.

James V. Hart 14:01
I appreciate that. two last questions real quickly. You said that this is a movie you have to see more than once. What is it that people miss? That they what what is it that we mostly missed in that first viewing that when we go back a second time we go Oh, I mean, I'm not sure it'd be interesting to hear your view on that.

Jordan Peele 14:21
Yeah, well, you know, any certainly any movie with a reveal or a twist? You can watch again and with a new perspective on the what what you saw the first time pre twist, a movie that kind of honors that second viewing. And the first really is a movie where clues were there. Yeah, if you if you know you, you you but you missed them. I think that's the most satisfying thing as an audience to feel like I wasn't treated like I'm a dum dum but because I'm not and I almost got it but I didn't and he then went and you can see the proof that he was given he was laying out the breadcrumbs for me

James V. Hart 15:22
yeah like the opening is I had to watch it twice to go Oh, that's the guy yeah, that's

Jordan Peele 15:28
that's that's a nap in the beginning that yeah, that's what i think you know there there's I put a lot of detail to make sure that second viewing it worked and there's these layers I mean, the big thread to follow Of course it is Rose. And you know now now what we know from rose you know, the first moment we see her she's you know, having a moment in a she's selecting a pastry with that weird weird little smile on her face that first time you watch it is just the sweetest ingenue you could imagine and it has a completely different sinister take the next time so there's all there's many of her actions that are mean something different going through and my favorite of course, is the is the thread with the Father, the grandfather and mother Walter and George. And this idea that grandpa had lost to Jessie Oh, and as as you know, she can run fast is always chasing that you know, he built this mythology that it was a race there was a racial reason he didn't win and that this whole thing kind of come from that. That's why of course we see Walter running

James V. Hart 16:50
well, that's what's diabolical about the ending. I mean, I specifically have not charted the ending until today when we do this live with our our group because the ending is diabolical it's I mean the roller coaster ride you take us on and the ups and downs and it's like whoa one reveal after another that all that's I mean, it's a very satisfying ending all of the conflicts all the threads you pulled together in a very satisfying ending. And she creeps me out. She creeps me out. Rose rose Really? Really? Oh, that is incredible. That yeah, I forgot her name but those Sandy rear replaced

Jordan Peele 17:27

James V. Hart 17:28
georgene incredibly

Jordan Peele 17:32
Allison Williams is yeah the fact that she can do both sides of that performance just shows you how good a liar she is really?

James V. Hart 17:43
The same smile when I have got the keys that she is at the pastry store the same last last question. Okay, is there going to be a good outer

Jordan Peele 17:54
eye you know, as the farther I move from it I don't think so. You know, I will you know and then never say never I will I'll tell you this I would never do it as like a money grab I would only do it because I've got the story to make the whole the get out universe that much sweeter. And you know, I got some ideas but i right now I don't have it and I love making new worlds.

James V. Hart 18:30
Well, we really appreciate your taking the time to talk to us today. And I know everybody behind me and around me. I'm getting my breast Bradley Whitford in case you hadn't noticed is enjoying is about to hopefully enjoy this next hour and a half and we certainly have enjoyed your film and look forward to the next adventure that you bring us.

Jordan Peele 18:53
And thank you it's called us and it comes out March 15 19. So it's coming up I'm editing it right now.It's good

James V. Hart 19:06
are we gonna laugh more on this one?

Jordan Peele 19:09
You know what did you know it's is I'll tell you what I you will laugh You will be scared. You will like get much like get out there will be range.

Well coming from you will take it adjustable and nut and nuts to think that expect anything less.

James V. Hart 19:28
So here's your little tribute...clicking our tea cups. Actually, I'm actually in the chair. The chair right now. This is Mrs. Chair. I

Jordan Peele 19:39
love it.

James V. Hart 19:40
I love it so perfectly satisfying indeed.

Alex Ferrari 19:43
I want to thank James and Jordan for that amazing conversation. And if you want to get access to James V. Hart's masterclass, over on ifH Academy, just head over to bulletproof screenwriting.tv/hartchart. Like I said before, this is a three part series. So part two, James will be talking to another Oscar winning screenwriter, which is going to blow your minds. I cannot wait to get those out for you. So keep an eye out for that. They're going to be mixed in with our regular scheduled programming, but keep an eye out for that. Thank you so much for listening, guys. As always, keep on writing, no matter what. I'll talk to you soon.

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