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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