Damien Chazelle's new movie, La La Land, is very different from his first one, Whiplash — which was about a jazz drummer and his abusive mentor.
La La Land is also about struggle and jazz, but instead of dimly lit rooms and a grey color palette, it's a brightly colored modern musical.
"I wanted this movie to be very unapologetic about being a musical," Chazelle tells NPR's Audie Cornish. "Just try to return to that simpler idea that I think really was at the core of the early '30s, '40s, '50s musicals which is that, if you feel enough, you break into song."
So Chazelle's characters sing and dance their way through present-day Los Angeles, traffic-jammed freeways and all. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling play the two lovers at the heart of the movie — each of them trying to reconcile their showbiz dreams with reality.
Gosling's Sebastian, a traditional jazz pianist, has to join a band with more pop sensibilities to make ends meet. Stone's Mia is a disheartened aspiring actress; she moved to LA for her big break, and still hasn't found it after six years and countless auditions.
On why it's a personal project for him
It's funny how those first, I'd say, five years or so in Los Angeles, where I remember being very excited the first time I got any kind of amount of money at all to do like a writing for hire ... the idea of having any kind of entryway into making movies was very exciting to me. But it sort of felt, the entire time, like that's as far as I was going to get. And what I was really doing was spending most of my time writing scripts of movies that I dreamed of one day making. I wanted in this movie, hopefully to say something about that state of mind.
As a kid, kind of anything seems possible — it's all kind of far off, so you just sort of enjoy the dream. And then it becomes somewhat a little more difficult to handle when you have to start compromising, when you have to start doing things that adults do ... that was something that, especially with Ryan's character in the movie, that was personal.
On an argument two characters have about the state of jazz
The thing with jazz is that jazz is — and in some ways always will remain — a modern music. That's why there's a moment in the movie when Ryan's character makes an argument earlier that jazz is dying. Which I don't entirely agree with, actually ... but I think Ryan is talking about a specific kind of jazz, a specific ... somewhat in his mind, encased in amber type of jazz that was played in the jazz clubs or on the big band stages in the '30s, '40s, '50s, maybe into the '60s ... and then John Legend's character comes from a completely other side of the equation.
On his hopes for the movie
I guess I hoped with this movie, both with the jazz within it, but also just with the entire approach to the movie, that it would have a little bit of old and new in it ... just that idea that sometimes it's okay to adapt to modernity a little bit. I think in some way, that's what the characters learn a bit. That you have to preserve what you believe in, you can't compromise too much, but sometimes it's not compromise. Sometimes it's a way to push something forward.