Editors Note: The following cover story appeared in the December 7th issue of Awardsline.
Try naming an original Hollywood musical in recent years that has worked at the box office.
No, not Broadway adaptations like Les Miserables and Mamma Mia!. We can thank 2002 Oscar Best Picture winner Chicago for reigniting the then-dormant Great White Way genre on the big screen. Enchanted doesn’t count because that’s a title propped by the Walt Disney princess brand. And Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!, Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe and Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You—all of them are technically jukebox musicals.
We’re talking original, big song-and-dance titles, like MGM’s 1952 Singin’ in the Rain or the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers 1935 vehicle Top Hat, that were built for the big screen, and once upon a time resonated with the masses.
Chances are you’ve named few, if any original Hollywood musicals, which only provides production executives with statistical box office evidence to thumb down any greenlight of the genre, in a superhero and Star Wars dominant time that’s created a two class system of the haves and the indie have-nots at the box office (at date of post, few if any arthouse movies from indie labels cracked $26 million at the domestic box office).
Desperate times call for broken rules, and La La Land’s creators—and Lionsgate executives—are looking to defy all expectations with the release of Whiplash Oscar nominee Damien Chazelle’s original musical, an ode to the City of Angels, the MGM musicals of yore and Jacques Demy’s French new wave trio of Lola, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort.
For Lionsgate, La La Land is a $20 million-plus gamble—shot in 35mm, in 93 location sets and 48 exterior locations, with 1,600 extras, on two cameras, with anamorphic lenses, over 40 days—that could potentially deliver the studio’s first Best Picture Oscar win in 11 years, since Crash surprised voters. La La Land is also being released under the Summit logo, and the last time that banner collected a Best Picture Oscar win was in 2009 for The Hurt Locker (Lionsgate acquired Summit in 2012).
As of this weekend, La La Land is off to a promising start looking at an opening of $850K at five New York and Los Angeles locations; a figure that beats the opening of Fox Searchlight’s indie 2014 indie wonder The Grand Budapest Hotel ($811K). Though La La Land has a long way ahead of it to dance, Grand Budapest Hotel went on to gross $59.3M, a bulk of which it made before even arriving at the Academy Awards. With a per theater of $170K, La La Land will own the best opening theater average of 2016, and the third best opening PTA ever for a non-major studio release behind Kevin Smith’s Red State ($204K) and Grand Budapest Hotel ($202K).
Achieving Oscar glory with La La Land should be enough to make Lionsgate executives dance like the extras in the film’s opening LA highway musical number, “Another Day of Sun”, giving the distributor some long-needed esteem in a year where they’ve battled such $140 million big budget disasters as Gods of Egypt, and the cinematic demise of their once popular YA franchise The Divergent Series with Allegiant.
“An original Hollywood musical is an unusual decision for any studio in this day,” explains Lionsgate Motion Pictures Group co-president Erik Feig, “but at Lionsgate and Summit, we often make left-of-center decisions. When you look at the success of both companies under one roof, whether it’s a Tyler Perry comedy, The Hunger Games, Twilight or Warm Bodies, or on the TV side with Orange is the New Black, what’s interesting is that most of what’s worked has been unconventional bets across the board in most genres. When we first made Now You See Me, prior to that, no other movie about magic had been successful.”
For Chazelle, his best friend composer Justin Hurwitz, and producers Fred Berger and Jordan Horowitz, La La Land is a testament to passion paid off, having developed the movie over the last six years; a complete defiance of odds in a town where putting round pegs into round holes is the legit way to play it safe on screen. Flight scribe John Gatins wisely said a few years ago that, when it comes to the challenges of getting a great screenplay on the big screen, “Great movies aren’t born. They fight their way to life”.
The same could be aptly said about La La Land. One would think closing down the 110-105 interchange twice during its production, with a slew of extras, for the “Another Day of Sun” sequence was the most grueling moment during filming, complete with scorching 100-degree plus temperatures, and a traffic jam of cars blocked for the shot. However, getting La La Land off the ground was indeed the hardest. As Chazelle couches the six-year production of La La Land from soup to nuts, “It’s the longest-running passion project.”
Says the director: “There wasn’t a lot of excitement in the room when we initially pitched La La Land around town. Here we are with an original musical, one that incorporates jazz, and a love story where the protagonists may not wind up together; everything was a further death knell. The genre itself, when it’s not based on a pre-existing property, is a scary thing, but the fact that there haven’t been any in a while was part of the appeal.”
La La Land was built before Whiplash became a reality. That movie initially started as a Sundance Film Festival short, and later became a feature that won the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize at the Park City, UT fest before embarking on its Oscar quest.
Buddies since their Harvard days, when they performed in the indie pop band Chester French, Chazelle and Hurwitz soon left to pursue their love of film and score, making a black-and-white $50k 16mm musical film in college entitled Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench. In many ways, that film laid the template for La La Land. Similar to their latest endeavor, Guy and Madeline was inspired by Demy’s work and the MGM musical canon, with a logline that bears similarity to La La Land, which follows Emma Stone as aspiring actress Mia, who falls for burgeoning jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) who yearns to own his own club. Their glowing romance is set against the sunset of modern day LA, but their careers soon take precedence and complications ensue. In Guy, a jazz trumpeter meets Madeline, and although he embarks on a quest for a more gregarious paramour, ultimately the two seem destined to be together.
“Boston as a romantic metropolis isn’t a role that city traditionally plays in movies,” says Chazelle about Guy and Madeline, “but in La La Land, here was a chance to take a city that disappears behind-the-scenes in most films and use it for a romantic playground for lovers.”
It was during Guy and Madeline that Chazelle also found his cinematic style, with his ‘whipping’ camera visuals; a jerking shot between two subjects. In Guy and Madeline, we see it used between a musician and a dancer, while in Whiplash it’s employed during the intense final concert scene between J.K. Simmons’ acerbic conservatory instructor Fletcher and Miles Teller’s masochistic drummer Andrew. In La La Land, ‘the whip’ is used for dramatic purposes between Mia and Sebastian at The Lighthouse Café.
Guy and Madeline received great reviews coming out of its premiere at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival. Chazelle and Hurwitz would move to Los Angeles around 2007, and within less than four years began cracking La La Land. During the James Schamus/John Lyons era at Focus Features in 2011, the classic label had an in-house program that paired young producers with young filmmakers. Matthew Plouffe, now a producer at Tobey Maguire’s Material, was a Focus executive who brought Chazelle and Hurwitz together with Berger and Horowitz.
“We sat down with Damien and he pitched us an original musical set in Hollywood,” remembers Horowitz. “It’s a love story between an actress and a jazz pianist. We were just like, ‘Literally everything about that is probably wrong, so let’s do it.’ The program was pushing us to take risks and do ambitious projects. The intention was to do it for a low budget, and we were like, ‘Let’s actually just make the version of this film that we think feels rights.’”
From the onset, Chazelle and Hurwitz knew that there would always be an opening dance on an LA freeway, as well as a lift-off-into-space moment in the middle, set at the Griffith Observatory. Not to mention the twist ending between Gosling and Stone’s star-crossed lovers. Another element that remained intact from early pre-production was Hurwitz’s “Mia and Sebastian’s” melody, which he calls “the emotional heart of the movie,” a melody that’s initially heard when the actress spots the pianist plucking away in the nightclub in a love-at-first-sight moment.
La La Land would eventually stall at Focus, however the rights easily reverted back to Chazelle, Berger and Horowitz. At this time, Chazelle’s Whiplash script was going around town and gaining traction. After the short won at Sundance, the La La Land producers knew it would be another year before any movement was made on the musical. Whiplash’s feature wins at Sundance in 2014 marked the arrival of Chazelle to the wider world, and La La Land “became a real conversation,” says Horowitz. The project was on fire with a number of suitors, particularly those on the foreign sales side.
Cut to a WME party in Park City that year where Feig met Chazelle. Lionsgate had a bid in on Whiplash, but Sony Pictures Classics would ultimately acquire U.S., Germany and Australia for an estimated $2.5 million. It’s here that Feig learned about Chazelle’s offbeat musical, and he was instantly hooked. For starters, at Summit, Feig presided over and produced the Step Up dance franchise, which grossed $651 million worldwide. Chazelle spoke about Emma Watson and Miles Teller starring in La La Land, and those were two boxes that Feig automatically checked off, as Lionsgate was coming off the actors’ respective projects The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Divergent.
However, what was vital to the La La Land producers was adhering to Chazelle’s vision at the right production cost, complete with an eight-week shoot and a three-month rehearsal period. The demand was turning two actors into Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, with the male protagonist a complete piano virtuoso. A traditional foreign sales model wouldn’t propel La La Land to where the filmmakers needed to shoot it properly.
Lionsgate, with its foreign output deals, was able to trigger better incentives, and gave the La La Land creators the perfect bull’s-eye to make the version of the movie they wanted, with more than enough resources and not jeopardizing Chazelle’s vision. While there was an eagerness among other suitors, their suggestions of replacing jazz songs with pop music, and asks for Mia and Sebastian remaining together, didn’t jive with what Chazelle was building. Lionsgate, on the other hand, got it.
Over coffee, following their initial encounter at Sundance, Feig and Lionsgate Motion Picture Group co-chairman Patrick Wachsberger wowed Chazelle and his producers with their knowledge and excitement for musicals.
“I always loved the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers classic old Hollywood songbook,” says Feig, “but when it came to talking about Jacques Demy, Patrick, who is French, knew shot-by-shot everything in his movies.” Another asset for Lionsgate: unlike a jukebox musical where they would have to license the songs, the distributor would own them with La La Land.
While Chazelle and his producers were planning to shoot in 23 or 24 days, Lionsgate provided the La La Land team more resources, increasing filming to 40 days, and providing enough financial allowances for dance scene extras and more locations. For Feig, it was about giving them enough to make their love letter to the City of Angels.
Internally at Lionsgate, La La Land fever spread throughout all their departments. Not just the project executives, but other executives would crowd into watching dailies of the film, with Feig continually being floored by how Chazelle would resolve plot points and details in an organic way, whereby development suits didn’t need to dispense story notes. “We would talk about how we’re making a movie about jazz, and how some people don’t like jazz. Then Damien addresses how people don’t like jazz in a Sebastian and Mia date scene,” says Feig.
He also recalls that, during the course of a day, it wasn’t uncommon to walk through the office and hear people blaring the song “City of Stars” from the movie. “It’s at that moment you realize, we actually could be onto something.”
When it came to casting, the mandate wasn’t necessarily to find two big stars who could revive this yesteryear genre at the box office. Rather, per Berger, “We needed a classic Hollywood singing and dancing duo who could be the beating heart of the movie.”
Much has been made about the casting of La La Land, with some of that melodrama played out in the press. During the Whiplash awards press tour two years ago, Teller was beaming about being a part of La La Land with Watson, after Chazelle approached him about the role during production on Whiplash.
In fact, La La Land was greenlit at Lionsgate with both Teller and Watson. In a recent conversation with Deadline, Teller had no comment when it came to the La La Land casting situation, however, he shared his frustrations with Esquire magazine in an August 2015 article. Recent reports in the trades surfaced that Teller was holding out for more money (above the $4 million offered) and, as negotiations dragged out, his window of availability for La La Land began to close. For both personal reasons and another project going late, Watson was unable to commit to La La Land, and ultimately found her way into Disney’s live-action Beauty and the Beast.
For the filmmakers, the turnover in casting was no harm, no foul; rather the nature of the beast when you’re developing a project for six years, through different permutations. When the possibility of casting Stone and Gosling arose, it made the actuary table for La La Land’s finances look better, with more box office comps supporting the film’s potential success. As such, Lionsgate could increase the budget.
Stone and Gosling first played opposite of each other as lovebirds in 2011’s Crazy, Stupid, Love ($84.4 million domestic, $142.9 million global box office) followed by their respective roles as a moll and an LAPD sergeant with eyes for each other in the 2013 film Gangster Squad ($46 million domestic, $105.2 million worldwide).
“They have a proven chemistry together,” says Chazelle about landing the duo. “Even though they’ve done two movies together, this feels so fresh and new for them. They’re great friends, and they were very passionate about getting it right.”
“They have real, grounded voices that remind us of the French New wave ones,” says Hurwitz. “Emma has a beautiful, gorgeous, airy voice that is pure, vulnerable and breathy. She’s not a belter. Ryan’s voice is authentic; it doesn’t sound like anybody else’s. He brings a character to his voice. At times, there was an optimism that tipped into more somber tones, and we loved how subdued Ryan’s voice is. It wasn’t traditional.”
Rumor is that La La Land landed in front of Stone thanks to her then-boyfriend Andrew Garfield, who learned of the project and slipped her the script. Chazelle ventured to New York to watch Stone in her 2014 Broadway turn as Sally Bowles in Cabaret at Studio 54. Two days later, they met for lunch at a Brooklyn diner. As a child, Stone cut her teeth in musical theater at Phoenix’s Valley Youth Theatre, performing in such stage productions as Titanic, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and The Wiz. Chazelle was aware of Gosling’s chops from the thespian’s two-man rock band Dead Man’s Bones, as well as the actor’s a capella rendition of the Doris Fisher-Allan Roberts standard “You Always Hurt The One You Love” in Blue Valentine. An added bonus was that Gosling played piano, and the role called for someone who didn’t require a double.
Gosling recounts that many people suggested he meet Chazelle, and the two went out for a drink at a bar near the Drive actor’s house. “The drunker we got, the more passionate Damien got about making movies that you couldn’t watch on your phone,” remembers Gosling. “He wanted to make films that people would want to go see in a theatre, with an audience.” Chazelle brought up La La Land, and Gosling asked to hear the music, which he received before he arrived back to his house. From there, the music stuck in the actor’s head. “We had never discussed my being a part of the film, so I was just happy to know that a guy like him was out there planning on making a film like that. A few weeks later, I got a call from him asking if I still knew how to dance.”
Stone admits, “it was unbeknown to me that Ryan and Damien met,” but once she heard, she was stoked. When asked to expound on her organic, on-screen chemistry with Gosling, she tells the story about how the duo were asked to improvise together during Crazy Stupid Love, and how they got the opportunity to do so again in the falling-in-love scenes of La La Land. “I grew up doing improv and we immediately established a rapport where we really had to listen to each other,” Stone recalls. “There are some actors who are island actors; their performance isn’t going to change no matter what you do. They’re working on their side of things and they don’t move in a fluid way. Ryan isn’t that way, and I’m not that way. And that openness to that way of working establishes a mutual respect. It’s kind of a lucky thing.”
While most of the musical numbers were pre-recorded, Stone, who took voice, tap and ballroom lessons, asked to sing a couple of songs live on set. “Especially, ‘Audition’,” says the actress about a middle moment in the film where she breaks away from an audition to croon about the aunt who inspired her to become an actress.
“I couldn’t imagine lip-syncing that. It is a monologue, and would be rather messy. Coming off of Cabaret and its end number, I can’t even imagine lip-syncing that. It was important for me and for the character that the song be performed live.” “City of Stars” was another tune performed live so that it would be more diegetic, given its intimate setting.
Gosling adds that Chazelle wanted both he and Stone to be able to sing live and with pre-recorded tracks while they were shooting. “That way he had the option in the edit to either make the scene more heightened, with the pre-record, or make it more vulnerable with the live take,” says Gosling.
Ask the actors what their challenging scenes were, and Gosling shares that he was working “about four hours a day, for three months, on a piece of music that I was meant to be able to execute in one take, without any sneaky edits or mistakes. It just so happened, for scheduling purposes that this scene had to be shot on my first day of production.”
For Stone, “it was the dinner fight sequence [with Ryan] in a small apartment. We improvised a lot, but it was about finding that moment where eventually the record scratches and the music stops between them. Damien, Ryan and I had to get to that point, and it was painful.”
Meanwhile, well before production, Lionsgate discussed the risks of the film’s ending in which Sebastian and Mia (gulp) break up. “We saw that it worked in The Notebook, Casablanca and Titanic, which are defined as the most romantic classics ever. Even in Annie Hall the couple doesn’t wind up together. It’s the Socratic Method and there’s no question we should not get to see them together,” explains Feig.
And despite how ambitious the idea of an original Hollywood musical might sound, there’s a universal through-line that runs through the project that any audience 13-35 watching it on the big screen can live vicariously through: similar to The Notebook and Twilight, La La Land is about falling madly in love for the first time, told in a fresh genre that’s been turned on its head.
Says Feig, in explaining Lionsgate’s business model, “We often ask, how do you compete in a world of $100 million CGI spectacles? Well, we don’t out-CGI spectacle them. We bring something new to the table.”