Damien Chazelle has never been one to take the path of least resistance. That was certainly the case when he was mounting La La Land, his ode to the musical’s golden age. At every turn he was told that a project like that, on the scale he wanted, would be an impossible sell. And yet he persevered, delivering to the fall festivals a movie that captured the hearts of all who saw it.
He was the youngest-ever winner of the Best Director Oscar in February when, at just 32, he was crowned for La La Land. But Chazelle already had his eyes fixed forward, diving back into development on First Man, based on the Neil Armstrong biography by James Hansen. As a fellow free spirit, who himself shot for the stars with La La Land—and Whiplash before it—it’s not hard to see why Chazelle was smitten with Armstrong’s story.
How do you reflect on the last nine months of your life?
It’s been crazy. It’s been kind of wonderful, for sure—the whole experience of getting the movie out there, travelling with the movie and opening it in the U.S. and in places around the world. That said, I think I’m also very kind of glad and relieved to be back to my more normal work. The day-to-day work of trying to make stuff. I think I always feel more comfortable in those shoes than I do talking about stuff I’ve made. It helped for sure to have a project or two to be working on during that period. It sort of helped keep me sane. But at a certain point it does become kind of all-consuming, and you have to just go with it.
It can’t be possible to go through an awards run alongside the other frontrunner, Moonlight, and not form something of a bond with that film’s director, Barry Jenkins.
Barry and I first met right at the beginning of Telluride, before we had seen each other’s films. But we knew each other’s earlier films, so I wanted to talk to him about Medicine For Melancholy, and he wanted to talk to me about Guy And Madeline On A Park Bench. I’m really glad for that, in a way, because then we got to see each other’s films that were opening and we wound up, somewhat to our surprise, riding this whole wave together after that. No matter what sort of hopes you might have for your film, it winds up being a longer and more intensive season than you ever think it will be, for better or for worse. And it was really, really nice—I can’t emphasize how nice it was—to have a friendly face during that whole season.
You both appear on our disruptors list this year. How important do you think disruption is to the evolution of this industry?
That’s a big question [Laughs]. Personally, I feel like the best art comes from periods of time where the industry is in some sort of upheaval. The more you hear, “The sky is falling,” the more good work seems to come. You look at the experimentation with sound in the ’30s, or when television came through in the ’50s, and then the end of the studio system in the ’60s and how that led to the New Hollywood of the ’70s.
The optimist in me likes to think that the period we’re living through now in Hollywood, because of questions about exhibition and windows and streaming versus film, rather than being all doom and gloom, it’s actually kind of fertile terrain for new, original and exciting work.
One theme that has emerged from your fellow disruptors has been the notion that the rewards of achieving something are all the greater when you’ve been told to begin with that what you’re doing is impossible. That was certainly true of La La Land.
I had this conversation with Nicholas Britell, the composer who did the music for Moonlight and put up the money for the Whiplash short. We talked about this idea that the more something seems like it doesn’t make sense, and the more it scares you for that reason, the more there’s a reason to do it. It’s obviously the exact opposite mentality the business normally has, for obvious reasons.
But maybe, right now, there’s perhaps a little extra motivation to take those kinds of risks, simply because you need to go that extra mile to convince people to go to a theater. We’re unable to rely on those old formulas; we have to think outside the box. Necessity is the mother of invention. You can breed creativity out of this need to try different approaches to get people to pay attention, because the old approaches just aren’t working anymore.
The more you prove—to yourself and to others—that this is a viable way to make movies, do you have to be careful that you’re not losing that fear?
The good thing for me is that I’m always scared. There’s always the prospect of failure looming large; it’s sort of baked into me. I’ve just tried to figure out what my next project is going to be while I’m working on the current project.
And what is that?
Shortly before beginning prep on La La Land, I started working on this movie about Neil Armstrong and the moon landing, First Man. In fact, the first time I met Ryan [Gosling], it was to talk to him about First Man and not La La Land. It meant that, as soon as La La was done, I could go back into that.
What was it about this material that made you want to do it?
I think it was just how, in some ways, crazy and dangerous the entire enterprise was. You grow up seeing the gilded history of the moon landings, and I thought it would be interesting to strip that away and look at what it took to actually pull this off. What kind of toll was taken on those people who were actually in the cockpit, risking their lives to pull it off.
Do you see some kind of common ground there with what you were just talking about?
I think in that kind of willingness to take risks. It’s a very different world from the risk-taking of making movies, because there you’re talking about creative risks. In this case, actual lives were at stake, and it was a messier and more complex story than the streamlined success story that most people are familiar with.
We’re still finding our way with it. We start shooting at the end of the year, and I’m excited to be digging in full-fledged now.