Key creative talents behind Lionsgate’s La La Land and Hacksaw Ridge took the stage this morning to a packed and enthused room at Deadline’s The Contenders event at the DGA Theatre. For La La Land, Emma Stone appeared alongside writing-directing prodigy Damien Chazelle, composer Justin Hurwitz and musician-turned-actor John Legend. She hammed it up for the cheering audience and discussed her unorthodox, unofficial audition for the role of Mia.
Stone told moderator Pete Hammond of Deadline that Chazelle and Hurwitz had come to New York to see her in Cabaret — on a night the actress had a cold. “That felt like my unofficial audition that I didn’t get to pick. ‘You came to that performance? I was on cold medicine,'” Stone joked, suggesting that her time on Broadway was the best possible preparation for the role. “It definitely helped in preparing for the role because I felt I had a certain stamina I wouldn’t have had before in any capacity,” she said.
Adored by critics in its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, Chazelle’s follow-up to his Best Picture Oscar nominee Whiplash follows a jazz pianist and an aspiring actress struggling to make ends meet in a city known for crushing hopes and breaking hearts. Set in modern Los Angeles — and even featuring a musical number for which the director shut down part of an L.A. freeway — the original musical about everyday life explores the joy and pain of pursuing your dreams.
Although Whiplash was made first, per Chazelle, that was only because his and Hurwitz’s dream project was all but impossible to get financed. “For some very strange reason, nobody wanted to make an original jazz musical,” he laughed. “It’s really bizarre.” The director noted that Whiplash was a fairly angry movie, which he says was no coincidence. “I put my frustration into that,” Chazelle shared. The film opens December 9 in limited release then goes wide the following weekend.
Also appearing at the Lionsgate panel were Oscar-winning director Mel Gibson — bringing a movie to audiences for the first time in 10 years — and sound designer Kevin O’Connell, who discussed their experiences working on Hacksaw Ridge with real-life veterans.
A war drama based on the true story of WWII conscientious objector Desmond Doss, who refused to carry a gun through battle yet saved the lives of 75 men, the film stars Andrew Garfield in the lead role. Also premiering in Venice, Hacksaw Ridge bowed to a standing ovation.
During the panel moderated by Deadline’s Mike Fleming Jr., Gibson related an emotional anecdote about a veteran who auditioned for the film, re-enacting the moment he lost his limbs to war. “It was cathartic for him; he was emotional, and afterwards he was elated,” the Oscar-winning filmmaker said. “He said it was one of the most therapeutic things he could ever imagine doing. We were all in tears.”
Gibson spoke about what compelled him to make the film, noting that Doss is “kind of the pinnacle of heroism. I just found it inspiring.”
Speaking about the film’s staggering violence, Gibson suggested that the portrayal of war is necessary to understand PTSD and other mental illnesses treated with so little empathy stateside. “The ferocity of the battle gives the audience an idea of what it’s like to be at the epicenter of that kind of carnage, to have some empathy for the vets,” he said.
Hacksaw Ridge was filmed in Australia on a relatively low budget of about $40M. The film was written by Andrew Knight and All the Way scribe Robert Schenkkan.
Opening this weekend, Hacksaw Ridge is expected to gross around $12.5 million.