With 'La La Land,' Emma Stone and director Damien Chazelle aim to show that original musicals aren't all tapped out

In their new musical “La La Land,” Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling perform a six-minute, single-take, tap-dance number while their characters search for a parked Toyota Prius atop a hill in Griffith Park, the sun setting behind them, the Prius key fob occasionally beeping in time with the music.

It’s a moment infused with nostalgia for classic musicals like “Singin’ in the Rain” and “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” but informed by the youthful spirit of its stars and 31-year-old writer-director, Damien Chazelle.

“They figured something out in the older musicals in terms of how to shoot dance and we’ve unlearned it,” Chazelle said in an interview with Stone as “La La Land” screened for enthusiastic Telluride Film Festival audiences over Labor Day weekend after receiving an equally warm reception in Venice. “People talk about shorter attention spans these days and maybe that’s why dance isn’t filmed the same way. I find it a lot more involving when I can see something that’s real and not tinkered with… That is how the sky looks. That is Ryan and Emma dancing. Those are their voices, their feet.”

“La La Land,” Chazelle’s follow-up to his 2014 jazz drama “Whiplash,” will premiere Monday for a wider audience at the Toronto International Film Festival before distributor Lionsgate opens it in theaters starting Dec. 2.

The melancholic romance stars Stone as Mia, an aspiring actress serving coffee on a studio lot, and Gosling as Sebastian, a stubborn jazz pianist who dreams of opening his own club. Both are making their way as members of Los Angeles’ artistic underclass, a life of temp jobs, auditions and freeway traffic jams, when they meet and serve as each other’s creative catalysts. John Legend plays a supporting role, as a more successful, mainstream jazz performer.

With a score by Justin Hurwitz, Chazelle’s Harvard University classmate and “Whiplash” collaborator, and choreography by Mandy Moore (“So You Think You Can Dance” Mandy Moore, not singer/actress Mandy Moore), “La La Land” is a modern rarity: an original musical, with no pre-existing intellectual property or marquee name songwriters. The mix of fantastical music numbers and naturalistic acting feels as if someone had plopped John Cassavetes on the MGM lot in the 1940s.

“I saw this story as so romantic,” Stone said. “These two people somehow find each other when they’re each in a rut, and inspire each other to follow the paths they’ve been dreaming about all along. In a way, that is a kind of soulmate.”

The characters represent different sides of Chazelle, he said, particularly a lonely period when he first moved to Los Angeles in 2008 hoping to begin his filmmaking career. (It didn’t take long -- the director’s first feature, the jazz romance “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench,” hit theaters in 2010).

Stone said she and Gosling brought their own excruciating, real-life audition experiences to the movie, including one incident Stone’s character endures that happened to Gosling, when he was performing a crying scene and the casting director took a phone call in the middle of his audition.

“I’ve had it where no one looks up from their paper, ‘cause they’ve written you off the moment you walk in the room,” said Stone, who, despite having acted since she was a teenager and earned an Oscar nomination for 2014’s “Birdman,” said she auditioned as recently as the past year. “It feels pretty nuts, especially if you really want the part. ‘Thanks for coming in’ means it’s never gonna happen. It is a little heartbreaking.”

Chazelle wrote the script for “La La Land” in 2010, and began a process of hearing what he called, “very harsh nos” from potential financiers.

They said “no one wants to see an original musical,” Chazelle said. “It’s this weird movie that needs to be both a fantastical musical at a certain scale and yet this realistic love story... All that, plus it’s a pretty young team in terms of me and Justin, unknown and unproven. It’s one thing if it’s an original musical with a songwriter people know. This is me and my college friend saying, ‘Hey, trust us.’”

The tide of “no” changed after “Whiplash,” which earned five Oscar nominations, including a screenplay nomination for Chazelle and a supporting actor win for J.K. Simmons, and grossed nearly $40 million worldwide off a $3.3 million production budget.

Chazelle said his budget for “La La Land” was “somewhere in the 20s” and the money shows on the screen, in scenes like an ambitious dance sequence set on an EZ Pass ramp connecting the 105 and 110 freeways, and in a flying number inside the Griffith Observatory.

Stone, who first met with Chazelle while she was playing Sally Bowles in “Cabaret” on Broadway, had studied some dance as a child, but had to learn tap and ballroom dancing for the role.

“I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the Laker girls?” Stone said, when asked to describe the style of dance she took as a child. “It’s called ‘pom dancing.’ And a year of ballet. But they told me in ballet class that I smiled too much.”

During a four-month rehearsal period at their production offices in Atwater Village, Chazelle held cast and crew screenings of classic films, including “Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” a primary inspiration. Stone, whose favorite film is the 1931 Charlie Chaplin romantic comedy “City Lights,” relished the chance to dive into Hollywood history, but found some of her most helpful inspiration in clips from old musicals where the actors flubbed a note or a dance move.

“We aren’t Fred and Ginger, even though Ryan is an incredible dancer,” Stone said. “It was nice to know that if we fell on our feet or if we laughed -- in the song ‘City of Stars’ I laughed twice because I was out of tune -- Damien was celebrating rather than yelling ‘Cut! We’re going back. Make it perfect!’”

Moore, the choreographer, echoed the idea that emotion was more important than technique, which Stone said was key when they shot the Prius scene, which had to be completed during the brief magic-hour window at sunset, leaving a total of eight takes to get it right over two days of shooting.

“[Moore] tried to impart to us that, as much as we need to be technical and think of all of our steps, it’s going to be about our faces,” Stone said. “We need to see the joy and connection. We need to look at each other and smile at each other. We need to keep acting. It’s so easy to start biting your lip and focusing and forgetting the character. You prepare, prepare, prepare and throw it out. It’s got to be in your body.”

Chazelle wrote “La La Land” during a period in his life when the movie industry seemed out of reach — though his first feature earned good reviews during its festival run, it had a tiny audience at theaters. He found himself in a very different place in Telluride, where audiences gave his film multiple standing ovations, critics praised its audacity and intimacy and Tom Hanks interrupted a Q&A of his own film, “Sully,” to encourage audiences to see Chazelle’s. On Saturday, the Venice Film Festival jury awarded Stone its best actress prize for her performance, often a harbinger of an Oscar nomination.

In one scene in “La La Land,” Mia dismisses a play she has written for herself as possibly too nostalgic. She and Sebastian are fighting about two ways of looking at art — he believes if it’s great, it doesn’t matter if anyone likes it, while she believes art needs an audience.

“That’s the neurotic in me, inoculating myself against criticism,” Chazelle said of the “nostalgia” line. “It’s a little bit of a grapple I’ve always had in my head. This idea that, ‘You know what, if no one ever sees this movie, that’s fine.’ But then you finish it and you start to bring it out into the world and you realize, no no, you really actually want people to like it.”

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rebecca.keegan@latimes.com

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