Since the start of awards season, the story has been the same: There’s been the Big Three – Damien Chazelle’s fizzy musical “La La Land,” Barry Jenkins’ poetic coming-of-age story “Moonlight” and Kenneth Lonergan’s wrenching drama “Manchester by the Sea” — and then there’s been everything else.
Heading into the Oscars on Feb. 26, “La La Land,” a romantic fable about an aspiring actress and a struggling jazz pianist, leads the pack with 14 nominations, tying the record. “Moonlight,” which centers on a gay African American boy growing up in poverty in Miami, follows with eight, while “Manchester,” the story of an emotionally shattered man who becomes the guardian of his late brother’s teenage son, has earned six. All three films are up for best picture.
For Chazelle, 32, Jenkins, 37, and Lonergan, 54, who are each nominated for directing as well as for their films’ screenplays, it’s been a heady time — and a grueling one. On a late afternoon in early January, as the three gathered in Beverly Hills for a wide-ranging conversation, Chazelle was fretting about getting sick from burning the candle at both ends and Jenkins was feeling fried after catching an early-morning flight from New York.
But as the three filmmakers discussed the journeys they’ve been on with their movies, the overall arcs of their careers and the state of Hollywood and the current political climate, any sense of fatigue gave way to their evident passion for storytelling and admiration for one another’s work. Though they’re at different points in their lives — with Lonergan the grizzled, wryly dyspeptic veteran to the younger, more openly idealistic Chazelle and Jenkins — they fell naturally into the joking, easygoing camaraderie of filmmakers sharing in the same fight.
“See,” Jenkins said at one point, “if the whole season was like this, it would be awesome.”
How are you guys holding up on the awards campaign trail? Damien, when I interviewed you a couple of years ago while you were going through this for the first time with “Whiplash,” you said you felt like a deer in the headlights.
Chazelle: Yeah, I thought that would get better but it hasn’t. I still feel that way.
Lonergan: When I came back to the circuit after the Christmas break, I was going to one of the events and my wife was like, “Are you enjoying this at all?” I said, “No.” She was like, “That’s wrong — you should be enjoying this.” That’s when I decided to be more positive.
Chazelle: And now you have this sunny new disposition!
Lonergan: [deadpan] I know. It’s freaking everyone out.
Barry, this is your first go-round. What’s your experience been like?
Jenkins: It’s definitely a deer-in-the-headlights feeling, but you kind of get used to it after a while. It’s weird to process. I don’t understand everything that’s going on, and I don’t have control over anything that’s going on.
It’s weird to process. I don’t understand everything that’s going on, and I don’t have control over anything that’s going on.
It’s an interesting dynamic because you guys are obviously spending a lot of time together and becoming friends, but at the same time you’re in competition. Is it hard to tune that part of it out?
Lonergan: A little but the competition part is to sell tickets and get people interested in the movies, so I don’t think it should be anything more than that. I don’t think that the arts are naturally competitive. “I won’t see ‘Casablanca’ because I like ‘To Have and Have Not’ ” — that just doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Chazelle: Yeah, I think that’s the accepting state of mind I’ve gotten to about all this insanity. The extent to which it is a kind of game-show atmosphere does shine some sort of spotlight. It might be a very messy, flawed means to an end — and it also doesn’t always get it right — but if all it does is shine a light every year on just a few movies that right now need the light more than ever, then that I think almost kind of makes everything worth it.
Otherwise I have a dim view of what Hollywood would do. I think that they make movies that aren’t tentpoles reluctantly, and they enter into this game because there’s this kind of luster.
The conventional wisdom at the studios is that the audience for adult-oriented movies is disappearing. Do you think the success of these three movies gives the lie to that idea?
Lonergan: There is an audience, and it’s all over the country. This is one of the only businesses that deliberately shrinks its own base by saying, “18-to-22-year-olds go see movies, so that’s who we’re going to make movies for.”
Chazelle: I used to hope there was a certain kind of fairness to the system where, if a certain kind of movie died an ignominious death, it would lessen the need to make those kinds of movies. And you find the opposite: If it’s the studios’ kind of movie, it actually doesn’t matter how it performs — they’re still going to make those kinds of movies.
What aspect of each other’s movies particularly impressed you?
Jenkins: I was away from L.A. in Telluride the first time I saw “La La Land,” and I could see my apartment in the background of the opening sequence. I never get nostalgic for L.A., but I was like, “He nailed it. This makes me feel like I’m back home for a hot second.” I remember Damien from [his 2009 directorial debut] “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench” and to see that same voice on such a huge canvas — that’s what you hope for with anybody who does this, that you retain your voice but the skills and the expression grow.
Chazelle: Right back at you. There are some movies that capture the world in a way that makes you see it differently, whether it’s a Terrence Malick movie or a Spielberg movie. Watching “Moonlight” on a big screen, it felt like a giant, expansive experience, down to every detail.
And with Kenny — I’m not sure there’s anyone who can capture human behavior right now the way his movies do. There was a lot of stuff in “Manchester” where I was just like, “I wouldn’t have thought of that…. I hate you, Kenny.” There’s a lot of rage. [laughs]
Lonergan: The characters in “Moonlight” are in so much trouble and you never know which way the story is going to go — and it’s just always in a way that’s completely truthful and real and human. The characters are never undercut for one minute emotionally.
And in “La La Land,” the last sequence — the what-could-have-been sequence — just blew me away. I don’t know how you conceived it, executed it or edited it. It’s a completely different approach to emotional reality. Sometimes when you see a musical that’s really good, you’re just like, “Everything else is like nothing compared to this.” It just takes you to somewhere you can’t go in any other way.
We’re obviously in this intense and divisive political moment right now. Does that change the way you look at your movies at all?
Lonergan: You do find yourself reevaluating it and thinking, “What is the role of this thing that was made earlier in light of what’s happening now?”
I feel that all these movies have a tremendous positive relation to the terrifying things that are going on in different ways. Beyond the sheer escapism, I think “La La Land” is about love and imagination and freedom of thought and a way of looking at the world that’s beautiful and full of feeling — not condemning, exclusionary and viciously angry.
Jenkins: I love that the movies are all so different and yet we’re all here in the same conversation. It’s an affirmation of something. They’re all in some way representing the same thing: What’s possible when you decide to tell your story.
Jenkins: It’s weird to me talking about race and “Moonlight” because I don’t think race plays a role in the theme of the film in any overt way.
The movie was 3 ½ or four years in the making, so I couldn’t have made it in anticipation of these things. But I can’t deny that, for certain audiences, it took on a different connotation and a different level of importance after the election. Certain people wanted to take possession of the film to place a stamp, like, “Yes, this movie is America.”
I think as an artist you never want to try to plan for those things because then you’re trying to make “an important film” or “a statement film” and that is the death of anything that’s intrinsically nuanced. But that’s the world that I’m from, so I couldn’t do anything but make the film in that voice. And unfortunately we don’t see films at a high enough rate from people who have that voice.
In recent years, we’ve seen more and more directors being plucked from smaller independent movies to direct huge studio tentpole movies. What do you guys make of that trend?
Lonergan: I’m waiting to be plucked.
Really? I know you’ve said you love “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Do you have a big sci-fi movie about aliens in your back pocket?
Lonergan: No, but I wish I did because I’d love to make one. If I think of one, that’s what I’m going to do.
Jenkins: We’re in Hollywood, brah. I could pitch you a reboot. [laughs]
I don’t choose to make movies as small as the movies I’ve made. The combined budget of my two films is far under $5 million, but it’s just by necessity that it ends up being that way. I think we all have stories that we’d like to do that demand more resources. I watch “La La Land” and I think, “I’d like to see this guy rescue the DC universe.”
Chazelle: What I always get struck by with this big-versus-small thing is, purely on the level of craft, there are tiny movies in budget that feel giant and giant movies in budget that feel really small.
Something like “Moonlight” or “Son of Saul” last year — you watch that on a big screen and to me it feels more epic than a lot of the superhero movies that are obviously shot on subpar video and just look like TV projected in a theater. I think it just has to do with strong choices and a distinctive viewpoint.
Speaking of TV, there are so many film people moving into that world because it seems to offer more creative freedom in a lot of ways. Is that something that interests you?
Jenkins: I’m working on a limited series right now based on the Colson Whitehead book “The Underground Railroad.” When I saw “House of Cards” and what Steven Soderbergh did with “The Knick,” there’s an individual aesthetic. There’s a cinematic voice.
What about you, Damien? You seem like a cinematic true believer.
Chazelle: It’s true, I’m definitely very romantic about the movie theater experience. But I’ve been dipping my toe into the television or long-form space. I’m certainly fascinated by it.
I’m of two minds about this because I want to preserve the sanctity of the movie theater, but you have to admit there’s also something interesting about the blurring of the boundaries between long-form and features. Maybe, like Barry was saying, as long as there’s a singular voice, that makes it cinema.
I want to preserve the sanctity of the movie theater, but you have to admit there’s also something interesting about the blurring of the boundaries.
Lonergan: I would be really excited if the blurring also went in the reverse direction. I’m hopeful that the films that are getting attention this year will finally get financiers to back more movies that are made in this way. I’m hoping that they’ll see, in a cold, calculating way, that it’s a good business decision to back good movies.
If you look at the history of movies, it’s only the last 20 or 30 years where so-called intimate stories were off-limits to big movies. Since the late ’80s, there’s been this proliferation of this template. Every movie is either about “believe in yourself” or “trust your heart, not your head.” I want just to see one big-budget Hollywood movie that’s like, “You know what? Trust your head. Just think a little.” [laughs]
Jenkins: I have faith it’s going to get back.
Chazelle: I feel like it’s a little bit of an ebb and flow. Whether it’s the crumbling of the monopolies that paved the way for the ’70s or the stuff that happened leading into the ’90s, you can isolate moments when the industry was shaken to its core and was in a real self-questioning phase and it created these holes that movies like “Easy Rider” or “Pulp Fiction” crawled through. That’s the biggest reason why I like seeing new players like Amazon and don’t feel a sense of alarm about that.
I don’t think the ’70s was some kind of miracle age that descended from the heavens or that people were smarter back then. I think there were industrial reasons that led to people storming the gates. I think that can happen again. And maybe it’s happening already.