The romantic musical “La La Land,” with its dreamy Technicolor dance sequences set against a glittering Los Angeles, has won over audiences and seems on its way to winning multiple Oscars — it’s already grabbed a record-tying 14 nominations. But six years ago when producers Fred Berger and Jordan Horowitz became involved in the project, the film seemed like a long shot.
Berger and Horowitz met director Damien Chazelle in 2011, two years after he released his first feature, “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench,” which he made mostly while an undergraduate at Harvard with a budget of $60,000. It premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and got strong reviews but had almost no box-office impact. Even so, Chazelle was invited to participate in Focus Features’ first Story Camp, a workshop for emerging filmmakers. The three met at Hugo’s in West Hollywood.
“Damien pitched us on doing an original Los Angeles-set musical that was both a throwback to the MGM-style musicals but also referenced the Jacques Demy French musicals,” Horowitz said. “And we said, ‘Great, let’s do it.’ He just came with such a clear-eyed and confident vision and ambition for this film he wanted to make.”
Marc Platt, a veteran film producer, signed on. But before Chazelle could tackle a film as ambitious as “La La Land,” he had to make something that would get attention. The result was “Whiplash,” a 2014 film about an aspiring jazz drummer trying to impress his abusive instructor. Chazelle based it on his own experiences in a competitive high school jazz band and has admitted it was made out of frustration while trying to get “La La Land” off the ground. It was the opening film at the Sundance Film Festival and did surprisingly well at the box office. It also received three Oscars. Its success helped Chazelle win the financial support of Lionsgate to back “La La Land.”
“My favorite exercise is showing people this rip reel [equivalent to a demo] that Damien cut together about 5 1/2 years ago, which is a collection of all the tonal references and visual references set to the music that Justin Hurwitz, our composer, had composed at the time,” Berger said. “People almost start tearing up when they see this rip reel, having been now familiar with the film, because it’s so staggeringly close in vision and tone and scale and scope.”
The role of a producer can be confusing, and it often refers to someone who raises the money to get the film made. But, Berger says, “a true producer is involved in every aspect and helps both protect the vision and the filmmaker and also push every element further to its most ambitious ends. And in this case, I think we were as immersive in the process as producers can be.”
Berger, 35, and Horowitz, 36, share a similar career trajectory. Both grew up in Westchester, N.Y., and even played for Jewish temple league basketball teams. They moved to New York around the same time to work in the film industry, then relocated to L.A. at nearly the same time. While they each have several independent film credits, “La La Land” is by far the most successful film either has produced.
“La La Land” stars Emma Stone, as a struggling actress named Mia, and Ryan Gosling, as Seb a jazz pianist who dreams of opening his own club. From the earliest days, Berger says, Chazelle and the team envisioned those actors playing the parts.
“It was always Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in our heads,” Berger said. “And it was always an impossibility that we would get them, also in our heads, because they were just so perfect that we never let ourselves believe they would do this film. So we were always looking for who were the best replicas of them.”
In 2014, as “Whiplash” was on the awards circuit, Chazelle met the two stars separately. As it happened, both Gosling and Stone were fans of old musicals and had always wanted to be in a musical. They replaced two younger stars, Miles Teller (of “Whiplash”) and Emma Watson, who had initially been cast but were dropped before rehearsals began.
“If you sit with Damien in a room, there will be a moment where your eyes go wide because there’s an articulateness that is just extraordinary and kind of unparalleled in my experience, that gets you as excited about whatever he’s talking about, no matter how esoteric or obscure,” Horowitz said. “It’s just so rooted in a sincere passion for cinema that you just want to go on that ride with him no matter what.”
“La La Land” opens with a dazzling song and dance number, “Another Day of Sun,” on a freeway overpass during a traffic jam near downtown Los Angeles. It required 30 dancers, 100 extras, at least 60 cars and six months of planning. It was carefully rehearsed in the parking lot of their production office in Atwater Village, with Chazelle shooting the scene on his iPhone.
“It was a rush, but it’s one of the most challenging and yet exhilarating shoot days of our entire careers,” Berger said. “We’d been living with that scene for six years. Before there was a script, the first question we asked ourselves is how do we get people to fall in love with L.A., this city that everyone thinks they hate. And we decided we had to lean into the clichés and notify people that we were in on the joke, and understood that there was traffic and no seasons and insular people dreaming of stardom, right off the bat.”
Another iconic scene in the film is Stone and Gosling’s first dance duet, a tap sequence set at dusk on a hilltop in Griffith Park, with the twinkling lights of the Valley in the background. It needed to be a single six-minute take, and the crew had two days to get it right.
“I just remember after the take that we wound up using in the film, there was this moment after they walk off screen at the end … there’s this amazing cheer from the whole crew. And every time in the movie that I see that sequence, I expect to hear the crew cheering when they walk out of frame,” Horowitz said.
While “La La Land” garnered many accolades and positive reviews, it has also received some backlash. Critics complained that Gosling and Stone are not highly trained singers or dancers. Further, this was a year in which issues of race took center stage, with prominent African-American films such as “Moonlight,” “Fences” and “Hidden Figures” winning awards and acclaim. While musician John Legend plays a supporting role in “La La Land” and is among the film’s executive producers, reviewers criticized the idea of Gosling playing a white guy trying to save jazz music, especially after last year’s #OscarsSoWhite campaign criticized the lack of diversity in Hollywood.
Berger and Horowitz said they consider themselves fans of the films competing against “La La Land” and have become close to many of their filmmakers, producers and actors.
“It’s a bit sad when it feels like people have to choose one or the other, because that’s not the nature of why we made these things,” Berger said. “Nothing makes us happier than reading a scathing review of the film. I love an honest critique of the movie. There’s no movie that has 100 percent adulation. So we’re happy for people to dislike the movie on its own terms.”
“La La Land” is an introspective film with an undercurrent of loss and sadness but is also joyful and escapist. During a difficult political climate, its lack of social critique could either help or hurt.
“I think for me, right now, given this moment that we’re in, it’s really important to create and champion work that inspires that kind of joy and hope and empathy and for people to dream bigger,” Horowitz said.
“La La Land” is in theaters now. The Academy Awards ceremony will take place Feb. 26 at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood.