On Dec. 8, just days before winning six trophies at the prestigious Critics’ Choice Awards, in Los Angeles, La La Land received its due honor in San Francisco when the musical film’s writer-director Damien Chazelle was awarded the first-ever SF Honors trophy by SF Film Society Executive Director Noah Cowan at the Castro Theatre. The annual award, sponsored by Film Society Board VP Todd Traina and philanthropist Diane Wilsey, is designed to acknowledge “innovation and audacity in current cinema.” Accompanying Chazelle to the ceremony and pre-screening Q&A, hosted by Mrs. Doubtfire and Harry Potter director Chris Columbus, were the film’s costars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, and composer Justin Hurwitz.
SF Weekly asked Gosling and Stone, who make magic onscreen as star-crossed lovers and aspiring entertainers struggling their way up the Hollywood ladder, about the return of the musical film, their own artistic struggles in the early days and how they balance their real-life romantic lives and the spotlight.
In 1996, Evita was touted as bringing back the musical. Do you think that La La Land will do the same?
Emma Stone: I think Titanic: A New Musical, in 1997, on Broadway brought back the musical, thank you.
Ryan Gosling: Damn, you just got served, and she serves it cold.
ES: I think it’s really fun to be part of an original musical that’s set in the present day, but I am a musical junkie and aficionado. So I don’t think anything ever happened to musicals.
You met with Gene Kelly’s widow, Patricia Ward Kelly, before starting production, to research Mr. Kelly’s archives? Did this help in your preparation for the role?
RG: No. Patricia Kelly is kind and had us over for dinner and talked about Gene and shared experiences.
ES: Yes, we saw some handwritten notes in the Singin’ in the Rain script.
Was the dancing or singing the more difficult obstacle to overcome?
ES: Singing, for me.
RG: All of the above. The piano.
Were those your hands playing entirely throughout the movie?
What drew you to these roles?
ES: I guess meeting Damien was a big draw and Ryan was doing it, which was also a draw. And playing an aspiring actress was also a draw.
RG: Yeah, the aspiring actress part, Damien, Emma. I guess I felt like old-fashioned musicals were a thing of the past and that I’d never have the opportunity to make one, so to have that opportunity was great.
How did you keep in character during the song and dance scenes?
ES: Yeah, that was the whole challenge doing that while learning how to dance and sing, for me at least.
How did you prepare?
RG: A lot of stretching of the hamstrings. You gotta work the hammies.
ES: Yeah, you gotta work the hammies.
Your characters, Seb and Mia, are having a hard time making it in Hollywood. Does this resonate with you, when you look back on your early years in Hollywood?
ES: Yes. That’s why it’s nice to be part of a story that’s about dreaming and hope and what’s around the corner. I had the same challenges — a lot of auditions, a lot of rejection. And I think it’s also ultimately a positive thing, because as Ryan always says…
ES and RG together: You don’t necessarily always want all of those roles. Ultimately it’s probably for the best that it didn’t work out.
RG: I always say that.
ES: He always says that. That’s why we finished each other’s sentence.
The movie asks the question: What’s more important, love or the spotlight? How would you answer that question?
ES: It’s the spotlight.<
RG: No, it’s not.
ES: What’s that? He says the spotlight.
How do you balance the two?
ES: Just by prioritizing the spotlight.
RG: Making the spotlight the focus.
ES: Yeah, making the spotlight the main priority.