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Chase What You're Afraid Of: Damien Chazelle & Rosemarie DeWitt on "La La Land"

New movie musical "La La Land" is more than a revisit to the studio gems that once lit up the silver screen in droves, reinvigorated here with two sparking performances from Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling as two struggling artists (Stone's Mia is an aspiring actress; Gosling's Sebastian is an old-soul jazz pianist). It's also a testament to dreamers, to the people who venture to big cities to fall in love with their creative passion as much other hustlers. Rejection or compromise is more guaranteed for them than success, making it a survival of the fittest and craziest. That's a fitting spiritual quality for the thoroughly-directed film itself, which sees "Whiplash" writer/director Damien Chazelle dive headfirst into a huge gamble of a passion project—an "Umbrellas of Cherbourg"-esque musical in 2016—but has been rewarded with raves and plentiful awards season buzz. 

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Two great people to riff on dreams and rejection would in fact be Chazelle, whose films directly concern what motivates us to pursue artistic goals, especially in such a ruthlessly competitive world, and Rosemarie DeWitt, a world-class actress who plays Sebastian's sister in the movie. When the two came to Chicago this past October during the city's international film festival, RogerEbert.com sat down to talk with them about the movie, how they relate to its underlying ideas of dreams, their most painful stories of rejection and much more.

Do you feel right now in your careers that you are motivated more by fear or dreams?

ROSEMARIE DEWITT (RD): That’s a great question. Do you want to go first? Or do you not know the answer?

DAMIEN CHAZELLE (DC): I’m gonna give the cop-out answer. No, I guess dreams more than fear. But I’d really be lying if I said fear wasn’t a big part. It’s like maybe 40/60, something like that, in favor of dreams? And I guess fear is something you’re always fighting a little bit, you don’t want to make decisions out of fear. You want to kind of, you know, do an original musical even if you’re not sure that you can or that everyone’s telling you it’s a terrible idea and your career will die as a result. 

Is that a true story?

RD: His career will DIE! There’s another dead career!

DC: So you want to kind of be fearless in that sense, but I’m just such a neurotic as a person, and that can’t help but affect the way I look at career stuff and always waiting for the shoe to drop. 

RD: Was the question though driven by

I wrote "motivated." 

RD: Motivated. I feel like it’s motivated by dreams, though. 

DC: Yeah, I guess motivated by dreams … 

RD: And then just shrouded in fear. Because I think my percentage would be 80/20. It doesn’t feel very motivated by fear. But not that there’s not a fear component, that’s usually an outside force, though. Like when you’re listening to yourself … 

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DC: You’re right, the motivation is the dream, the fear is what comes after you’ve made the decision. 

RD: When your friends are like, “What are you, crazy?” 

DC: But sometimes you almost also want to perversely chase what you’re afraid of, in the sense that if you’re making something that you kind of feel like you know like the back of your hand and could kind of wing it and it will still be good, you probably shouldn’t be doing it. 

RD: The best feeling in the world, I feel at least as an actor, is to be scared. You know, when you go to work. That’s what you seek. if you’re not scared it’s like, why do it? You know you can do it. 

DC: You kind of want to prove something to yourself … and you want to feel like you’re progressing. 

So, you seek fear after you become successful, or land a good gig?

RD: It’s a good thing. I think you create a lot of good things out of feeling like you have no safety net. Right? Like this was an all-or-nothing enterprise. Like this movie was either going to work [laughs]. Or it wasn’t. Right?

DC: Musicals tend to be that way, yeah. When musicals sort of click, obviously you get a certain kind of soar out of it that it’s hard to replicate with other genres. But there’s nothing quite as bad as a bad musical. Definitely was aware of that [laughs]. 

Damien, were you looking at more recent examples of musicals that wanted to be big movies but failed? That wanted to be "Chicago"?

DC: Yeah. I definitely spent as much time looking at the quote-unquote misses as the ones that hit the bullseye. And obviously, many of the most interesting ones I guess you could claim are actually somewhere in between, but it’s not to say that there are musicals that fall in between. It’s just that there is a binary thing to musicals when it comes to putting them in front of an audience, where especially in today’s day and age you could just feel the needle scratch when someone goes to a song when it hasn’t been properly teed up. And for some people, there will always be that needle scratch, so it’s not to say that you’re literally trying to sell to every single person on the planet, like any art form or any genre there’s people who are down with it and people who aren’t. So, I guess all of this is a little abstract, but there’s just something about the egg on your face when a musical just combusts on-screen that is probably pretty awful, especially for the performers.

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RD: It’s worse live. 

DC: That’s true. 

RD: I feel like bad theater is worse than a bad movie. It’s like more viscerally painful [laughs]. And you can’t get out. 

DC: But there’s a rooting for quality with live, I think. I don’t see theater as much as I see film; I’ve been to bad plays and shows ... 

RD: But you’re always rooting? That’s nice, Damien!

DC: Movies, I always root against them. 

RD: You sit there with your arms crossed like, ‘Show me.’

DC: If it’s not by me, I want it to be terrible. No, no, no. Just kidding. 

There’s also an element of competition in "Whiplash" and now this. Do you both thrive on that idea or are you weary of it? When you’ve got to compete for a part, or a project?

DC: I’m both weary of it and thrive on it. 

You seem very interested in competition with your movies. 

DC: [Laughs] It’s very, yeah, I don’t know. It’s kind of bad for art, in general. But, again, it’s like, just a part of my psychology. I’m just a very competitive person. You want to try to let go of that, when you’re actually in the bubble of making stuff. But, I don’t know. [To DeWitt] How do you feel on the other side of the camera?

RD: It’s funny, I don’t feel. I feel like as you go through it … competition is such a weird word with art. You know what I mean? Or with anything creative. I don’t associate the two. And yet at the same time, if Damien was directing a movie and they said, 'He doesn’t think you’re right for it,' I would happily say, 'Well, just let me in the room.' Like, you know what I mean? Let me compete for it, so there is an element to it. And that can sometimes be a fun part of it. But I think most of the time we would love to just be in the bubble that you talked about. And making it, and being like blah blah blah to the outside world and how it’s gonna land. I guess that’s a word you hear a lot when the movies are released, ‘It’s a competitive year! There’s a lot of movies!’ 

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DC: Yes … 

RD: And then it becomes a part of something after you make it, that you really have no control over. And I think the longer you’re around the business you go, ‘I did it, and now whatever happens to it is out of my hands.’ And it’s also actually what’s so satisfying about even ... you never know, is it because you made such a beautiful film? But sitting with an audience for “La La Land,” you feel the movie really landing with people. And it’s such a gratifying feeling, because it doesn’t always happen. You know what I mean? It’s what you want, more than anything, but it’s not a given. 

DC: I mean maybe any aspect of competition does come down to ego in a sense, whether your feelings are hurt or whether your ego swells. And like, [to DeWitt] if you had decided when we offered you the Laura, to not do it, I would have ... 

RD: I would have been dead to you?

DC: You would have been as dead as my—

RD: Career?

DC: [Laughs] But I would have had one of those many million punctures of ego that you just necessarily experience in any career in the arts or Hollywood. So there’s always that sort of trying to guard against those sort of hurt feelings that are always there, but trying to realize … it’s always something I fight against. It’s like, I see this as more of an Achilles heel—like when you’re actually in the mix of making something that shouldn’t be about ego at all, and it should just be about a community of artists, and you’re just adding your piece of the pie. And there’s many fish in the sea, and the more good art, the better. The more good actors, the more good art, the more good films that are poaching Rosemarie away from mine and it pisses me off [laughs].

RD: But the thing is, I think there’s a job requirement for any creative person to have really thin skin. So that’s what I think makes it tricky. 

DC: Actors have it the hardest. They need to be for their art the thinnest skinned of anyone, and for their life the thickest skinned of everyone. That’s why—with the exception of Rosemarie—I’m in awe of actors. 

RD: [Laughs] That’s my favorite quote ever. 

What is the most devastating story of professional rejection you guys can share? 

RD: That’s so funny, this is not my own personal one, but when you were just talking about actors having thin skin and thick skin at the same time—I won’t say this person’s name, but there was an actor one time when we were all coming up that was up for a big movie. He had like 10 auditions and while he was standing in his agent’s office, he found out he didn’t get it. And he started crying. Right? Because he just had tried and wanted it. And I think this particular person, this is not a generalization about agents, this particular person was so not used to being in on that process with the actor, that she was like “Oh, don’t do that in here, go run around the park or something.” 

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DC: [Laughs] Oh my god! Run around the park!

RD: Literally, she was in New York and said that, and I really thought they just don’t get what people go through, or how much you care, or what happens when you fall in love. And it’s in this movie, what happens when you fall in love with something. It doesn’t mean it’s your part. It doesn’t mean it’s the actors you get for the movie, just because you wrote the part for them, doesn’t mean their schedule works out. But it’s hard to fall in love and then be told, 'No. It’s not going to happen for you.' That’s a terrible one. 

I was actually getting anxious listening to that. Damien?

DC: I mean, it’s uh. I don’t know, I have so many. I remember my very first … it’s the rejection letters and the formal rejection letters that you get really used to. I remember my very first film, even before “Whiplash,” a musical ("Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench"), I remember during that week where all the filmmakers talked about getting their Sundance calls, getting both the Sundance rejection letter but also the Slamdance rejection letter at the same time, and having them both staring at me in my computer screen. And I was spending Thanksgiving with my grandparents and I was like, “This fucking sucks. I just want to be in a room alone right now, I can’t do Thanksgiving right now!’ 

RD: I have one quick anecdote to add. My husband Ron, Livingston, one of the first things he ever did he tested for a pilot. So his family, they got all excited, you know, that he tested. And then he didn’t get it, he didn’t get the show. But the show happened to air over Thanksgiving, and he said he remembers he could hear his whole family watching the show, laughing downstairs as he was up in his room. And he was like, 'But I didn’t get that show.’ But they felt so connected to it because he had been up for it, that they didn’t understand that it would be painful for him. 

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DC: Oh my god. Families are like that. I think my family became very connected to Sundance. 

RD: [Laughs] In your rejection letter.

DC: [High-pitched, nasally voice] 'Oh, that’s the festival that Damien’s going to!’ No, no. I applied to it. ‘Oh, OK. OK. So you’ll go next year.’ 

RD: Doesn’t work that way!

DC: ‘Maybe just ask them again.’ 

RD: ‘You should reapply.’ 

DC: ‘Don’t let them dissuade you.’

Did you save those letters, Damien? Or did you trash them?

DC: In these days of electronic communication, they’re all somewhere. I never intentionally trash them. I’ll put ‘em in a book. 

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