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La La Land – a “dreamy blur” that garnered 14 Oscar nominations!

Say what? That is as many Oscar nominations that ‘Titanic’ had with about $200 Million tug-of-war rope production budget and a veteran Director, in James Cameron at its helm. ‘La La Land’ the musical was made on the relatively shoe-string production budget of $30 Million by a rookie writer-director, Damien Chazelle, who had only made one other movie before. Yes, that other movie happened to be ‘Whiplash’ that was nominated for five Oscars, with three wins in 2015, which by the way was made with a $3.3 Million flimsy lace-thread production budget.

“The budget is really all about time,” says Damien. “You pay for every day. ‘Whiplash,’ we only had 20 days to shoot; this, we had 40. We knew L.A. without tax credits is an expensive city to shoot in. We knew we were shooting in 60 to 70 locations in 40 days. It’s that weird thing where ‘Whiplash’ was $3 million, and at $30 million I go, ‘Oh, my God, this is ‘Whiplash’ times 10.’ Yet it felt, in the making of it — for better or worse — almost as small and run-and-gun, but you get a certain kind of energy I actually really like.” So, it boils down to that fact that the size of the budget may not necessarily dictate the pace, commitment, energy and tone of the production.

The 14 Oscar nominations this last week for ‘La La Land’ comes on the heels of the record-breaking 7 wins at the Golden Globes. La La Land won in each and every category for which it was nominated, including best musical/comedy film. Damien Chazelle won the awards for directing and screenplay; Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone took home the awards for best actor and actress, respectively; and composer Justin Hurwitz won for best score as well as best original song with lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul for "City of Stars."

So, what else did Damien draw on to pull off such a feat?

Inspired by musicals from the past – re-imagine storytelling for the present

Damien chose to magically modernize the colorful swirl of Jacques Demy French song-and-dance musicals “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” and “Les Desmoiselles de Rochefort” along with backstage showbiz romantic musicals such as “New York, New York” or Gene Kelly-starrer “Singin’ in the Rain.” Damien decided to plant lamp posts everywhere. He credibly invoked nostalgia for the musicals of the past, in his audience.

Think bigger production value

After the success of ‘Whiplash’, Lionsgate stepped up to support Damien’s vision with a bigger budget than other competitive offers. Not only did Lionsgate bring in international financing to fund the production, they also brought veteran musical producer Marc Platt and producer-investor Gary Gilbert to shepherd the movie.

Collaborate with the best

Damien was attempting to get the next best on-screen chemistry than that of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. To do so, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone (they were meant to do such roles) were brought on-board to be the romantic, singing and dancing duo for the movie. After signing his stars, Damien was impressed by the degree to which both actors were willing to prepare, almost competitively, as they learned to ballroom and tap dance with choreographer Mandy Moore (who was well-versed in classic movie dancing), and to sing their songs in a believable, conversational, naturalistic way. Ryan also had to play jazz piano well enough to sustain a long uninterrupted take. But Damien did not have to use a double as Ryan was able to pull it off by himself.

Toe tapping music

Ryan and Emma sang most of the songs in the movie in a low key and naturalistic singing style. That kind of voice, where it’s very breathy and vulnerable and not overly ‘belted,’ made for the natural intimacy with the audience. Leading up to the shoot, the team put together fully orchestrated mockups that were used alongside Ryan and/or Emma’s performance for the camera. The actors had input with the lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul about the content of the songs, which had to advance their characters’ emotional narratives. Next, Damien wanted to bring in a real musician for the role Ryan’s character, Sebastian’s bandleader, who could bring all the essential authenticity to bear. While on a promo circuit for ‘Whiplash,’ Damien had met with John Legend and gave him the screenplay to read. With John Legend signed-on, the team had the authenticity of the real-life musician in the movie. John stepped up to become one of the producers of the movie as well.

Enhance the romance on screen with relatable backdrops

Romance between the two lead characters, Sebastian and Mia, has a backdrop of old-fashioned, but relatable tastes. “They love musicals, they love jazz, but they have to reconcile that with living in a modern city,” says Damien. So his designers “had to reflect that tension of wanting to create that bubble, but know that we do live in the real world, and that’s not such a bad thing.”

Take for example, the movie begins with a 100-dancer production number, “Another Day of Sun,” which Damien captured by shutting down an elevated EZ pass ramp over the 105 freeway in Los Angeles one weekend and filling it with cars. That definitely gets the audience out of their comfort zone, introduces them to the city, and sets the tone for what is to follow. Damien, having diligently studied and deconstructed the musicals of the past, decided to use the 35-mm camera to capture the magic for the screen, not hesitating to use the classic camera clichés where appropriate.

Brand the production for emotional impact with the audience

‘La La Land’ was strategically first launched by Lionsgate’s campaign team at Venice, then Telluride, and then Toronto. Then, they held off the screenings. This was enough to spark the buzz and build the demand to watch the movie. They meticulously crafted a strategic point-of-view while engineering the brand identity by using the technical attributes of the movie that defined meaning, eventually landing the audience with functional and emotional benefits from them.

When the ambition of making the great movie is diligently pursued by pulling the right resources that bring their laser-sharp consumer insight into every step of creation and production, and then it is promoted with meticulous branding and marketing, it has to land at the intended spot – 14 Oscar nominations, to ultimately capture enormous value for the producers. Case-in point – La La Land!

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