When it came to finding just the right song to open his new musical La La Land, writer-director Damien Chazelle was almost as demanding as the music teacher J.K. Simmons played in Chazelle's breakout 2014 feature Whiplash.
For the modern-day musical, which deliberately summons the MGM classics starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers as well as French musicals of the 1960s such as The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Chazelle teamed with composer Justin Hurwitz, a friend from their college days at Harvard, where they'd been in a pop band together.
The goal was to create something entirely new, built around original songs to be performed by Emma Stone's aspiring actress character, Mia, who falls for Ryan Gosling's jazz musician, Sebastian, as they pursue their dreams in Los Angeles.
The first piece Hurwitz composed was for a scene in which Mia walks into a restaurant and sees Sebastian playing the piano. It's a bittersweet tune he's playing that becomes a recurring theme throughout the film. "It's the piece of music that makes her fall in love with him," says Hurwitz. "It's supposed to be about yearning and searching for something. It's about somebody who doesn't have what they want and doesn't know what they want."
Composing first on the piano so he could hear the melodies stripped down, Hurwitz began an exhaustive process of pitching Chazelle, who rejected 30 different versions of the main theme. It wasn't until option 31 that they decided they'd landed on the right one. "That's always been our process," says Hurwitz. "Damien is demanding, but when he finally says yes, I'm the first one to recognize that it's great we didn't settle on anything up until that point. We just wanted to make sure the melodies were memorable and that people will hum them after they leave the theater."
It was in 2011 that Chazelle and Hurwitz (who supported himself as a comedy writer on such shows as The Simpsons and The League) first began writing the music and script for La La Land. But the project stalled in development and didn't move forward until it found a home at Lionsgate after Chazelle's Whiplash success.
It then took Chazelle and Hurwitz another year, working with lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (Tony nominees for 2016's The Christmas Story), to perfect the music, which includes seven original songs, ranging from a spectacular opening number called "Another Day of Sun" to the flirty duet "A Lovely Night" and the emotional ballad "The Fools Who Dream."
"We were trying to find a tone and an approach that felt modern and not like anything in particular from the past," says Hurwitz. "Our loftiest dream was that you could hear the score or music from La La Land and say, 'Oh, that sounds like La La Land' in the way that you can say that about other great musicals."
Pasek and Paul say that when they came aboard to write the lyrics, Chazelle had very specific ideas of how musical scenes would be shot. "He was able to talk us through each song even before we wrote the lyrics so we'd have a very clear idea how you'd be seeing the character," says Paul.
Some pieces, such as "Another Day of Sun," were recorded with a 95-piece orchestra and 40-person choir in L.A., while others were performed live, including "The Fools Who Dream," sung by Stone as her character, Mia, faces yet another audition. Hurwitz played the melody into her ear from a piano in another room. "We wanted her to be able to lead it and go to a place emotionally that she hadn't gone to before, so we didn't want her boxed into a prerecorded track," he says.
Stone says she performed about seven takes of the audition song live on the day it was filmed. To prepare for the role, she and Gosling (who learned to play all the jazz piano numbers himself) spent nearly three months rehearsing in warehouses in Atwater Village.
"When he started describing La La Land to me, it was clear that this was the movie that he's wanted to make for years, and he's completely in love with these old musicals," says Stone, who had just wrapped work on Cabaret on Broadway when she joined the film, of Chazelle. "I always say that he has incredible creativity and is a stunning filmmaker but he could also teach a film studies course. He could teach you the history of almost any film. He's a true, true cinefile."
Pasek and Paul used Stone's ballad, about dreamers and the risks they take, to "capture what Damien was going after with the film as a whole," says Pasek. "Mia's song is really about what it's like to go after something fearlessly and a little bit recklessly sometimes. In the attempt to make something real, you end up with something that's messy and complicated and, hopefully, beautiful."
A version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.