TORONTO — In Hollywood, where the box office is ruled by superheroes and animated fish, it’s not easy to make a $20-million musical. But Damien Chazelle got it done.
It only took the Providence-born director 10 years.
Chazelle, 31, has been working toward his latest film, “La La Land,” ever since he was a Harvard undergrad. It started with his first film, “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench,” which became a hit at the Tribeca Film Festival when he was only 24. In 2014, his movie “Whiplash,” about the abusive relationship between a jazz drummer and his harsh instructor, won three Oscars (including best supporting actor for J.K. Simmons) and earned Chazelle a nomination for screenwriting.
The accolades made it easier to get the money for the film he’d always wanted to make, the large-scale musical “La La Land,” which opens in Boston on Dec. 16. The tale is set in modern-day Los Angeles and stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling as an actress and a jazz musician falling rin love. The cast includes Oscar-winning musician John Legend as a industry-savvy band leader, and Rosemarie DeWitt, who plays Gosling’s sister.
Stone says the success of the film rests with Chazelle, not only for his perseverance in getting it made, but for his vision. She said he had a plan for every shot, and that when she met with him about the project, he was able to draw her pictures of the look of individual scenes.
“He stayed the course the whole time,” she said, adding that Chazelle also required his stars to get training in singing and dance.
“We weren’t Fred and Ginger,” Stone said, of her work with Gosling. “It was kind of like music camp. We had this kind of intense 10 weeks before shooting.”
The morning after “La La Land” screened at the Toronto International Film Festival to accolades and Oscar buzz, Chazelle sat down to talk about the film’s reception, why he reveres musicals, and how this project began in the film program at Harvard.
Q. There was a line of fans outside of your screening last night, and every time I walked by, the crowd waiting to see Ryan Gosling got bigger. Is it strange to witness this kind of fan response to your stars?
A. I mean, it’s fun. It’s a little surreal because, just having worked working with Ryan and Emma and John, suddenly you’re reminded of their stature in the world. It was really a scene yesterday. It was amazing.
Q. Our film critic Ty Burr says we can trace “La La Land” to “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench,” the musical film you made at Harvard. Was that project basically a treatment for this film?
A. Ty’s exactly right. I’d been making documentaries in the Harvard film program — kind of cinéma vérité-focused. But I was also worshipping old musicals. And the idea was: Can I somehow combine the two? Can I somehow yoke old musical tropes to real life on the streets? That kind of began what turned into a 10-year project. I started writing this script in 2010. Justin [Hurwitz, Chazelle’s roommate at Harvard] was writing the music beside me. But it didn’t get off the ground. That’s why I wrote “Whiplash,” to convince people that I could do this.
Q. And “Whiplash” did convince them, I’d imagine, with all of the recognition.
A. It still was a gamble at the end of the day. “Whiplash” was a small movie, and this was asking a lot of a financier, or a studio, or actors. Especially the whole original musical thing. It was not exactly a ca-ching thing for Hollywood. Original anything is not exactly easy right now. Original musical is about as uneasy as it gets.
Q. This film opens with a massive song-and-dance number set in Los Angeles traffic. There are people singing and dancing on cars. What was real? How did you pull it off?
A. The only thing that’s altered is that we added a few cars in the distance. Ninety percent of what you see on screen is the real freeway. We just didn’t have enough cars to fill the entire freeway.
Q. The scope of that scene – it reminded me of when they shut down Times Square for action movies. And you did all of it for a song.
A. It hadn’t really dawned on me, and halfway through the shoot, I turned to my producer and thought, there are all of these logistics, and showy camera moves, and all of this film macho stuff – but all in the service of joy. Normally, this kind of filmmaking experience is a war sequence. But I guess maybe that’s what I love about old musicals. There’s nothing more show-off-y than old musicals, and yet they never seem gratuitous. They earn the pyrotechnics because they always know how to ground it in an emotion that we can relate to, whether it’s love or joy or heartbreak. If you look at the way Gene Kelly’s camera moved, it’s just utterly dazzling. . . . It’s more elegant and graceful than a lot of what we consider to be high-wire filmmaking.
Q. You know, we have a tax credit in Massachusetts. Do you ever think about filming something in Boston?
A. Yes. I love Boston. I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart. A very early version of this script was set in Boston. It doesn’t have much in common with the movie, just the basic kind of spine of the story.
Q. Speaking of Ty, he recently wrote this piece, maybe a controversial one among filmmakers, about how the two-hour movie is on borrowed time because of television, and how people consume their media. He suggested that old-fashioned movies might be relics.
A. I saw the piece. He’s just trying to break my heart.
Q. After I saw “La La Land,” though, I had to wonder whether this film is the rebuttal. Because it’s the kind of thing you want to see on a big screen. Even Tom Hanks interrupted his Q&A for his movie “Sully” in Telluride to praise your “La La Land.” He said that if audiences don’t find it, “we are all doomed.”
A. We paid him a lot for that [laughs].
Q. I hate to ask “what’s next,” but you got to make your dream movie. So, what now?
A. It’s all down hill from here [laughs]. I’m working with [“Spotlight” screenwriter] Josh Singer on a film about Neil Armstrong and the moon landing. He wrote a beautiful script. If not that, it’ll be something else . . . that’s not music related, for sure.
Meredith Goldstein can be reached at Meredith.Goldstein@Globe.com.