Critical praise — and extreme anticipation — has been overflowing ever since Damien Chazelle's "La La Land," starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, opened the Venice Film Festival back in August. After all, the wunderkind director's followup to his also critically acclaimed "Whiplash" masterfully brings back the sweeping musical genre. The film seamlessly harmonizes Old Hollywood magic with the very real trials and tribulations of modern day Los Angeles. Soul-crushing auditions, endless freeway traffic and absurd coffee orders/dietary preferences? Check, check and check.
As aspiring actress Mia and traditionalist jazz musician Sebastian, Stone and Gosling charismatically light up the screen with their already-proven chemistry. (See: "Crazy, Stupid, Love.") And just as thrilling are the captivating musical numbers, the heartstring-tugging story line (you'll definitely laugh, you'll probably cry) and the stunning visuals, including costumes by Mary Zophres — who, incidentally, dressed the same two charming leads in late '40s attire for their 2013 film "Gangster Squad."
The costume designer looked to a library of cinematic sources for inspiration, starting with Chazelle's big screen musical references from the '60s: Jacques Demy's "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg," "Lola" and "The Young Girls of Rochefort." She also met with the director, production designer David Wasco and set decorator Sandy Reynolds-Wasco to meticulously analyze the color-saturated imagery from Demy's films. "They achieved it with a complete harmony between the costumes and production design," Zophres explains.
The vivid primary color-infused (and sometimes intentionally not) palette in the movie pays homage to Technicolor and the Golden Age of Hollywood, but also helps chart the trajectory of Mia and Sebastian's romance — and, literally, because Chazelle presented the team with an actual line graph depicting the course. "Hopefully [the use of color] evokes some kind of emotion that lands in the subconscious or conscious," she says. The bright outfits worn in the spectacular opening song and athletic dance number — set on a gridlocked L.A. freeway, of course — foreshadows the color play and reminds the audience that, in case they didn't get the memo, "La La Land" is, in fact, a musical.
For Mia's classic, retro-inspired wardrobe, Zophres looked at contemporary Vogue issues, plus to legendary actresses who inspired the character: Julie Christie, Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly and Katharine Hepburn. "I wanted to place the movie firmly in this time and place without it being 'trendy,'" she says.
Zophres also made direct costume references to celebrated Old Hollywood moments. Leaving her barista job on the Warner Bros. lot, Mia wanders through fantastical sets wearing ankle-length black pants based on the trousers Audrey Hepburn wore during her bohemian dance in "Funny Face" (also seen in a 2007 Gap commercial). The emerald green dress worn on her first official date with Sebastian was based on a Judy Garland look from "A Star is Born," a 1954 classic fresh in Chazelle and Zophres minds before filming. (They both also agreed that the rich hue is particularly flattering on fair-skinned Stone.)
All of Mia's dance sequence dresses are custom-made, including the striking floral-printed yellow one worn during the Hollywood Hills number overlooking a beautifully lit Los Angeles. Prior to shooting, Zophres studied Stone's real life red-carpet moments and landed on a canary yellow Atelier Versace gown from a "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" promo appearance in 2014. "It's stunning on Emma and I pitched [that color] to Damien for that sequence," Zophres says.
But while the inspiration was decidedly high fashion, the actual dress boasts much humbler origins: Shopping with the intention of creating a prototype dress, Zophres found the perfect shade of canary in the polyester section of a Jo-Ann Fabrics.
"We had our first fitting and Emma started spinning around in this dress," the costume designer says. "She loved it. I loved it. She and I thought at the same time, 'why don't we just use this fabric?'" To incorporate the delicate print, Zophres recruited ager-dyer Rob Phillips to precisely hand-paint Matisse-inspired florals, adding a couture element to polyester from a fabric store that's probably in your local mall. (Coming full circle, Stone seems to be referencing her character's signature canary yellow in her most recent IRL appearances leading up to the premiere of the film.)
Zophres and Chazelle devised Sebastian's style specific to the actor, as the character was originally written as a man younger than 36-year-old Ryan Gosling. For his subtly nostalgic and suit-filled wardrobe, she looked to jazz and movie icons of past eras: Hoagy Carmichael, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and Marlon Brando. "Sebastian has this latch on the past, so he should never wear a T-shirt or jeans," explains Zophres on her costume pitch to Chazelle. "There's a formality to him."
Adhering to budget constraints, she essentially created a capsule collection of "five shirts, two pairs of trousers and three sport coats" that Gosling wears and repeats throughout the majority of the movie. Although, she did give him a "roomier" blazer for an elaborate dance sequence at the planetarium "because he needed to waltz in that," she says. Zophres took the same consideration for when Gosling revives his dormant "Mickey Mouse Club" dancing and singing skills for the aforementioned hilltop sequence, which was filmed in one single take. "His trousers were made with a light stretch in the wool because we don't want to have a blowout in the middle of the the take," she says.
Sebastian's not-too-wide and not-too-skinny ties are also an understated, but notable, wardrobe detail. While researching for Mia in a Hollywood costume rental house, Zophres saw the perfect, just throwback-enough tie hanging on a wall. "It had texture to it and a motif in the chest, right where his heart is," says Zophres, about the early '50s accessory. "That sounds kind of corny, but I was like, 'that's the style of tie!'" And Gosling had a similarly visceral reaction.
"He's like, 'You can't tell what they are. This is so great. This is so beautiful. They don't make ties like this anymore,'" she says. Sadly, Gosling had to part with Sebastian's ties, which were returned to the rental house after filming. Obviously, no one wants to see a despondent Ryan Gosling. (If you do, see: "The Notebook.")
"So after the movie, I shopped on eBay and got a little selection of ties together and gave them [to him] as a present," says Zophres. Come to think of it, Gosling's recent neckwear game seems to reflect Sebastian's retro flourish as of late, too. With so many meaningful homages in "La La Land," it seems fitting that the stars are paying their own, long after the cameras stopped shooting.
'La La Land' opens in select theaters on December 9 and nationwide on December 16.