Justin Paul and Benj Pasek — La La Land's Oscar-nominated lyricists — explain how Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling's casting inspired major changes with "City of Stars"

By Dave Quinn
February 17, 2017 07:40 PM
Credit: Jenny Anderson/FilmMagic

Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are having a very good year.

The Oscar-nominated songwriting team is currently riding a one-two punch of critical and box office success with two massive hit projects: La La Land, the breakthrough movie musical for which they wrote the lyrics — and Dear Evan Hansen, thesold-out Broadway smash that’s already a frontrunner for a Tony Award for best new musical.

They’re also going into the Oscars with two nominations for Best Original Song, for La La Land’sCity of Stars” and “Audition (The Fools Who Dream).” The former already won them a Golden Globe in a similar category.

“We feel so lucky to be around at a time when movie musicals are getting made and where musicals themselves are being embraced by a wider group than it has in the past,” Pasek, 31, told PEOPLE. “It’s just so extraordinary.”

Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
| Credit: Paul Drinkwater/NBCUniversal via Getty

The duo has been working together since meeting at the University of Michigan and typically collaborate on music and lyrics together (like they did for Dear Evan Hansen). But after a string of high-profile projects — including songs for NBC’s Smash and the Tony-nominated A Christmas Story: The Musical — La La Land gave them the chance to hone their writing craft by putting words to Justin Hurwitz’s melodies.

“It was sort of a new and exciting challenge,” Paul, 32, explained of the collaboration. “Honestly, we didn’t know if the movie would even get made. The opportunity to just work on an original movie musical was sort of a pipe dream. It just exceeded any kind of expectation that we ever thought possible.”

When they came on board, Hurwitz had already crafted most of the movie’s score – led by his collegiate collaborator, director Damien Chazelle. “Our job was sort of to come on and get inside their heads,” said Paul. “They conceived so many of these moments together because music is really such an integral and integrated part of the film.”

The first song Pasek and Paul wrote was “City of Stars,” doing their best to tackle Chazelle’s duel view of how Los Angeles can offer opportunities and seemingly take them away (something they had experienced first-hand).

But when Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling were cast as the film’s leads, “City of Stars” shifted. It was originally intended to be a solo song for Stone’s character — but it became a duet for her and Gosling’s character, taking the place of a cut song called “La La Land” they had planned for the two of them.

Lyrics changed too. “‘La La Land’ was this really exuberant exclamation of love,” Pasek said of the cut tune. “But the way Ryan portrayed it, his character wouldn’t want to sing something that was too sentimental or was edging towards too romantic. We wanted to make sure ‘City of Stars’ gave him words that were authentic for his depiction of the character.”

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Credit: Dale Robinette/Lionsgate

“City of Stars” is a fascinating track. Hurwitz’s melody might sound sweet, but Pasek and Paul’s lyrics have hints of sadness. “Every bit of optimism is met with a bit of melancholy,” said Paul. “Everything is a bit bittersweet — it never edges towards something too saccharine or too sentimental.”

“When love or opportunity hits you, you feel like the city is on your side,” Pasek added. “But when it isn’t, you can feel like everything is working against you sometimes — traffic, the weather, doors slamming in your face, etc. There’s a moment when a romantic relationship and professional goals can align and you feel unstoppable. Or they can split.”

It also plays like a love song showing the culmination of Stone and Gosling’s romantic dreams coming true — until you realize the action is actually showing the beginning of the end of their romance. “Their paths sort of diverge,” said Paul. “They pursue their own ambitions and go in opposite directions. That was a really interesting approach towards the way that the moment was shot and acted and how the lyrics to the song we’d written could be tweaked for their circumstances.”

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Stone and Gosling were really collaborative with Pasek and Paul — encouraging them to walk the line of lyrics that were real for their characters, but also poetic. “That became how we found the vernacular for the rest of the lyrics,” said Paul. “‘City of Stars’ was the first song they heard and as we developed more songs, they pushed us to continue to write in that style.”

It helped that the lyricists had theatrical experience writing for actors. “Having strong actors who understand music and song from a place of character — not just from wanting to hit notes and sound good, but really wanting to invest in lyric and story and intention — was such a joy,” Paul said. “And Ryan and Emma were two of the greatest actors we have ever worked with.”

“They’re so dedicated to their craft and care so much about the process and the work,” Pasek continued. “That’s really, really inspiring.”