City of Stars: Producer Jordan Horowitz rises to new heights with ‘La La Land’ fame
February 23, 2017
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Jordan Horowitz’s first memory of his stint in the Northwestern film scene was portraying a high school agent who helped students find dates for the prom.
Now, Horowitz, 36, (Communication ’02) is one of the youngest producers hoping to win at this year’s Academy Awards. The film “La La Land,” which he co-produced with Fred Berger, Gary Gilbert and Marc Platt, is vying for 14 Oscars on Sunday, tying the record for most nominations received by a single film along with 1997’s “Titanic” and 1950’s “All About Eve.”
“La La Land,” written and directed by Damien Chazelle, is a romantic musical film that follows an aspiring actress, portrayed by Emma Stone, and a jazz musician, played by Ryan Gosling. The film reinvents the classic tale of trying to make it in the City of Angels.
“The film was all of our collective journeys and very much the idea of transplants, coming to L.A. and pursuing your dreams,” Horowitz said. “We definitely pulled from our own experiences of having moved to L.A. and wanting to be in the film industry.”
From Shanley to Hollywood
Like many other theater majors who have come through Northwestern, Horowitz spent most of his formative years at college in Shanley Pavilion.
“There were many times when I got locked into or out of — or broke into or out of — Shanley,” he said. “It was just a box … and it afforded a lot of opportunities for just changing the shape and making the design of the space tie into the piece you were working on.”
Primarily an actor, but also dabbling in a cappella, Horowitz said he tended to stay away from mainstage, faculty-directed productions. The collaborative atmosphere bred in the black box was what made him respond more to original work, and what kept him loyal to the tight-knit theater community, he said.
That’s not to say he couldn’t tackle the classics. Acting Prof. Mary Poole said Horowitz could master Shakespeare and the Ancient Greeks like few others, silencing the room every time he performed with his rich, low voice.
“He was just ferocious,” Poole said. “He was a very strong-willed young man as a person, and he really understood persons fighting for what they wanted.”
Poole recognized Horowitz’s desire to get involved with contemporary work, and she encouraged his plan to move to New York out of college, where he started a theater production company with alumna Maureen Towey (Communication ’02).
When Horowitz and Towey weren’t earning a living at their day jobs, they would rehearse works such as “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” an adaptation of a Mark Twain short story, in a church basement cafetorium daily with other NU alumni.
“We had to wait until the people there finished playing bingo before we could set up our show,” Towey said.
A couple festivals later, though, Horowitz still didn’t feel at home.
“I realized pretty quickly that being a theater producer wasn’t going to take me where I wanted to go,” he said. “A lot of the producers in New York that I respected had come from money or from a family with a history of working in theater, and I didn’t.”
So, he said he eventually flew to Los Angeles — where he has been living for the past 11 years — and took a shot at filmmaking, riding by on confidence wherever he lacked the technical knowhow.
Towey said filmmaking marked the “natural evolution” of Horowitz’s career.
“He is ballsy, and he’s brave in his beliefs and the work that he supports,” she said. “Jordan has always been the type of person that you just really want to have on your team.”
The path to “La La Land”
Now a “business artist,” a term he coined to refer to the theater department’s encouragement of artists working behind the scenes on stage and screen, Horowitz said he is interested in meaningful, authentic pictures that speak to the goodness of people.
“Passion speaks volumes, specificity speaks volumes, and that tends to be a driving force for me,” he said.
Much of Horowitz’s career in L.A. has been defined by indie movies holding up these values, though not all of them have been big-scale successes like “La La Land” or the dramedy “The Kids Are All Right,” a 2011 Best Picture nominee for which he received his second producing credit.
Yet, he said he always stops to reflect on why other movies didn’t go the distance — a trait Poole traces back to Horowitz’s college years — in order to improve future projects.
Many of these indie pictures were released in the five to six years that “La La Land” was in development, during which the directorial vision didn’t sway from the original pitch. Horowitz said it is a modern musical that tells a love story without cynicism.
Horowitz added that the reason why the film has resonated with audiences — earning over $135 million in the domestic box office — is because, apart from being of a genre that people have grown up to, it is a feel-good movie grounded in human emotion.
“There is a real undercurrent of sadness and loss and compromise in ‘La La Land’ that pulls it back down to this authenticity,” he said. “That’s why people have broadly responded to it from young to old, male to female.”
Despite the challenge “La La Land” was to develop — due to high Los Angeles production costs and the long time the film was in development — Horowitz said everybody in the cast and crew did their best work.
On the early morning of the Academy Award nominations found Chazelle, his three co-producers and the film’s protagonists all scattered across different cities and time zones, tuning in to the live stream. With every category announcement — “La La Land” receiving nods in 13 categories — Horowitz said they cheered together, grateful that everyone’s work was honored.
“There was a lot of love on set, and we all remained close at the aftermath of the film,” Horowitz said. “The first thing I thought (when the nominations came out) was how amazing it was going to be to go to the Oscars with our entire crew.”
Recalibrating the narrative
Horowitz said his commitment to positive storytelling was reaffirmed after this year’s presidential election, when he realized filmmaking can have an important role in advocating meaningful and powerful messages.
The morning after the election, Horowitz posted on his Twitter account that he was “going quiet for a bit,” tweeting scarcely until his return in late January. He said he backed away from social media to retain a more reflective stance on the current events.
“Except for Instagram, because that’s really just pictures of my son,” he said. “I felt there was no harm in that, and my mother would be upset if I stopped posting on Instagram.”
In the weeks that followed, Horowitz returned his attention to the people — his son and wife — and projects that mattered most to him. He removed himself from work that he felt failed to contribute to society in a meaningful way.
“I also looked at ‘La La Land’ then, and thought I was really happy to be able to bring this picture out into the world,” he said, as the film had not been released outside of film festivals at the time of the election.
Horowitz added that more movies espousing similar values to “La La Land” of promoting empathy over cynicism will continue to be made in Hollywood, especially in the four years to come. Producers are among the few people in the industry who are in “control of their own destiny,” so it is their responsibility to choose the right stories for the audiences, he said.
Despite the “institutional hurdles” that exist at the studio and agency levels, Horowitz said he will not stop championing original stories and upcoming writers and directors. His upcoming projects include “Fast Color,” a movie directed by his wife, Julia Hart, which he produced and co-wrote, and the T.V. series “Counterpart,” which he produced.
“People are a little tired of spectacle, things blowing up and people dying,” he said. “I don’t think that’s where our collective conscience is right now, so I’m hopeful that we’ll see stuff that’s more reflective of where we want to go.”
Poole said she is pleased Horowitz is producing quality work and supporting artists with a unique voice. She said she knows Horowitz will not lose his path in Hollywood — she said would trust him with her life and retirement fund — and he will stand up for the values he believes in.
And she said she is vouching for him to go home with the big prize on Sunday.
“Someone who remains honest and interested in quality in the midst of that, I think, is somebody who deserves to be admired,” Poole said. “I want to see him get up there.”
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