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Why ‘La La Land’ Was So Much Harder to Edit Than ‘Whiplash’

Filmmaker Toolkit Podcast, Ep 21: To calibrate the film's rhythms and tone Damien Chazelle and editor Tom Cross experimented with cutting out each of the film's hit musical numbers.

“La La Land”

From an editing perspective, there couldn’t be two films more different than Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash” and his “La La Land.” While both feature musical performances, “La La Land” is anchored by gliding, well-choreographed musical numbers, while “Whiplash” is driven by hard-pounding percussive cutting, for which editor Tom Cross won the Oscar for Best Editing.

“The thing with ‘Whiplash’ is we could always point to needing to keep up a certain amount of brutality and tension and suspense and velocity,” said editor Tom Cross who, along with Damien Chazelle, was recently a guest on IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit Podcast. “We didn’t really have that to fall back on with ‘La La Land.'”

READ MORE: Filmmaker Toolkit Podcast: ‘Moonlight’ Director Barry Jenkins Reveals the Unconventional Way He Cast His Three Leads (Episode 10)

Although “Whiplash” features more cutting, according to Chazelle editing the film was a fairly straightforward process. “La La Land,” on the other hand, was a much longer edit that required a great deal of experimenting.

“‘La La Land’ is trying to straddle two different tones and find a happy medium,” said Chazelle. “All these things were born out of facing problems of pacing, tone, of structure, because it’s this unusual sort of thing where you are setting up a musical world, but you are trying to combine two things that normally don’t coexist.”

"La La Land"

“La La Land”

Dale Robinette

Cross said finding the right calibration was like trying to stick a landing on a very narrow runway, where if you didn’t hit it just right, you’d crash and burn. Part of the unique challenge was that Chazelle shot all of the musical numbers in well-choreographed, long takes.

“We talked about these unbroken takes, those were some of the most romantic scenes and moments in the film,” said Cross. “Damien always talked about trying to accentuate those moments by having the editing style of the movie different in other scenes.  If you had this movie of long, unbroken takes they would lose their value.”

To build to these moments, Cross and Chazelle would use more angular cutting, or up the tempo, to make more editing rhythms feel percussive or faster to offset the floating, magical musical numbers.

“The musical scenes are like breaths, the movie exhales and becomes wider, so sometimes you want to build up a certain amount of claustrophobia especially in the that realistic section of the movie,” said Chazelle.

The realistic section of the film Chazelle is referring to is the when Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia’s (Emma Stone) relationship and careers are struggling. In a dinner scene, Chazelle said they relied on a “staccato cutting pattern” that alternated between close-up, the record needle and other angles that gave the scene a slightly claustrophobic feel.

The big challenge was to create a structure in which the well-designed musical moments could breath, which meant not only experimenting with how the scenes surrounding those key moments were cut, but altering the films structure.

READ MORE: How ‘La La Land’ Cinematographer Linus Sandgren Taught His Cameras to Dance

“There wasn’t a musical number we didn’t try cutting at some point,” said Chazelle. In fact, the film’s much celebrated opening number “Another Day of Sun,” featuring a large scale dance number set against highway traffic jam, wasn’t in the film for awhile.

“For about three months, the movie didn’t have the opening,” said Chazelle. “The first version of the movie that Emma Stone saw, the first version we test screened publicly didn’t have that opening.”

Chazelle and Cross even tried cutting “Audition,” nominated for Best Song and a key third act turning point. The idea was to stay with Sebastain while Mia auditioned, the audience wouldn’t know what happened and the film would cut to the two talking about the ramification of the audition on a bench afterwards.

“It was an epiphany I had one afternoon,” joked Chazelle, adding it wasn’t an idea that he and Cross experimented with too long.

Cross adds that while “La La Land” was meticulously planned and designed, getting the transitions into the “emotionally pure moments” of old Hollywood magic and balancing it with the film’s modern realism elements was an inherent challenge of Chazelle’s vision.

“There was times when making this movie, in prep or in editing, where you start to bang your head against a wall and go, oh I see why they don’t make musicals more often, because it’s so hard,” said Chazelle.

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