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‘La La Land’ Crafts Roundtable: Making a Neo-Classical Hollywood Musical

The crew of Damien Chazelle's Oscar front-runner and NYFCC best picture winner discuss LA as a bittersweet dreamland where past and present intersect.

“La La Land”

Summit Entertainment

The common theme among the crew of Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land” was creating a musical bridge between the past and the present — LA and Hollywood  as both dreamland and boulevard of broken dreams. It’s not merely a nostalgia trip but a timeless fusion that’s as relatable today as it was during the classical era, which is why “La La Land” scored the NYFCC’s best picture and remains the Oscar frontrunner.

For production designer David Wasco, Los Angeles became a Technicolor/CinemaScope dreamland for jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone). And although the designer got to explore Redondo Beach’s historic Lighthouse Café and utilize matte glass paintings from the legendary Rocco Gioffre, his greatest triumphs were the Busby Berkeley-inspired opening on the downtown interchange between the 110 and 105 freeways and the Griffith Park Observatory Planetarium tribute to “Rebel Without a Cause.”

With a brief window during a hot August weekend, the California Highway Patrol shut down the freeway interchange so they could shoot “Another Day of Sun” for the meet cute in traffic between Sebastian and Mia amid 100 dancers. It was even Wasco’s idea to have Sebastian drive an 80s Buick Riviera.

After they had the freeway area surveyed, Chazelle worked it out on his iPhone; then  they set up a quarter of the cars in a parking lot off of San Fernando Road with the dancers for rehearsals. After five days of prep in the lot, they went straight to the interchange.

And while Wasco adores shooting on location, he built a massive set for the Planetarium fantasia dance number. “We found a used Minolta planetarium projector on E-bay — just like the real one from the era of ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ — and put it on a turntable,” Wasco told IndieWire. “We built the whole set around that Art Deco extravaganza circle and they were able to do the wire work and put them into the heavens.”

"La La Land" concept design

“La La Land” concept design

In describing the experience of working on his first musical, Wasco said, “It’s the perfect storm of when you can get everyone making the same movie and there’s freedom to talk about stuff — and the size and the [$20 million] budget allowed that.”

When it came to shooting “La La Land,” there was never any doubt that it had to be on 35mm film to capture the CinemaScope, Technicolor-like splendor. And for Swedish cinematographer Linus Sandgren (“American Hustle”), who grew up watching art films as well as MGM musicals, it was the perfect retro nod to LA’s bittersweet, brightly colored dreamscape.

“You want to give the audience the widest possible image and the best colors,” Sandgren told IndieWire. Checking the aesthetics of Super 35 v. CinemaScope during camera tests, they needed to be able to process or treat the filmstock. But in order to shoot CinemaScope on a smaller budget, they kept to a more conservative shooting schedule.

Sandgren took a crash course in Jacques Demy’s “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” and “The Young Girls of Rochefort” at Chazelle’s insistence, Then he shot with the Panavision XL and C Series Anamorphic lenses, but with modifications for full-figured shots and extreme close-ups. “Most lenses are three-feet focus, which is a problem, so Panavision rebuilt the 40mm lens to accommodate nine inches in close focus,” he said.

“The greatest challenge was that we had to treat every scene similar because Damien didn’t want the audience to know when the film would become more magical or more realistic,” Sandgren said. “But the transition had to be as invisible as possible, so the emotions would drive the camera, and that freedom let the audience travel in space too.”

"La La Land"

“La La Land”

They weren’t allowed to touch anything in the Observatory, which meant careful shooting and lighting day for night. “The Planetarium stage had a blue screen and that was an example of how modern technology was motivated in an old-fashioned way to be in space with practical elements,” Sandgren said. “And that became the highest moment of love between the two of them.”

Meanwhile, costume designer Mary Zophres strongly embraced a classic, if timeless, look for Mia and Sebastian. But she shopped affordably, including the sales rack at Sachs, and knew pragmatically that she’d have to make all their clothes for the big dance sequences. The dresses had to be a flattering cut, the colors that Chazelle wanted and fluid movement in the skirts.

“In my mind, there’s a bit of an arc to Mia,” Zophres told IndieWire. “It starts off grounded in reality and by the time you get to the epilogue, she’s wearing that fantasy white dress when they’re dancing in Paris. I put a lot of fabric and I wanted it to feel like air.”

The two models for Mia were Ingrid Bergman (a poster adorns her bedroom wall) and Judy Garland. “I found a pink halter dress for one of the montages that’s similar to the one Ingrid Bergman wore for her Hollywood screen test,” Zophres said. “For the Planetarium peak, Damien and I both landed on green because we both loved the image of Judy Garland in ‘A Star is Born,’ where she wears almost like a jade green dress.”

"La La Land"

“La La Land”

Composer Justin Hurwitz first needed to find a love theme for Mia and Sebastian, which would reach its apex during the Planetarium sequence. “It’s about yearning — optimism but melancholy,” he told IndieWire, “And there were lots of conversations and piano demos before the movie shot.”

But Hurwitz worked in reverse from normal film composing procedure, doing mock ups after reading the script so they would have a rich representation of the score that the director could use on set to help with the mood and camera movement. But eventually, of course, he had to settle into the usual routine of reworking the music to fit the image and cutting.

Hurwitz described the opening, “Another Day of Sun,” as a big and exciting number that betrays the melancholy and yearning because Mia and Sebastian and everyone else stuck in traffic are far from realizing their dreams.

“‘City of Stars’ is probably the closest to an ‘I Want’ song,” Hurwitz said. “It’s emotionally tricky because Sebastian is happy but cautious about his date with Mia. And he’s singing about the future that could be but also the things that haven’t worked out for him.

“But what I responded to in the story is that relationships are imperfect and timing usually doesn’t work out.”

"La La Land"

“La La Land”

Summit Entertainment

The same could be said for editor Tom Cross (who won an Oscar for Chazelle’s “Whiplash”). “You can’t have it all. That was part of Damien’s experience in Hollywood and a lot of people’s experience. It’s a place to go to achieve your dreams and you gain something but you also lose something,” Cross told IndieWire.

“And Damien was very specific with me in terms of giving the characters equal weight and editing instructions to use the language of dreams and old movies: irises, fade-ins, fade-outs, montages and wipes. These characters are real people that see the world in Technicolor and CinemaScope and we wanted the editing to support that at all times.”

It’s about the rhythm of romance during the four seasons that both conforms to and challenges audience expectations. “For Damien, it’s slow during courtship and with an emphasis on round angles, like Vincente Minnelli movies,” Cross said. “But in addition, he also wanted to editorially express the fever pitch of being in love. We open the summer cycle with a fast-cut montage of them running around LA, or when he picks her up and they drive down the alley triumphantly, only to drive backward because they’re on a one-way street.”

However, the bravura opening dance sequence on the freeway almost never made the final cut. That’s because it took too long to introduce Sebastian and Mia. But then the first musical number was delayed too long, so back it came. And out went Hurwitz’s Roadshow-like overture as a compromise.

“That was a great exercise because we realized how important that opening scene was,” Cross said. “If you want the audience to accept the musical format, you need to announce that at the very beginning.”

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