Chazelle on Directing La La Land’s Opening Scene and Why He Considered Taking It Out

Chazelle on Directing La La Land’s Opening Scene and Why He Considered Taking It Out

It’s impossible to watch Damien Chazelle third feature, La La Land and not wonder how the filmmaker shot the opening scene and number, a six minute long sequence that presents itself as a long-take, shot on a freeway ramp with dozens of cars, dancers and performers giving it their all.

During an interview on NPR Fresh Air, Chazelle explained not only the process from rehearsal to shooting, but also how, once in the editing room, the number almost got cut out, until he could spot what was the real issue with the beginning of his film.

Step 1 – Defining the Scene Aesthetic

One thing that I think has been lost a little bit is the idea of choreographing dance for the camera. That to me was the beautiful thing about all the Hollywood musicals from Fred and Ginger through the Gene Kelly/Stanley Donen pictures to the something like Seven Brides For Seven Brothers. There’s a wonderful barren dance set-piece in the middle of that movie which was a big reference for this, with a lot of the same athletic kind of dancing.

But it’s all about how the dance looks in relation to a single camera not ‘let’s do the dance like a live event and film it with 15 cameras and then we’ll find it in the editing room’. So that long-take aesthetic was there right from the beginning. 


Step 2 – Prepping with the Choreographer and the Cinematographer

My choreographer Mandy Moore choreographed with that in mind, and the DP, Linus Sandgren had to kind of be involved in that choreography. So it was really the three of us and this troop of dancers that Mandy and I brought together, rehearsing, rehearsing for months, and often theoretically. Because the other problem was shooting on a freeway ramp so you can really rehearse on site very easily.

We were able to find this elevated ramp that the city would let us shut down for a Saturday and a Sunday to shoo,t and we were able to squeeze out a few hours, couple of weeks before, to do a dress-rehearsal. That was our only chance to actually be on location and see how that would really work out outside a dance studio or a parking lot where we had rehearse most of it before.

Here is Moore’s pov:

Mandy Moore: The original script basically said, “There’s a traffic jam, and they dance, and it’s going to be the best opening number ever.”

It was a massive logistical puzzle. The very first steps were Damien and I drawing on pieces of paper — all these cars in the configuration of the curve of the highway. Then we would turn the music on and talk about where the camera should go. From that I was able to craft models — we had models on walls with Post-its, and we had this massive table in my office that we built a model on with different cars. We had to know who was standing on what car and who started in what car and where they ended. 

Then I was able to bring in a skeleton crew of about 10 dancers for two days. We worked in a parking lot with a bunch of our cars and started exploring movement: What does it feel like if you’ve been in a traffic jam and you’re tired and suddenly someone gets out of the car and starts to sing and dance? How do you react? Do you join in? What’s the movement when you join in?

Step 3 – Troubleshooting During Dress Rehearsal and Shooting

Damien Chazelle: The first dress-rehearsal was a…

Terri Gross: Fiasco?

Damien Chazelle: Yes, I think that’s a kind way of putting it. The camera couldn’t move fast enough, the wind up there was buffeting the crane, dancing that looked really good when I ran around shooting stuff on my iphone didn’t look good in the sort of full ingeneered set-up and moves weren’t being captured the right way, etc. So we made adjustments. I’d say it was less big overall adjustments and it was more small tinkering adjustments.

And then we went back when we had to shoot it, with an idea of what was going to be troublesome and what was going to be easier to do. And we shot it. It’s three shots sort of stitched together, to look like one.

Update: here is the video Chazelle shot during rehearsal with his iPhone.


Step 4 – Surviving the Editing Room

We felt like we had gotten the scene the way wanted to, but when we put it together, the entrée into the world just wasn’t working. It wasn’t because of the scene, as it turned out, it was because of everything that was around. We used to have a big opening credits overture before the scene, we used to also see Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone’s main characters before the number begin and then refound them back after. There was all this engineering around the number that seemed to make sense on the page but didn’t really make sense in the movie. 

Initially we tried letting the number out, and it’s the only number that doesn’t directly progress the story, so it’s in some ways a number that you can cut out without too much collateral damage except that obviously, we find out pretty quickly that the movie needed it.

And that lead us to figure out solutions around the number and make the number itself the overture. And that was the issue before, we had kind of three overtures before the story really started, and that was a problem.

To illustrate the whole conversation, watch this short-video below showing some behind-the-scenes of the opening number: