La La Land, Damien Chazelle’s musical romance (and EW’s favorite movie of 2016) is packing theaters in major cities across the country. Its earning power has been mighty impressive, guaranteeing that the film will be open for box office business at least until the Oscars in February, where the film leads all hopefuls with a record-tying 14 nominations.
Chazelle’s movie features a number of song and dance sequences that are both steeped in homage for old musicals and wondrously modern. In one scene, which drew inspiration from classic Hollywood filmmaker Busby Berkeley and his swimming pool musicals, the characters fall into a Los Angeles pool during a nighttime party. The camera goes right in with them and then bobs on the surface, rotating as partygoers jump and splash around.
But that’s nothing compared to the movie’s incredible first scene. Right up front, before we even meet the main characters played by Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, La La Land establishes the real yet semi-fantastical world in which its story takes place.
Dozens of cars are ensnared in traffic on a Los Angeles freeway — and from little bits of ambient noise explodes a full orchestral musical number, complete with a hundred dancers, set to the movie’s original song “Another Day of Sun.” In sold out theaters during the movie’s opening weekends, audiences have been bursting into applause when the number concludes.
Chazelle, the film’s 31-year-old writer-director who stunned the movie world two years ago with Whiplash (his drama about a masochistic drummer scored four Oscars), took EW along on a deep dive into La La Land‘s opening number. Talking to Chazelle is like tumbling down a soft Wikipedia rabbit hole — one movie reference leads to another movie reference which leads to a song reference and then another mention of that great documentary and that musical which got his thoughts churning in the first place.
Few filmmakers can present a bibliography as rich and extensive as Chazelle’s — so come along as he pulls on all the threads that came together to create this stunner of a kickoff.
“A lot of things were smashing together at the outset,” Chazelle says, making a pun about the gnarly bumper-to-bumper gridlock that we see in La La Land‘s inaugural image. He had two basic ideas. “First, I always wanted to do a shot where you go from car to car with each radio playing a radically different kind of music. I wanted it to feel like a city bustling with music, like in Mean Streets or Taxi Driver or Rear Window. You’re hearing Italian opera coming from one apartment window and Frankie Vali from another and jazz from another. But this is Los Angeles. The cacophony of sounds is coming out of cars. And I loved the idea of presenting the soundscape of the city that way.”
Chazelle continues, “And then the second idea was using that soundscape to build into an opening musical number and having a fantastical musical number arise out of a bunch of realistic city sounds. That was something I got from Love Me Tonight, the 1932 Rouben Mamoulian film, which opens with the sounds of Paris in the morning — there’s a shoemaker and a street sweeper — and those sounds build up rhythmically and cascade into a number.”
“Beyond that,” Chazelle continues, “the scene came from me living in L.A. and being in traffic all the time, thinking about either wanting to shoot myself or dance. I felt like I had seen the you-wanna-shoot-yourself version in Falling Down . That movie paints such a hellish portrait of the city that I thought it would be interesting, now that I live in L.A. and have fallen deeply in love with the city, to start La La Land with the thing that literally freaked me out the most about L.A. as a kid. That was thanks to watching Falling Down in New Jersey. That kind of endless grind of traffic, where most of what you see around you is concrete and you’re surrounded by smog and exhaust fumes and burning sunlight. So instead of Michael Douglas storming out of his car, it’s a dance number.”
One of the most famous traffic jams in cinema history is the epic seven-and-half minute unbroken shot of borderline surreal gridlock in Jean-Luc Godard’s insane 1967 satire Weekend. “Oh, definitely, of course,” Chazelle says about a lengthy camera move that starts his film. “The tracking shot itself is definitely inspired by Weekend.”
“But as for the actual characteristics of the song and dance number,” he says, “we were looking at Jacques Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort, which opens with girls not in traffic per se but on a barge carrying their cars across the river. That sort of dance movement in and out of cars and between cars, that was very important to our choreography.”
“And then there was Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, which used the widescreen for the dance so incredibly. And the athletic choreography. Our opening sequence wasn’t going to be a number like the ones that Ryan and Emma perform later in the movie — this was about busting-at-the-seams exuberance. Even though they’re stuck in traffic, these people are refusing to give up. They’re refusing to be stuck in life. They’re plowing forward. That’s why we have stuff like a parkour dancer and a BMX biker. I was pulling from the sheer athleticism of the Michael Kidd choreography in Seven Brides, which a lot of times seems like you’re watching the most incredible stunt performers. It bleeds between stunts and dance in a really cool way.”
II. The Logistics
In order to turn Chazelle’s screenplay vision into a living, breathing, non-CGI reality, Chazelle and his production designer David Wasco (Pulp Fiction) set their sights on a ramp where L.A.’s Interstate 105 connects to Interstate 110. La La Land‘s supervising location manager Robert Foulkes had stood on this concrete slab before, when he was scouting locations for the 2014 movie Cake, in which Jennifer Aniston contemplates suicide from the same exact spot. For La La Land, Foulkes employed matchbox cars to demonstrate to California officials how the sequence would work.
But how did it work? “We shut down an E-Z pass over-ramp,” Chazelle says. “We shut it down for a Saturday and a Sunday in August of 2015 for the actual filming, but a week before that we got permission to shut it down for part of one Saturday so that we could do a dress rehearsal.”
And that made a huge difference. Chazelle, along with choreographer Mandy Moore, plus dozens of dancers and extras and vehicles, had been rehearsing the number in Los Angeles parking lots, trying to replicate the dimensions of the Interstate ramp.
“Ironically, we got the dance and the camera moves to such a precise layout in prep during the parking lot rehearsals,” Chazelle says, “that I and my key collaborators almost got a little overconfident.” The director was in for a rude awakening when he arrived on the E-Z Pass ramp for the dress rehearsal. “In retrospect, that day saved us,” he says. “I’d been using my iPhone camera during rehearsals but obviously a large crane is a lot more complicated than an iPhone. There were little things we hadn’t even thought about. The interstate ramp is slanted, it’s never flat. You’re dealing with the heat, the sun burning down on the car tops. And the crane, there’s heavy winds that high up.”
Chazelle and his crew made several minor and major adjustments — including a swap out of the crane head — and made changes to the choreography. “That’s what allowed us to go in the next weekend and get it all done in two days,” he says. “I wouldn’t say it was easy — it was a really hot August weekend in L.A. — but we got what we wanted. And without those months of prep and dress rehearsal, I don’t think we would have been able to.”
“It’s one hell of an opening gambit,” EW’s Chris Nashawaty writes in his emphatic grade A review of La La Land. “All of these people trapped in their own private compartments of annoyance joining together in one synchronized leaping, singing communion …. It tells the audience right off the bat what to expect — two hours of blissful shoot-the-works exuberance.”
Composer Justin Hurwitz, who wrote the music for the film and collaborated with lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, speaks about the perfect mixture of joy and melancholy that La La Land‘s first five minutes establish. “On the face of it, the opening number it’s a very energetic thing,” he says. “But because of the content of the song, because it’s about all these dreamers with unfulfilled dreams, because it’s called “Another Day of Sun,” there’s a sadness in it as well. That was the dichotomy that Damien and I were going for. That tone is I hope something that belongs in our movie.”
Obviously, Hurwitz, along with anyone who’s ever lived in Los Angeles, relates to the lonely, soul-crushing ritual of sitting in traffic — a ripe metaphor for the way that some experience the city itself. “Living in L.A. is all about navigating,” he says. “Dealing with the driving, wondering, exploring, appreciating how many different looks there in the city. Everything from the ocean to the mountains to some really cool urban areas.”
Someone else, in fact, concurs with that point. Barry Jenkins, the acclaimed director of Moonlight — the only movie that’s won more critics awards than La La Land — has made his affection for Chazelle’s movie very clear.
And among other reasons, there is this one personal factor that connects Jenkins intimately to the movie’s opening sequence. “When you look out over Los Angeles from that freeway,” he tells EW, “you can see my apartment.”