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"The whole thing seemed like a house of cards that could so easily tumble," Damien Chazelle tells PEOPLE of La La Land's opening number

By Ale Russian
February 16, 2017 01:38 PM
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La La Land may be known for it’s fantastical and seamless sequences — but it certainly wasn’t easy to make.

From the movie’s elaborate opening number to its awe-inducing final fantasy sequence, director Damien Chazelle is the first to admit that filming his acclaimed musical, which nabbed a record-tying 14 Oscar nominations, was no easy task.

Now just weeks ahead of the Academy Awards, Chazelle is poised to become one of the youngest Best Director winners — and the 32-year-old is dishing on all the behind-the-scene secrets that turned his dream movie into a reality.

Opening Sequence: “Another Day of Sun”

La La Land gets off to an upbeat start with its colorful opening sequence set in a traffic jam. But while the scene certainly captures audiences’ attention, Chazelle says he struggled with how to make the elaborate dance number feel as real as possible. “We wanted to not just have it seem like a long fluid take, but also it needed to really feel real,” the director tells PEOPLE. “So we were kind of adamant about shooting it on a real freeway ramp in the middle of the city.”

Chazelle and his team of producers got the permits to shut down an E-Z pass ramp that connects the 105 freeway to the 110 — but only for a weekend. That meant that one of the hardest shots of the movie had to be done in a fraction of the time and with only minimal rehearsal on location.

“The whole thing seemed like a house of cards that could so easily tumble,” Chazelle admits.

They cast was only able to practice on location for a few hours ahead of shooting day — and it didn’t exactly go as planned. “The camera didn’t move the way we needed it to, the crane was not moving at all in the speed we needed it to, the dancing that looked great on an iPhone but wasn’t framed properly with a real camera. But thankfully we kind of learned from that and I think it’s what helped us nail it on the day.” he says.

“Audition” Scene

Emma Stone‘s pivotal scene comes near the end of the movie when her downtrodden Mia finally gets the chance to audition for a big role. But once she gets there, the casting directors tell her to do a baffling task: just tell them a story. That’s when the aspiring actress launches into a monologue that turns into one of the movie’s most moving songs — and Chazelle says it was the scene Stone was most intrigued and terrified to film.

“That was a demo that she heard when I was first meeting with her about the project and she really fell in love with the song,” Chazelle says. “I think part of the reason why she agreed to do the movie was that moment. She put a lot of pressure on herself to get it right and to make something out of it.”

Watch the PEOPLE & EW Red Carpet Live Oscars preshow on Feb. 26 at 5 p.m. ET/2 p.m. PT on the People/Entertainment Weekly Network (PEN). Go to PEOPLE.com/PEN, or download the app on your favorite device. Then watch our Red Carpet Fashion Wrap-Up after the Oscars!

Part of the magic in the scene comes from the camera slowly zooming into Stone’s face as she sings the emotional ballad. “We knew we wanted to do it live and we all knew it was gonna be this very undisguised moment for her — it was just gonna be her, the camera, nothing else,” Chazelle says about the difficulty of the scene. “It was gonna be a single take where she just had to hold the frame during the song and do the entire thing live with no pre-record. It was all very much riding on her so I think she was terrified but really excited. She blew us all away.”

Final Number (warning: spoilers ahead!)

After watching Mia and Sebastian fall in love in L.A., the musical ends with an epic dream sequence that essentially tells an alternate version of the whole story. The scene, which shows Stone and Gosling navigating through their characters’ love story, was filmed in short bits throughout the eight weeks of shooting.

“That sequence had basically been in the first draft of the script, so it was helpful that we always kinda knew what we were building towards,” he explains. “I knew that I wanted to tell a love story where the lovers didn’t wind up together at the end, where there was some kind of melancholy built into the narrative. And then it became about how do we explore that idea at the end purely through music.”

“So just the idea of having a full 10-minute chunk at the end of the movie with no dialogue where you could tell a whole story through image and score and dance,” he adds. “And I was definitely inspired by An American in Paris and any of those ’50s musicals that had those big dream ballets like Singin’ in the Rain. That was just kind of a tradition that you used to see in musicals a lot but you just don’t see at all anymore that I kind of wanted to resurrect.”

The Academy Awards kicks off live on ABC on Sunday, Feb. 26, with a 7 p.m. ET preshow and 8:30 p.m. ceremony.