The freeways of L.A. are famously hellish - rush-hour crawls, midday backups, a million drivers locked in endless traffic, bumper-to-bumper road rage. Damien Chazelle's La La Land, in theaters beginning Friday (it opens Dec. 16 in Philadelphia), could change that perception - well, at least the road-rage part.
Writer/director Chazelle's joy-inducing love story begins with its two stars - Emma Stone as a struggling actress, Ryan Gosling as a struggling jazz pianist - stuck on a freeway in their respective vehicles, idling, immobile. They are strangers at this point in the story, as are all the other drivers packed onto the wide, curving on-ramp around them, the spires of downtown in the distance.
Then one woman starts singing - and gets out of her car and starts to dance. She is joined by another driver, and another. Before the rousing chorus of "Another Day of Sun" is over, the first of this full-fledged movie musical's original numbers, a hundred or so men, women, and kids have taken to the blacktop, chorusing, kicking up their heels.
How did Chazelle - making only his third feature, after a no-budget indie and the Oscar-garnished Whiplash - pull off this dazzling curtain-raiser? Not easily.
"It was a little crazy," Chazelle acknowledged with some understatement, recalling the weekend when the City of Los Angeles handed over an entire FasTrak on-ramp to the director and his army of dancers and extras. (For a fee, of course.)
A marathon dance shoot
"During the night, we loaded it up with cars and equipment," he said, "and then all the crew and dancers would arrive a few hours before dawn, to start to get situated. As soon as dawn cracked, the faintest crack of light, we would start rehearsing . . . with the hope that we'd be shooting, getting decent takes, by the time it was actually day. And then we would shoot until the sun went down, basically.
"It was designed to seem like one take. It's actually three shots that have been stitched together. But each shot is still about two minutes long - with the 360-degree camera, with all of the dancers. So with each shot, we probably wound up doing 40 or so takes . . . trying to be really efficient with time, but of course there were always things.
"Suddenly, a bunch of clouds would come, and it would just look really gloomy, and here we were singing about sunshine, so we had to wait."
In the old days - the days of Fred and Ginger and Top Hat and Singin' in the Rain and all those jaunty MGM musicals, say - a scene like that would have been shot entirely on a soundstage. Nowadays, the sane way to stage a number like Chazelle's dazzling La La Land opener would be to use green-screen digital effects to paint in the rows of cars and trucks, the shimmying throng, the city and mountains and sky.
No thank you, said Chazelle.
"That was part of the hope and part of the point: to do something that normally you would do with backdrops or CG in a more controlled environment," he told me when he visited town in October for La La Land's bow at the Philadelphia Film Festival. "But to do it on a freeway, seeing actual downtown, actual dancers, with actual traffic going by underneath - people who were probably wondering what the hell was going on.
"Obviously, it created a headache for everyone, but we were very rigorous about maintaining that approach, or trying to maintain that."
The approach seems to be working. This week, La La Land was named one of the year's 10 best films by the National Board of Review and best film of 2016 by the New York Film Critics Circle.
From Haverford to "La La Land"
Chazelle, 31, was a Haverford nursery school kid before his parents - both academics - moved the family to Princeton. After graduating from high school, it was on to Harvard, where Chazelle met Justin Hurwitz, La La Land's composer.
They first teamed on what began as Chazelle's thesis project: Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, a 16mm, black-and-white musical about two star-crossed lovers. The film, released theatrically in 2010, has a French New Wave feel - jazzy, nimble. Even the dance numbers feel like they were shot on the run.
"We met freshman year - we played in a band together, naturally," Chazelle said about Hurwitz. "But then we quickly learned that we were even more passionate about movies than we were about trying to be rock stars, so early on, we were talking about movies and musicals. . . . It was this give-and-take, where we were teaching each other musically and cinematically. And Guy and Madeline arose from that, as did La La Land."
Chazelle's La La Land screenplay, in fact, was finished before he began work on Whiplash, the tale of a promising jazz drummer (Miles Teller) and his maniacal music school prof (J.K. Simmons, who won an Academy Award for his trouble).
"There were years of developing, writing the La La Land script and the music, and, eventually, we had a full script, we had every song - the melodies, even to a large degree the orchestrations were all set, with placeholder lyrics," Chazelle said. "But there was still that missing ingredient of having people who were actually masters of the form of lyric-writing, of storytelling through song."
Enter Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the songwriting duo behind TV's Smash and the Tony-nominated A Christmas Story, The Musical. The pair's latest, Dear Evan Hansen, opens Sunday on Broadway. (See David Patrick Stearns' article on page H10.) The lyrics Pasek and Paul crafted for La La Land - from the wry and dreamy duet "A Lovely Night" to Stone's showstopper ballad, "Audition (The Fools Who Dream)" - are sublime. They move the narrative along with precision, poetry, and Cole Porteresque panache.
"Benj and Justin were in New York at the time, so they would come to L.A., and we would go to New York, back and forth, for probably about a year, working on the songs," said Chazelle. "And once we started working with the actors, then character work would inform script work, which would then inform the lyrics. It became this ongoing thing . . . even in shooting.
"One song ["A Lovely Night"] we started shooting without final lyrics," he said. "Benj and Justin were definitely put through the wringer . . . in terms of working under that kind of pressure."
As for those actors, Chazelle had already been talking to Gosling before La La Land was anywhere near ready to go. The two had been discussing a project about Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon. (Chazelle is working with Spotlight screenwriter Josh Singer on the film. If all goes as planned, it will be Chazelle's next feature.)
When Gosling heard Chazelle was cooking up a musical, he took notice. "He and I would share our love for Gene Kelly and riff on musicals we loved, and so that led to him looking at this," Chazelle said. "And then I met Emma when she was doing Cabaret in New York. . . . A lucky stroke."
Luckier still, given the fact that Gosling and Stone were friends and had already worked together in Crazy Stupid Love and Gangster Squad.
"It was nice to have that built-in chemistry," Chazelle said about his leads, "because they were both doing something that they'd never done, kind of jumping off a cliff a little bit. And so they were able to be each other's safety net when it came to these big numbers, and when it came to just really putting yourself out there in a musical. . . .
"There's nothing potentially more embarrassing than this genre. It's a genre that's both thrilling and terrifying for performers. So I think it was great that they were able to really guide each other through it, much as the characters guide each other through the story in the film."
And through those traffic jams, too.