Reviewed by Lesley Coffin
Damien Chazelle’s La La Land has been hailed by critics as one of the best films of the year and been named one of the few modern musicals in the past decades to truly capture the magic of musicals from Hollywood’s golden age. One of the ways La La Land has embraced the spirit of those classic musicals is to place equal importance on the choreography in the film’s production numbers. Using a variety of dance styles to tell the emotional story of actress Mia and jazz pianist Sebastian (Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling), the film is choreographed with love and care Mandy Moore. As an accomplished choreographer, Moore’s worked on the stage and TV (including Dancing with the Stars and So You Think I Can Dance) for years, and choreographed scenes for David O. Russell’s American Hustle and Silver Linings Playbook, and last year’s Sleeping with Other People. We spoke with Mandy Moore about her work on the dance packed La La Land, as well as the classic musicals which inspired it and a shared love of tap dancing.
It must be great with the release of La La Land to not only talk about choreography and dance but the difference between choreographing for film, compared to when you choreograph for the stage or live TV.
It is, because usually, I’m given a stage with a specific structure and size, and told to choreograph within that space. But in a film, that space is only limited to what the camera sees and physical space doesn’t mean as much. But working on La La Land, Damien was clear about how he wanted the dance sequences to fit within the frame. And so it was a dream to have a chance to create them with him, because when I’d start staging he knew exactly if it would work within his frame. A lot of times on films or TV, you’re kind of at the mercy of the edit. But La La Land was special because I knew before going into rehearsal what the camera was going to see, so I knew how I could fill the frame.
Did you and Damien discuss how much editing each production number would have?
Definitely, I knew exactly where the edit point would be before going into the creative process. He knew and told me so much about how this film would be put together during pre-production, so I felt very confident choreographing. The only thing that changed during filming really was how much he’d pull in for a close-up or pull out for a wide shot of the dance. But the nice thing about this film is, I didn’t feel pressure to over-choreograph. I was just concerned with telling the story and working with Damien to capture the emotion of the characters. If that meant a really simple soft shoe or intricate ballet, it all felt completely in service to the story. And I really felt like I was working with Linus (Sandgren), our cinematographer, to make all that happen as one synergistic process. Its probably the most collaborative project I’ve ever worked on. And that’s what I think people have been so drawn to watching this movie. It feels like everything’s on camera because it’s meant to be there, not to show off.
In most movies, during a big emotional moment between two people, the camera comes in closer to feel more intimacy between the characters. But in a dance-musical, the camera usually zooms out to catch the actors entire bodies in motion, because their song-and-dance is expressing that emotion.
I’m so glad you noticed that because it probably is the biggest difference in how musicals are filmed.
Did you look at any musicals to see how courtship and romance have been expressed in dance-musicals before?
Damien and I watched and talked about a lot of movies together, and watched a lot of classic dance scenes. An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain have some amazing dance numbers. And we both love Top Hat and the chemistry between Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in all those movies. Although Damien really loves Top Hat. We watched Band Wagon, a movie we both loved. We would watch the dances, and then go back and really dissect it to understand why they were choreographed the way they were, within their movies. What were Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire in their dances? And how were they using the camera to tell their story? It also just helped, because we had this shared knowledge of Hollywood dances, so we could reference something and know what the other was trying to accomplish.
What was it like choreographing for non-professional dancers on this? Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone clearly have a natural physical ability, but were their things you adjusted after you got to know them better?
I was lucky to have a lot of time with them before we even got into pre-production. And I spent a lot of time with them individually, giving private coaching lessons. And that time was so helpful for me, because its when I really learned about their bodies. I saw the lines and shapes they can make easily, and what would be a challenge. What their natural rhythms are. One of the biggest challenges for me was figuring out what their characters movement vocabularies would be, especially for Sebastian. He’s a man and a jazz pianist, so figuring out what that meant, he’d move, was challenging for me. It took a long time to figure out what Sebastian stature or body language would really be. By the time we were in rehearsals, we were dancing to the Frank Sinatra version of “Summer Wind”, and I started teaching a step to move across the floor, and Ryan said “I think my hands should be in my pockets.” And he did it, performing the same step we’d been working on, but now bent his legs a little and kind of slumped his shoulders a bit, and put his hands in his pockets. And it was a lightbulb moment for me. That’s Sebastian.
And its the same thing for Emma’s character Mia. How would this actress-dreamer move. There’s a version of that character that could have been completely fluid and soft and have no fire. But that’s not Emma, and that’s not what Emma brings to the character of Mia. So we kept trying to incorporate opposites, give her fluidity but also keep the fire, make her quirky but also have a little flirtation. And always have this ability to feel completely free. That is Emma’s greatest strength as an actress, I think, and I wanted to use that quality. So we really used that time to first get to know their bodies and build how the characters would move. And by the time we got to pre-production, we were free to add more complex moves or simplify the dances. But I got so lucky working with both of them, they came to rehearsal ready to work.
Personally, I was so happy to see you really use tap dancing in the film, and showing different types of tap dancing within the movie. I don’t see it in films as much as those classic dance musicals of the 30s, 40s, 50s. Is that a favorite dance style for you too?
Definitely. I started dancing doing tap and break dancing. That’s all I did for the first few years. So my foundation as a dancer is tap, and agree, I have a real love for that art form. It’s one of the few styles of dance that anyone can learn, at any age really. Some of the other genres of dance, you have to be a very specific body type. But tap has the ability to be this wholly inconclusive form of dance because it’s all about rhythm, heart, and feeling. And a big thing for Damien and I was the inspiration of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, and they were both brilliant tap dancers but had very different personal styles. So I knew the roots of the movement had to be tap, and we, of course, added jazz steps because of Sebastian’s roots in jazz music.
And tapping actually changes the music, essentially adding a type of percussion. How did Damien feel about changing the soundtrack to incorporate the sound?
Oh, Damien loves tap, and he loves to dance. So he’d come in during rehearsal, try to learn a step and go “that’s too hard.” But he has such a strong understanding of music, and he uses it to inform decision he makes about editing, cinematography, lighting. That’s why the film feels like this wonderful assault on your senses. The fact that tap adds like you said, a percussion element, made him even happier because their steps are informed by the music, but the music changes with each step. I think it makes the film seem tactile and tangible.
The big production number you started the movie with, on the highway, looks like it would have been a monster to put together. How did you go about planning something on such a large scale?
It started out with a pretty vague description. There’s a traffic jam, someone gets out of the car and starts singing, and then it has to be the most impressive opening dance number ever. And I was initially overwhelmed. But when I first got the job, that was one of the first things Damien and I tackled, and I actually still have the papers we drew the plans on. We’d use boxes for each of the cars, and then draw how the camera would move. Just trying to figure out what the camera would be seeing, because we were going to use long one-takes. So, from that planning session, I got a skeleton crew of about 10 dancers, who came in one weekend, parked the cars in a lot, and I’d start playing with different movements, using the cars. So we’d ask, what’s it feels like when you first get out of a car, what’s it feel like when you lean on a car. And we’d started to piece it together, what those moves would be like, and what it would be like to have many people out of their cars in a traffic jam.
And then we started to cast it, and that was important because we wanted to have as many types of people in that scene as possible. We hired 30 dancers to work on that scene. And then I work with Geno Hart on the transpiration team and hired film cars. We had to get 60 film cars, and had extras at the tail ends of the traffic jam. But we could only reinforce 20 of those film cars, so we had to plan who would be standing on the cars, and where those cars would be. So we ultimately had to start working backward, to get an idea of how the scene would end and how they would have gotten back to the car they started in. Because it wouldn’t have made sense for people to end the dance on someone else’s car. And the weekend before we got 12 hours on the freeway to rehearse, and filmed that scene on the freeway within two days. And none of that would have happened without a lot of collaboration. It was such a special moment.
How did you rehearse with all the dancers if you only had one day of tech rehearsal on the freeway?
We got 10 film cars, and all the dancers had their cars, so we used the parking lot as our rehearsal space. And we just measured using cones so we’d know how big the freeway lanes would be. Very scientific. And we just rehearsed out there, with everyone in the right order. And we got two days to do that with everyone. And they put in a lot of hard work and showed a great deal of patience.
Lesley Coffin: Is editor and founder of Movies, Film, Cinema. A writer with a masters degree from NYU’s Gallatin School in biographical studies and star theory. She wrote the biography on Lew Ayres (Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector) and Hitchcock’s Casting (Hitchcock’s Stars). Lesley currently freelances as a critic and interviewer for a number of sites, including regular contributions to The Interrobang, Pink Pen, and Young Folks, and previously wrote for The Mary Sue and Filmoria. (Twitter handle @filmbiographer, website lesleycoffin.com)