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29 Things We Learned from Damien Chazelle & Justin Hurwitz’s ‘La La Land’ Commentary

“The idea was never to pretend that LA was a city that it wasn’t.”
La La Land Commentary
By  · Published on April 19th, 2017

Welcome to Commentary Commentary, our long-running series of articles exploring the things we can learn from the most interesting filmmaker commentaries available on DVD and Blu-ray.

La La Land may not have won Best Picture at the Academy Awards, but it’s still a delightfully mesmerizing experience with one of last year’s best endings. It hits Blu-ray/DVD next week, and along with an 80-minute making-of documentary, the disc features a commentary with the film’s award-winning writer/director and composer.

Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary for…

La La Land (2016)

Commentators: Damien Chazelle (writer/director), Justin Hurwitz (composer)

1. Chazelle wanted his Cinemascope opening to replicate the widening aspect ratio he recalled seeing in Frank Tashlin’s 1956 film, The Girl Can’t Help It.

2. The opening scene is modeled in some ways on 1932’s Love Me Tonight which “begins with a cacophony of street noises, Paris waking up at dawn, you have shutters opening and people sweeping the floor, and all those sounds slowly build up and get rhythmic and turn into a number.”

3. This sequence was cut from the film several times as they tested with and without it before eventually deciding to keep it in. There was also an opening overture which was cut. Chazelle asks Hurwitz which broke his heart more when it was cut, and he replies with this opening number. Happily for him and us the viewers they decided to add it back.

4. It was producer Fred Berger’s idea to go straight from the Cinemascope logo to the bright Los Angeles sun before panning down to the cars, and Chazelle fought it for two months having preferred to simply fade in on the cars. “He wound up winning me over eventually.” The trade-off is that Berger was the one hold out of the opinion that the opening number should be cut.

5. Mia’s (Emma Stone) terrible opening audition is based on a real one Ryan Gosling endured where the casting director took a call during his serious moment.

6. Chazelle feels bad for the guy who flips into the pool at the party “because we did this shot probably about thirty-five or so times.”

7. Re-structuring in editing resulted in a continuity error involving Sebastian’s (Gosling) shirt, but so far no one has called Chazelle out on it. We see him in a brown shirt, he arrives at his apartment to hang with his sister in a blue shirt, and then she leaves and he sits at the piano in the brown shirt again. It’s horribly distracting now that he’s pointed it out.

8. J.K. Simmons was technically the first person cast on the film as Chazelle first asked if he’d do this small walk-on role back while they were still filming Whiplash. “We both enjoyed the inside joke of having him be the same guy from Whiplash but many years after being fired. He’s decided he despises jazz and only wants to hear Christmas jingles for the rest of his life.”

9. They had a piano-playing hand double ready to go in a nearby trailer, but Gosling proved on day one that it was unnecessary. “We let him go in one day.” They knew Gosling could play, but his preparation and practice always seemed to be slower than they needed. It wasn’t until the first week of production that they realized they were golden.

10. They give a shout out to D.A. Wallach who’s the ’80s cover band singer. Hurwitz had put together a band in college which included Chazelle and Wallach as drummers. “You auditioned us against each other,” says Chazelle.

11. The post-party song and dance against a setting Los Angeles sun was filmed over two nights in order to catch the sky, performances, and camera work perfectly. They would all have to rush back back down the hill to the starting point after each take so as not to lose more light.

12. The couple acting in the scene on the studio lot as Sebastian and Mia walk by are actually Gosling’s and Stone’s doubles for the film.

13. The scene they glimpse being set up inside the sound stage includes the painted backdrop that returns in the film’s final scene. “so Ryan and Emma are literally peering into the movie that they’re then going to be a part of.”

14. Chazelle says that the character of Sebastian is less likable on the page. “He was a little bit of a dick through and through, just as foolish but with an extra edge of snootiness, and Ryan never softened that but he manages to play it in a way that is so warm and tender that you actually see the kid underneath who is just smitten with music and art.”

15. “City of Stars” was initially one of Mia’s songs.

16. The theater where Mia and Sebastian have their movie date is the Rialto in Pasadena. It’s a real theater but isn’t really used as one anymore. They had to light it and dress it up to look alive, but the second scene later in the movie shows it looking closed down “and that’s much closer to the current reality.”

17. You’re only allowed to shoot at Griffith Observatory on Mondays, “and you can’t touch anything.” The planetarium in the film is a replica built on a sound stage.

18. The mid-air dance sequence is inspired by films as diverse as 2001, Wall-E, and Sleeping Beauty.

19. The pianist in the hat who replaces Sebastian at The Lighthouse is Randy Kerber. It’s his piano-playing we hear throughout the film whenever Gosling is playing.

20. Chazelle received concerned questions, comments, and looks for his decision to light Sebastian’s apartment with that green lighting from outside the curtains. It’s a choice “which I will defend to my dying day” and that was inspired by a recent watch of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

21. There were six years between Chazelle’s initial screenplay draft and the beginning of production.

22. They visited Gene Kelly’s widow, Patricia, during pre-production and had the pleasure of seeing her stash of artifacts and mementos from her husband’s career. “I’m a normal person so I bring a bottle of wine,” says Chazelle, “Emma’s a normal person so she brings some flowers, Mandy Moore our choreographer is also a normal person so she brings another bottle of wine, and then Ryan Gosling shows up with a 25lb apple pie.” There’s apparently a place in LA that specializes in making them. Sadly, Chazelle does not reveal the name of the place for those of us who might be interested in such a thing.

23. Mia’s one-woman play experience was the most personal for Chazelle to write as he’s experienced some rough times with audiences most notably on his first film, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench. He recalls one Q&A question where a man asked “Are you happy with the movie?” and then followed it up with “Why?”

24. The film was originally conceived to be made at Focus Features for under one million dollars, but after a regime change the film was dropped all together. They spent several years continuing to work on the script and look for financing – in which time they made Whiplash – before finally getting a proper green light for this film via Lionsgate.

25. Chazelle loves That Thing You Do! which led to the casting of Tom Everett Scott as Mia’s husband. “Growing up as a kid drummer, there are not many movies where the drummer is the hero.” Stone and Gosling were equally enamored and spent far too much time quoting the film.

26. Hurwitz did over 1900 variations on piano melodies in search of what would ultimately become the main theme.

27. That’s Hurwitz playing the piano on stage at the end of the fantasy “what if?” sequence at Seb’s.

28. The original ending followed Mia outside, back into her car, and then watched as she drove away against the sunrise. “We realized that actually just closing on Ryan’s face just starting to play the piano was infinitely more moving.”

29. The movie did not test well. They came in at 65 after being told by the studio that the preferred minimum was over 70. They eventually reached a 75 after some tinkering.

Best in Context-Free Commentary

“It’s a great way to justify artistic laziness.”

“The idea was never to pretend that LA was a city that it wasn’t.”

Final Thoughts

A person’s taste in film is a personal thing, but I can’t understand hating a film like La La Land. I’m no great fan of musicals in general, but Chazelle’s film is a sensory delight with laughs, catchy tunes, and an incredibly affecting ending that drives home its themes of reality and dreams to perfection. His commentary alongside Hurwitz offers a look at the film’s technical production, anecdotes from filming, and an insight into the vision that brought it all together.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.