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Behind This Exuberant Dance Number? Planning, Precision And Practice

Feb 21, 2017
Originally published on February 21, 2017 8:47 am

There isn't an Oscar for choreography, but if there were, La La Land would almost certainly be taking it home this year. Starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, this musical for the 21st century is full of tapping, waltzing, fox-trotting salutes to 20th century musical classics.

The opening scene is a wow. A typical, Los Angeles traffic jam — blue skies and sunshine over the congested ramp where the 105 freeway meets the 110. Frustrated drivers are stuck sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic. All of a sudden they get out of their cars and start to sing and dance!

They're hopping, jumping and somersaulting over cars and trucks — and all throughout the joyful number, choreographer Mandy Moore was underneath one of the cars — "screaming out the counts. It was really fun," she says.

(This, by the way, is not the singer/actress Mandy Moore — but rather, a choreographer of the same name.)

The scene was filmed with 30 professional dancers and more than 100 extras on a 104-degree day. They first rehearsed in a parking lot, and later the actual freeway at 3:00 o'clock in the morning. On paper, Moore and director Damien Chazelle mapped out where the cameras would go. That morphed into 3D on a model ramp with toy cars. Then it was show time, which meant shutting down the freeway ramp for two days of shooting.

All in all, it took 47 takes — for a three-minute and 48-second dance number that occurs entirely before the movie title looms up on screen.

"I've seen it in the theater many times now and it still gets me." Moore says. "As soon as it says 'La La Land' it stops on that beat and people just clap! I've just never been in a movie when they do that!"

This is Moore's fourth film. She's been choreographing for 12 years — mostly TV, for shows like Dancing With the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance.

Growing up in Breckenridge, Colo., she fell in love with the great old movie musicals — Singing in the Rain, An American in Paris, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

"My mom said I was always dancing around when I was a little kid," she says. "I put on performances for my family. I'd make them all sit down and watch. She put me in dance at 8, and from that point on, I never wanted to be anywhere else."

Moore met us in Los Angeles' Griffith Park, where several scenes were shot. She's 40, with green eyes, long hair, and hands that dance when she talks. She also has the generous patience of a good teacher. There was a good amount of teaching for her to do.

In La La Land, Moore was working with two non-dancers. In just two months, the stars studied singing, piano and dancing. Gosling, who plays the part of a jazz musician in the film, had never studied dance before.

"He said, 'Yes, I have rhythm, I know how to perform, but no, I'm not like, good,' " Moore recalls. "So he basically was like, 'Let's start tomorrow.' "

He and Stone had different approaches to their dancing lessons.

"She likes to get the movement immediately — she's like a little machine; she gets it exactly right," Moore explains. "Where Ryan was very, very different. He'd take a long time to get the step. I'd have to go over and over it with him."

Sometimes he looks as if he's counting, but he dances gracefully, and in character.

Gosling and Stone have a lovely they-don't-like-each-other-then-they-fall-in-love duet on a hill in Griffith Park. It's sunset and they're on a bench overlooking LA's evening lights. She swaps her heels for flats, and the next thing you know, they're dancing.

Moore borrows some steps from a classic Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers routine from the 1935 film Top Hat. Dispute and disdain give way to a song and dance.

In those days of Hollywood censorship, dances were the love scenes. In La La Land, some still are. You'd never know it, but the sweet, 6 minute, 30 second Griffith Park duet was filmed under quite a bit of pressure.

"The director wanted this all to be in a single take," Moore explains.

So, one camera, no edits. Director Damien Chazelle wanted the sunset colors to be just right — there was no money to fix colors in post-production — which meant they had to shoot during the "magic hour," that fleeting time when the city is bathed in a reddish, golden light.

"Magic hour allowed us to have about five takes," Moore says. "And usually take number 1 was too light. Take number 5 was too dark. So they basically had three chances to hit this thing. And we shot it for two nights. So we had six chances to make this happen — on an incline, on asphalt, not being dancers. I mean, it's incredible to think what they did."

Watching her stars' natural movements, basing her dances on those moves, and shaping them toward grace and fluidity, choreographer Mandy Moore helped fashion a technicolor musical for today.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The news here in California happens to be the Oscars, Rachel. They are Sunday. The film to beat is Hollywood's love letter to itself, "La La Land," which has 14 nominations.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Yeah, it is a musical for the 21st century. There's tapping, waltzing, fox-trotting. And it's a salute to some 20th-century classics, really. NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg asked the choreographer about setting the contemporary feet dancing.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: No Oscars for choreography, but the woman who did "La La Land's" opening number deserves one.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LA LA LAND")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Another hot, sunny day today here in Southern California...

STAMBERG: Los Angeles, blue skies, bright sunshine, freeway country. So on the ramp where the 105 meets the 110, a traffic jam. Frustrated drivers sitting, sitting - all of a sudden, they leave their cars and start to sing...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LA LA LAND")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As character, singing) Behind these hills, I'm reaching for the heights...

STAMBERG: ...And dance...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LA LA LAND")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) ...And chasing all the lights that shine.

STAMBERG: ...On top of cars, onto trucks - hopping, jumping, somersaulting, skateboarding, biking even - waving their arms. And under one of the cars - you can't see her, but she was there for all three minutes and 48 seconds of the number - choreographer Mandy Moore. Not the singer-actress - this is another Mandy Moore.

MANDY MOORE: Underneath the car, screaming out counts - it was really fun.

STAMBERG: Thirty professional dancers, 100-plus extras, 100-plus cars total, 104-degree temperature and Mandy Moore's under a car yelling...

MOORE: B34, make sure that you go over the right side of your car, not the left side of your car. Turn on count four, not do your kick ball change or whatever it is.

STAMBERG: They rehearsed forever. First, in a parking lot, later at 3 a.m. on the actual freeway. Before that, on paper, Mandy and director Damien Chazelle drew X's and squares with arrows for where the cameras would go. Then came a model ramp studded with little Hot Wheels car. Showtime - shut down the freeway ramp for two days of shooting.

And how many takes did you say?

MOORE: I think traffic we did 47 takes.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LA LA LAND")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) It's another day of sun.

STAMBERG: Opening number ends, movie title appears.

MOORE: I've seen it in the theater many times now, and it still gets me that, you know, as soon as it says "La La Land" and it, like, stops on that beat, people just clap. I've just never been in a movie where they do that.

STAMBERG: This is Mandy's fourth movie. She's been choreographing for 12 years, mostly TV - "Dancing With The Stars," "So You Think You Can Dance." Growing up in Breckenridge, Colo., she fell in love with the great old movie musicals.

MOORE: "Singin' In The Rain," "An American In Paris," "Seven Brides For Seven Brothers," anything that had dance.

STAMBERG: She started out as a dancer.

MOORE: My mom said that I was always dancing around when I was a little kid. You know, I'd put on performances for my family. I'd make them all sit down and watch. And she put me in dance at 8. And from that point on, I just - I'd never wanted to be anywhere else.

STAMBERG: Mandy Moore met us in LA's Griffith Park, where several scenes were shot. She's 40, with long blond hair, green eyes and hands that dance when she talks. Also, the generous patience of a good teacher. Her students were two non-dancers, the stars. In two months, they studied singing, piano - Gosling plays a jazz musician - and dancing. Ryan Gosling had never studied dance.

MOORE: He said, yes, I have rhythm. I know how to perform, but, no, I'm not, like, good. So he basically was like, let's start tomorrow.

STAMBERG: But he looks comfortable in his body. Emma Stone does not always.

MOORE: They're different bodies. They also approach dance very differently. She likes to get the movement immediately. She's like a little machine. She gets it exactly right, where Ryan was very, very different. He would take a long time to get the step. I had to go over and over it with him.

STAMBERG: Sometimes he looks as if he's counting, but he dances gracefully in character. Gosling and Stone have a they-don't-like-each-other-then-they-fall-in-love duet on a hill in Griffith Park. It's sunset. They're on a bench overlooking LA's evening lights. She swaps her heels for flats. Next thing you know, he's tapping, then walks away. She gets up, follows him, and they're dancing.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TOP HAT")

FRED ASTAIRE: (As Jerry Travers, singing) Isn't this a lovely day to be caught in the rain?

STAMBERG: Mandy Moore borrows some steps from this classic Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers routine from the 1935 film "Top Hat" - dispute, distain, a song, the dance. In those days of Hollywood censorship, dances were the love scenes. In "La La Land," land some still are. The six-and-a-half minute Griffith Park duet was filmed under what you might call pressure.

MOORE: Damien, the director, wanted this all to be in a single take.

STAMBERG: One camera, no edits. And because there was no money to fix colors by computer in post-production and the director wanted the sunset colors to be just right, they had only what they call the magic hour in which to shoot.

MOORE: The magic hour allowed us to have about five takes. And usually take number one was too light, take number five was too dark. So they basically had three chances to hit this thing. And we shot it for two nights. So they had six chances to make this happen on an incline, on asphalt, not being dancers. I mean, it's incredible to think what they did.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

STAMBERG: Watching her stars' natural movements, basing her dances on those movements and shaping them toward grace and fluidity, choreographer Mandy Moore helped fashion a Technicolor musical for today. In La La Land, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

Mandy Moore, this is - may be the greatest challenge of your life. I'd like you to teach me a step.

MOORE: Oh, yes, I would love that.

STAMBERG: Now, you have to know I'm a hundred years old, and I have two bad hips, and my feet ain't great, either. Let's go.

MOORE: So let's bring our feet together. And then you're going to start with your heels to the right. Then you're going to go toes to the right. You're going to go heels to the right. Look at you, you're doing the Mia and Sebastian.

STAMBERG: I'm dancing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.