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How Did They Film the Opening Song in La La Land?

How Did La La Land Pull Off That Insane, Fantastical Opening Number?

As one of the most romantic and transformative films of 2016, La La Land is filled to the brim with whimsy and magic. Even without seeing the film, the gorgeous musical soundtrack and fanciful trailers are enough to give you a sense of what you're in for. Perhaps the most thrilling aspect of La La Land, in this respect, is that it wastes no time plunging audiences into its rose-tinted musical wonderland. We're talking about the opening sequence: during a particularly grueling freeway traffic jam on a hot Summer day (a dead-on representation of LA if I've ever seen one), a chorus of drivers emerges for an epic song-and-dance number right on the rooftops of their grid-locked cars.

There was always the chance that a feat of this magnitude could have been pulled off with elaborate sets and a soundstage, but that's not the case here. In a new chat with Entertainment Weekly, director Damien Chazelle explains how they pulled off the musical number . . . right on the very highways of the city itself. We've pulled the main highlights to break own how he made it happen.

  • Why Chazelle wanted to kick off with this sequence: "A lot of things were smashing together at the outset. First, I always wanted to do a shot where you go from car to car with each radio playing a radically different kind of music. I wanted it to feel like a city bustling with music . . . but this is Los Angeles. The cacophony of sounds is coming out of cars. And I loved the idea of presenting the soundscape of the city that way. And then the second idea was using that soundscape to build into an opening musical number and having a fantastical musical number arise out of a bunch of realistic city sounds."
  • How he came up with the idea: "The scene came from me living in LA and being in traffic all the time, thinking about either wanting to shoot myself or dance . . . now that I live in LA and have fallen deeply in love with the city, to start La La Land with the thing that literally freaked me out the most about LA as a kid . . . that kind of endless grind of traffic, where most of what you see around you is concrete and you're surrounded by smog and exhaust fumes and burning sunlight."
  • The main logistics: "We shut down an E-Z pass over-ramp. We shut it down for a Saturday and a Sunday in August of 2015 for the actual filming, but a week before that we got permission to shut it down for part of one Saturday so that we could do a dress rehearsal. Ironically, we got the dance and the camera moves to such a precise layout in prep during the parking lot rehearsals, that I and my key collaborators almost got a little overconfident. In retrospect, that [rehearsal] day saved us. I'd been using my iPhone camera during rehearsals but obviously a large crane is a lot more complicated than an iPhone. There were little things we hadn't even thought about. The interstate ramp is slanted, it's never flat. You're dealing with the heat, the sun burning down on the car tops. And the crane, there's heavy winds that high up."
  • The big day: "[The dress rehearsal] allowed us to go in the next weekend and get it all done in two days. I wouldn't say it was easy — it was a really hot August weekend in LA — but we got what we wanted. And without those months of prep and dress rehearsal, I don't think we would have been able to."
Image Source: Everett Collection
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