Behind the Scenes

How ‘La La Land’ Staged a Dance Number on an L.A. Freeway

Choreographer Mandy Moore talks about the unique challenges of staging a giant production number on an exit ramp and what it was like to teach Ryan Gosling to tap dance.

When choreographer Mandy Moore got the script for La La Land, the first line she read was deceptively simple: “There’s a traffic jam. They dance and sing.”

Six months of planning, 30 dancers, 100 extras, and at least 60 cars later, the opening number from La La Land, “Another Day of Sun,” is a triumphant masterpiece that has critics swooning and audiences immediately adding it to the canon of great production numbers from movie musicals. But simple, it was not.

Moore laughs, simultaneously mocking herself and somewhat disguising her PTSD from the experience, as she recounts how cavalierly she charged into the project. Cavalier isn’t the right word—it suggests that she was flippant in her approach to the role when she was in fact diligent and ambitious. Perhaps naively. Optimistically. “I can be a bit Pollyanna about things,” she says.

For the traffic opening alone, director Damien Chazelle managed to have an exit ramp connecting the 110 and 105 freeways shut down for two days in order to film. To stage and rehearse it, Moore and a skeleton crew of 10 dancers literally parked their own cars in formation outside a rehearsal studio and marked the moves on them. “We found out really early that if you stand on the roof of your car, it really ruins it, by the way,” she laughs.

Moore has worked extensively as a choreographer in TV and film, on the shows So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing With the Stars, for example, and creating the routine that Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper perform at the climax of Silver Linings Playbook.

But nothing rivaled the challenge of La La Land, a modern movie musical that was going to have stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling tap dancing on an L.A. hilltop, waltzing into the stars at a planetarium, and moving through a dream ballet as extensive, energetic, and magical as the iconic one danced by Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron in An American in Paris. Plus a production number staged around and in a swimming pool. And, oh yeah, shutting down a freeway for an ensemble to dance on top of cars.

With La La Land expanding its reach this weekend—after last weekend’s record-breaking opening in just five theaters, now you can actually see the film everyone keeps talking about—we talked to Moore about the logistics of staging a production number in traffic on an exit ramp, making sure two Hollywood A-listers performed every dance move themselves, and why it’s so difficult to choreograph a routine that involves men jumping into swimming pools.

It’s one thing for the audience to watch the opening number and think, “Oh my god, how did they do this?” But when you’re hired as a choreographer and told that they want you to choreograph a number on cars, on a highway, on a closed-off exit ramp, do you think, “How am I going to do this?”

My initial reaction always is, “Sweet. Let’s do it.” Then the next day it’s panic attack. How are we going to do this? I can be a little bit Pollyanna about things. “Yeah! It’s going to work!” Then the next day you have to actually start. How am I going to break this down? There’s a lot of stress in that. That particular number I would say is 90 percent logistics. It was really more about how are we going to do this? How are we going to put all these cars up here? How are we going to organize the dancers and what they’re wearing and what cars they’re in? How do I get them back to their cars at the end? Where’s the camera? After you get through all of that, you’re like, now I have to make the steps!

Small detail.

I have to make the dance!

How long did it take to put it together?

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I would say in total a good three to four months.

How does that break down?

So first and foremost, the script. You read it. It basically just said, “There’s a traffic jam. They dance and sing.”

Oh my god. That’s hilarious.

The next process was Damien and I sat together really the first time we met and we drew out on a piece of paper the traffic jam. There were little rectangles. We would listen to the music and he would draw out with arrows where he felt like the cameras were facing. Then it was how do we build the movement? We start with one girl [dancing] and then another person and another person. The instinct from the beginning was that I never wanted them to just stop everything and dance. I wanted to build and build so that, before you know it at the end, it’s like oh my god all these people are dancing in unison.

This is before you even bring in real cars.

I worked really closely with the art department for the look of the cars and how far apart they would sit. Whether they’re three feet apart or if they’re two-and-a-half feet apart. It got really detailed. We had meetings with the California Department of Transportation about what we were doing up there. Safety was really important to everyone because we were hundreds of feet in the air on the freeway. Then working with the music department. Then casting, who were these people and what did they look like? Once that happened, somewhere along the way, I was able to get a skeleton crew of 10 dancers.

Where did you rehearse?

We worked in a studio and parked all of our cars outside in a parking lot. Literally, they were all our cars. I had ideas of how I wanted to track the movement. This person gets out of the car and they’re moving from Car A to Car B and they have two eight-counts to do that and they’re going to go down the cars, but then there’s a different person who’s going to go across the cars and there’s a different person who’s going to stand on the median. So it took a lot of creating those little layers of choreography and phrases and movement. Once all of those were created with my skeleton crew then I was able to craft the full piece with the dancers. We had two days of rehearsal in the parking lot outside of our studio, and then we were given the actual picture cars.

That’s helpful.

I think we had maybe 20 cars in all. Between each setup and each part we had to move cars and people around, because obviously we didn’t have the luxury of having 60 cars to rehearse with. So we would break it down by section of what we could rehearse on certain cars. Then the week before we shot it we were able to shut down the freeway for 12 hours. That was a huge day for us, because we were able to get all the cars up there and the dancers and a camera and work through the first little bit of it. In that particular rehearsal we actually found out that a shot we wanted to do didn’t work. So I had to re-choreograph and rework a certain part of that opening sequence. Then the next week I woke up at 3:30 a.m. We were rehearsing before the sun came up and as soon as the sun came up we were getting that first shot up. We shot for two days straight on the freeway.

My favorite part of that story is that you marked the dance on your own cars. Were they really your cars?

We found out really early that if you stand on the roof of your car, it really ruins your car, by the way.

When you’re doing choreography for a film that is very much an Old Hollywood musical homage but is set in present day, how do you blend those two things in terms of the style of dance and the moves you choreographed?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I grew up watching those musicals from the MGM era. Obviously I was very inspired by Gene Kelly, Cyd Charisse, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers. These are people I’ve grown up watching move. But obviously I’m not from that era. I didn’t train in that era. So my experience as a dancer and a creator is this generation. So I think that’s how that happened. I respect and I love that time, but I didn’t train in that time. It’s something that I’ve only seen and been inspired by, but I can bring in my own experience as a mover and a creator from this time.

Was that blending of style intentional?

I’ll say it was conscious, as in I knew what kind of tone and feel I was looking to create. But it wasn’t something like, “Oh, I want to do this move from 2016, but it needs to be more like this move from 1950.” I think it was just being inspired by that, married with what I bring to the table from this generation.

You’re being asked a lot about working with Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. But as a person who watches movies and, um, has eyes, what’s your reaction to being told you’re going to be spending months in rehearsal rooms with a tap-dancing Ryan Gosling?

Again, when I get onto a job I’m like, “OK, great! Cool!” Then I really start to think about it and it becomes, Oh my gosh it is Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. My first meeting with Ryan, I walked into the room. He was playing piano. He said, “Oh you must be Mandy. It’s nice to meet you. My sister’s name is Mandy.” We gave each other a huge hug. It was just like, “Oh. OK. We’re just cool people and we’re going to work together.” Same thing with Emma. So lovely. She was like, “Oh, I know your work from So You Think. My best friend is a huge fan and she showed me all your videos. It’s so nice to meet you.” We gave each other a big hug and before you know it you’re tap-dancing.

Because it’s 2016, we’re so conditioned to camera trickery and CGI, so there is always skepticism that they’re really doing the dancing. As a choreographer, how cognizant were you of that when working on the staging, so that you could prove they were doing it?

Well I think to me one of the first things that really drew me to the project was that Damien didn’t want dance doubles. He wanted it to be shot head-to-toe with these long, MGM-style shots where we didn’t shoot coverage. We didn’t cut everywhere. That’s like a dream for a choreographer. I also knew that I would have to work with Ryan and Emma for five or six hours every day to get to the point where they would look like Fred and Ginger.

How much time did you actually have to train them?

I knew I only had, what, three months? Four months? I was aware of how far to push them and how much of their work and their dancing to present to the audience. I also knew that Damien wanted it to look like real people moving and dancing and singing to the music. Since we weren’t going to shoot coverage and there weren’t going to be doubles, yeah there were certain things I knew I wouldn’t be able to teach them in four months. But there were also many, many things that I knew we’d be able to accomplish that they didn’t get right at first, but with months of rehearsal and working on it and stylizing it, it could happen.

Finally, what is it like to choreograph with people jumping into a pool as an option? I imagine that doesn’t happen every day.

That’s not normally my thing, yeah. (Laughs)

How do you even wrap around that? And work it naturally into a production number?

On that one, Damien was always very specific from the beginning: On this accent in the music, a guy flips from the balcony and he lands in the pool. OK. Cool. This is what we’re doing. Then we call the stunt department. He got his guy that he knew, a guy who was a diver at UCLA and a stunt guy. Honestly the hardest thing about that shoot for me was that timing, because gravity is a really funny thing and it is not always consistent. Having to count in the stunt guy, plus counting the dancers, plus counting Emma, plus counting the camera, it was a really, really complex shot. It took a lot of takes. I think I did it 33 times. It took 33 takes. That was really fun, but it was really challenging to get it all coordinated and together.