The premise of La La Land, the buzzed-about new film from Whiplash director Damien Chazelle isn't exactly groundbreaking. Two young Los Angeles dreamers—she's a struggling actress, he's a down-and-out musician—meet and, despite a series of setbacks, proceed to have a charming, funny, sweet, and sometimes difficult relationship.
What makes La La Land, starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, interesting is that it's not just a romantic comedy, but an honest-to-goodness movie musical packed beginning to end with song and dance. A former Harvard film student, Chazelle has spoken about his affection for the magic of the films that Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire made in the 1930s, and that affection is on clear display in this movie. And when it comes to the way the pair moves on screen, there's one person to thank, choreographer Mandy Moore.
"It wasn't as romantic as you might think," says Moore, on a break from choreographing a tour for Dancing with the Stars, of how she came to the film. "I got a meeting with [producers] Jordan Horowitz and Fred Berger and Damien. At the time, unbeknownst to me, they had already seen a number of choreographers and I was among the last to come in. The meeting was basically 'hey, how are you.' They gave me a couple of scenes and music and asked me for ideas about how I would tackle them."
Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in La La Land.
What she brought to the table made a good impression. "Immediately there was this complete ease about how we were communicating," she recalls. "So much of these meetings is about how you vibe with people, and that initial meeting was a lot of back and forth about talent and aesthetic and Gene Kelly versus Fred Astaire and have you seen this movie or that musical. About two hours later I left and called my agent and he said, 'Did you just leave? Holy shit! The rest of my client were only there for 15 minutes.'"
Moore, a two-time Emmy nominee who did the choreography for Silver Linings Playbook, landed the job and set about the task of not only choreographing a film, but also working with actors who, however telegenic and talented, were not trained dancers.
"I was lucky with Ryan and Emma because they came into the room with a real ease between them," Moore says. "I didn't have to work on chemistry. What I did have to work on was how to tap dance or do ballroom moves; as coordinated as they are, they're not trained dancers. For weeks before we started preproduction, we did private lessons. We would meet a few times a week for a couple of hours to work on basics, just to get them learning how to dance."
The training paid off. The pair hoof their way through the film, indulging in big dance numbers including an especially charming tap duet and a show-stopper opening number that takes place in stalled traffic along a Los Angeles freeway. (The music comes care of Justin Hurwitz with lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, whose Dear Evan Hansen is currently on Broadway.)
And if it all looks effortless on screen, Moore insists that appearing that way requires plenty of preparation. "There were a lot of things that got away from me," she says. "In the traffic sequences, there's a camera move that happens when four people get out of a car and the camera travels around it. That was supposed to be completely different, and day-of as we were shooting it wasn't working; we couldn't get the framing right. So, on-set I had to change it on the fly and shift what the dancers had been rehearsing and what the camera had been doing. It had worked a lot better on an iPhone."
Mandy Moore on the set of La La Land.
While the big numbers pack a punch, what's equally important is how the footwork Moore has created helps to build the characters for the audience. "Lots of work went into that; I knew I needed to create movement that comes from real people," she says. "These characters aren't in ballet companies, they're not people who are supposed to know how to dance. Finding what that vocabulary of movement is took hours of playing with feelings."
It was a process that, at times, went against her nature. "The one thing a choreographer wants to do is dance," she says. "I wanted crazy movies, but I had to deconstruct. I had to take what would be my biggest version of a scene and break it down so someone who hasn't danced before could do it. This was very specific, the dance was about how to forward the scene and how to get to know these people better."
Considering the response the film has garnered so far—picking up awards from the National Board of Review, the New York Film Critics Circle, and the Hollywood Film Awards, among others—her work did the trick. "People took a chance with this," she says. "It was a huge gamble, but it paid off."
This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.