La Land Land has been the talk of the town this awards season and has danced its way into the hearts of audiences across the globe. Choreographer Mandy Moore, whose body of work includes Dancing with the Stars, American Hustle, and Silver Linings Playbook, gives insight into all of the work that went into creating this modern-day musical.
So, first of all, I just wanted to say congratulations on how exciting everything has been with awards season and La La Land. How has all of that been feeling?
Well, incredible first. Slightly overwhelming, for sure, you know, because I think as a choreographer, very rarely do we get to be as integrated as I was on La La Land. So, it’s been pretty cool to feel like you’re on the roller coaster with everybody. Even doing things like this and doing interviews and press events and getting the chance to celebrate with the cast and crew has been awesome, for sure.
Could you tell me a little bit more about that integration and what the process was like for your role in the film?
Yeah, I mean, La La Land was this incredible, hopefully not once in a lifetime but possibly once in a lifetime, opportunity because musicals don’t come around a lot. You know, obviously as a musical, or someone who’s involved in a musical, you’re integrated into that musical day in and day out because part of the storytelling is dancing and choreography. I was brought on super early in the process, even before Ryan [Gosling] and Emma [Stone] had signed on. So, I feel like I was able to get in on the ground floor with everything and Damien [Chazelle] was so lovely and communicative and incredible and wanted to have meetings all the time about what he was seeing for certain scenes. That doesn’t always happen on a lot of jobs, because I guess as a choreographer sometimes you’re brought in later in the game and given the scene or given what you need to do, and it’s like maybe a week or two before you have to make it happen. So, it was really special to be in the very beginnings of all of it and go to the location scouts and have an opinion or have a say what was happening with wardrobe or shoes or where they’re going to be dancing or the kind of music or the [idea of] “should we extend this or not?” It was really wonderful.
What was the inspiration for the film’s choreography? Because I know that it’s very much the grandeur of Old Hollywood brought into the 21st century. So, were there any older films that inspired it or anything like that?
Yeah, for sure! Damien, when I was first brought on, he shared with me kind of a sizzle reel, I guess I would call it, for references of tone and aesthetics for the film. And, so many of them were the films of the great musicals of the MGM era, Singin’ in the Rain, Band Wagon, Guys and Dolls, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, My Fair Lady; all these things that I’d watched as a kid, he was referencing. So, that was super cool and he’s a big Fred and Ginger fan, so we would sit and watch so many of those films together and pick apart the scenes and talk about what he really appreciated about that style or that kind of movement. Then, from those conversations, I was then able to understand what he wanted and what I was needing to create for him. And, obviously there’s inspiration from Jerome Robbins who is an incredible choreographer. And, a little bit of Fosse in there during the roommate scene. It’s so nice when you get a reference from a director because then you kind of understand what they want and what they’re seeing in their head. Because, as a choreographer, I think it’s really hard to understand what people think dance is, you know? Because, what I may think is dance in a scene, may not be what the director is thinking or what the actor is thinking. Sometimes I wish I could just read minds because it’d be a lot easier. It was those conversations between Damien and I and watching those older films and watching some of those great dance scenes gave us kind of a path to go down. Then I knew, “okay, we’re creating in this language. This is the feeling that needs to be happening.” And then, as far as giving it a contemporary flair, I think that just naturally happened. Because I’m of this generation of choreographers, I didn’t grow up in the 50s, I didn’t train in the 50s, so, [I was] definitely inspired and think that the musicals and the storytelling and the craft of choreography at that time was absolutely incredible. So, I have studied it, I research it, but, you know, I’m a kid of the 80s. I trained in a different way and my life experiences, which informed any sort of movement or thought process I may have about choreography, is definitely from a different time. I think that that’s how that happened.
So, you said being from the 80s, made me think of the scene where they’re at the pool party and Sebastian [Ryan Gosling] is playing in the 80s cover band and Mia [Emma Stone] was dancing. How much of that choreography was either from your or just Emma Stone being –
Being Emma? [laughs] Funny enough, that was the only scene that I really didn’t have that much to do with. I mean, that was all Emma. She is absolutely hysterical. Everything else in the film was highly choreographed, but, that was definitely doing her thing on set and having a good time. And, we kind of just went with it because she looked great, it was funny, and the reaction of Ryan I think is priceless.
How were they [Ryan and Emma] at picking up on the moves?
Really good, actually. It’s hard when you are given the task of coaching and training actors, that’s not an easy thing. And, if I hadn’t had Ryan and Emma who definitely met me halfway, if even more, that would’ve been a really difficult process. They both came into the project very open and very vulnerable. They were not afraid. And, I said this very early on in their training, “you can’t be afraid to look bad and be bad,” because that’s the only way we’re going to get somewhere. It can’t just be a regurgitating of steps. I can’t just military train you to do steps. So, they’re both very different when they learn, for sure. I think Emma a lot more of the kind of learner that would pick it up very quickly. She would right away get the step and then I would work with her a lot on how to stylize the step and how to add texture and feeling and dynamic. Where, Ryan took a lot longer to pick up the steps, but, he picked up the steps with the style and the texture and the dynamic. It was interesting to watch them both learn because they’re very different the way they pick things up. But, ultimately, I think they’re a nice little complement to each other. And, they’re both kind of different dancers, too. Emma is kind of quirky, and cute, and has amazing charisma and is very free when she moves. And, Ryan is a little bit more precise or kind of swaggy, and has a little bit of a different feel or tone to him. I think they were a nice little Yin and Yang, for sure.
I would think that one of the most iconic things that will come from this movie is the scene where they’re dancing in the Hollywood Hills. And, that one dance move of their arms is on the poster. I was curious how it felt to have that piece of your choreography to be on the poster?
When I first saw the poster, honestly, when we were in Venice [for Venice Film Festival] I saw the poster and I was like, “oh my God!” Like, that’s their move! I remember it being, when we did that move originally, I created that move and then I had two lovely assistants, that were with me the whole time, and we would show Damien the choreography. And, the first day he was like, “oh my God! I love that move when they face each other and just put their arms out!” So, it’s funny to think that back then, that was way before we even started shooting, he really enjoyed that move or that shape. Then for it to make its way onto the actual poster…I still look at the post like, “oh my God! That’s the choreography! That’s incredible! That never happens!”
Another piece that I thought was interesting in terms of a lot of work being put into it was the opening dance sequence on the freeway so I was wondering if you could just tell me a little bit about that.
That one, I definitely had to pat myself on that back after that one, and I don’t normally pat myself on the back [laughs] But, that was, by far, one of the most complex, difficult, crazy things I’ve ever taken on. And, it was a very multi-layered process and it involved a lot of departments, 100 percent, that was not just me. It started simply with Damien and I sitting down with literally a piece of paper – I still have these papers, too, it’s so crazy to look at it – where we would draw boxes for cars. We would draw little squares on a piece of paper. And, we had them in four lanes and he would just draw with an arrow where he wanted the camera to face and what he wanted the path of the camera to be. Super important for me to know because, even though it probably looked like there was a billion people out there, I only hired thirty dancers so I had to make thirty dancers look like tons of dancers. We had a lot more extras but they didn’t learn the choreography, they were just more bodies to fill in. So, once I knew what the camera was seeing, then I had a really good idea of like, “okay, now I can break down the number of where people need to be for certain shots.” And, once that happened, I was able to hire about ten dancers, I think it was, to be a skeleton crew. I sometimes use a choreographer where I’ll bring in a limited amount of dancers and just workshop the movements or experiment. So we would park our cars outside in the parking lot and I would just start creating. It’s very difficult to emulate getting out of a car unless you actually get out of a car, funny enough. I mean, it wouldn’t seem like it is, but the timing of how that happens and the coordination of how that happens, you have to do it in a way that’s slightly pedestrian but also choreographed – it’s an interesting process. There was a lot of experimenting with that, I think I had them for two days. And, I would just create phrases of movement, kind of just blocks of movement, and from that I was able to put the number together with these little sentences of movement, I guess I would call it. Then once we cast the number, and that was also a huge process, obviously it’s a very important scene, it’s the first scene, and it really sets the tone for the film. So, like, no pressure, don’t screw it up [laughs] There was a whole casting process that happened. Then, once that happened, we rehearsed for three days, again out in the parking lot. We had about fifteen of the picture cars because a lot of the cars had to be reinforced on the roofs because we were dancing on the roofs. So, there was a whole science to that about which roofs needed to be reinforced and which ones didn’t because as much as we wished we had a trillion dollar budget, we didn’t. We had to be very conscious about how much money we were spending on reinforcing car roofs. Then we rehearsed about three days with about fifteen of those cars out in the parking lot. And then we shut down the freeway for about twelve hours on a Saturday the weekend before and that was probably the most important thing we could have ever done because we got the camera up there and it was very complex, the camera move was incredibly complex. Then all the dancers, we basically got through the first little bit of it, and it was so telling and so important because some of the things we planned just didn’t work because spatially they didn’t work, or timing wise they didn’t work. So, after that, we were able to go back that next week and really look at it and go, “okay, we need to fix this, this, this,” and then we shot for two days on a Saturday and a Sunday on the freeway.
When all was said and done, and the movie was finished, what was your initial reaction seeing the film having such a strong part of it?
My very first screening I was incredibly critical of myself because that’s normally how it goes. For me, I see everything that I would’ve done differently, but, I think that’s natural. Most people obviously look at their work and go, “eh, yeah, I would’ve changed that or that or that.” Something about dance and choreography is very exposing, you know? Especially in a film like this because Damien never shot coverage. There was only one camera working and the choreography was built specifically for what the camera was seeing. So, you didn’t get in the edit and chop it up and make it something. It is what it is, the performances are these very long one-takes. But once I got through the first screening, I definitely cried when it was over, because I was like, “this is overwhelming.” I think of all the hard work everybody put in and ultimately I was very proud of all of the dancers, and Ryan and Emma, and proud to be part of the team. Then once I saw it the second, third, fourth – I’ve probably seen it twenty times now – I was able to really sit back and be a bit more objective about it. And, I’m really proud, honestly. I feel like I set out to create something that would stand the test of time. [Something] that you would be able to see it in twenty years and it would still be valid work, it would still be valid filmmaking. And, you know, that’s something I think I could say for it. I mean, would I change things along the way? Yeah, but I think that’s always the way, you look back and go, “ah, I could’ve done that.” I think as a whole, super proud of the dancers, and Ryan and Emma, and of myself, ultimately, for creating, hopefully what I hope to be a timeless piece of work.
I’ve seen it twice and both times I was floored by how it’s very grand, but the concept of it is very simple at the same time, and I think it will stand the test of time for that reason.
Isn’t it weird how that is? It’s like it’s really grand but intimate all at the same time. Or it feels very fantastical but real at the same time. It’s crazy how we walked that line.
And, you did a great job. I just have one more question for you and that is what was your favorite piece to choreograph?
I really loved “Epilogue.” It’s personally my favorite part of the film, the kind of “what would’ve happened if” part at the end. To me, the part of “Epilogue,” where Ryan and Emma are just kind of spit out into that white room and as they start to walk it turns into this brightly colored, painted, fantastical sets of the freeway. And, that was one of the ones that I just felt like was An American in Paris ballet. It was a small, little, teeny [part] and I loved creating that and finding the movement for that and finding Ryan and Emma’s path. Then of course their waltz at the end, I’m a romantic, I’m a sucker for a beautiful waltz in the stars. So, I really loved that.