La La Land: 10 Behind-The-Scenes Facts From Damien Chazelle's 2016 Musical

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in La La Land
(Image credit: Lionsgate)

A little more than six years ago, Damien Chazelle introduced audiences to a timeless love story set with the backdrop of Los Angeles in his colorful, dazzling, and heartfelt La La Land. The movie, which would go on to win multiple Academy Awards, is still regarded as one of the best musicals of the 21st century, as well as one of the finer additions to the genre in some time.

With the film being one of the best movies on Netflix after arriving on the streamer in February 2023, there’s a good chance some of us who were first blown away by the musical over a half-decade ago are revisiting it for the first time since seeing it on the big screen. Taking that into consideration, we’ve put together a rundown of behind-the-scenes facts showing how Chazelle’s story went from page to screen, and all the cinematic tricks that made it a reality.

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in La La Land

(Image credit: Lionsgate)

Damien Chazelle Started Working On La La Land While At Harvard

Long before audiences were taken to a “City of Stars,” Damien Chazelle started working on what would become La La Land while attending Harvard University. Together with classmate Justin Hurwitz, who would go on to score all of his feature film releases starting with Whiplash, he ended up making Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, a senior thesis film about a Boston jazz musician, before they moved to Los Angeles to pursue their dreams in 2010, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

Once in Hollywood, Chazelle decided to shift the movie’s setting to Los Angeles, but soon discovered that pretty much no one wanted to fund an original musical with no familiar songs, let alone one centered on jazz. Obviously, he had his work cut out for him.

Ryan Gosling in La La Land

(Image credit: Lionsgate)

After Writing The Script, Damien Chazelle Received Perhaps The Worst Note

It isn’t a rare occurrence for directors to receive notes whenever they’re working on a project, as countless movies have taken to heart what contemporaries, studio executives, or audiences have said. However, from time to time, a note so bad comes around and leaves the writer or director scratching their head trying to figure it out. When working on the La La Land script, a screenplay that would go on to be nominated for an Oscar, Chazelle received the following note, as he explained to the 2017 PGA Produced By Conference (via Deadline):

Does it have to be about jazz?

Though a rather simple note, to take the jazz out of La La Land would have removed a crucial element from the movie. It’s safe to say Chazelle made the right call by not taking the comment to heart.

The La La Land opening sequence

(Image credit: Lionsgate)

Damien Chazelle Was Told To Increase The La La Land Budget By Lionsgate Execs

Usually, there are stories coming out of Hollywood where the studios do everything they can to get budgets down, but it was a completely different story when it came to Lionsgate and La La Land. In a sprawling profile about the film published by ScreenDaily in December 2016, producer Fred Berger revealed that Lionsgate, upon giving the movie the greenlight, suggested that the budget be increased to $30 million to make the best picture possible. 

Jumping off that revelation, Jordan Horowitz, the producer who would ultimately inform the audience that Moonlight had won the Oscar for Best Picture, admitted that the team even tried to pare things down, but the studio persisted and pushed the team “to go further” and “film in the right ways.” The decision ultimately saved one or two of the musical numbers, Berger commented. 

Miles Teller in Spiderhead; Emma Watson in Little Women

(Image credit: Netflix; Sony Pictures)

Miles Teller And Emma Watson Were Originally Attached To Serve As La La Land’s Leads

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone gave two of the best performances of their respective careers in La La Land, but the roles were initially supposed to go to another one of Chazelle’s collaborators and a different actress with the first name Emma. In September 2016, just months before the movie’s big nationwide rollout, The Hollywood Reporter revealed that Miles Teller and Emma Watson were attached to star in the roles of Seb Wilder and Mia Dolan, respectively, but both A-listers were forced to pass for various reasons.

For her part, Watson later revealed in a March 2017 sit-down with Entertainment Weekly that she had already committed to making Beauty and the Beast for Disney at the time, and simply wouldn’t be able to make both possible. The details surrounding Teller’s departure from the project are a little less clear, as various stories range from the Whiplash star not receiving the payday he wanted to not being creatively right for the project. Teller denied the first claim in an October 2017 interview with Vulture, saying he showed “extreme loyalty” to Chazelle and the movie but didn’t elaborate on what caused things to fall apart.

Emma Stone in La La Land

(Image credit: Lionsgate)

Mia’s Interrupted Audition Was Based On Ryan Gosling’s Real-Life Experience

In one of the more awkward scenes in La La Land, Mia is in the middle of an incredibly emotional audition, only to be interrupted by the casting director’s assistant entering the room to say someone had called. When speaking with the Los Angeles Times around the movie's release, Ryan Gosling revealed that the scene was drawn from one of his own experiences during a botched audition, stating: 

I had an opportunity to audition for this big casting director, and the scene was where somebody close to me had died, so I spent all night getting into that emotional state. I came in, and in the middle of it, her phone rang and she took a call, and I was like I didn’t know whether I should stop crying or I should just keep going or what. And she just had a whole conversation and then when it was over, she was like ‘you can just pick up where you left off.’

Gosling admitted that while it was a difficult situation, he made lemonade out of lemons and was able to make it into a scene in La La Land.

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in La La Land

(Image credit: Lionsgate)

La La Land’s ‘A Lovely Night’ Dance Sequence Was Pulled Off In Only Four Takes

Seb and Mia’s first musical number together, “A Lovely Night,” has become one of La La Land’s most iconic sequences thanks to its catchy song, incredible choreography, and the way the Los Angeles sunset looked in the background. The crew could have used greenscreen to bring the scene to life by adding the sunset in post-production, but the crew found a way to pull it off in only four takes (after hours of rehearsal, of course).

When speaking with The Hollywood Reporter about the scene, cinematographer Linus Sandgren revealed that two takes were shot at 7:20 and 7:30 p.m. on two separate nights to make the most of the “golden hour” light that created an almost dreamlike quality. In order to pull off the six-minute sequence, the actors, and the crane-operated camera capturing it all, had to hit 27 marks or else it would have to start over. It all worked out, and Chazelle ended up going with the last of the four takes for the final movie. 

Ryan Gosling in La La Land

(Image credit: Lionsgate)

Cinematographer Linus Sandgren Came Up With Unique Tricks To Create La La Land’s Colorful Look

There is a reason La La Land looks like the classic musicals that inspired it, and that’s because Chazelle insisted on the movie being shot on film and in a way that created a massive scope and scale. As cinematographer Linus Sandgren told Kodak following the movie’s release, shooting on film opposed to digital allowed him to create a rainbow of colors by playing with different lights to manipulate the natural settings:

At night, we worked a lot with the green blue colors in contrast and complementary to the pink magic hour skies. The blue nights, we captured in twilight. That's all real. You may think we replaced the sky in the big dance number they do on Mulholland Drive since it looks surreal, but in fact, we spent the magic hour nights to find the perfect moment of the sky.

The richness of the film stock, Sandgren argued, gave several of the movie’s night scenes featured “incredible variations of colors” that added a dreamlike quality to them.

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in La La Land

(Image credit: Lionsgate)

The Production Team Were Given Just One Day To Film The Angels Flight Funicular Sequence

When Mia and Seb are still in the honeymoon phase of their relationship, the couple is seen going all over Los Angeles in the form of a tremendous montage. About halfway through the segment, the couple ride an uphill trolly system before dancing at the station at the top.

When speaking with the New York Times after the film’s release, the director explained that the funicular Angels Flight, which was used for the brief scene, had been out of commission for three years after a 2013 derailment. However, Chazelle and his team were able to arrange to have it run for a single day so they could capture the brief, yet impactful sequence.

John Legend in La La Land

(Image credit: Lionsgate)

John Legend, A Talented Pianist, Had To Learn How To Play Guitar For His Role In La La Land

John Legend was without a doubt the most talented musician in the La La Land cast, but still, the EGOT winner had to take music lessons for his portrayal of Keith, Seb’s former bandmate who takes him on the road. In an official behind-the-scenes featurette about the making of the movie, it was revealed that Legend, a talented pianist and songwriter, had to take guitar lessons prior to the shoot so that he could look and feel comfortable and confident during his various scenes on stage.

Gene Kelly Dancing in Singin in the Rain

(Image credit: MGM)

The Cast And Crew Watched One Classic Hollywood Musical ‘Every Day For Inspiration’

The impact of classic Hollywood musicals like Guys and Dolls, The Wizard of Oz, The Music Man, and An American in Paris can be felt throughout this film, but the movie that inspired the cast and crew was Singin’ in the Rain. While paying tribute to the late Debbie Reynolds during his acceptance speech at the 2017 Palm Springs International Film Festival, Ryan Gosling revealed that the film’s cast and crew would watch the 1952 musical every day for inspiration. Ending his brief comments, Gosling said Reynolds, who passed away just days before, had “unparalleled talents.”

If you want to go back and watch La La Land after reading all these behind-the-scenes facts, now is the perfect time to do so, as it is streaming for anyone with a Netflix subscription.

Philip Sledge
Content Writer

Philip grew up in Louisiana (not New Orleans) before moving to St. Louis after graduating from Louisiana State University-Shreveport. When he's not writing about movies or television, Philip can be found being chased by his three kids, telling his dogs to stop barking at the mailman, or chatting about professional wrestling to his wife. Writing gigs with school newspapers, multiple daily newspapers, and other varied job experiences led him to this point where he actually gets to write about movies, shows, wrestling, and documentaries (which is a huge win in his eyes). If the stars properly align, he will talk about For Love Of The Game being the best baseball movie of all time.