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‘La La Land’ Director Damien Chazelle Sings Praises of Film-Friendly L.A. Locations

Variety logo Variety 2/1/2017 Tim Gray
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La La Land” has exploded myths that musicals are mindless and have a hard time at the box office. For the industry, the movie has also helped explode some myths about filming in Los Angeles: that it’s too expensive, too complicated, and that disgruntled locals are likely to sabotage location lensing.

The Lionsgate musical filmed on a whopping 48 locations during its 42 days of principal photography, which was essential to director Damien Chazelle’s vision. “The whole idea for this movie was to answer the question, ‘What would happen if you took an old-fashioned Hollywood musical and planted it in a modern city — real people living everyday lives, in real settings?’”

During early planning in 2014, some suggested that L.A. costs might force a switch in locations, a notion that Chazelle and his producers vetoed. The budget (an estimated $30 million) proved doable when L.A. tax breaks went into effect in 2015. Senior location manager Robert Foulkes adds that the permit process has gotten significantly “easier and more personable” in the past few years. About 70% of the film’s permits went through FilmL.A., which provides permit and production planning services for the city and county of Los Angeles; Foulkes calls  the organization “a well-oiled machine.”

And the natives are no longer restless. Foulkes says “the vast majority” of Southern Californians were positive about having filmmakers in their neighborhood. They have become sensitive to the economic benefits to L.A. of film and TV productions, thanks to media stories that raised the alarm over the exodus to other places. “Now, sometimes a homeowner will write, ‘I’m glad filming is back’ on their release forms. That’s a big change,” Foulkes says.

“La La Land” filmed in various areas of Los Angeles, as well as such cities as Burbank, Hermosa Beach, Long Beach, Pasadena, South Pasadena, and Santa Monica. The permit process demands that filmmakers notify homeowners of plans in their area, but every jurisdiction has slight variations about how wide that radius is. Sometimes this requires posted notices, and sometimes movie reps go door to door. All of this planning helps location teams learn about who’s most open, which can help determine where to park equipment, or which homeowner will allow lighting equipment on their lawn or driveway.

The movie also featured scenes of the Angel’s Flight funicular railway and other downtown landmarks; Foulkes says it’s an unspoken courtesy that businesses also be notified when there’s filming in their area.

Musicals have an added hurdle: There can be loud playback of repeated song segments. The “La La” team filmed Emma Stone and her girlfriends singing in the streets of a Long Beach neighborhood en route to a party. “It was two nights of blasting a song. And sound travels,” says Foulkes, “so there’s a wider radius of people to notify.”

Though many sequences were complicated, nothing matched the planning and execution of the opening number, “Another Day of Sun,” which features dancers amid stalled freeway traffic.

Foulkes suggested shooting on the tollramps that connect Interstate 105 with the 110. Since that’s a route from the airport to downtown L.A., the scenery was interesting, but the logistics were complex. The number required three days of rehearsals and two days of shooting. Involved in the planning were the film team, as well as reps from Caltrans, L.A. Metro Rail, and the California Highway Patrol. All needed reassurance there would be minimal disruption.

Once the shooting dates were approved, CHP officers helped members of the film crew park their trucks, and enabled them to move their equipment across lanes of traffic to get to the ramp and load equipment on the ramp.

Foulkes’ first job was on the 1992 “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” as part of the location team. Since then, he’s worked in many different states and cities, but says Los Angeles is easy compared with other places.

Foulkes collaborated with many departments on “La La Land,” but worked especially closely with production designer David Wasco and set decorator Sandy Reynolds-Wasco in making L.A. look like itself.

As Chazelle says, “This was such a location-heavy movie, but they all were so brilliant in making it happen.”

Chazelle, a Connecticut native, told Variety he couldn’t imagine the musical working the same way in another city. He wanted someplace modern, and liked the idea that Los Angeles doesn’t have a romantic, lyrical vibe, in the way San Francisco, New York, or New Orleans do. He wanted to underline the contrast between old-fashioned musical numbers and 21st-century life.

“That spirit of experimentation was at the core of the movie,” he says. “And the people of L.A. made it happen.”

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