La La Land (2016)

‘La La Land’ Musing Design of Modern and Old Hollywood Allure

By: Domonique Salberg

Designed for the dreamers, the creative team behind La La Land knew how to pull on our heart’s desires. The locations, props, costumes, and color all lent itself to tell a modern story with touches of Old Hollywood and two young people traversing a city where dreams come true (or are crushed) daily. So, filled with song and dance and two wonderful performances, the details of the shots drive the magic of the film home.

Ergo, following the romance of struggling actress Mia (Emma Stone) and frustrated jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) in the City of Angels, cinema history is simultaneously captured in almost every shot. Iconic landmarks, glamorous stars, and hidden gems imbuing us in nostalgia and times forever spent. Seeing as La La Land’s version of fantasy and reality are seamlessly blended.

Director Damien Chazelle’s collaboration with the talented and now Oscar-winning production designer David Wasco and his wife and set decorator Sandy Reynolds-Wasco have made it possible. The duo is known for working on Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums and Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs.

L.A. Rialto Theatre scene.

Thus, the Wasco’s set out to use many realistic locations, which was made possible and easier since the La La Land story was set in L.A. and the locations were filmed in the same place, which is no longer common. Other vital locations were nearby L.A., such as Sabastian’s meager home where they used a real courtyard apartment in the Valley. And remember the old Van Beek recording studio where he wants to open a jazz club? Well, that was an Art Deco building not far from his Valley apartment. The historic Rialto Theatre, Watts Towers, and Angels Flight funicular were also used for shooting spots to illustrate the cool places of L.A. further.

Utilizing Color and Musicals for Whimsical Touches

The production designers established they would use primarily on-site locations to keep a toe in reality while juxtaposing Hollywood’s magic here and there through color. Being that Chazelle is a huge fan of musicals, it is no surprise he was inspired by Old Hollywood musicals and Jacques Demy‘s films, the French New Wave director behind The Young Girls of Rochefort and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg where he incorporated some of their aspects. As for Mia’s world, it was boasting in primary colors everywhere.

Think of her yellow dress from the dance scene in Griffith Park overlooking the city lights or the green dress she wore inside the observatory among the stars. The same consideration went into her roommates, who beautifully enhanced the spirit of dreamers. A great shot captures this best in their dance sequence where they have different color dresses on ascending down L.A. streets or the theatrics in her apartment seen below.

Animated gif about love in La La Land by Csilla Böszörmény

Moreover, what the colors did was punch up the vibrancy and energy of their hopes and dreams for the future. The same colors trickled into their apartment while also adding influences by the MGM musicals and French movies. Her apartment’s design drew inspiration from the pink interior and exterior painted Rose Garden Court apartment near Long Beach and the Spanish-style penthouse where Ronald Reagan first resided before making it as an actor. Consequently, Mia’s vibrant apartment’s blunt contrast to Sebastian’s black-and-white French New Wave films effectively captured their dreams and simultaneously two periods of cinematic history.

An oversized poster of Bergman's “Casablanca" performance in Mia's room.

What’s More Old Hollywood Than…

Technicolor! Cleverly used throughout Chazelle’s film, it is one of the best nods to Old Hollywood. A color process first operated from 1922-1952, its saturated colors were lauded and became a signature of the era. But, as mentioned before, the set design utilized primary colors; however, we’re going to expand on their use in La La Land.

To get Technicolor just right, the department team did extra work to choreograph La La Land’s big color moments. Like when Stone and her roommates get ready for a night out in their jewel-tone dresses, each bedroom in the 1920s Spanish-garden complex complements the girl living in that particular room.

Bird’s-eye view of Mia's apartment.

One room had a patterned wallpaper; another had green-and-white strips on one area and yellow nouveau color in another room. Chazelle’s Jacques Demy inspiration showed up in the apartment’s thrift-shop-y items and ornate metal chairs, as well. Moreover, the sets were so colorful and grounded in the technicolor look; there was no need to boost any scene’s saturation. The lights (they chose rarer mercury-vapor street lights), vibrant hand-made dresses, and thoughtful background design defined La La Land’s Oscar-winning look.

Grounded Set Designs

Even though many locations were real, they were re-touched, and controlled environments making about a third of La La Land sets constructed. Several scenes feature murals across Los Angeles, but others were altered or added, or completely painted blocks were done when needed and usually in primary colors. Chazelle also veered away from CGI and special effects to allow the viewer to be aware of the “movie magic” behind the scenes.

The painting and decor around Mia allude to a 60s atmosphere, while the electronic cashier bring her back to the present.
This shot is among the many painted backdrops throughout the film. A Van Gogh-esque painting, it allowed them to add budget friendly touches of Hollywood whimsy to La La Land.

For instance, there are many scenes on a stage in a club or restaurant so that the audience will remain conscious of the elements of stage production. It made it possible for the film to be grounded with the little magic that L.A. has. Another example is when Mia and Sebastian float up into the planetarium. They are first hung on obvious wires that slowly is forgotten as we grow taken by the fantasy. They move once again while the wires reaper ending with them being placed back on the ground.

The film’s biggest set was the planetarium scene, which drew its inspiration from Los Angeles’ Griffith Observatory. However, since it is now modernized, Wasco had to build a set to include Griffith’s original Art Deco adornment. They even purchased the most expensive prop from the film—a 12-foot projector from the 50s—where the planetarium scene rotated around. All things considered, La La Land’s production design effectively captured Old Hollywood’s spirit while managing to remain grounded in reality to tell a magical story of dreamers, for dreamers.

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