There are a lot of great movies out there, but I very rarely come across a movie I hold to not just a technically high standard, but one of artistic and creative brilliance. Last week, I came across a film that combines the technical science behind film-making with the creative drive that most films today lack. This movie is La La Land.
From a technical standpoint, this film is wildly impressive because of the lighting changes in one shot takes alone. Writer/Director Damien Chazelle switches from a more standard cinema lighting set-up to stage lights during a singular take, which not only allows for a beautiful creative distinction in the characters level of emotion but is a mathematical triumph. Lighting is the most difficult and paramount element of cinematography, and such a drastic lighting change in the middle of a one-shot take is arguably the most ambitious, tedious, and meaningful technical element I’ve seen a filmmaker use. Paradoxically, Chazelle combines some of the most technically difficult lighting and choreography with some extremely standard and simple shots that I find to be more purposeful and beautiful than any ”specialty” shot that filmmakers love to use in a trite attempt to be cinematic.
Unlike almost every Hollywood filmmaker, Chazelle understands that cinematography is not about making something look cool but is about capturing action and human behavior. My favorite shot in the film is when Mia (Emma Stone) is singing her audition song, “The Fools Who Dream”. Once she starts singing, there are no cuts. They start off in a wide and push in to a close, loop around and push out back into the wide — all in one shot. Most scripts, performances, and scenes require editing to make a scene interesting, but the combination of Chazelle’s script/direction and Emma Stone’s passionate, yet technically precise performance allows for this one shot to be one of the most powerful scenes of the film.
This same can also be said about two of my favorite scenes between Mia and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). There’s a scene near the end of Act II where the couple fights over dinner. Not only is this one of the most organic and well-executed scenes in terms of writing and dialogue I’ve ever seen on screen, but Stone and Gosling give the type of genuine performance that could only be executed by actors who truly understand and have dedicated themselves to the craft of acting — something that many modern performances lack and filmmakers misunderstand. This scene starts off with a simple medium-2 shot, and as it gets more intimate and intense, becomes only standard medium-close shots with the be occasional insert. There’s a parking lot bench scene in Act III that uses similar standard medium-shot coverage and I personally find it to be the most intimate and realistic scene in the film — I get teary eyed every time, and I’m not a movie-crier.
While I could probably go on and on about very single scene and shot in this film, what I feel most compelled to discuss is the script itself. As a producer, filmmaker, film student, actor, and conservatory student, I read scripts on a weekly basis. Damien Chazelle understands the key to screenwriting beyond the technical elements of story structure, conflict, and a compelling narrative. Chazelle’s script is personal. He is writing about something he truly, deeply cares about on an emotional, human level. Most screenplays I read, even from the best screenwriters I know, are missing that key element. It’s the combination of a masterfully structured story and writing about something true and personal that makes Chazelle’s scripts, especially La La Land, a prime example of what storytelling is and should be. Filmmakers have an awful tendency of writing things solely for the purpose of being “visual” or “cinematic.” However, I would argue that film is, at its core, not about visuals. Film, as a form of storytelling, is about character. Despite breaking out into song, Chazelle’s writes the most realistic, sympathetic, characters I’ve seen on screen. This can also be said about his other breakout film, Whiplash. Both Whiplash and La La Land are centered in real human behaviors and experiences Chazelle has been impacted by and subjects that he is passionate about.
In a secular world, theatre, film, and literature are the church. La La Land will make you think about everything from music and film to bigger picture questions of love, work, happiness, and sacrifice. Funny enough, Chazelle didn’t write this script with the deliberate intention of making any sort of point. He simply put his heart out on his sleeve and wrote about what he loves. Writers should not write about what they think the world needs to see, or what’s supposedly important in the world today. And they especially shouldn’t just write what seems to “sell well.” Writers should write about what they personally are passionate about and tell stories they feel compelled to tell. Ironically, it’s a selfishly passionate and emotional angle that allows writers to create stories that mean something to others. This is more than just a philosophy for art and screenwriting. This is truly a life philosophy that can be applied to every person with any passion: If you really want to help the world and impact others, do what you love most, not what you think you should do to help, and only then can you make the world a better place. This is something that Chazelle has truly grasped and I can’t wait to see this young writer/director continue to shape the future of filmmaking for the better.