Damien Chazelle’s debut film, Whiplash, affected me in ways few films do — during the final scene, I was on my feet, shouting at the television, rooting for the main character. His second film, La La Land was a box office smash and went on to garner 303 award nominations, winning 125, including the Academy Award for Best Director.
The screenplay itself was nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the 89th Academy Awards and was a wonderful read. A diversion into a world of magical love, broken dreams, and unexpected windfalls.
Here are two lessons learned from reading the La La Land screenplay:
- Capture the essence and tone of the scene
- Mix in fantastical elements
A sun-blasted sky. We HEAR radios — one piece of music after
EXT. 101 FREEWAY – DAY
Cars are at a standstill. It’s a horrific traffic jam.
Morning rush hour. Sun beating down, asphalt shimmering in the
heat. The blown-out downtown L.A. skyline hovers in the
We DRIFT past more CARS. Hear one snippet of audio after
One driver taps his steering wheel to PROG ROCK. Another
sings to OPERA. A third raps along to a HIP-HOP track. We
move from a RADIO INTERVIEW to a FRENCH BALLAD to TECHNO,
until finally we begin to hear…
…a new, original piece of music… [ANOTHER DAY OF SUN]
CAPTURE THE ESSENCE AND TONE OF THE SCENE — Though the songs had not yet been written, Chazelle makes the tone of the scene abundantly clear from the get-go. Following the passage above, people exit their cars, break out into song and dance, and then return to their vehicles as traffic moves along. The tone of the film is set and a metaphor is established — though these people are at a standstill, their dreams keep them moving, dancing, alive and bursting with creative energy.
Then we land on Mia, alone in her car, practicing lines. She’s in her own world and does not seem to be enjoying herself like the other dreamers we just saw dancing on the freeway. This is a recurring element throughout the film — Mia is forcing it. In auditions, she is cheesy and overacts. We see that this is a lesson she needs to learn. To let go and be authentic. It takes heartbreak, giving up, and moving away, before she finally comes into her own. It is then, and only then, that she gives a beautiful, heartbreaking performance in the audition room.
The essence of the characters is set. What they need to learn is clear. The tone and fantastical elements of the film are woven into the fabric of the first scene (which also looks like one shot, a direction written into the script by Chazelle). All of this is accomplished and feels natural. For this reason alone, I believe every screenwriter should read this screenplay.
MIX IN FANTASTICAL ELEMENTS — What really sets La La Land apart is the use of fantastical elements in otherwise normal scenes and settings. For example, the scene below takes place after Mia leaves her boring boyfriend behind and meets up with Sebastian for a date at the movie theater. Afterwards, they drive to:
INT. GRIFFITH OBSERVATORY – CONTINUOUS
They ascend a staircase. Make their way past the exhibits —
the Tesla coil shooting off electric bolts.
They reach the pendulum, gaze up at the mural above it, look at
one another. Circle the pendulum, and then — so tenderly, so
…they begin to DANCE.
This is a dance that fulfills all the promise in their
earlier duet. They circle the floor, gently and gracefully.
The music BUILDS, and they drift into…
…the PLANETARIUM. It’s darkened, empty. Mia removes her
shoes, feels the soft carpet under her feet. Turns on the
projector. The screen STARTS TO GLOW. She and Sebastian take
in the sight — the STARS and GALAXIES…
Enchanted, they look at one another, the lights from the
screen reflected on their faces. They approach, as though
about to kiss… When —
— Mia’s shoes LIFT UP. Float toward the ceiling — toward the
star-filled screen. She and Sebastian trade looks. Realize.
And then they too begin to FLOAT…
…RISING from the floor, nothing stopping them. SOARING
past the views of comets and moons and nebulae. Eyes wide,
their emotions seized, as they HOLD EACH OTHER TIGHT…
And so unspools a gravity-free dance.
Mia and Sebastian SPIN and TWIRL through the planetarium as
though they themselves were in outer space, flying through
the cosmos. The music carries them higher and higher, and
their spirits likewise soar — JOYOUS, EXUBERANT — until,
…the music SOFTENS.
Mia and Sebastian drift back to the floor like feathers. They
land on a pair of seats.
This scene is an explosion of sexual tension and love. It is powerful, beautiful, and enchanting. It also hints at the climax to come and fulfills the promise of magic that has been growing between these two. It is important to use these moments sparingly. Though there are other dance numbers and other unnatural elements (like lighting in the room shifting to suit the mood), these big fantastical moments are few and far between. Which makes them all the more captivating and awe-inspiring.
These kinds of scenes appear in other films, but are often chalked up to dream sequences, drug trips, or daydreams. One reason the fantastical elements in La La Land are so beautiful is that they are not explained or reconciled. They exist as an essential element of the film’s tapestry. It is clear that these are visual representations of emotion. Of love. Mia and Sebastian float in a “gravity-free dance” right before our eyes because they feel weightless in these moments together.
If you are a screenwriter, I highly recommend giving La La Land a read, and to read at least one screenplay per week. Thanks for reading, and see you next time!